Mandela’s Authorized Biographer Demonstrates the Power of the Arts

Fred Mandell interviewed Mandela’s authorized biographer, Charlene Smith.

Ms. Smith is a multi-award winning journalist, documentary film-maker, broadcaster and an authorized biographer of Nelson Mandela. She has written four books on Mandela including Mandela (2013). Learn more about Charlene Smith at

Fred:   Mandela spent 18 years in Robben Island, living under very difficult circumstances, including hard labor.  He was allowed one letter and one visitor every six months.  But aside from Robben, he was actually in prison for 27 years, finally coming out when he was 71 in 1990.  In what ways did this experience change him and make him a better leader?

Charlene: When he went in he was rather arrogant.  He and his friend Oliver Tambo started the first black owned law firm in the country.  This was at a time when black people were not allowed to be in any form of managerial position over whites.

He was also a bit of a womanizer, so I think that when he went into jail, I don’t think I would have particularly liked him.  The first TV documentary that I worked on about him was for Canadian Broadcasting in 1985.  They’d applied for permission to come into South Africa and were not granted permission, so I covertly did all the producing and interviews in South Africa with a cameraman.

When I met the people who’d met Mandela before he went into jail, I’d ask, “Well, what was he like?”  And they’d say, “Oh, he was very nice.  He was very competent,” and all that, but there was absolutely no warmth when they spoke of him.  But when I mentioned his best friend, Walter Sisulu, there was a lot of warmth, and they’d say, “Oh, Walter.”  Everybody loved Walter.

And so, I was very fearful of Mandela coming out because I thought, “We’ve presented him as such an icon, and what if he comes out of jail and is actually a horrible person?”

The day he came out, he showed such warmth and grace and was such an elegant man, that we were all quite astonished.  Then I met him.  The second day after he was released, he traveled up to Johannesburg. On the third day I was the second person to interview him and was amazed by his dignity and grace.  I had never ever seen anyone like him.  And, by that stage, I’d lived on four continents around the world and interviewed many of the world’s leaders and famous people, but I’d never come across anyone like him.  Just the way he walked, I had a feeling that this man knew that he was born to greatness.

When the interview was due to begin, he said, “No.  First I want to hear about you,” which completely unnerved me.  And I said, “Well, there’s nothing really to know about me, I’m just a political journalist.”  And he said, “I’ve been reading you all of these years,” and he started quoting some of my writings.  And that terrified me because journalists tend to think that no one is particularly paying attention, and here he could quote back stuff that I had written.

He was always willing to hear the other side.  He would let you speak before he spoke.

Fred: What accounted for this shift?  I mean he goes in.  You indicated that he was arrogant.  He was not particularly warm.  And he comes out what appears to be a dramatically different person.  What kind of internal changes do you think happened with him that enabled that change to occur?

Charlene: It was prison.  When we encounter hardship it reveals the person. There are people who experience hardship and they become bitter and angry, and they ask the most useless question in the world, which is, “Why me?”  It’s a completely pointless question.  They blame everyone else, and they don’t look within.

What Mandela did, and I’ve been privileged to know four Nobel Peace prizewinners and one Nobel Laureate for literature, and the thing that exemplifies all of them is that they want to learn from the people around them.  There is no pomp about them.  They don’t think that they’re more special than anyone else.

But what happened to Mandela in jail was that he was forced to be humble.  It started when they first went in.  The South Africans had just finished making this maximum-security prison, Robben Island.  It was just corrugated iron – tin roofs, the concrete floors were still wet.  The prisoners slept on those floors on nothing but a reed mat.  And, in the mornings, the condensation from the tin roofs would fall on their heads, so it was always cold.  They weren’t allowed underwear.  The black people had to wear short pants, even in winter.  They had to wear sandals, even in winter.

It was absolute humiliation, and here you had this man who was a lawyer, very, very bright, and their guards had minimal education.  Many hadn’t even finished high school.  The guards were also white.  They were right wing.

They hated black people.  They were convinced that these men who had been brought into jail were terrorists and all they wanted to do was to kill white people.  They believed that these black men threatened the state and had to be given harsh treatment, which included torture.

Mandela realized, and the people around him realized, that the only way that they were going to be able to make life manageable was to, in some way, understand these people.  They weren’t even allowed the Bible to read, and they needed written material, and to be in contact with their comrades outside, not only in South Africa, but also in Europe and the United States.  They needed to be able to get messages out and in, and they needed a radio.

They had to convert some of the prison guards.  Now, if they had gone for prison guards that seemed a little bit kind or a little bit understanding, that would have been a poor tactical move because if any written materials or a radio was discovered, the first people to have been suspected would have been the kind or sympathetic guards, and there weren’t many of those.  So they had to try to convert the most radically right wing, black-hating guards.

One of Mandela’s big mantras when he came out of jail was the importance of making friends of your enemies.  You can’t do that if you look at them from your point of view.  You can’t do that if you think you have all the answers.  And you can’t do that if you think that you are right.  If you approach a situation with that perspective, then you have the sort of Congress that we have at present.

What you have to do is understand the fears that motivate your enemy.  And not only the fears; what are his dreams?  What sort of society would he like?  When we look at our dreams, we’re all very similar.  We all want the same things.  We want peace.  We want security for ourselves and our families.  We want decent accommodation.  We want access to food.  We want to be able to live a decent life.  That’s what they started doing, converting these wardens, slowly making friends of their enemies.

When Mandela came out of jail in 1990 it was at a really terrible, conflict-ridden time in South African history.  From 1976, we had persistent conflict. In the 1980s we had multiple states of emergency.  In 1986, as an example, you had had something like well over 50,000 people detained.  More than 40% of them were children, some as young as six-years-old. The security police would raid militant communities and punish them by taking their children and not letting them know where their children were.  And this would be for weeks and months and years that their children would disappear.

So there was a lot of hate.  There was a lot of death. There’d been shootouts.  There’d been lots and lots of assassinations.  I’ve had many friends who were tortured or assassinated.

In 1989, at the request of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others, I became the first person to start researching death squads, which were prevalent in the police and the military, against anti-apartheid activists, and those were not just black people.  They included white people who were being assassinated by death squads.  A climate emerged where many wanted to fight and kill each other and perpetuate the violence.

Mandela, on the other hand, was very controversial because he wanted to s negotiate.  He sat in a meeting where everyone was arguing about this, and he listened, and he listened, and he listened.  And, at the end he said, “What will it cost us to negotiate?”  And no one had an answer.  The point was that when you negotiate, and you negotiate openly, all sides have everything to win.

Fred: Did he speak to you explicitly about leadership and, if so, what did he have to say about it?

Charlene: Leadership and what it means was a consistent conversation.  The country was in turmoil with conflict and we had to get the exiles home and political prisoners out of jail, including off death row.

They were all traumatized.  The U.S. led sanctions were critical to the end of apartheid, but it also meant the economy was in bad shape and there was widespread unemployment.  Mandela had to find a way of stopping the violence, uniting people, and getting people back to work.  He knew he couldn’t do it on his own, but he could lead by example.

According to Mandela, a leader is not someone with a title. A leader is someone who gets people to follow you by his or her example, and it’s always by a good example.  It’s never by bullying.

Mandela didn’t believe in having lots of bodyguards.  He didn’t believe in having these screaming motorcades that so many political leaders all over the world have nowadays.  He believed that a real leader had little to fear from his people.  He actively wanted to hear from the lowliest people in society.  The everyday people.  He often tricked his bodyguards because he would get up very early in the morning and slip past them and go walking in communities and knock on people’s doors or go into people’s huts and speak to them.

Among his principles of leadership was making friends with your enemies.  It’s being humble.  It’s asking questions.  It’s believing in consultative processes, and not just consultative processes with your boards and your shareholders, as an example, but listening to those people who you are supposed to be serving.  It’s servant leadership.

One of the very important things that he did right from the beginning was to go and speak to the most rightwing Afrikaners, including the woman whose husband had jailed Mandela, who was the architect of apartheid, and she was living in a little area where they declared a whites-only homeland called Orania.  Her name was Betsie Verwoerd.

She was so radically right wing that she was beyond most South Africans.  Everyone thought he was nuts to actually even speak to these people who most of us shunned because we thought that they were so far off the charts.
He sat in her home and he asked her how she was and was there anything that she needed?  Could he help her with anything?  Was there anything that community needed?  Did they need his help?  And they were very fearful.

They thought that there would be retaliations against them from a black majority.  He said no, of course there wouldn’t be.

They were Afrikaners.  They were the white people, as their name suggests, of Africa, and he respected that.  He told her of some of his friends who were Afrikaans.  He spoke to her in Afrikaans.  He went out of his way not to proselytize, to show respect, and to listen.

When he came out she was gazing up at him as though he were her savior.  She was a tiny, little person.  He was a very tall man.  And they were laughing, and he was affectionately putting his arm on her shoulder, this woman who had never been touched by a black person.

And everybody looked at this and they said, “My word!”  And he kept doing that, for example, if a child had been raped, he would go to the home, and he would speak to the child, and he’d speak to the parents.  If there had been floods or a tragedy in a community, he would travel there, and he would walk among the people, and he would speak to them.  It was that personal touch.

One of the most important things was apologizing.  There was a stage where he became very angry with then President F.W. de Klerk and also one of the black leaders, Mangosuthu Buthelezi.  He refused to speak to either of them.

What happened as a result was that violence started to rapidly escalate again.  And he particularly liked George Bush, Sr., not the younger— couldn’t stand the younger one—but he liked George Bush, Sr. In one particular phone conversation Bush Sr. said to Mandela “You’ve got to start speaking to these guys because the situation is going backwards [to violence].”

Mandela took that counsel, and he approached them, and apologized.  He never feared appearing humble and letting people know that, “I’ve made a mistake. I’ve got to think about this again.  I’ve got to do this again.”
Mandela also believed in the ‘A’ of leadership.  Accountability.  It’s the very first thing.  You have to be accountable and it means that you’ve got to listen.  You’ve got to be humble, you have to take advice, and to be prepared to say, “I’m sorry.  I made a mistake.”

Fred:   Did he have any daily practices that he felt were essential to his life and his leadership?

Charlene: He would tend to get up at 4:00 o’clock every morning,.  He would exercise for an hour or two.  He would then have a meal of oats and he would have a little bit of fruit, and a strong tea.  And then he would start working. In the early years after he came out of prison he would often walk around in his prison clothes when he wanted to relax, just a loose top and loose pants tied with a rope (sort of like those Richard Branson wears, ha ha) and then Graca (his third wife) thought that wasn’t appropriate so put a stop to it, but he really loved informality.

Once he was out of prison, he would always read the newspapers, but he would also make a point of greeting a his staff and asking them how they were and how were their families, that sort of thing.  I think the important thing about Mandela is that real leadership is about paying attention to the small things because the small things lead to great things.

If Mandela walked into a room or went anywhere, one of the first things that he would do, if there was a big function, he would first want to greet the security guards.  If there were any cleaners, he would greet them first.  If there were any cooks or that sort of thing, he would greet them first.  He just paid attention. He loved women, so there might be lots and lots of very important men there, but he was always going to greet the women first.  And if there were children they would get greeted first because he’d had this long time where he hadn’t seen women or children other than the occasional visits from Winnie and his daughters when they were in their late teens.

Fred: Let me make a big shift here for a moment because, being familiar with some of the liberation movements in South Africa leading to end of apartheid, I am wondering what role music played in strengthening and sustaining the movement and ending apartheid.  I’m wondering if you could speak to what music meant to Mandela and any particular music or songs in particular that inspired him.

Charlene: He loved music. He was first jailed in 1963, and it was only in the early 1970s that they started allowing them to hear music.  The prisoners did not have a radio but they eventually got access to records, and they would play these over the loudspeakers.

They loved jazz, absolutely loved jazz. In my book, Robben Island, I record their 1973 top 20 playlist, it included Ella and Basie at number one, followed by Back to Back: Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges Play the Blues, then Brook Benton Today, Joe Williams, Joe Loss, Julie London, Nat King Cole, and Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground.  In African tradition, people loved choral music, so they loved choral music.  They loved some of the gospel music that came out of the United States.

Mandela really loved music and because of him, South Africans started dancing again.  Dance is a very big thing in South Africa. I think that when people are depressed, they don’t dance much.  But once we had Mandela, he might be on an international stage, it might be something as staid as the G-8, and people would start playing music, and he would dance and so we all began to dance again.

For a long time under apartheid, public gatherings weren’t allowed.  When I first started demonstrating I was about 17.  We had to stand about 150 meters apart.  We couldn’t stand together.  Two or more people were considered a gathering, so that was banned.  Churches were a place where we could gather, and music became a way of politically expressing ourselves, so there would be songs that would talk about freedom. There would be songs of mourning, for example, “what have we done?” about our situation, and songs of hope.  Music was absolutely essential.

The arts were  very powerful..  The theater we had during apartheid was probably the greatest age of theater we’ve had in South Africa.  You had great actors like John Kani emerging, mostly in plays by people like Athol Fugard and Zakes Mda.

You had wonderful poetry or authors like Nadine Gordimer and Andre Brink who started producing astonishing literature, most of which was banned in South Africa, but it got international acclaim. There was a big smuggling industry in books because we were so desperate to read these books.

Fine arts became a way of expressing the struggle.  There was a lot of anti-gun sculpture, as an example.  Mozambique got its independence before we did.  They were melting AK-47rifles and creating these beautiful sculptures, and some of the South African artists started doing similar.

We also started creating peace parks. There were no parks in black areas.  Ordinary people would take a barren area, and they would plant flowers and maybe trees and would paint the rocks different colors and make sculptures out of waste.  It was a wonderful era of art creation.  These activities happened in black and white communities, though the peace parks were primarily in the black communities. White areas had most of the stages and the theaters.

Fred: How did Mandela draw on this tremendous impulse towards artistic expression in giving him a sense of hope and sustaining his efforts?  How did that strengthen his leadership?

Charlene: You had the first big rush of leaders going onto the island in June 1964 when the South African apartheid government jailed Mandela and his colleagues. They banned all the black political organizations and also many individuals.  So if you were a banned individual — and this was happening to black and white people — you were confined to your home for three years.  You couldn’t go out, except for an hour a day, and only in that particular district.  In that hour, you would also have to report to the police station.  You weren’t allowed to have any other banned people visit you.  You couldn’t have more than one person visit you at a time.  And as one three-year banning order ended, they could impose another, and another…

There was a big phase of arrests in the early 1960s, and then there was a lull when people were feeling very crushed.  Then, in the early 1970s, you had young white intellectuals starting the Trade Union Movement.  That saw another smaller wave, of arrests.

But the biggest wave of arrests happened from 1976 where you had black students who started protesting against apartheid and Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. In that year they shot dead more than 600 people, most of them school students, and you had a massive wave of students escaping the country and going into exile. You also had a huge number arrested by the apartheid police and thrown into jail, including Robben Island.  These young people had contempt for Mandela and the people with him.  They thought he was this paper god.  He was a false icon. Mandela and the people with him realized that they needed to change their strategies as well.

These young people also brought all the struggle music and art, among them were playwrights and actors. So even though they were in jail, the singing was continuing and developing in jail, the acting, the performance, and the writing.  Mandela was always very powerfully influenced by writers.

Fred: Any particular writers stand out for you?

Charlene: He loved the Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore. Among the South African writers, he was close to Nadine Gordimer; he loved her writing.  But Mandela was very careful about never saying, “I like this one,” or “I like that one.” Because if you single out one person, then there are others you’ve forgotten.

Fred: When someone thinks about legacy, they often think about the more visible kinds of legacies.  For instance, in Mandela’s case, it might be ending apartheid, being the first black president of South Africa.  In some ways, I think that’s how the outside world might judge Mandela’s legacy.  I’m wondering how he, if at all, thought about his legacy.

Charlene: You couldn’t really ask him that question.  Well, you could, but he would say, well, that wasn’t for him to judge.  That would be for others to judge and for history to judge that he couldn’t pronounce on his legacy.  In my book, Mandela: In Celebration of a Great Life, I quote him as saying, “Whatever my wishes might be, I cannot bind future generations to remember me in the particular way I would like. What always worried me in prison was [that I could acquire] the image of someone who is always 100 percent correct and can never do any wrong. People expect me to perform far beyond my ability.” Certainly, one of the things that he wanted to do once he came out was to be a good father to his children and his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren.

For South Africans, his legacy is that he was a good father to us, to all of us.  So when he came out, the country was like an abused child where everyone was frightened.  Everyone was fearful.  Nobody knew when the next shoe was going to drop.  We didn’t know if we could trust anyone or anything.

He just loved us.  He completely loved us.  And he sort of — you know, we’re a very argumentative nation, and we speak our minds.  He just came and, like a good parent he looked at the things that your children do, and you think, “You know, I really wish they wouldn’t do that.”  But you love them. I think that’s what he did, and it gave the whole country a sense of confidence.

Fred: Are there certain things that you would want people to know about Mandela that you haven’t shared so far?

Charlene: Something that is important to know is how he felt about the United States.  When he went into jail, he couldn’t stand the United States.  He was very suspicious of the United States.  It had just come out of the McCarthy era, and he thought that that was a crazy era.  He was angry about the way black people in the U.S. and Europe and in colonial Africa were being treated when they came back after the Second World War compared to the way white soldiers were treated.

Also, the CIA informed the South African security services where he was, and that’s how he was arrested.  So he wasn’t particularly positively inclined towards the United States.

However, there were things that changed that.  One of them was a visit to South Africa in 1966 by Bobby Kennedy.  I think Bobby Kennedy made his most important speeches there, including the speeches where he said one person can make a difference. At the University of Cape Town he said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Bobby Kennedy also went to Stellenbosch University, which was where most of the apartheid governors were educated, and he said, “What if God is black?”  He caused an absolute uproar in South Africa because obviously in their belief system God could never be black. And Mandela and everyone opposed to apartheid loved this and had great respect for Bobby Kennedy, so that started him thinking differently.

Then he developed, over the years, a very close relationship with Ted Kennedy while he was in prison, through faxes and that sort of thing.  Ted Kennedy visited South Africa in 1985.  That was a very important visit.  He tried to get permission to visit Mandela.  He was the first person who said to Mandela, “When you come out, I’d like you to visit Boston.”  That’s why the first city Mandela landed in was Boston.

Mandela was grateful to representative William Gray, and senators Tom Harkin and Ted Kennedy for piloting through the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA) in 1986 that brought about sanctions because, without that, we wouldn’t have seen an end to apartheid.  Mandela walked free in 1990, and he wouldn’t have walked free in that short a time without sanctions.

Once he visited the United States he developed a very real affection for Americans. He loved the way they love their country because few people love their country the way Americans do.  For South Africans, for such a long time we’d been accustomed to not love our country.  That sort of rapturous love that Americans had was just very beautiful, so he developed a very great affection.  And earlier he had seen that Americans were inconveniencing themselves by demonstrating against apartheid because they were saying apartheid was a great wrong.  We think it must change.  And that had a powerful, powerful affect on South Africans who were exhausted and thought we would die with apartheid.

But you know Mandela certainly wasn’t a saint but he was a man who truly loved people and life.