The Mandela interview: Grace under pressure

The Mandela interview: Grace under pressure

The Nelson Mandela interview by Chidanand Rajghatta in The Times of India on November 28, 1992.
Twenty-one years is a long time to recall an interview, but it was the handshake as much as being in the presence of greatness that is indelible in my memory.The Times of India had sent me to South Africa in 1992 to cover the historic power shift in that country (and also India’s breakthrough cricket tour, the first after two decades of apartheid-related sanctions). Between traveling across the beautiful country, meeting its commoners and elites (among them the writer Nadine Gordimer, singer Miriam Makeba, activists Ela Ramgobin nee Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grand-daughter), and watching some breathtaking cricket (it was the first time the world was seeing Allan Donald and Jonty Rhodes in Test cricket), I waited for to hear about my request to interview Madiba, as the South Africans called Nelson Mandela.He was out campaigning for the upcoming elections — South Africa’s first in the post-apartheid era — and it was hard to pin him down.

When the call finally came on November 28, 1992, I was asked to scramble to the African National Congress headquarters on Plein Street in Johannesburg at 10 a.m. Abandoning the morning’s cricket (the Second Test at Wanderers was going on andSachin Tendulkar was 75 not out the previous evening; I would miss watching him get to his century) I raced to Plein Street.

I was escorted to Dr Mandela’s suite by ANC spokesman Carl Niehaus, one of the few whites in the party. Dr Mandela strode towards me tall and erect (he was 73 then), hand outstretched and beaming as I walked in, obviously pleased to see a journalist from India, a country whose founding father had spent 21 years in his country and whose influence on him and his party was profound.

I will never forget that handshake. An iron grip, evocative of 27 years in Robben Island prison, crushed my metacarpals. Awed but respectful, I conveyed greetings from India. Ever thoughtful, he asked me what suited me better — sitting at the sofa arrangement in the corner of his office suite or at his large glass-topped table. The table may work better to keep your tape recorder, he says, as he leads me across the room (I used one of those Sony Walkmans to tape the interview, and I retrieved and listened to the tape last night for this recollection).

Over the next hour, this great son of Africa walked me through the hopes and aspirations of a country that, as I described to him, was “pulsating with hope and expectation following your release and liberation.” But, I asked him, “I also sense cynicism and apprehension. What do you see?” If there is apprehension and despair creeping it would be reasonable, he said, given the sense of expectation. But he preferred to look at the positives — the release of political prisoners, the return of exiles, the scrapping of oppressive laws. The work of building an new South Africa had just begun and “there is no reason for any despondency. We are looking at the future with confidence.”

I remember thinking throughout that visit that this was how India must have felt in the days leading up to August 15, 1947. Indeed, Mandela was the Mahatma Gandhi for South Africa, with one crucial difference. He was not afraid of the rough and tumble of electoral politics.

In fact, a callow young journalist that I was, I asked him fairly blunt questions: Did he worry about his image as a great liberator, a statesman, being diluted to that of a mere street politician? What assurances did one have that the ANC would not degenerate into a one-party government or tin-pot dictatorship as it had happened in many African countries? Why were colored people and Indians gravitating to the (white) Nationalist Party rather than the ANC? And how did he see the collapse of Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc given the socialist proclivities of ANC?

He answered me patiently and precisely, never once betraying any impatience at being questioned by a whippersnapper who was yet to see life in all its tumult. He personified grace under pressure, which Hemingway called courage. Yes, I also asked him about the complete absence of malice or rancor in him towards a government that incarcerated him for 27 years (this portion got edited out of the Q&A).

“What is the use of having any rancor in addressing the problem of the country? No useful purpose would served by that,” he said quietly. There is a long pause in the tape after that answer; I think I was absorbing the sheer majesty of his reply — of his delinking his personal suffering from his service of the country.

There are other parts of the interview that didn’t make the cut in print, including his tributes to not just the Mahatma, but also to other South African Indians like Dr Monty Naicker and Yusuf Dadoo. Around the time I met him, vandals had defaced Gandhi’s ashram in Phoenix that I had just visited, and Dr Mandela’s pain was obvious when I asked him about it. “It shows how depraved a human being can be in not appreciating the values that build a common society,” he said.

He strove to teach South Africa — and the rest of the continent and the world — those values. Success in this ceaseless endeavor will be his legacy.

Farewell, Madiba. And thank you for the spirit that burns bright.

PS: On a related note, it’s interesting how so many people who are around him and associated with him in those heady days fell on bad times — on went down dissolute roads — in subsequent years. Carl Niehaus was subsequently made South Africa’s ambassador to the Netherlands, but when I last checked on him, he was in the dock for bad debts and fraud.

Ricky Naidoo, another young activists who helped me a lot during that trip, was a persona non grata in the party when I tried to reach him on a visit in 2003 during the World Cup. Many others had faded into oblivion although Madiba’s spirit burned bright — despite his dismal successors, including the wacked out Thabo Mbeki (a sometime AIDS denialist) and Jacob Zuma, a homophobe who has had charges of rape and corruption against him.

Yep, like India, South Africa is also a work in progress.


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One Comment

  1. Nelson Mandela was most likable person in this world so far. I worried more when he goes off from the earth. It affect me enormously.

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