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Richard Stengel On Mandela: Neither 'Terrorist' Nor Mother Teresa

Is there a more fruitful relationship between writer and subject than Richard Stengel and Nelson Mandela?
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Is there a more fruitful relationship between writer and subject than Richard Stengel and Nelson Mandela?

The two men collaborated on the best-selling, critically-acclaimed Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela's 630-page autobiography, which took Stengel two and a half years to write in the early 1990s. Stengel recorded the interviews and kept a diary while working on the book. Last year, Stengel donated the 75 hours worth of interviews to the Nelson Mandela Foundation. And the 120,000-word diary gave birth to Mandela's Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love and Courage, which hits stores today. Mandela, whom Stengel considers a "father figure," wrote the book's preface.

Theirs is a personal bond. So personal, in fact, that Mandela is a godfather to Gabriel, now 11, the older of Stengel's two sons. And it was while working on Mandela's autobiography when Stengel met his wife, Mary Pfaff, then a photographer for Agence France-Presse. Pfaff photographed Mandela on the day of his release after 27 years in prison.

On the eve of his book's release, Stengel, Time magazine's managing editor, chatted with HuffPost about the man he calls "Madiba" -- Mandela's clan name, a title that Stengel, as it happens, helped popularize. It's formal and informal at the same time, much like the 91-year-old man who, according to Stengel, is full of contradictions.

HuffPost: When was the idea for this book born?

Stengel: It's really been in the making ever since I first met Mandela -- that was back in December 1992. He's certainly one of the greatest men of the century, and I realized that this was a unique, historical opportunity. We were talking about his life, and he was telling me, in the most intimate ways he could, everything that's ever happened to him, while working on the autobiography. That's why I kept a diary. And the diary is the basis of this book.

HuffPost: Mandela has been described as a some kind of a saint -- a secular saint. . .

Stengel: One of the things I find frustrating as someone who knows a lot about him is the Santa Claus-ification of Mandela. That he's a goody-too-shoes. That's he's kind of a Mother Teresa who fought against apartheid. Fact is, he's a very tough guy who was the founder of the guerrilla warfare movement of the ANC [African National Congress] and led ANC to embrace violence as a strategy. And let's remember too that in the 1950s and 1960s, Mandela was considered a a terrorist by people in the West -- by America, by the U.K. He was considered a Communist. Part of my mission in this book is that people don't see him as this grandfatherly fellow. Like all men, he had all kinds of flaws and weaknesses, but he triumphed over them. He is, ultimately, a pragmatist, a very hard pragmatist.

HuffPost: Like the pragmatist that viewers see in Invictus? With Morgan Freeman playing Mandela? What did you think of that movie?

Stengel: It's funny -- when people in reality are larger than life it's very hard, even for a great actor, to capture that. I thought that what Freeman got that people don't realize was Mandela's gift for silence. Mandela does not say a lot. He keeps his own counsel, often. He is kind of an iconic presence, what someone once said a mixture of African royalty and European aristocracy. Freeman got that.

HuffPost: In all the years you've known him personally -- 18 years in all -- what's been his biggest impact on you?

Stengel: Because of the autobiography, I had to think like Nelson Mandela, and that was a life-changing experience. It makes you more controlled. It makes you more self-disciplined. It makes you more measured. I think it makes you take the long view of things. It makes you less doctrinaire. With him, it's always and/both, not either/or. Many times I asked him, how is the man who emerged in prison in 1990 different from the man who went into prison in 1964? He kind of hated that question. But finally, out of frustration, he said to me, "I came out mature." In a way, that is such a key line. Prison was his great teacher. Prison was kind of a crucible for him. It taught him the long view. The young man who went into prison, in his mid-40s, was a passionate, tempestuous "rabble-rouser," as he called himself. He was much more of a firebrand. Prison changed him. In some ways, what Mandela's Way is about is learning those things that he learned in prison at a fraction of the cost that he had to pay.

HuffPost: What is the message of Mandela's Way for Gabriel's generation, for kids who are growing up in the Age of Obama, when an African American is serving as president?

Stengel: One of the things that's interesting about President Obama is, he has so many of the qualities, many of the lessons, that I write about in Mandela's Way, but he has sort of achieved them at a younger age without the same kind of sacrifice that Mandela had to make. Mandela, when he was Obama's age, was much more outspoken -- he didn't have self-control, he wasn't measured. And here's Obama, at that same age, who has so many of Mandela's qualities -- of being mature, of having self-control, to listening to folks with different views. I have to say that it's been very interesting to observe that. In some ways, Obama is just in the beginning of his journey.

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