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Nelson Mandela

Oprah Talks to

Nelson Mandela

“And that is what I am doing now—responding. There is nothing I fear more than waking up without a program that will help me bring a little happiness to those with no resources, those who are poor, illiterate, and ridden with terminal disease. If there is anything that will one day kill me, it will be the inability to help them. If I can spend a tiny part of my life making them happy, I'll be happy. ”Nelson Mandela.

This is a moment I will never forget: Nelson Mandela, a man sentenced to life in prison because of his fight to end segregation in South Africa, walking away free after 27 years. As I watched him emerge from a car that day in 1990, I felt what many around the world did—overwhelming hope and joy. That Mandela survived was a testament to the power of the human spirit to overcomeanything. A few years later I had the honor of meeting Mandela in person—and just sitting in the same room with him was like being in the presence of both grace and royalty. Even now, I can hardly believe that after living in a cell for nearly three decades, he is unscathed by bitterness. He is heralded as a legend around the world because of his brave stand for freedom, yet what's even more amazing is that he allowed none of the indignities he withstood to turn his heart cold.

When I finally arrive at Mandela's home, he greets me with a huge embrace— he is one of the warmest and most humble people I know. Amid kids and grandchildren who roam freely about the Mandela estate, a spirited Graça ushers me to a table set for an amazing feast: lamb stew, pork chops, seafood paella, and a traditional South African dish made with tripe. After we share the meal, Mandela settles into the corner of the couch that Graça calls his seat; from it, he can peer through a huge window overlooking most of Qunu. Here in his homeland, Mandela tells me what spending 27 years in prison taught him about himself—and why there is one thing he has never feared.

Oprah talks to Nobel Prize winner Nelson Mandela talk about South African apartheid, demanding respect, finding love, and what he's learned about the art of peace.

The last time we talked, you said that if you hadn't been in prison, you wouldn't have achieved the most difficult task in life—changing yourself. How did 27 years of reflection make you a different man?

Before I went to jail, I was active in politics as a member of South Africa's leading organization—and I was generally busy from 7 A.M. until midnight. I never had time to sit and think. As I worked, physical and mental fatigue set in and I was unable to operate to the maximum of my intellectual ability. But in a single cell in prison, I had time to think. I had a clear view of my past and present, and I found that my past left much to be desired, both in regard to my relations with other humans and in developing personal worth.

In what way did your past leave much to be desired? When I reached Johannesburg in the 1940s, I was neglected by my family because I had disappointed them—I'd run away from being forced into an arranged marriage, which was a big blow to them. In Johannesburg, many people were kind to me—but when I finished my studies and qualified as a lawyer, I got busy with politics and never thought of them. It was only when I was in jail that I wondered, "What happened to so-and-so? Why didn't I go back and say thank you?" I had become very small and had not behaved like a human who appreciates hospitality and support. I decided that if I ever got out of prison, I would make it up to those people or to their children and grandchildren. That is how I was able to change my life—by knowing that if somebody does something good for you, you have to respond.

So when you wake up in the morning, your day is all about giving? In particular, it's about building schools, clinics, and community halls and arranging scholarships for children. And of course, I have duties to my family. Are you making up for all the years you weren't there to help? That is not uppermost in my mind, but I will use the rest of my life to help the poor overcome the problems confronting them—poverty is the greatest challenge facing humanity. That is why I build schools; I want to free people from poverty and illiteracy. I recently spent time at Robben Island, the prison where you lived for the first 18 years of your sentence. I heard that you saw your youngest daughters when they were 2 and 3, and then didn't see them again until they were around 16! What was that like? Not seeing them may be why I've developed an obsession with children—I missed seeing any for 27 years. It's one of the most severe punishments prison life can impose, because children are the most important asset in a country. For them to become that asset, they must receive education and love from their parents. And when you are in jail, you are unable to give those things to your children. It's hard to imagine a world where you're not allowed to see, touch, or hold your own children. Was that your greatest loss? Absolutely. What else did you miss? My family, of course. And I missed my people. In many respects, people on the outside suffered more than those of us in jail. In prison, we ate three times a day, we had clothing, we had free medical services, and we could sleep for 12 hours. Others did not enjoy these things. Did you feel disconnected from the world?

We had our ways of communicating with the outside. And though we would get the news two or three days after it had happened, we still got it. Because we became friendly with certain wardens, we'd ask them, "Can't you take us to the rubbish dump?"

Newspapers were dumped there, and we'd clean them off, hide them, and take them back to our cells to read. You became even more disciplined in prison than you had been before, studying regularly and encouraging your colleagues to study. Why? No country can really develop unless its citizens are educated. Any nation that is progressive is led by people who have had the privilege of studying. I knew we could improve our lives even in jail. We could come out as different men, and we could even come out with two degrees. Educating ourselves was a way to give ourselves the most powerful weapon for freedom.

I equipped myself by reading literature, especially classic novels such asThe Grapes of Wrath.

Did you come out a wiser man? All I can say is that I was less foolish than I was when I went in.

That's one of my favorite books. When I closed that book, I was a different man. It enriched my powers of thinking and discipline, and my relationships. I left prison more informed than when I went in. And the more informed you are, the less arrogant and aggressive you are. Do you disdain arrogance? Of course. In my younger days, I was arrogant—jail helped me to get rid of it. I did nothing but make enemies because of my arrogance. What other characteristics do you abhor? Ignorance—and a person's inability to see what unites us instead of only those things that divide us. A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don't have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.

You just wantyourpoint of view to prevail. But a good leader always has the intention of making peace. That's true. When there is danger, a good leader takes the front line; but when there is celebration, a good leader stays in the back of the room. What characteristics do you most admire in those you respect? Sometimes a leader has to criticize those with whom he works—it cannot be avoided. I like a leader who can, while pointing out a mistake, bring up the good things the other person has done. If you do that, then the person sees that you have a complete picture of him. There is nobody more dangerous than one who has been humiliated, even when you humiliate him rightly. As I sit here and talk with you, I find it hard to imagine that you can be the man you are after spending all that time in a seven-by-nine-foot cell. When you went back to see the cell years later, could you believe it was that tiny? Back then I was used to it, and I could do all sorts of things in there, like exercise every morning and evening. But now that I'm on the outside, I don't know how we survived it—the space wassosmall. During the day, when you were forced to do hard labor in the lime quarries, you also had the chance to talk with your colleagues. But when I visited the prison I was told that at 4 P.M. each day, the cell doors were closed and you weren't allowed to speak. That's true, but we challenged that rule. The officers who were senior to the wardens treated them like vermin, but because we treated the wardens with respect, they helped us. Once the cells were locked and the senior officers went away, the wardens allowed us to do anything except open the cell doors, because they didn't have keys. They let us speak to those in the cells opposite us. As a result of the way we treated the wardens, they tended to become good people. Do you believe people are good at their core? There is no doubt whatsoever, provided you are able to arouse the goodness inherent in every human. Those of us in the fight against apartheid changed many people who hated us because they discovered that we respected them. How can you respect people who oppress you?

You must understand that individuals get caught up in the policy of their country. In prison, for instance, a warden or officer is not promoted if he doesn't follow the policy of the government—though he himself does not believe in that policy. So you can change someone who is only carrying out a policy, since that person himselfisn'tthe policy. Absolutely. When I went to jail, I was a trained lawyer. And when the wardens received letters of demands or summonses, they didn't have the resources to go to an attorney to help them. I would help them settle their cases, so they became attached to me and the other prisoners. In your autobiography, you say that you understood you could defeat your opponent without dishonoring him. How did you learn that? My colleagues and I did not want to speak to the apartheid rulers at all, but some of us did the type of work that brought us into contact with our oppressors. For instance, when blacks were forced to leave Johannesburg and go back to their homelands, a man would come to me and say, "Help me. I have lost my job. I have a wife and children in school, and I am now required to leave my home."

As a lawyer, I would go to the top authorities and say, "Look, I'm approaching you as a human, and here is my problem. I have to rely on you." Invariably, the person would allow the man to look for a job. So I discovered even before I went to jail that apartheid was not run by people who were monolithic in their approach. Some of them didn't even believe in apartheid. If you sit down and talk to a person, it's easy to convince him that apartheid can never save a country and will lead to the slaughtering of innocent people—including his own people. So we changed the hardened apartheid rulers into people who could work with us, because we exploited their good qualities. You've written that when you were a boy, all the townspeople brought their problems to the regent, who listened to each person before giving his answer. That principle influenced me throughout my life. I learned to have the patience to listen when people put forward their views, even if I think those views are wrong. You can't reach a just decision in a dispute unless you listen to both sides, ask questions, and view the evidence placed before you. If you don't allow people to contribute, to offer their point of view, or to criticize what has been put before them, then they can never like you. And you can never build that instrument of collective leadership. At one point you were offered the chance to leave prison early if you renounced violence—and you chose not to. Did you believe that violence was a solution? No. When I was told, "You'll be released as soon as you renounce violence," I said, "You started violence—our violence is a defense. The methods of political action that oppressed people use are determined by the oppressor."

And I didn't want to leave jail under conditions. I also wouldn't allow myself to be singled out from my colleagues. I read that you never allowed yourself to be treated better than other prisoners because you saw yourself and the men who'd worked alongside you as a collective leadership. Our people outside of prison used my name to mobilize the community locally and internationally. But for me to be treated separately from my colleagues, who had contributed as much as and even more than I had, would have been a betrayal of them. There you all were, brothers side by side who had all gone to prison at the same time—and yet much of the world knew onlyyourname. We never knew there was a Mandela group. I'm not just saying this out of humility, but some of those men were more intelligent and more determined as fighters for freedom than I was. In 1986 you began the negotiations that led to your release. Did you really believe you would be freed? We always knew that one day we would be released—we just did not know when. The prison would send a warden to say to us, "Give me your names, the places you came from, and exactly where you'd go if you were released." Sometimes the wardens would tell us, "You chaps cannot be kept, because the whole world is insisting that you be released." There were times when the government seemed to have crushed the antiapartheid movement completely—and our spirits were down. But the dominating idea was that one day we'd get out. When Mr. de Klerk called me [on February 10, 1990], he said, "I've decided to release you—tomorrow."

I said, "You have taken me by surprise. Give me at least a week to inform our people outside so they can prepare."

I also told de Klerk that once I reached the gate of the jail, he would have no control over me. I wanted to be released from the Victor Verster prison, which is where I had been held since 1988, so that I could talk with the people in that area who had looked after me. But de Klerk had intended to fly me to Pretoria, South Africa, and release me there. I refused. I had been jailed because I wanted to think for myself, so I would not let them think for me even then. They released me from Victor Verster the next day—they had already told the press of my release, and reporters had come from all over the world. So after 27 years of prison you said, "I will be released on my terms." Yes. And my fellow prisoners and I knew that the international community was supporting us. Is it true that when you were freed at age 71, it was like being born again? Yes. When I was inside the prison, I told the wardens to come to the gate with their families because I wanted to thank them. I honestly thought they would be the only people who would be at the gate! I had no idea that I would meet a huge crowd. You once told me that humility is one of the greatest qualities a leader can have. Did you come out of prison a more humble man? If you are humble, you are no threat to anybody. Some behave in a way that dominates others. That's a mistake. If you want the cooperation of humans around you, you must make them feel they are important—and you do that by being genuine and humble. You know that other people have qualities that may be better than your own. Let them express them. Maya Angelou says that humility is knowing your place in the world. It's understanding that you are not the first person who has ever done anything important. That is a truism. I want to talk about what being in Qunu means to you. Do you come here often? As much as possible. My wife and I don't celebrate family days in Johannesburg, though we have a home there. My eldest son died in a car accident while I was in jail, and… And you weren't allowed to go to the funeral? No. We buried him in Johannesburg, but later my wife said, "That child must be buried in Qunu, next to your father." I also lost a daughter who died when she was a baby, and she was buried here. So Graça told me, "You must have a day with the family in Qunu, when you aren't running around the world. You can invite your children, your grandchildren, and your close relatives to come and bond." Did you ever think you could fall in love again at your age? When I first saw this lady, it was not a question of love. I regarded her as the wife of a president I had never met. I respected her very much. How has she changed you? Oh, very much. She is more stable than me, she does not get easily excited—and she keeps on warning me not to be overly enthusiastic in my work. She is a very good adviser, both on family issues and things of an international nature because she has traveled all over the world. One of the greatest lessons your life teaches us all is the power in forgiving our oppressors. As you once told me, you "made the brain dominate the blood." How were you able to practice that principle? We all struggled with it, especially since we were dealing with an enemy who was more powerful than us. But because we wanted to avoid slaughtering each other, we had to suppress our feelings. That is the only way to bring about a peaceful transformation. Many people can't even do that in their own families. True, but we must teach people that when they've been wronged, they must talk to their enemies and resolve their differences for the sake of peace. Now that you are in what you call the evening of your life, what do you most look forward to? I want to continue the work I'm doing. In some areas, poor people haven't had proper roads, electricity, water, or even toilets. But things are changing. The whole process will take many years. One reason I hold you and your comrades in such high reverence is that you maintained your dignity in the face of oppression. You must be proud of yourself for that. You are very generous, Oprah. All I can tell you is that if I am the person you say I am, I was not always that man. At the end of the magazine each month, I write a column called "What I Know for Sure". What do you know for sure? I know that my wife will always support me. And I know that, throughout the world, there are good men and women concerned with the greatest challenges facing society today—poverty, illiteracy, and disease. Do you fear death? No. Shakespeare put it very well: "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come."

When you believe that, you disappear under a cloud of glory. Your name lives beyond the grave—and that is my approach.

From the O, The Oprah Magazine