In ‘Mandela: The Lost Tapes,’ a Veteran Journalist Finds Himself

One morning, in the winter of 1992, Richard Stengel found that his rented home in a Johannesburg suburb had been robbed. The television was missing. The stereo, too. Worse, his recorder was gone, and with it three hours of interviews with Nelson Mandela, in service of what would become Mandela’s memoir, “Long Walk to Freedom.” (Stengel, then a 37-year-old freelance journalist, had been hired as a ghostwriter on the strength of his earlier book,

“January Sun.”) The project was at that point a secret and Stengel feared that the exposure of the tapes could derail it.

The cop assigned to the robbery reassured him. “Aw, man,” the officer told him, “they have music taped on those tapes already.”

There were more tapes, though, ultimately 70 hours of them. The transcripts, plus a manuscript that Mandela had written during his 27 years in prison, became, in Stengel’s hands, the memoir that helped to cement Mandela’s international reputation.

Stengel never listened to the tapes again. In 2010 he turned them over to the Mandela Foundation. But last year, while consulting on a documentary about the South African hero, he heard a few played back. Encountering again the fuzz and warmth of Mandela’s leonine tones, Stengel realized something: He had a podcast on his hands. On Thursday, Audible will release “Mandela: The Lost Tapes,” a 10-episode series that draws generously on those recordings.

“You’re in the room with Nelson Mandela,” Stengel said, explaining the appeal of the tapes. “You hear the machinery in his brain turning. You hear how carefully he chooses his words. You’re really hearing him and that’s a revelation.”

Mandela, flanked by his vice presidents, Thabo Mbeki (left) and F.W. de Klerk, was elected president in May 1994.Credit…Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Stengel, a former managing editor of Time magazine and a past under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, has devoted a significant chunk of his career to Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa from white minority rule and became the country’s first Black head of state. (He also wrote a distillation of Mandela’s thinking, “Mandela’s Way: Lessons for an Uncertain Age.”) But the podcast asked him to do something new, to see Mandela as a man as well as a hero.

“Mandela: The Lost Tapes” doesn’t function as an exposé or critique. Revelations are few. The goal is not to knock Mandela off any pedestal, but to render his statue just a bit more human.

One hitch: Stengel had never made a podcast before. Before this project he had never actually listened to one. But an August morning found him in a studio in Hell’s Kitchen, throat lozenges and a Mason jar of water at his elbow.

Stengel, 67, is gentlemanly in person, a newsman of the old school. The informality that most podcasts trade in does not come easily to him. (“I’m much more of a Apollonian,” he would tell me.) But that morning, he had untucked his shirt and bent his head to the studio microphone, wrapping his tongue around several Xhosa terms, like umqombothi, a corn-brewed beer, and working to infuse his script with enthusiasm.

“That was nice and dramatic!” said Deena Kaye, Stengel’s vocal coach, listening in online.

“Maybe too dramatic,” Stengel replied.

Stengel had originally envisioned the series as a cooler and more analytical affair, a reflection on what made Mandela good and great. That’s still in there, but after conversations with Christopher Farley, an executive editor at Audible, “Mandela” became more revealing, a rumination on the making of the tapes themselves and the interpersonal dynamics that informed them. The podcast braids the narrative of Mandela’s life with the where and how and why of the interviews themselves. Which means that Stengel, for perhaps the first time in his professional life, had to put himself at a story’s center.

As an outsider afforded unusually intimate access, Stengel was able to interview Mandela over many months.Credit…Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times
There were ultimately 70 hours of tapes, and those transcripts, plus a manuscript that Mandela had written during his 27 years in prison, became the memoir that helped to cement Mandela’s international reputation.Credit…Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

Farley, who had worked with Stengel at Time, urged him toward the personal. “In the world of audio journalism, people want to know more about who is telling the story,” Farley said. “Because they want to know, OK, what biases do you bring to this? What kind of background you bring to this? Why should I trust you? Why should I like you? Why should I allow you the intimate space to tell the story between my ears?”

Stengel sometimes struggled with this. He is still struggling. “I don’t mean to sound modest, but when I listen to it now, I feel like there’s too much of me,” he told me, in mid November, once all of the episodes had been recorded. “Because it’s Nelson Mandela, anything of me had have a real reason to be.”

But with Farley’s help, he came to understand that he was a conduit through which listeners could feel closer to Mandela.

In the podcast, then, Stengel tells stories of missteps and happy accidents, of times when he should have pressed further and of moments when he said the wrong thing. Mandela only rarely revealed anything personal. (‌ “It was the proverbial pulling teeth,” Stengel said.) At one point, after telling a story of having used a toilet in a whites-only bathroom, Mandela immediately backtracked. “Well, we can say I went to wash my hands in a white lavatory,” Mandela told him.

That strict sense of propriety, as well as a disinclination to privilege the individual above the collective, that made him reluctant to discuss his intimate habits and feelings. Now Stengel tries to delve into those feelings.

Since Mandela’s death in 2013, his reputation has weathered certain blows. The African National Congress, the party he led, is often accused of corruption, and a feeling remains, particularly among young South Africans, that Mandela may have been too accommodationist with white leaders.

“There are a lot of young people who I think feel resentful that the country as a whole was defined by Mandela,” Eve Fairbanks, the author of “The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning,” said. “This leaves a rather cramped persona that you can inhabit as a South African.”

By focusing on the tapes, and the interplay between subject and ghost writer, Stengel had to put himself at a story’s center for perhaps the first time in his career.Credit…Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

“Mandela: The Lost Tapes” doesn’t question Mandela’s legacy, but it does try to resituate Mandela as a man as well as a politician. It even identifies some mild flaws, like the tendency to ignore the defects in his close colleagues or a reluctance to reckon with his relationships with his first two wives.

Xolela Mangcu, a professor of sociology at George Washington University who advised on the podcast, thinks that those flaws are crucial to the project.

“I hope that it brings a texture to Mandela’s life that is missing right now,” Mangcu said. “I hope Mandela doesn’t come across as a saint. He was a flawed human being, like we all are.” (I also asked Mangcu about Stengel’s Xhosa pronunciation. “I am forgiving,” he said.)

The tapes are a record of trying to get Mandela to open up, to deliver something more than a sound bite. And the podcast is a record of Stengel learning to open up as well. In its creation he divulges something that journalists don’t often admit to feeling for their sources or ghost writers for their subjects.

“I loved him. I’m unambiguous about that,” Stengel told me. “There was just something so lovely about him. So wounded and sad at the same time powerful and strong.”

Owing perhaps to this love or to Stengel’s unusual status, an outsider afforded unusually intimate access, “Mandela: The Lost Tapes” rarely questions or judges its subject.

“Rick has a more romantic understanding of Mandela,” Mangcu said.

Those six months in South African 30 years ago changed Stengel’s life. He met the woman, Mary Pfaff, who would become his wife. He gathered the materials for “Long Walk to Freedom,” which he considers his greatest professional achievement.

I asked him, several times, what the making of these tapes had meant to him. But even after making a podcast, personal revelation still comes hard to him. Politely, he delayed his answer.

The next morning, Stengel sent me an email. “I’ve struggled to answer your question because my voice from 30 years ago feels so familiar, not different,” he wrote. “I recognize the man I became because I became him during the making of ‘Long Walk,.” The best things that have happened to me have in part come from this experience. So I feel in some sense that I’m paying it back.”

Related Articles

Back to top button