Return To Episode Page Return to Peace Talks Radio Home Page

Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with radio documentarian
Joe Richman about his series Mandela: An Audio History.

Ingles: Joe Richman is the Executive Producer of Mandela: An Audio History. He’s talking to us from his offices in New York City.

You really wanted a personal interview with Mandela for this project of course all that time that you were in South Africa, but weren’t sure you would be able to get to see him.

Richman: It was just incredibly hard to get any sort of access for him over those labored years. We tried for about a year to get interviews and failed because he had stopped doing interviews around 2003-2004. He kind of retreated from public life a bit and it was just really hard to get that kind of access.

The way it finally happened was that we had grown close with his family doctor, who was also an activist, a very important man, Nthato Motlana who is now dead. We just really had a great relationship with him.

He called me up one time, we were living in Cape Town, and he called me up to Johannesburg and he said, “You’ve got to come to this event. Mandela is going to be accepting an award. I’ll put you on the VIP bus and you’ll finally be able to meet him and do that interview that you really want to do.” So I went up to Johannesburg and of course there were thousands of people there. There was no way I was going to get close and get that interview with Mandela.

After the big event, Dr. Nthato Motlana was driving me back to Johannesburg and he took this different route back. He stopped at this big house, that I later realized was Mandela’s house, and he went in and about 20 minutes later, a guard came out and ushered me in and I went into this living room and there were a group of people having lunch. I recognized Grassa Michelle who was his wife and one of his children and I saw the back of Mandela’s head and they were having lunch. They ushered me in and there was a table setting for me and I sat down and I had lunch with is family! As they were finishing up lunch, they continued to talk about mundane things. I think they were talking about an eye doctor appointment coming up.

After lunch was over, Mandela and Dr. Motlana and I went into the living and Mandela finally gave me the interview that I had been searching for for about a year.

Ingles: How long were you able to talk with him? What was that like? What came through for you?

Richman: At that point, the most important thing that I needed was for him to say, “My name is Nelson Mandela.” We do these non-narrative programs and we have people identify themselves. We had a lot of tape of him already from old interviews.

At that point, the most important thing that I wanted from him was to give some introduction to the series that we had done; something that framed us, something that gave a reason to look back and document and understand this history. That’s what I asked him about.

Mandela: My name is Nelson Mandela. It is always important to look at your history. You can’t really be proud of yourself if you don’t know your history.

Ingles: He couldn’t have framed it any better. You didn’t spoon feed him that. He gave it to you, right?

Richman: Yes. What I really wanted was his thoughts on why it’s important to go back and look at this; look at your history. He just said the most beautiful thing about not even being able to know yourself until you know your history and I think that that helped frame the series. It helped for me too to give purpose to the idea of going back and telling history, which is something that I love to do. It’s good to be reminded of why that’s important.

Ingles: Many times when one meets a larger than life figure or any celebrity, the overall feeling can very easily be a letdown. What about the overall sense of your encounter with him?

Richman: It was the exact opposite.

Ingles: Would you say you got a sense of the man in that relatively brief time that matched what you had been hearing about him?

Richman: The funny thing about Mandela is that he’s considered such a charismatic, magnetic figure, but when you listen to interviews with him, he’s not that way at all in terms of the way he talks. He’s not a great talker. He’s not a charismatic speaker. In his interviewers, he’s not very personal and magnetic and reflective and poetic in the way that he talks. Yet, when I did meet him and I did interview him, it felt that way. It felt completely like – you just feel this magnetic atmosphere all around.

I remember that it had been a year of trying to interview him and frustrated at not being able to get access to this man whom I had been documenting his life and his history for a year. Finally interviewing him… I felt like I would take a bullet for this guy.

Ingles: One of the remarkable interviews was with F.W. de Klerk, the President who collaborated on the Peace Prize with Mandela and of course the two principles that negotiated the way forward. Tell me a little bit about that interview.

Richman: Well, de Klerk I think wasn’t doing many interviews after the fact, but he’s concerned about his own role in history and the way he is seen. He got the Peace Prize, but it’s just hard to figure out how to judge someone like de Klerk in history. He was the guy that made it all happen; releasing Mandela and unbanning the ANC, but how do you celebrate someone who sort of ends a reign like that? That’s unclear.

Ingles: Well, there was a suggestion from one of guests who said they thought that they would release Mandela and that he would be frail and human and not be this myth. That remark suggests that maybe the whole idea of releasing him wasn’t quite as benevolent as it might have seemed later.

Richman: Well, nothing is ever benevolent as they might want it to seem later. That was Allister Sparks who is an historian and journalist who talked about that. He is a really insightful analyst of South African history and politics. He was an important interview.

Ingles: Joe, when you talk to so many people about another person, inevitably a few things are heard consistently. What would you say most all of your interview subjects agreed upon in their assessment or characterization of Nelson Mandela?

Richman: What so many of them would say about Mandela, and it’s been said so often that it’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s a cliché that I think is true, is that what he gave to that moment, to the country and to that moment in history was getting out of prison and not feeling bitter, not feeling angry, but being able to go to the negotiating table to be able to look forward.

People may disagree about the pros and cons of how that country emerged from that moment, but the fact that it emerged basically, essentially bloodless and was able to make that transition to democracy was something that no one really expected. The tone was set by Mandela’s feeling of you don’t look back in bitterness, you look forward and try to make something better.

Ingles: What was the most unexpected thing you heard about him that maybe isn’t part of what you have learned to expect to hear about Nelson Mandela?

Richman: We think now of Mandela as this kind of wonderful grandfather, smiling figure and just this loveable old man. If you go back in history, you’re reminded that he was considered a terrorist and by many definitions, he was a terrorist in the sense that he led the movement away from non-violence to start a bombing campaign and to arm the struggle. It’s really hard to separate any moment in history from the context in which it happens, but it’s also important to go back and remember that Mandela was considered a terrorist and he in fact was leading the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed struggle of the movement. History is never as black and white and as easy as we like to think.

Ingles: What does his story offer to inspire and inform the still oppressed people around the globe?

Richman: It’s just interesting that before the transition, I think everyone would have thought that when South Africa changed, it was going to change in an ugly way. This was happening around the time of the Rwanda genocide and a lot of people, a lot of scholars and historians have pointed out that Rwanda was the case where everyone expected things would happen peacefully and South Africa is where they thought all the bloodshed would happen. So as you look back with 20/20 vision of history, it’s just important to remember that no one expected South Africa to change as peacefully, in a sense, as it did. “Peacefully” is a relative term. It was ugly in so many ways and so many people were killed and there was a lot of fighting among many groups. Something happened in that country at that time to allow this huge tectonic shift in that country to happen with relatively little bloodshed. There are still so many places where people are fighting for something similar. Anytime that there is a movement that in a sense, over a long period of time, succeeds it’s like historical inspiration.

Ingles: Right, it’s a template, it’s a possibility.

Richman: You just have to know that it has worked before.

Ingles: What do you think this story has to offer to inspire and inform people just trying to manage any conflict in their lives?

Richman: I think that there is the moment where the ANC sat down with the National Party and Pik Botha who was one of the ministers of the National Party, the white-ruling party, and talked about Mandela giving this whole history of the Afrikaner people. That’s how he started, basically saying I understand your history, I understand your issues and I understand where you’re coming from. That obviously made a huge impact on him because, as he said, here I am about to sit down at the negotiating table with someone I’ve spent two decades thinking of as a terrorist and he had studied me, my own grievances and my own history.

I think there’s just something incredibly powerful about understanding your enemy, both tactically and strategically, but much more than that, understanding the other side because nothing is ever simple and black and white and you see the cracks in everyone’s stories and everyone’s history.

I think that trying to understand the other side is what Mandela made a point of doing and I think that’s a lesson that I take away from this whole history; no one is ever so simple. You have these preconceived notions about the way that someone is or the way that some history is, but when you dig a little more, you realize that you were not right. There is always something a little more complicated there.

Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss Dorothy Cotton. From 1960 to 1972, Dr. Cotton was the educational director for
Southern Christian Leadership Conference and worked very closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dorothy Cotton: There has to be a vision and that vision has to be broadcast across the land through every institution and on the streets and corners and taverns and wherever people gather and I think we then would really begin to see that there is another way and we can work towards that other way, that better way and move towards a non-violent beloved community.

Carol Boss: Dr. Cotton, let me ask you if you can think of any current examples to illustrate how his principles, his teachings, his vision has been practiced effectively.

Cotton: Well, I think if we wanted to really look at countries, we have a wonderful example in South Africa where there were decades of resistance to apartheid and slowly but surely, it wore away the stones of oppression.

If anyone would read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom for example, we see that you can’t put a time limit on a non-violent campaign. You can’t put a time limit on it and you can’t decide what you have to suffer even. Suffering is redemptive and I believe that that is indeed true.

If we wanted to study and really look at places where people have practiced some degree of non-violence, we can see some good and ultimately we can look where change has occurred from the Philippines, Chile, China and certainly South Africa and we can delve into those places and look at how people brought about change. It doesn’t mean that nobody is going to suffer, but when you ask if it’s effective, I think it’s always effective, but it doesn’t mean that it will bring about the change immediately. Again, we cannot put a time limit on a non-violent campaign.

Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with 2008 Nobel Peace Prize Winner
Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, about Nelson Mandela.

Ingles: Explain how Nelson Mandela’s story continues to inspire you.

Ahtisaari: I say every time when this question is asked that I learned to know him well before he became President when he was released from Robben Island. I think he comes close to a saint. Many people say that one should not say this, but I do say it because if you are kept in prison for 26 years and you come out without any bitterness towards those who had put you there and you might have think that it was totally unfairly that you were put to jail or Robben Island for that matter. He realized that was the only way how you could start building a new South Africa. It also shows how important the role of one single human being is in these processes, particularly not the mediator so much, but on the side of the parties who have to make an agreement. Therefore in 2009 when I was asked to join The Elders group with Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, I wrote to Archbishop Tutu that this is one of the requests that I can’t say no. In my office I have only two paintings. They are both presents from President Mandela to me and my wife and I will not allow any other paintings on my walls. I have also a piece of rock from Robben Island, the rock that he gave to me when I was visiting him and he was President. That reminds me every day that there is not a single problem in the world that cannot be solved.

Peace Talks Radio Host Suzanne Kryder talks with Capt. Paul Chappell, author of Peaceful Revolution: How We Can Create the Future Needed for Humanity’s Survival.

Kryder: I get what you mean by listening. I can see people listening. Break it down. What is being respectful? What are our listeners doing or not doing?

Chappell: Well that’s what I’m trying to get to is basically is people ask me then, “How do you listen to people?” The key to listening is you have to have empathy. If you don’t have empathy for somebody, you can’t really hear what they’re saying. Even if the person has the most outrageous viewpoint you can imagine, if you empathize with the person, that’s when you begin to understand where they’re coming from. If you look at Martin Luther King, Jr., he was getting dozens of death threats a day, his house was bombed, he was arrested multiple times, he was eventually killed, but you never saw him talk about the people who were pressing him in this demonizing, dehumanizing way that you see liberals talk about conservatives and vice versa. He had much more right to demonize his opponents. If you look at Frederick Douglas who came out of slavery, you didn’t hear him using that demonizing, dehumanizing language of white people. If you look at Gandhi, how he talked about the British, he didn’t talk about the British in this demonizing way. Of course he had much more right to because look at the conditions he was living in. Look at the conditions that King was living in or look at Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela was in jail for 27 years and he was actually able to win the hearts and minds of some of his prison guards through having a respectful attitude towards them. The thing about waging peace is that you respect them as a human being and you recognize that in this struggle, your opponent is ignorant, your opponent is hatred, your opponent is greed, your opponent is misunderstanding. You want to attack their hatred and defeat it. You want to attack their ignorance. You want to attack their misunderstandings. How do you do that effectively? If you hate them back or if you demonize them, you actually magnify their hatred. By respecting them, it opens a doorway where you can directly attack their hatred and attack their ignorance. You can’t convert everybody from that opposing point of view, but as King and Mandela and Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony and many others showed, you can convert quite a number and enough to create critical mass in how people think.