Panelists discuss the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, following the release of Mandela: The Lost Tapes, which features never-before-heard audio from interviews with Mandela for Long Walk to Freedom.
The Darryl G. Behrman Lecture on Africa Policy is held in memory of Darryl G. Behrman, who was originally from South Africa and had an abiding passion for Africa and international peace. The annual lecture is funded by members of the Behrman family.
TEICHNER: Well, because we’re waiting for the professor’s Zoom we don’t know what’s going to happen quite yet. But we’re going to go ahead and start and hope that they can make the Zoom work. And the professor is in South Africa so it’s very early in the morning there.
Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Darryl G. Behrman Lecture on Africa Policy, “The Legacy of Nelson Mandela.”
I’m Martha Teichner. I’m a correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning and I’ll be presiding over today’s lecture. The Behrman lecture is held in memory of Darryl G. Behrman, who was originally from South Africa and had an abiding passion for Africa and international peace.
This lectureship is designed to bring Africa to the attention of people in this country and is funded by members of the Behrman family. I’d like to thank the members of the family who are attending this online tonight. The audience today consists of Council members joining us here in New York and online.
So you know Rick Stengel, I’m sure, from—by reputation and his long history on this subject. He was, I guess you’d say, the ghostwriter for Long Walk to Freedom and, most recently, he has launched a podcast based on the sixty hours of tapes of interviews of—that he had with Nelson Mandela when they were doing the preparations for Long Walk to Freedom.
And when Professor Mangcu arrives, he is a professor of history and sociology at Georgetown University and, like Rick, knew Mandela. But they come from very different starting points. Rick, being a white South African—or a white American and—
STENGEL: Honorary South African.
TEICHNER: Honorary South African but still a white American, albeit one with State Department background and close personal and professional ties with Mandela from Long Walk to Freedom, will have a very different take on Mandela than a Black South African, who was—he knew Mandela and considered himself a vocal critic of Mandela’s but knew him well and respects him.
So because we don’t have the professor yet let’s start with you. Give me—what is, in your opinion, Mandela’s legacy, given where your starting point is?
STENGEL: Thank you, Martha, and I’m delighted to be here, and I want to say hello to the Behrman family and Greg Behrman, who’s an old friend of mine. I’m so happy to be able to participate in this lecture.
I think Mandela’s greatest legacy is as a person who—a democratic revolutionary, a man who brought democracy to more people over a longer period of time and, at one time, than almost anybody else in history, and I think it’s so appropriate now that we’re talking about him, that we have podcast, because, you know, the planet is undergoing a democratic recession.
You know, over the last thirteen years, according to Freedom House, more countries have left democracy and become authoritarian than have become democracies, and so his model, his image, is one that people can look to for countries that are moving from an authoritarian government—in this case, an authoritarian white supremacist government—to a democracy, and that happened overnight.
So his legacy is as a freedom fighter, a man who had an undeviating focus on that one goal and suffered unimaginable consequences as a result.
TEICHNER: Did you have a different sense of what his legacy was when he got out of prison, when he was elected president, than you do now all these years later?
He got out of prison in 1990 and he was elected president in 1994.
STENGEL: Yes. So, and, Martha, you were there in South Africa at that time and, you know, doing the podcast I went back and listened to all of these tapes that I’d had actually never listened to because I had a transcript made of the conversations and used them to work on the book.
So it took me back into that moment and, as you know, it was an incredibly fraught moment. De Klerk had authorized the release of Mandela. The country had episodes of violence almost every day. There was this group that people called the Third Force, a shadowy right-wing extremist group that was trying to tip the country into civil war.
I mean, he wasn’t thinking about his legacy then. He was thinking about, how do I get to next week? How do I negotiate with the government? How do I get to a democratic election? Because, obviously, Black South Africans were the vast majority of voters in a democratic election and he knew that would lead to a new dispensation of Black majority rule.
TEICHNER: When he got out of prison he didn’t act like the revolutionary that he had been. He acted like a statesman and talked about a nonracial South Africa and presented an image of dignity and almost—he was almost like a king. He embodied the myth that had developed over the years.
Where did that come from?
STENGEL: You know, it’s a combination of things. You mentioned he seemed like a king. I mean, he was an African aristocrat. His father was a chief. His father was an advisor to the king of Thembu. He was raised by the king in the region of the Thembu. He saw himself as a kind of aristocrat even though, of course, he would never say that.
In the podcast you hear me say to him, you know, if you were born in a free country what would you have been, and he said, I was being groomed for the chieftaincy. That was his first reaction. So that was intrinsic to who he was, and I felt, in listening to the tapes and going back, I didn’t even perceive that as strongly as I should have at the time.
But you take that and you put it in the crucible of twenty-seven years of prison. That burns away anything extraneous in his character. That gave him incredible self-control, self-discipline.
So when he came out, that man who came out was different than the man who went in because you hear me ask him on the tapes, describe the man who went into prison, and he says, I was a tempestuous passionate person.
And then I would say to him, tell me then what happened. What changed? What was different about the man who came out? And he hated this question. He thought it was, like, a trick question. And one day he finally blurted out, I came out mature.
And that word has enormous meaning for him. He wants politicians, leaders, to be mature, people who have self-control, who don’t fly off the handle, who seek consensus, because even though he was a revolutionary he was a cautious revolutionary, not a revolutionary by temperament, and he always did seek consensus.
TEICHNER: You looked, though, at the Transkei, and reading Long Walk to Freedom where he describes how he grew up and you think, here’s a man who grew up in a mud hut, whose father had multiple wives and where many people were illiterate and you think what about that kind of aristocracy would prepare him to be a world leader and, ultimately, a Nobel Peace Prize winner?
STENGEL: So, I wish Professor Mangcu was here—
TEICHNER: Me, too.
STENGEL: —because he would be the right person to answer that question. But I’m going to speak for him, in a sense.
He and I were on a—I met him on a panel. It was about five years ago, and I’m not telling you a secret but when you’re on a panel with a bunch of people you’re not really listening to the other people. You’re waiting for your chance to speak.
And Professor Mangcu was talking and I realized, wow, I thought I knew all of this stuff about Nelson Mandela. And he comes at it—he’s from the Transkei himself. He’s a Xhosa speaker himself, and what he talked about and what he will write about in his biography of Nelson Mandela is how Mandela was insulated in the Transkei.
The British never crossed the (Kei ?) River so that area was never conquered the way the rest of South Africa was. He grew up in a Black world, of Black culture, of talking about the great Black warriors and kings of history, and that gave him a kind of confidence in himself that you didn’t see in South Africa where Blacks were raised in cities and experienced racism, apartheid, the grueling, you know, practice of trying to exist in that racially separated society.
Walter Sisulu, his great mentor, used to say that he—when he was looking for leaders of the ANC back in the ’40s and ’50s he was looking for young men who were raised apart from white society and didn’t experience that. They had a chance to develop the confidence in themselves. And, in fact, I think that was the pivotal point that changed Mandela from this kind of country boy to a revolutionary.
And, in fact, again, Professor Mangcu has a lovely riff that the thing that changed Mandela was he went to British style boarding schools in South Africa. He was taught by British professors. He was taught about English fair play and English justice and the English legal system.
But then he went to Johannesburg and he was spat upon. No one would give him a job. He was treated like less than human. According to Professor Mangcu, that’s the thing that triggered the change in him because he had believed in this idea of fair play and justice, and then it was a myth.
TEICHNER: Professor Mangcu has also written about an instance when he was growing up where his father was a magistrate or—in the Transkei who advised the king and so on, and he was summoned by the British and he refused to go on their terms, and he was stripped of all his authority, which also meant his wealth and his land and that that must have left a huge impression on Nelson Mandela.
STENGEL: So, Martha, so that—and, again, I wish Xolela was here because that’s the story we told in Long Walk to Freedom. He, years later, wrote a scholarly article, again, after I’d met him about how Long Walk to Freedom was wrong.
I mean, Mandela was—it was a—I’m not a biographer. I was helping him tell his autobiography and he told the story that way, that he was summoned by an English magistrate, and his father said in Xhosa I’m not ready to put on my sword, and he refused to go.
But in Xolela’s scholarly article he talks about how Mandela’s father really was caught dead to rights. He had been, you know, selling land on the sly. He’d been doing a lot of things that were not kosher. And so the story that we told in Long Walk was actually a kind of more benign retelling of the story about his father, which, again, Professor Mangcu says Mandela himself may not have known.
TEICHNER: Huh. When I went to South Africa in 1987, Mandela was still in prison. He was at Robben Island. He hadn’t been moved—the negotiations hadn’t begun—and he was considered a terrorist, and the only images you saw of him were on t-shirts or something, that you saw the image that was from a photograph after the Rivonia trial when he was a young and very strong and angry-looking figure in that photograph, and people would try to wear the t-shirt and get detained for long periods of time because it was illegal to wear a t-shirt with his image on it.
And I would argue that he was a terrorist in some sense of the word because he decided that violence was the only route to liberation.
STENGEL: Yes. So in the podcast you hear me asking him questions about it—about this—about the turn towards violence. He started uMkhonto we Sizwe, “The Spear of the Nation,” which was the military wing of the ANC.
The ANC had always been a nonviolent organization since it was founded in 1912. But the peaceful protests they were doing were being met with violence—the Sharpeville massacre. The government was using force against people who were nonviolent and he decided, we have to respond.
And it’s really fascinating to hear him talk about it. He said, for Gandhi, who was in South Africa for twenty years and was an apostle of nonviolence, he said nonviolence was a principle. For me, it was a tactic and if the tactic wasn’t working I was going to abandon it.
So he had no particular moral or spiritual attachment to nonviolence. He wanted to achieve freedom for his people. So he led the drive within the ANC to renounce nonviolence and he tells a wonderful story about going down to see Chief Luthuli, who was then the head of the ANC—
TEICHNER: Dr. Luthuli.
STENGEL: —who had just won the Nobel Peace Prize and Mandela making the case for why they need to start an armed wing, and it’s quite a dramatic story. In fact, he tells the story about an Indian leader who, at that meeting, said, nonviolence hasn’t failed us—we have failed nonviolence.
TEICHNER: Well, it resulted in nothing. But at the same time, you could—I guess I find myself wondering whether Nelson Mandela’s transition to the figure we saw when he emerged was, perhaps, strategic and pragmatic.
STENGEL: Yes. Yes. So he understood, in many ways, his whole prison experience was preparation for when he got out. That’s—from the moment he got into prison—
TEICHNER: And he understood that it was his fate that that would happen?
STENGEL: He always believed he would get out and he always believed that the prison experience, in a strange way, was like a microcosm of South Africa. He was dealing with white Afrikaans guards. He learned to speak Afrikaans, he read Afrikaans literature, and he believed devoutly, more so than other people in the ANC, that racial reconciliation was the way to a new democratic South Africa and he spent a lot of time and effort on that.
And when he came out he wanted to make sure that that scary picture of him on the t-shirt from the ’50s and ’60s was not the man they saw walk out of prison. The man they saw walk out of prison was a stately statesman, a person who, even though he didn’t renounce nonviolence and wouldn’t, you know, until the election, he presented a face of, like, this is about reconciliation and rebuilding and forgiveness.
And he had plenty of bitterness that he hid. He knew that he could never ever show it.
TEICHNER: The man who came out projecting the image that you just described, was that calculated to reassure white South Africans that there wasn’t going to be violence, that there wasn’t going to be an immediate appropriation of their land? And then there was the question of sanctions from abroad—to reassure the financial markets that they—that business could reenter South Africa?
STENGEL: Yeah. So another part of his change—and what was amazing about him was how adaptable he was because the ANC Freedom Charter, which was like the constitution of the ANC, is a straight from the shoulder socialist document. It’s about businesses need to be nationalized. All of the wealth underground belongs to the people. The ANC in the 1950s would have nationalized the entire mining industry in South Africa.
He, very quickly when he came, out realized this might not be such a good strategy. I mean, he needed help from the World Bank. He needed help from the IMF. He needed help from the EU, from the United States. Nobody was going to support them if they started nationalizing industry.
He pivoted very, very quickly, and he never became a devout capitalist but he realized, you know, the world has changed. The world of the ’50s and ’60s, which was the world he identified with, the world of, you know, revolutionaries like Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro and Ben Bella in Algeria, who were all socialists or communists, that world was gone. You know, it had vanished while he was in prison.
So he very quickly pivoted and that pivot also included presenting the face of I’m this strong but nonviolent image of reconciliation and forgiveness.
TEICHNER: There’s been a mythologizing of Nelson Mandela and a romanticizing of this man who came out looking like a sweet grandfather as opposed to the supposed terrorist who went in.
But how did this mythologizing occur and was it always going to be Mandela who was the focus of the myth as opposed to, say, Govan Mbeki or Walter Sisulu, who were in prison with him?
STENGEL: Yes. So, that’s sort of two parts of that question. I mean, the answer to the first part is I played a huge role in romanticizing Mandela. This is one of the things that Professor Mangcu would talk about. You know, he jokes that I have a romantic view of Mandela.
Well, I wasn’t his biographer. I was helping him tell his story. So I helped create some of the modern myths about Nelson Mandela.
To your question about him being sort of that—the leader, one of the other lovely things about working on this project is I not only found—listening to the tapes we made, I had also interviewed Walter Sisulu and a number of other of his colleagues, and I found those tapes and was able to listen to them.
But Walter, again, tells this wonderful, wonderful story. When Mandela came to Johannesburg in the ’50s he was given Walter’s name. Walter was a real estate broker in Soweto and he was the starter of the ANC Youth League. And he’s talking to me, and he’s just a lovely, lovely man, and he said, you know, we wanted to be a mass organization and then one day a mass leader walked into my office, Nelson Mandela.
TEICHNER: They always knew he was going to be the star.
STENGEL: Walter knew, and he described him. He said, he’s magnificent man. He’s six foot two. He has a big head. He smiles. They realized that he would be the kind of—he would carry the ball for them. And I don’t—I am not even sure that Mandela wanted that so much, but he, too, understood that was part of the organization.
Remember, when he came out he would say over and over, I’m a loyal member of the ANC. Well, the ANC said, you are the figurehead. Go ahead.
TEICHNER: Do you think that without the anti-apartheid movement being coalesced around this mythological figure that, especially, because he was away for twenty-seven years and people only had the vision in their heads, do you think that without Mandela that there would be a Black South Africa—Black-run South Africa today? Or do you think it would still be the old South Africa—the apartheid South Africa?
STENGEL: You know, it’s the question does history make the man or does the man make history. Obviously, the answer is both.
You know, we wouldn’t still have an apartheid South Africa. It’s also like asking, you know, would we have been an independent nation without George Washington. Yes. Maybe not in 1776.
TEICHNER: I went to the Mandela seventieth birthday concert at Wembley Stadium in London and it was packed with hundreds of thousands of people, and hundreds of millions of people saw it on television, and that name recognition—it was Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid movement.
STENGEL: Yeah. I mean, he was a great figurehead and he was a great leader. I mean, it was appearance and reality. But I do think that, you know, the movement would have gone on without him. They would have found someone else.
I mean, it’s just kind of amazing that he even survived, right. I mean, that prison, in a strange way, kept him alive. You know, if he had been a revolutionary in South Africa and—(audio break)—would have been killed and we would never—we wouldn’t be discussing him today.
TEICHNER: Did he ever talk about the fact that for some reason the South African government chose to put all the key political prisoners together at Robben Island to create almost like a cauldron to create the future of South Africa?
STENGEL: So, of course, they didn’t see it that way, and in the podcast you hear—
TEICHNER: Why not? I mean, it’s—
STENGEL: Well, I’ll tell you, and he had an interesting explanation for it.
So one of the kind of most dramatic points of the podcast is where he talks about how at the Rivonia trial at the sentencing, he—they—the seven Rivonia trialists were waiting to hear the sentence from the judge and they thought they were going to be given the death sentence. And the judge—the first thing he said is—was, I’m not giving you the death sentence but that’s my only leniency, and they gave them life imprisonment.
So and, of course, those—there were a couple of—there was one white man of the Rivonia trialists and they couldn’t be sent—because the prisons were apartheid, too. But Mandela said the white government had a choice—they could keep us all together where we would help kind of keep each other’s body and soul together, or they could send us each to separate prisons in South Africa.
And he said they thought that if that had happened each of the Rivonia trialists would have been like a germ that would have infected that prison—that area of the country, and it was better to keep them together and contained than to have them dispersed. That was their logic.
TEICHNER: When you think about today or the—again, I wish the professor were here because I watched a YouTube lecture that he did at Cape Town University and there were students who all—not all of them, but many of them consider Mandela a sellout.
TEICHNER: And Professor Mangcu was arguing that even though he was a critic of Mandela’s, he wasn’t a sellout.
STENGEL: Yeah. So it’s a nuanced argument, and Professor Mangcu, who speak(s) way better for himself but I’ll speak for him now, was—grew up as a member of the Black consciousness movement.
The Black consciousness movement in South Africa was a movement that was centered around African nationalism. You know, the Pan-African Congress was a rival organization of the ANC. I mean, if you read the histories from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, it was like the Democrats and the Republicans. No one would knew who was going to triumph.
The ANC did, and now the PAC is kind of relegated to history. But the PAC was a much more Afrikaanist, stronger movement. It excluded whites, it excluded Indians, and that was the movement that Professor Mangcu grew up in and they saw Mandela as someone who was too intent on placating whites—what’s all this forgiveness stuff?
And so what you hear among a lot of young South Africans, particularly leftist South Africans—and there’s a whole political party dedicated to this—is that Mandela was a sellout, that he was the creature of white monopoly capitalism.
And I think it’s—I don’t agree with that argument but this idea that for the last thirty years there have been two strands in South Africa—the strand of reconciliation and forgiveness, and the strand of equity and equality—they would argue that there’s been too much emphasis on reconciliation and not enough on equity and economic equality.
I would, basically, agree with that. I don’t think Mandela is at fault about that. But, I mean, South Africa today is the most unequal nation in the world in terms of economic divide.
TEICHNER: So nothing’s changed in that respect.
STENGEL: And—yeah, and by the way, and white South Africans, who control the majority of the wealth, their life and status and living standards haven’t changed at all.
TEICHNER: Have those living standards—to what extent have the living standards of Black South Africans changed?
STENGEL: They haven’t changed enough. There’s a Black middle class and a Black elite. But—and, of course, the ANC started programs of housing and electrification and clean water, and it’s very different. But in terms of mass Black South Africans, their income hasn’t changed that much and hasn’t changed relative to white incomes.
TEICHNER: When I talked to Professor Mangcu on a Zoom call that did work in preparation, he was saying that there’s unfinished business, the racial reckoning. Yes, the world looked on and saw the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The world looked on and saw Nelson Mandela trying to seize the moment to try to clean the slate and recreate a different kind of nonracial South Africa.
But the racial reckoning with oppression—centuries of oppression—has not happened.
STENGEL: I think that’s correct. I mean, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—a wonderful thing—did err on the side of reconciliation, not on economic equity. People were forgiven for their crimes.
TEICHNER: And bad people got away with it, essentially.
STENGEL: Yes. It was cathartic for white people. It didn’t really benefit Black people. And I think the economic reckoning is still to happen.
I mean, we’ve had a discussion in this country about reparations for decades now. There’s no discussion in South Africa of reparations. I mean, so I think there should be and I would agree with Professor Mangcu there should be a—kind of a tougher reckoning with the economic inequality in South Africa.
TEICHNER: As we have a recurring history of racial issues in this country, will South Africa somehow always have the same thing only in their version of it?
STENGEL: You know, I don’t know.
I mean, there’s been a great deal of white flight, in a sense, you know, over the past forty years. I first went to South Africa in 1985, which felt very different than when I went back for the book.
It feels much more like an African country now in a very good way, particularly if you’re in cities. And so I think people in South Africa now—it’s a very youthful country. I mean, they can’t even imagine what it was like in the bad old days and under apartheid.
I mean, and I do think that’s partially why Mandela’s example is important because, you know, he’s the thread that went from this, you know, incredibly oppressive, the most kind-of diabolical system of racial oppression in world history to what is a democratic and free country. A flawed one but, nevertheless, it feels different. The air is different in South Africa now.
TEICHNER: I would think that it’s—in some way that Mandela did what he did because he felt that that’s what needed to be done at that moment and the role that he needed to play. But has that legacy been in some way tarnished—directly tarnished by Thabo Mbeki’s performance on AIDS? By Jacob Zuma’s introduction of massive corruption?
STENGEL: Yeah. So, actually, this Friday is the first day of the ANC’s annual leadership conference and Cyril Ramaphosa, who I knew well—
TEICHNER: Me, too.
STENGEL: —in those days, who was a—who, you know, I think has been a terrific leader for South Africa, is embroiled in his own corruption case now.
TEICHNER: The cash in the sofa.
STENGEL: Yes. That’s where I keep my cash. I don’t know.
TEICHNER: Millions? And do you sell—
STENGEL: No. I’m not that lucky.
TEICHNER: And do you have a game farm and are selling off buffaloes?
STENGEL: I do not. But it is—it’s a real reckoning now, and I think this discussion that we’re having about the paths of reconciliation versus the paths of economic equality, I think, that’s what the ANC has to make a decision about.
You know, Cyril was elected as an anti-corruption person. He had great wealth himself from his own private sector career.
TEICHNER: He was anointed, in many ways, by Mandela.
STENGEL: He was, and I believe that Mandela wanted Cyril to succeed him rather than Thabo, and I think the country would be in a different stage right now if that had been the case.
TEICHNER: Do you think that, in some ways, Mandela’s legacy is tarnished by what’s happened subsequently, after his presidency ended?
STENGEL: I think it’s tarnished, perhaps, in a superficial way by people who criticize him as a sellout or someone who compromised too much.
I mean, you know, he—to him, the Rubicon was having a democratic election. It’s a Black majority country. They were very much trying to get two-thirds of the vote so that they could amend the constitution. It takes two-thirds of the vote in parliament to amend the constitution. They only got 63 percent of the vote in that first election.
I think Mandela saw himself as a custodian of that transition from an authoritarian state to a democratic one. He only served one term. He decided to only serve one term. That was as revolutionary as when George Washington ended his presidency after two terms, even though there were no term limits then.
TEICHNER: And, yet, it has been a one-party rule country ever since, just as it was a one-party rule when it was the National Party and all about white supremacy.
STENGEL: So, one of the things we’ve seen since World War II among countries that have made the transition from authoritarian states to democratic ones is that those new countries, they don’t have the institutions, they don’t have the democratic norms to really be full-fledged democracies and they often mirror the state they had before.
That’s been true in South Africa, too. I mean, the—and you knew all of these guys, too. I remember when that first cabinet that Mandela had, you know, there were scandals then of gifts that were accepted. There were no rules about it and they had no models. The models were the old nationalist politicians who were corrupt, too.
So I think it takes a couple or three generations for those democratic norms and institutions to be created and I think that South Africa still has a long way to go in that regard.
TEICHNER: It’s time for questions. I’d like to ask if anyone here has questions, and also we’ll try to alternate between questions here and with people online. And this is all on the record.
And I see Missie Rennie’s hand.
Q: (Off mic.) Oh, sorry. There are so few.
Missie Rennie. Did you change your—when you went back and listened to these tapes these many years later did you change your mind about Mandela?
STENGEL: A little bit, because—and maybe because I’m now much closer to his age—the age he was then—you know, then back in 1992 and ’93. I thought he sounded lonelier, more solitary. I think he—I felt that he seemed sort of, in some ways, wounded by things in a way that I didn’t necessarily feel like that in the room.
As I mentioned to Martha, I wasn’t hearing then what he was talking about when he was talking about traditional society in South Africa, the world of his upbringing, which, I think, was more important to who he was than I thought at the time.
I think that’s just a change around the margin. I mean, you also hear this incredible focus where he never deviates from, you know, we’re going to have a democracy by hook or by crook, and he had this astonishing filter. I mean, he never said anything he didn’t want to say. Not once in all those hours did he say, Richard, I want to go off the record about this so let’s—you know, I want to—let me tell you about this but don’t put it in the book.
I mean, he never did that. So, in many ways. I mean, the epiphany is that the man and the mask were the same. You know, he really was who he seemed to be.
TEICHNER: Professor Mangcu calls him a tragic hero.
STENGEL: He is a tragic hero in the sense that he lost so much of what he personally valued. I think he liked domestic life. He loved children. He was a country boy. He had to give all of that up, and even though he achieved his great goal it was at tremendous sacrifice, which, I think, is the tragedy.
TEICHNER: I think we have a question from online.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Herman Cohen.
Q: Good evening. I’m Herman Cohen, retired Foreign Service. Specialize in Africa.
First, I want to correct something that you said. South Africa is not a one-party state. The Democratic Party controls Cape Town and all of southwestern South Africa. That’s one-third of the country and they’re a very strong party.
Secondly, I want to comment on the role of Christianity. When I used to visit South Africa in apartheid, when you’d go to any Christian church they were packed on Sunday, and Christianity really runs deep. And I remember when I was director of Africa for Ronald Reagan and Secretary Schultz says, we have to make an anti-apartheid gesture.
So that gesture was to invite the wife of Walter Sisulu, who was then in jail with Mandela. She came as the guest of President Reagan. And President Reagan asked her, don’t you want to—don’t you have a feeling of revenge you want to get at? Go get those guys and apartheid people? She said, no, I am a Christian. I don’t do that.
So I’m saying this to emphasize the deep role of Christianity in South Africa, which continues today.
TEICHNER: And what’s your question, please?
Q: Do you agree with that? (Laughter.)
STENGEL: Well, Mr. Cohen is a famous name in the State Department among African hands.
Yes, I don’t dispute that. But, of course, Christianity—it cuts both ways. I mean, the Dutch Reformed Church was the—gave the spiritual undergirding to apartheid, so the separation of the races. That’s a Christian church as well.
And the ANC, its roots were as a religious organization. I mean, Chief Mthuli was a devout Christian. I mean, it definitely moved away from that. I mean, the—most of—all the Rivonia trialists were members of the Communist Party, including Mandela. You know, Mandela was raised in the Methodist Church but he wasn’t a bit religious. And I think religion still plays a role but I think it will increasingly play a smaller and smaller role.
TEICHNER: I have a question in connection with that. When I was in South Africa, the only people who had—who spoke out—there were two institutions where Black leaders could speak out politically. One was the trade unions that were legal and the other was religious leaders—Black religious leaders—and—
STENGEL: Archbishop Tutu. Yeah.
TEICHNER: Archbishop Tutu and others. Frank Chikane, head of the South African Council of Churches. And they didn’t get put in jail. There were others as well. And it was almost as if the apartheid government had a fear of interfering with the religious backbone of all sides that was so strong then that Mr. Cohen was referring to.
STENGEL: Yes, and I think they had some respect for those religious leaders, not only because they had lots of people backing them but because the Nationalist Party folks were religious themselves.
TEICHNER: And you feel that that’s dissipated?
STENGEL: You know, I don’t really know the answer. I mean, that was kind of a facile answer on my part. I just know that in terms of the ANC leadership and the leadership you see in the South African parliament, I mean, it’s, you know, less religious than our Congress.
TEICHNER: Questions here?
We have another one online.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jonathan Chanis.
Q: Hi. Thank you.
You spoke earlier about Nelson Mandela’s economic pivot after taking power. There have been reports or, perhaps, stories of Mandela’s trip to the World Economic Forum at Davos shortly after coming to power and how these meetings helped push him towards a more capitalist orientation and not doing things like nationalizations.
Are these reports true? How important was Davos in shifting his views on economic development? And if they are true, with whom did he speak that may have pushed him towards this path?
STENGEL: So, I remember wanting to go with him to his first trip to Davos and for some reason I didn’t go.
You know, he—does he have any flaws? Of course, he has some flaws, and you hear in the podcast me say to him, a very frequent criticism of you over the years has been that you are too willing to trust people, that you’re naïve, that you trusted the white authorities when you probably shouldn’t have. What do you say to that?
And he paused for a second and he said, that might be true. Kind of an amazing answer, right, for a politician to cop to a criticism. He said, that might be true.
He then said something beautiful, which was, the only way you can trust someone—the only way you can determine whether you can trust someone is to trust them.
So one of his other mild flaws is that, you know, he was susceptible to flattery like all human beings. He enjoyed meeting celebrities and powerful people. I think when he went to Davos and went to other places and met with these kind of titans he listened. He had respect for people who had achieved something, who were of a certain age. And yeah, I’m sure he was influenced by his trip to Davos.
I mean, there have been these stories, as Jonathan mentions, that that was somehow, you know, an epiphany for him. I don’t think it was an epiphany. But remember that South—his new government needed financing. They needed loans. They needed the white business to continue working in South Africa.
So all of those things—
TEICHNER: This was after the world had—a lot of the world that had money imposed sanctions.
STENGEL: Yes. And, of course, by the way, if you go back even further, that same world was the world that labeled him a terrorist, that he went seeking money in the ’50s and wasn’t given it. So, I mean, he was disposed to not necessarily trust the West, not necessarily trust, you know, those institutions.
But he did pivot because, again, he was, you know, the most hardheaded pragmatist imaginable. He had no sentimentality about him. So he didn’t have any sentimentality about his old position. If it’s, like, if I have to be a capitalist going hat in hand to these institutions I’ll do it.
TEICHNER: There’s another question online.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Cedric Suzman.
Q: Oh, thank you for a fascinating conversation to both of you.
I would like to ask you—(inaudible)—to a mistake that he might have made, and I’d like to re-ask you more pointedly did he make a mistake in appointing Mbeki as his successor instead of Ramaphosa and did he ever express some regret at that action.
And the second one, I would say, at that time he focused his attention on the army when he was let out because he was very concerned about a coup. So you see the commanders of the armed forces standing next to him when he’s sworn in.
But he really neglected the police, which led to them really being part of the criminal network that eventually has corrupted South Africa even to this day, and I wondered if you would comment on him not seeing that part of it. And, certainly—yeah, I’ll leave it at that. I could ask a few more but I won’t.
STENGEL: Sir, are you South African yourself?
Q: Yes. Yes. Yes.
STENGEL: Are you related to Helen Suzman?
Q: She was my aunt. Right. Yes.
STENGEL: So—(inaudible). Yeah.
Q: And I left early in—I left in the 1960s after a brief brush with the security apparatus and decided it was time to leave.
STENGEL: Well, Mandela loved your aunt. She was a famous South African anti-apartheid parliament member and visited him on Robben Island at least once.
And so to your question, I’m going to ask you to help paraphrase the second part of the question. The first part about Thabo Mbeki, so, you know, I asked him these questions and there were just some things that he just didn’t want to talk about.
And the irony of Thabo Mbeki becoming his successor was one of the few people he ever said anything remotely critical of was Thabo’s father, Govan Mbeki, who was on Robben Island with him, and I remember asking him—because Govan Mbeki had been a(n) academic. He’d written a dissertation, I think, about an uprising in the Transkei, and I asked Mandela had he ever read it, and Mandela said to me, have you tried to read it? (Laughter.)
He had a dry and arch sense of humor. But that’s about as negative as he would ever get about anybody.
So but when Mandela started negotiating with the government after he’d left Robben Island but before he was out of prison—when he was in prison in Cape Town, there were other members—Rivonia trialists, Govan Mbeki in particular—who was telling the movement in Lusaka that Mandela was betraying the ANC by negotiating. And Govan wasn’t the only one but he was the principal one. So it’s a kind of historical irony that his son became Mandela’s successor.
You know, he—it’s hard to succeed Nelson Mandela, to follow Nelson Mandela in office and Thabo himself was a sort of small c conservative, and I think it would have taken a stronger leader to kind of perpetuate that anti-corruption bias of Mandela to focus more on economic inequality than reconciliation. I think another leader might have might have been more successful in that respect.
TEICHNER: Part two was the idea that, perhaps, Nelson Mandela made a mistake by concentrating on the military as opposed to the police, who ended up part of the corruption, as opposed to worrying about a coup.
STENGEL: I think that’s a smart observation.
Certainly, in the thirty years since then, the—you know, South Africa isn’t in danger of being invaded by another country. You know, remember part of the original corruption was buying those, you know, naval vessels that they didn’t need and spent billions of dollars on it.
Would have been better to spend that money on police, on police training. I think that still needs to be a big source of domestic funding in South Africa.
TEICHNER: Another one online.
STENGEL: There are lots of people online.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Joseph Bower.
Q: First, thank you very much. Very interesting. Cedric, it’s good to hear from you.
I was in Davos the year Nelson Mandela came out, and had dinner. At one of the dinners—you do a lot of dining there—Goldstone—I sat at a table with Goldstone and he said that Li Peng—Klaus Schwab actually was—Li Peng came out from China only to talk to Mandela and on this issue he—to say, in effect, don’t go communist. I mean, that’s the brief thing, that the communist—communism is a delusion and that’s not the South Africa—the other thing that was interesting, Shell and Anglo—and he knew this; that is, Mandela—played a major role in undoing apartheid. So when the—he would have had a very sort of, I think, complex view of the question on the role of the business community since part of it was central to his release. And then it was just fascinating that Li Peng said what he did.
STENGEL: So what did Li Peng say?
Q: Don’t go communist. You’re going to be under a lot of pressure to be—from the communists—that it’s a—I mean, it was a very, very harsh criticism coming from a Chinese leader.
STENGEL: I think the other thing that we need to remember, too, is the macro times. I mean, the Berlin Wall had just fallen, that everything was going in the opposite direction, away from centralized power, authoritarian governments, communist states.
So, you know, Mandela saw which way the wind was blowing, and he didn’t necessarily need Li Peng to tell him that but I’m sure that helped.
TEICHNER: Did he acknowledge in any way the role that Anglo American and Harry Oppenheimer played in getting the ball rolling on the negotiations and getting him out before he died?
STENGEL: You know, we never really talked about that. He was gracious about Anglo. But I think he also understood that Anglo was one of the sources of racial oppression for decades after decades of the Black miners that weren’t allowed to live where they wanted to live, weren’t allowed to live with their families, had—were forced to live in the homelands.
They were part of that whole, you know, apartheid business superstructure. But Anglo was more progressive in the sense that they saw the writing on the wall that—you know, that a democratic Black majority state would actually, in the end, be better for their business than a white supremacist state.
TEICHNER: The thing that always struck me in terms of sanctions, and I’m wondering whether Mandela had anything to say about this, was that it seemed to me that the two sanctions that had the biggest effect on South Africa maybe not what people would think. It wasn’t necessarily the divesting of businesses. But I believe that sports—the sanctions against competing in the area of sports because South Africans were very, very passionate about sports—oh, there he is. And also the fact that the mining industry couldn’t access investment capital.
STENGEL: Yes, Professor Mangcu?
TEICHNER: You’ve made it. We can’t hear you.
We still can’t hear you.
STENGEL: You might be—you might have your volume off.
TEICHNER: Are you on mute or is it a Zoom problem?
OPERATOR: We’ll bring him right back.
STENGEL: I think that’s probably true. I do think that the West, in general, and Americans, in particular, overvalue the importance of sanctions. I remember that—one time being with Mandela and there was an event at this time in ’93 where Al Gore was coming down and was in Johannesburg at the Market Theater.
And I told Mandela that I was going to go, and then he smiled and he said, oh, you can celebrate with the other Americans about how you ended apartheid, another arch—but I think it was always helpful to them the world turning away from South Africa, barring the sports teams. But I don’t think he thought that was pivotal but that it was just part of that—of the wave of—you know, that was supporting a democratic and free South Africa.
TEICHNER: There’s always a difference between how we in the West see what happened in South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s legacy as opposed to how it’s seen from within.
TEICHNER: And I was hoping that we’d be able to ask the professor that to compare notes, in effect.
How do you see the difference between the way the West sees—
MANGCU: Can you hear me now?
TEICHNER: Is he back?
MANGCU: Can you hear me now?
TEICHNER: I can hear you but we can’t see you.
STENGEL: We can hear you.
TEICHNER: But at least we can hear you.
MANGCU: Oh, I’ve been struggling with connecting from here.
TEICHNER: Oh, now we could see you, too.
MANGCU: But I got the latter part of your question.
Hi, Rick. How are you?
STENGEL: Good to see you.
MANGCU: Good to see you. I’m so sorry, man. We have all these power outages here.
But I wanted to respond to the question.
And, you know, it’s not unique to Mandela. I mean, you can look at, say, Gorbachev, right, in the former Soviet Union. He was hailed abroad. But at home, he was not very popular. And, I mean, you can—even like—somebody like Winston Churchill, right. I mean, he won World War II, went back home, and was voted out, right.
I mean, you can even go to George Washington, actually. You know, great hero but criticized in the press.
So it’s—there’s something about leaders and it’s a pity. You know, there’s a coarser phrase for it and I cannot explain it in English. But, essentially, it says something like, you know, leaders are often appreciated outside of their context and it’s only with time that their contribution becomes acknowledged, and I think that’s the story with Mandela.
TEICHNER: You have described yourself as one of his most vocal critics. Why was that?
MANGCU: Exactly, because Mandela comes out of long history of contestation in South Africa, and it’s not like, you know, he was the only voice that defined South African politics. You know, it’s like the Martin Luther King-Malcolm X dynamic, right.
So he would be the Martin Luther King Jr., type of leader in South Africa, and there were those of us who were much more radical who would be like the equivalent of the Malcolm X. And I often wrote—I had a newspaper column so I often wrote to criticize him, and then one day he invited me to his office, wagged his finger at me, and that became the basis of our friendship.
But he never once asked me to change how I think or what I think about him, and my big disagreement with him was his tendency to downplay race—the question of race. He always ran away from it. And the—(inaudible).
TEICHNER: Do you think—we talked about it before you were able to—a little bit before you were able to join.
Do you think that his decision to create the image of a nonracial South Africa when he became president and when he got out of prison was something that was inherent in his makeup or who he had become in prison? Or do you think this was strategic and pragmatic to achieve an end both within and without South Africa?
MANGCU: So I describe him as a radical pragmatist, and to understand his pragmatism you have to go back a hundred years to the history of his family, their engagement with colonial administrations. In fact, they were allies of colonial administrations.
So, you know, there’s an irony there, right. I mean, here’s this guy who’s a big revolutionary figure but he comes from a family that was in alliance with colonialists. So—and then the family was rewarded with leading positions in the colonial what was called indirect rule.
So Mandela grows up in a family of people who knew statecraft in the Transkei—in a part of South Africa called the Transkei, right, which, in fact, was the only part of South Africa that, number one, was not settled by whites, and that explains his sense of identity, his sense of security, his sense of authority. But it was also the only part of South Africa where there was a long history of self-governance.
And so he grows up in that environment. So it’s not a miracle, and that’s one word I always don’t like. It’s not a miracle that he became who he was. He was an aristocrat from a ruling family. He was a Victorian. He saw himself, like many educated Africans, as a Black Victorian, right.
So there was always this sense of a vocation, and you can see this in South Africa but you can also see it in India. You can also see it in different parts of the African continent, this sense of noblesse oblige, if you like.
TEICHNER: What do you think his legacy is and will be in the continuity of African history—not just South African history, yes, about South African history, yes, but also in the context of African history?
MANGCU: Two words: racial freedom. That’s what Mandela was about, and there are these, like, arguments about whether he was a communist or not. That’s really besides the point. And Mandela wrote about this. He spoke about this, that he’s—you know, what he wanted was racial freedom and his legacy is that we live in a country now, yes, divided, economically unequal.
But, you know, Black people in South Africa are free in a way we’ve never been before and, for me, that’s his legacy. Whether he—you know, he achieved all these other things is hanging too much on one man.
TEICHNER: What do you think the West, in seeing the kind of mythologized figure, gets wrong?
MANGCU: I think the West could learn a lot from Mandela, from African people, from what it means just to be human. The West is losing its soul, if you like. I mean, you can look at, like, the United States now, you can look at Europe, the resurgence of racism—you know, the tribalism.
And South Africa, in many ways, is, in my view, probably the leading example of what it means to have racial comity. I mean, we have problems. We fight all the time. But we’re in a country where Black people and white people are just living together, you know.
And I live in the United States and I live in Boston, teaching at George Washington University. It just concerns me that it looks like America is going back into the nineteenth century or earlier, and I think somebody like Mandela and other people have taught these issues of race through and through and through and who’s been able to have a transition to a racial democracy without any spilling of blood, without any breakdown in that sense.
I mean, look, South Africa has got some serious problems. That’s why I couldn’t even get on here because now we have power outages. We have a lot of corruption by Mandela’s ruling African National Congress, and I’ve been calling for those people to be voted out because they are corrupt.
But we cannot take away from the achievement that Mandela and his peers pulled through. It’s an amazing story, and I’m hoping that, you know, through time, you know, that story will be told and told and told for, you know, future generations to learn something from in South Africa, in Africa, but, I think, globally.
TEICHNER: Both you and Rick seem to agree, however, that it’s a mistake and could cause harm to romanticize Mandela and live with the myth. Why is that?
MANGCU: Well, as somebody who was his critic and, I mean, I’m not, like, exaggerating this but—right, so I’ll never romanticize him and—because the romance is actually quite destructive because it puts Mandela on a pedestal, right. It creates a straw man, right, that you can easily shoot down.
So I use Greek tragedy, right—the idea of the tragic hero. And I know that sounds counterintuitive, right. Well, that’s because of the way tragedy is understood. But, of course, that’s a mistaken view of tragedy.
But I really think that he’s a tragic hero from whom we can learn the meaning of suffering and the renewal that comes from suffering, and Mandela is, for me, an epitome of this tension between tragedy and pragmatism.
TEICHNER: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future, given what’s happened in the thirty years since he got out of prison?
MANGCU: Well, I don’t think I would use those—that binary. I’m hopeful, right. I’m hopeful that we, in this country, will get rid of the ANC. The ANC has to go for this country to be reborn.
TEICHNER: The ANC was Mandela’s party—
MANGCU: Mandela’s party—the African National Congress was Mandela’s party, but they are just as corrupt as any corrupt regime you can think of. I mean, we have a president now—
TEICHNER: Does that—
MANGCU: We have a president now who was caught with $4 million in his couch—in his, you know—I mean, this is one of the guys who wrote the constitution and he’s evading and avoiding paying taxes on buffaloes that he sold, and he’s one of the richest people in South Africa.
TEICHNER: Does all of this in any way jeopardize what Nelson Mandela tried to achieve?
MANGCU: It doesn’t jeopardize it. I mean, Mandela is held in high moral structure in this country. But it just detracts. You know, it just, like, tarnishes his image. But I think people in this country will always have very, very fond memories of Nelson Mandela.
TEICHNER: I’m going to give Rick another—a last word. We’re going to—because we’re, unfortunately, going to have to wrap this up and I wish you could have joined sooner.
TEICHNER: But, Rick, last word? You’ve—
STENGEL: Well, Xolela, I tried to speak for you when you weren’t here and how much I’ve learned from you over the years, beginning with the panel that we were on many years ago and the essay you wrote about all the mistakes in Long Walk to Freedom.
But we did work together on the podcast, and I think what brings us together and what we unite around is the greatness of Nelson Mandela, the suffering that he experienced.
And as Xolela so eloquently put it, I mean, South Africa is a free country because of Nelson Mandela and that legacy can never change, and his greatness lies in the fact that even South Africa has the problems it has today. Those are the problems of a democratic country, not an authoritarian country, and they owe that to Nelson Mandela.
TEICHNER: Well, thank you all for being here for this hybrid meeting with ups and downs.
And so thank you to you and thank you—
MANGCU: And I think—I think he would be proud. I think he would be proud.
TEICHNER: Of today’s South Africa?
MANGCU: This conversation.
TEICHNER: Oh. Well, that would be nice. (Laughs.)
TEICHNER: I just have—I’m very grateful that you were finally able to join in the end.
And the video and the transcript of today’s meeting will be on the Council on Foreign Relations website.
And, again, thank you very much, and for those of you who are here in New York, we welcome you to join us for a reception.
And we could go on for a lot longer. I wish we could.
STENGEL: Thank you, Xolela.
MANGCU: Thank you, Rick. Take care.