Bermudians may appreciate Mandela’s legacy better than Americans, says author
Bermuda’s oppressive past allows a special insight into the legacy of Nelson Mandela, according to a visiting journalist who has released a trove of recordings of the late South African freedom fighter.
“Bermuda is a place, like South Africa, where there was an oppressed majority,” said Richard Stengel, who has just released the ten-part podcast Mandela: The Lost Tapes.
“In South Africa, 85 per cent of the population was under the most comprehensive and diabolical form of racial oppression in history.”
Mr Stengel, who worked alongside South Africa’s first democratically elected president on Mr Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, said he felt Bermudians could perhaps appreciate the legacy of the anti-apartheid activist “better than the US”, where people of colour remain a minority.
The first Black leader of South Africa channelled his experiences into “god-given qualities that he had that even 27 years in prison could not erase”.
A former managing editor of Time magazine, Mr Stengel and his wife, Mary, arrived on Friday for a first trip to Bermuda — as guests of Dame Pamela Gordon, a former premier, and her husband Andrew Banks, who befriended him when they attended Oxford together.
It also affords Mr Stengel a chance to unwind after launching his podcast.
Mr Mandela’s death in December 2013 was cause for deep reflection in Bermuda as around the world.
Mr Stengel, who has also served as President Obama's Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, has written other works on South Africa and Mr Mandela.
But in 1992, just two years before Mr Mandela became president of South Africa, Mr Stengel was hired as a ghostwriter for his groundbreaking autobiography.
After finishing the book, Mr Stengel did not listen back over the tapes of Mr Mandela speaking of his life and beliefs, which ultimately ended up in the Mandela Foundation — until hearing them again last year when he helped in a Mandela documentary.
Revisiting the recordings yielded The Lost Tapes podcast, launched through the site Audible on December 1.
“There are things on it that are not necessarily new, and there are some genuinely new things,” Mr Stengel said.
“People think of Nelson Mandela as this white-haired figure, but we want to remind them he was a founder of the African National Congress who, after many frustrating years of leading non-violent protests, decided to embrace a military strategy.
“You hear him saying in this beautiful voice that for Mahatma Gandhi, who spent 20 years living in South Africa, non-violence was an inviolate principle.
“He says, ‘For me it’s a tactic — and if that tactic is not working, I will abandon it’.”
Mr Mandela was “an incredible, gentle man — even their turns towards militancy were pretty mild and not very successful”.
Arrested in 1962 on charges of attempting to overthrow the State, he was jailed for 27 years.
Mr Stengel said the podcasts begin “quite dramatically with him talking about his arrest outside Durban, when he had a revolver in his pocket and had to make a decision whether to use it, to shoot his way out, or not”.
“You’re introducing the listener to a different side of him right away.”
As the leader of the armed wing of the ANC, Mr Mandela was a terrorist to the White authorities in South Africa.
His imprisonment elevated him to the world’s most famous political prisoner, and when he became president he led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated the crimes committed under apartheid — but ultimately pushed for national healing instead of retribution.
Mr Stengel said another revelation from the recordings was “the personal side of him — such as when you hear him asking me if I want sugar in my tea”.
“At one point, we hear him answering the phone. Because it was 1992 and 1993, and there were no digital recordings and no one knew what a podcast was, we have all this other ambient sound.
“All of that we tried to preserve in the podcast. I think the last episode has him talking to his grandson. You get a sense of the texture of his personality.
“We were in this little room by ourselves. Now, suddenly, anyone in the world can be in that room. That’s powerful.”
Mr Stengel said the podcasts occasionally reveal himself as a journalist “trying to get him to be more introspective”, to give the anecdotes and narrative colour necessary to for a faithful account of his life.
“It took us a while, but we became friends, and I think that allowed him to become more natural and flexible.”
Listeners can hear Mr Mandela demonstrating the push-ups that kept him fit in his prison cell.
Recollections of his childhood were “golden”, while Mr Mandela shared his trepidation at age 16 undergoing the circumcision ritual of the Xhosa people in which he felt he “faltered” in the ceremonial response.
Mr Stengel added: “Moments like that are like opening a window into his character.”
He said Mr Mandela drew criticism for “giving too much time and attention and weight to reconciliation over economic inequality”.
“I think that’s a fair criticism,” Mr Stengel said.
“If you look at South Africa now, which is as unequal as it was under apartheid, I think he would say, ‘I thought it would be fairer now, more equal, more just’.
“But I would not blame him. He needed to get the country to a more democratic situation where people of colour could vote.”
The endurance of widespread corruption in the ANC “would also have frustrated him”.
“For him, politics was the noblest profession,” Mr Stengel said.
“It was about sacrifice. This modern idea that politics is about gaining advantage, that would be something new to him — and I am sure that he would not like it.”