‘Mandela: The Lost Tapes’ podcast series breathes new life into an icon’s legacy
‘Mandela: The Lost Tapes’ documents Richard Stengel’s discussions and his journey with Nelson Mandela as Stengel sought to ghostwrite the South African icon's autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’. The podcast series can be found on Audible.
Richard Stengel says that as a young man, he became intrigued by the Great Man Theory in history. This 19th-century theory is attributed to philosopher Thomas Carlyle who said: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Taking these words quite literally, Stengel set out to write the biography of a man who is considered great by many and who certainly made his mark in history – Nelson Mandela. At 37, Stengel embarked on a journey to write Mandela’s autobiography, an experience that affected him remarkably.
On Thursday, 26 January, Stengel discussed his new podcast series, as well as his bounty of memories and opinions on Mandela, during a Daily Maverick webinar in conversation with Associate Editor Marianne Thamm. Mandela: The Lost Tapes chronicles Mandela’s life and legacy through Stengel, who wrote and narrates the series.
Stengel was approached to write what would become Long Walk to Freedom in 1992. He and Mandela would spend their mornings together, often talking for hours about the struggle fighter’s life. Stengel believes these early-morning conversations were a therapeutic oasis for Mandela, who, in 1992, had more than enough on his plate. While dealing with a country in transition to democracy, and on the brink of civil war, Stengel recalls that Mandela remained incredibly dedicated to the task of documenting his life’s journey.
After finishing this interview process, Stengel had the audio transcribed and worked only from the written transcriptions to write the book. In The Lost Tapes, Richard revisits the audio tapes and provides his insights almost 29 years after Long Walk to Freedom was published.
Mandela’s time in prison was key to shaping him into the leader we now know him to be. Stengel notes that before Robben Island, Mandela was a young man full of a passion that he sometimes struggled to control. After being released in 1990, his character changed notably. His countenance was rather composed and his leadership was more “mature” – a word Stengel says was very important to Mandela.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Newly released Mandela interview tapes bring Madiba to life again”
Much of this change of character could have been influenced by Walter Sisulu. Stengel believed that while in prison, Mandela tried to emulate Sisulu – who became known for his many wisdoms and calmness while on Robben Island. The Mandela that emerged from prison had more control over his impassioned spirit and was ready to bring South Africa to democracy.
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On greed and ‘selling out’
Asked what Mandela’s thoughts about greed and political corruption were, Stengel said the former president recognised economic greed as intrinsic to the evil of apartheid. Mandela’s politics as a young man were undeniably socialist, and he wanted to undo the damage wrought by the racist capitalism of the apartheid state. But Stengel notes that his socialist dispensation was forced to change upon his release, due to pressure from international market forces. Today, Mandela’s shift in economic ideology is often viewed as him “selling out”, but Stengel says he had to compromise for a peaceful transition to democracy.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “‘The air is different in a free country’ – The power of Mandela’s legacy in today’s democratic SA”
Another controversial aspect of Madiba’s legacy is the discourse surrounding the reconciliation project in South Africa. Many believe the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not enough to bring justice to those who suffered brutally under the apartheid regime. When asked if Mandela took reconciliation too far, Stengel believes this is something he would have wrestled with if he was still with us. In terms of corruption, Stengel also believes that while Mandela would be disappointed in the state of the ANC, he would ultimately be patient with his party. He deeply understood how challenging it would be to bring South Africa from an authoritarian regime with inherently corrupt institutions to a non-racial democracy with economic equity.
Writing Long Walk to Freedom irrevocably changed Stengel’s life. He said that it was while writing the book that he met Mary Pfaff, a South African photographer who would later become his wife. Stengel recalls that Mandela encouraged him to marry her.
“And I always listened to everything he would tell me,” Stengel said.
Stengel’s reverence for Mandela is clear. He repeatedly emphasises what a man of stature Mandela was, someone who was relentlessly focused and profoundly charismatic. If given the chance to speak to Mandela once more, Stengel says he would ask more about the impact his early life and upbringing had on him. And though the Great Man Theory is an individualistic (and patriarchal) lens on history, Stengel’s The Lost Tapes gives us a rare glimpse into the greatness of a man who made history. DM