Archive interview: Nelson Mandela

Speaking to Reader's Digest in 2005, South Africa's former president revealed the faith in humanity that helped him to endure persecution—and forge a nation. 100 years on from his birth, we revisit the interview.

It's a sign of the closeness that South Africans feel towards Nelson Mandela that so many call him Madiba, his clan name and an affectionate nickname. For in South Africa Madiba is sill seen as the warm and wise father of a transformed nation, as well as a truly global statesman. 

Nelson Mandela 100 years on from birth

He was born in 1918, son of a member of the royal house of the Thembu tribe. The schools Mandela attended were modelled on the British system; he later said he was taught to be a "black Englishman". As a black South African however, his freedoms were strictly limited. The young lawyer joined the African National Congress (ANC), dedicated to ending apartheid via peaceful means. But Mandela was charged with organising an armed wing of the ANC. Arrested in 1962, he was tried for treason and sentenced to life imprisonment.

"I have a lot of weaknesses. I don't think I have any strengths"

"Free Mandela" became a rallying cry throughout the world, and in 1990 he walked out of prison after 27 years. Soon, he was representing the ANC in negotiations with the government that led to the first elections open to all South Africans; these, in turn, led to Mandela's election as South African president in 1994.

Now South Africans of all races take pride in their country's peaceful transition from white minority rule to multi-racial democracy—and give Nelson Mandela credit for leading that transition. 

Leaving office after a single five-year term, Mandela (86) has maintained a schedule that would exhaust a man half his age. He shares both his joys and sorrows. In January, for instance, he revealed that his son Makgatho had died from Aids, though few knew he was even ill. 

Reader's Digest sat down with the man called Madiba in the office of the Mandela/Rhodes foundation in Cape Town. 

 

RD: When you finally achieved political freedom you chose the path of reconciliation. Are you at all surprised at how powerful a force it has been?

Mandela: Well, people respond in accordance to how you relate to them. If you approach them on the basis of violence, that's how they'll react. But if you say we want peace, we want stability, we can then do a lot of things which will contribute towards the progress of our society. 

 

RD: As president, sometimes you referred to characters in Reader's Digest stories. On Robben Island, you used to read the magazine?

Mandela: Yes, that's true. It has very interesting stories! One was about a young man in Canada who had cancer of the right leg and they advised amputation. They did, but he did not want to sit down in a corner and weep. He was near the Atlantic but decided to walk with one leg to the Pacific. 

So in this way, Digest stories encourage people. Even if you have a terminal disease, you don't have to sit down and mope. Enjoy life and challenge the illness that you have.

 


Nelson Mandela's old prison cell in Robben Island, South Africa

 

RD: Has religion played an important role in your life?

Mandela: It is important not to be hostile to what a greater part of society has embraced, whether as Christians, Hindus or Muslims. The relations between a human being and his or her god are a personal matter. 

Broadly speaking, religion has played a good role [in world history]. The only difference is the competition now between various religious groups. That I would discourage. But the widely held belief that there is a superior being who supervises our affairs is good for humanity. 

 

RD: You have described HIV/AIDS as the greatest public health crisis of all time. Have you made a personal crusade out of AIDS because you believe that more needs to be done?

Mandela: Yes. One of the things we have to deal with is that of stigma, of avoiding people who suffer from AIDS. Princess Diana went down to the hospital with AIDS sufferers, sat down on their beds, shook hands with them and smashed the idea that you can't be in the same room as a person suffering from AIDS. She did very well. 

"I would have liked to have been an ordinary labourer digging trenches"

In 2000, I went to Limpopo province [in the north of South Africa] for the opening of a rural school. I was conversing with the locals and they said to me that in a home nearby both parents were dead, leaving children, the eldest of whom is eight. I said, "CAn we see them?" Oh, they were happy about that. As we were going there they were singing some songs about me. Then I went inside. I stayed for about 25 minutes. When I came out, the same crowd that had been singing about me ran away from me.  

 


A young girl carries a photo of Mandela outside the hospital where he was treated for a recurring lung infection in 2013

 

RD: So a role that leaders like yourself and others should be playing is to help get rid of the ignorance which leads to this stigma.

Mandela: Absolutely I know a number of people who are suffering from AIDS but because we visit them and talk to them, this has given them a lot of courage. We tell them, "Don't isolate yourself, you don't have to hide that you are suffering from HIV."

 

RD: Beyond AIDS, what is the single greatest problem facing the world right now?

"I would like to be remembered as an ordinary human being"

Mandela: The question of poverty and lack of education, those two combined. It's important for us to ensure that education reaches everybody.

 

RD: You criticised the UK and US governments for taking action in Iraq without the approval of the United Nations. Recently people have waited for the UN to take action against ethnic cleansing in Darfur province of Sudan yet it has been unwilling or unable to do so. Doesn't this show the weakness of the UN?

Mandela: There is no institution in the world which has no weakness. What we have to do is try to make sure that those institutions attain the aims for which they were formed. We have to fight inside those organisations. When you have an organisation representing the entire world, it's not correct to leave it and act unilaterally. 

 

 

RD: So you would like to see a stronger UN?

Mandela: I don't know if I would say the UN is not strong enough, but there are cases where you expect them to take action where they do not.

 

RD: You became the leader of the military wing of the African National Congress after you and other ANC leaders decided that non-violent struggle alone would not end oppression in South Africa. Are there places in the world today where armed struggles are justified?

Mandela: We had to create a military wing of the ANC because the apartheid government were not prepared to have any discussions with us. They were not prepared to accommodate our feelings and so we had to adopt methods to force them to do so and we succeeded. So a decision that you take depends on the actual circumstances facing you.

 

RD: Where would you draw the line between terrorism and legitimate freedom-fighting?

Mandela: I am fully committed to the principle—and I have confidence in the capacity of human beings—of finding rational solutions to situations of conflict.

 


A girl waves a flag as Mandela's funeral cortege moves past cheering crowds on its way to his family's rural home in Mthatha, South Africa

 

RD: You served as president of South Africa for only one term. And you once famously observed that "some leaders do not know when to leave". Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for 25 years with increasing repressing. Is it time for him to leave?

Mandela: It is not good for any democracy when its leader remains in power so long. However, this is something for the people of the country to decide. 

 

RD: When you were in prison, was there something that helped sustain you and keep up your spirits?

Mandela: There was a poem by an English poet, E.E Henley, called "Invictus". The last lines go:

It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

 

RD: What would you say is your greatest strength and greatest weakness?

Mandela: Well, I have a lot of weaknesses. I don't think I have any strengths.

 


Children stand in front of a shrine of flowers outside Mandela's home after his death

 

RD: Some observers feel you would have made a good professional boxer. What other jobs do you think you might have enjoyed?

Mandela: I would have liked to have been an ordinary labourer digging trenches. Boxing is something I very much enjoyed too, but it might have been difficult [as a career].

 

RD: How would you like history to remember you?

Mandela: I would like to be remembered as an ordinary human being with virtues and vices, rather than some deity.

 

This interview was originally published in Reader's Digest in April 2005.