Who Is Nelson Mandela? A Reader’s Digest Exclusive Interview

In 2005, Reader's Digest spoke with Nelson Mandela about his life, the strength of mind that helped him survive 27 years in prison and his hopes for South Africa. Here, he describes who he is in his own words.

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On Heroes

On Heroes
RD: Are there any international figures who you haven't met but who you would like to?

Mandela: There are so many men and women who hold no distinctive positions but whose contribution towards the development of society has been enormous. Some of them are not known even in their own countries, but when you come across them you are very impressed. Those are heroes or heroines we must never forget. Because of their service to society, you can't really help but admire them.

On Inspiration in Reader's Digest

On Inspiration in Reader's Digest
RD: As president, sometimes you referred to characters in Reader's Digest stories, particularly those who, like yourself, have triumphed in the face of adversity. On Robben Island, you used to read the magazine?

Mandela: Yes, that's true. It has very interesting stories! One of them was about a young man in Canada [Terry Fox] who had cancer of the right leg and then they advised [him] to amputate it. They did but he did not want to sit down in a corner and weep. He was on the Atlantic and decided to run with one leg to the Pacific. So in this way Digest stories encourage people. Even if you have a terminal disease, you don't have to sit down and mope. Enjoy life and challenge the illness that you have.

On Forgiveness

On Forgiveness
RD: When you finally achieved political freedom after so many years of persecution and imprisonment, people would have understood if you became a leader with vengeance in your heart. Yet you chose the path of reconciliation. Are you at all surprised at how powerful a force it has been?

Mandela: Well, people respond in accordance to how you relate to them. If you approach them on the basis of violence, that's how they'll react. But if you say we want peace, we want stability, we can then do a lot of things that will contribute towards the progress of our society.

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On Spirit

On Spirit
RD: When you were in prison all those long years on Robben Island and elsewhere, was there something that came back to you, something you had either in your mind, a message or passage from a book, a song... something that helped sustain you and keep up your spirits?

Mandela: There was a poem by an English poet, W. E. Henley, called "Invictus." The last lines go: It matters not how strait the gate,/How charged with punishments the scroll,/I am hte master of my fate,/I am the captain of my soul.

On Family

On Family
RD: Over the years you've devoted a lot of time to children. What do you think are the most important lessons that parents should keep in mind when raising children?

Mandela: Without education your children can never really meet the challenges they will face. So it's very important to give children education and explain that they should play a role for their country. I often do that for my own children and grandchildren but I notice that my grandchildren know more than I do!

On Fighting

On Fighting
RD: Some observers feel you would have made a good professional boxer if there was not a liberation struggle to be fought. What other jobs do you think you might have enjoyed?

Mandela: I would have liked to have been an ordinary labourer digging trenches. Boxing is something I enjoyed very much, too, but it may have been difficult [as a career]. One of the fighters I greatly admired was Muhammad Ali. As a boxer he took all this punishment without fighting back—taking it, taking it, taking it. During his fight with George Foreman [the "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire in 1974] he said after doing a number of rounds, "We've been doing all this fighting and I haven't even started yet!" You see, you can't just take it. You can only take so much before you fight back.

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On His Legacy

On His Legacy
RD: How would you like to be remembered in history?

Mandela: I do not want to be presented as some deity. I would like to be remembered as an ordinary human being with virtues and vices.

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