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Face to Face with Nelson Mandela: Master of His Fate
Classic interview with Nelson Mandela
Item type: Interview
Acquisition method: From website
Unique ID: NMS1212
Presentation(s)Occasion: Published in the Reader's Digest Classic in July
Place: Mandela Rhodes Foundation Office Cape Town South Africa
Date: July 2005
RD: When you finally achieved political freedom after so many years of persecution and imprisonment, people would have understood if you became a leader with vengeance in your heart. Yet 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 that will contribute towards the progress of our society.
RD: As president, sometimes you referred to characters in Reader’s Digest stories, particularly those who, like yourself, have triumphed in the face of adversity. On Robben Island, you used to read the magazine?
Mandela: Yes, that’s true. It has very interesting stories! One of them was about a young man in Canada [Terry Fox] who had cancer of the right leg and then they advised [him] to amputate it. They did but he did not want to sit down in a corner and weep. He was on the Atlantic and decided to run 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.
RD: You were raised in the Methodist Church as a young man. Has religion played an important role in your life?
Mandela: It is important to not be hostile to what a greater part of society has embraced, whether as Christians, Hindus or Muslims. It is important to respect that because whether you believe or not in the existence of a superior being, humanity does believe in that. For you to be against that, you completely isolate yourself and many people will not regard you as somebody who can lead society. The relations between a man and his or her god is a personal matter; you can’t go out and challenge the belief of people in a superior being.
RD: You have described HIV/AIDS as the greatest public health crisis of all time and you seem to have made a personal crusade out of AIDS because you believe that more needs to be done about it. Is that fair?
Mandela: Yes. One of the things we have to deal with is that of stigma, of avoiding people altogether who suffer from AIDS. In contrast, remember that Princess Diana went to hospital with AIDS sufferers, sat down on their beds, shook hands with them and smashed that idea that you can’t be in the same room as a person suffering from AIDS. She did very well.
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 and 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. At first I didn’t recognise that they were moving away. I quickened my pace and they also quickened theirs to get away from me. When I realised that they were running away from me, I just went back to my car.
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. There was a lady in the Ciskei region [of the Eastern Cape province in South Africa], who was suffering from HIV. She was courageous: she came to a meeting I attended and admitted that she suffered from HIV. I embraced her and I told the crowd: “Don’t isolate people who are suffering from terminal diseases, because that alone kills people far more than the disease itself.” When somebody discovers that they are no longer regarded as a human being, he or she loses the will to fight, whereas if they are supported, especially by their friends and people they rely upon, they fight back.
I know a number of people who are suffering from AIDS but because we visit them and talk with 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.” And I tell them about my own example when I had tuberculosis in jail. When I was told this by the hospital, I went and told my friend Walter Sisulu [fellow ANC leader and political prisoner on Robben Island]. Walter called me aside and said, “Madiba, you must not tell us about this – it’s personal.” I said, “What is personal? The whole of the hospital knows about it!” Years later when I had cancer of the prostate I called a press conference and I made light about it. People like that type of thing – not to be too serious when discussing this question.
RD: Beyond AIDS, what is the single greatest problem facing the world right now?
Mandela: The question of poverty and lack of education, those two combined. It’s important for us to ensure that education reaches everybody.
RD: Over the years you’ve devoted a lot of time to children. What do you think are the most important lessons that parents should keep in mind when raising children?
Mandela: Without education your children can never really meet the challenges they will face. So it’s very important to give children education and explain that they should play a role for their country. I often do that for my own children and grandchildren but I notice that my grandchildren know more now than I do!
RD: You criticised the US and UK governments for taking action in Iraq without the approval of the United Nations. In recent months people worldwide have waited for the UN to take meaningful action against ethnic cleansing in Sudan, yet the UN 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 to try and 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: You became 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 of the obduracy of the apartheid government, who 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 committed to the principle – and have confidence in the capacity of human beings – of finding rational solutions to situations of conflict.
RD: You served as president of South Africa for only one term of office. And you have famously observed “some leaders don’t know when to leave”. Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for 25 years, with increasing repression and decreasing freedom for Zimbabweans. 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 in question to decide.
RD: Are there any international figures who you haven’t met but who you would like to?
Mandela: There are so many men and woman who hold no distinctive positions but whose contribution towards the development of society has been enormous. Some of them are not known even in their own countries, but when you come across them you are very impressed. Those are heroes or heroines we must never forget. Because of their service to society, you can’t really help but admire them.
RD: So it’s the message, not the particular notoriety of who’s saying it that makes the difference?
Mandela: Yes, that’s true. It’s the contribution which a person, irrespective of his or her background, has made towards the development of society.
RD: When you were in prison all those long years on Robben Island and elsewhere, was there something that came back to you, something you had either in your mind, a message or passage from a book, a song… something that helped sustain you and keep up your spirits?
Mandela: There was a poem by an English poet, W.E. Henley, called “Invictus”. The last lines go:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
RD: What would you say is your greatest strength and your greatest weakness?
Mandela: Well, I have a lot of weaknesses. I don’t think I’ve got any strengths.
RD: Some observers feel you would have made a good professional boxer if there was not a liberation struggle to be fought. 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 enjoyed very much, too, but it may have been difficult [as a career]. One of the fighters I greatly admired was Muhammad Ali. As a boxer he took all this punishment without fighting back – taking it, taking it, taking it. During his fight with George Foreman [the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire in 1974] he said after a number of rounds, “We’ve been doing all this fighting and I haven’t even started yet!” You see, you can’t just take it. You can only take so much before you fight back.
RD: How would you like to be remembered in history?
Mandela: I do not want to be presented as some deity. I would like to be remembered as an ordinary human being with virtues and vices.