Mandela biographer says prison 'crucible' steeled him and led to victory

By Tom Curry, National Affairs Writer, NBC News

Former South African president Nelson Mandela’s biographer and those who knew him well reflected Sunday on the role that Mandela played in moving South Africa toward the end of its white-minority apartheid regime in the 1990s.

In an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Rev. Jesse Jackson said that “he was shaped by persecution and an internal will to dignity and… he did not internalize the system. To that extent, he was gracious because of victory. He won the battle over skin color apartheid….”


After his release from prison in 1990, Mandela had a choice, Jackson said, “to choose revenge or reconciliation. He chose reconciliation as a victor over that system.”

Mandela’s biographer Rick Stengel said a decisive moment for South Africa came three years after his release from prison when Chris Hani, a popular leader of the African National Congress, was murdered by an apartheid supporter.

Hani’s assassination came at the moment that the ANC was negotiating with South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk’s white-minority apartheid government on the terms of the transition to majority rule. 

After Hani’s murder, Mandela went on the state-run national television network to tell his country, “We must not permit ourselves to be provoked by people who seek to deny us the very freedom for which Chris Hani gave his life.”

Mandela “went on television in South Africa that night -- rather than de Klerk -- and showed that he was the father of the nation,” Stengel said. “He was so calm in a crisis and he rose to that. And he said later that was when South Africa was on the knife edge of a civil war, right then, that was the most perilous moment in their modern history.”

In 1990 de Klerk’s government had released Mandela from prison unconditionally after nearly 28 years and de Klerk’s government made the dismantling of the apartheid regime its official policy.

Mandela’s imprisonment was “a crucible that steeled him,” Stengel said. “He was a tempestuous, compassionate man who went into prison and prison just molded him and forced him not to show any of that emotion. And the man who emerged was a different man.”

Stengel said that when Mandela came out of prison “part of the reason that he never showed his bitterness -- which he did have -- was that he knew that he had to reconcile white and black for a new South Africa. The white business center was the engine of prosperity for Africa. South Africa could not survive without them. He knew that.” 

In 1993, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Mandela and de Klerk “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.”

Assessing the implications of Mandela’s career for American politics today, Jackson said “while we won the battle against skin apartheid at the surface level and the political right to vote, apartheid remains – the apartheid gaps in poverty and health care and education. We’re in the middle of the end of the apartheid struggle even now, it’s just changed faces.”

NBC’s Tom Brokaw said one question for the future is whether South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, learns the lessons of Mandela’s life.

Contrasting Mandela with the dictator of neighboring Zimbabwe, Brokaw said there wouldn’t be many people “mourning the loss of (Robert) Mugabe, for example, next door in Zimbabwe.” He said he hoped that the lesson of Mandela’s life “is that people will see the real value of the kind of leadership that was not self-centered and was not based on division but on unification.”