MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we turn to South Africa's ambassador to the United States, Ebrahim Rasool. I spoke with him earlier and he told me about when he first met Nelson Mandela when they were both jailed as activists against the apartheid regime.
EBRAHIM RASOOL: It's very clear in my mind because it was 1987. I had, after spending about a year underground, I had been found and detained and had spent quite a lot of time in solitary confinement. I was very aware that the warden, who was looking after the political detainees, had come across Robbeneiland Island to post-war prison in Cape Town. And he had been Mandela's keeper for all those years. And I suspect he was put with us because he had largely been humanized by Nelson Mandela. And one day, he just came to me and he said, Rasool, get dressed. You're sick.
And I said, no, I'm feeling fine. And he said, no, get dressed. You're going to a hospital. And he told me to go into the waiting room of the hospital and said, if you speak, don't speak loudly. And in I went and there was Nelson Mandela sitting. Nelson Mandela had asked to see me as part of the whole group of political detainees and was very interested in me, and had very good knowledge of what the kind of things were that I had done as secretary of the UDF, the United Democratic Front, the way in which we had mobilized the Muslim community to fight apartheid.
And we spoke for a few minutes. Out of that he made an extraordinary offer because after so many years in prison, he had certain privileges like being able to watch a movie on a Friday night. And he offered, after having heard from me, that most of the detainees with me were very young student leaders who were having difficulty adjusting. And he said, I'll ask them to take the movie that I watch on a Friday night with the projector and send it to you on a Saturday night. And maybe that will comfort some of these young people. And so that was my encounter with Nelson Mandela. And from that moment, every Saturday night we had his projector coming up to us. For the first 12 weeks, we had his movies coming up. And the fascinating thing was that for those 12 weeks, we watched a documentary series with Nelson Mandela called "The Peopling of America." And we were just fascinatedly following Nelson Mandela's education in prison.
MARTIN: It's just remarkable. It's a remarkable story on so many levels. I think a lot of Americans would be interested in this. How you even knew of him, I mean, his reputation as kind of a moral giant, for people listening to our conversation now, is very much a part of, you know, his demeanor after being in prison. But those years in prison - I'm not sure a lot of people know - how was he communicating with you? How did you even know about him? I mean, what was the basis upon which you held him in such high esteem at that time?
RASOOL: Nelson Mandela had become a legend in the 1950s and the early 1960s, and was accused number one in the big treason trial called the Rivonia Treason Trial. And so he had both his stature as the accused, number one, and the spokesperson for all the political prisoners. So he was very known. But the moment he went to jail, the moment the rest of the African National Congress's leaders were exiled and after, especially, the brutal massacre of the people at Sharpeville, it appeared as if at that moment the apartheid government was supreme. Suddenly, they were able to trade with the world, sell gold and diamonds, and it appeared as if they had cowed the entire resistance movement.
And it was an atmosphere with so much fear that no one would speak the name of Nelson Mandela. You could not speak on his behalf. You could not advocate for his release. You could not show any pictures of Nelson Mandela. And you could not quote Nelson Mandela at all. All of those were punishable. And so the 1960s was this era of a deafening, frightening silence in South Africa, broken only in the early 1970s. First, when the workers went on strike in Durban, but most importantly, in June 1976 when young students started to break that silence in the most dramatic and even horrific way. When hundreds of them were massacred on the streets of Soweto and from there, all over South Africa. It took that amount of sacrifice to break out of a decade-long silence that was imposed on the people of South Africa.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Ebrahim Rasool. He is South Africa's ambassador to the United States. He also met Mandela and worked closely with him beginning when he was a very young man, also a political prisoner in South Africa. There's often been some generational tension in movements, in social justice movements, where sometimes the young feel that the elders did not do enough, were not bold enough. I wondered, as a young man - you were a very young man when you first met him - did you ever feel that way about him?
RASOOL: No. I think that we had absolute admiration for him because by that time when I met him, he had been in prison already for over two decades. And so this was the stuff of legend that he was there, he was unbowed, unbroken and still a leader in our communities. And so when we found our voice again as South Africans after the silence was broken in the 1970s, the first way we used our voice was to demand for his release, demand for the unbanning of the African National Congress and all other movements which had been banned. And to really begin to say, if there is to be a future in South Africa, the apartheid government would have to come to terms with Nelson Mandela.
MARTIN: Tell us, if you would, as a person who worked so closely with him, what are his leadership gifts?
RASOOL: Nelson Mandela will not be the kind of orator that a Martin Luther King was. His strength is in the kind of nonverbal moral example that he set. I think we all know that he went into prison a fairly militant, angry person and wrestled with his soul. So everything that he warns you against are the battles that he's fought within himself already. When he spoke about managing your anger, it's because he's learned to manage his.
When he speaks to you about getting rid of your bitterness, it's because he has had to excise his bitterness. And when he speaks to you about reconciling with your enemy, it's because he has learned to do that. He would never ask you to do something that he had not himself grappled with. So nothing was packed for him. Everything was struggled for and won. And I think that it was that example, as the one who had almost suffered the most amongst us, was the only one who could ask us to give up our (unintelligible).
MARTIN: Have you accommodated yourself to the loss?
RASOOL: I think that it is one of the most difficult things to contemplate that someone that you have idolized for so much of your life and who has been the fulcrum on which your own political and other commitments have been based, that that person can be no more. I think it's really a tribute to Mr. Mandela having prepared us for life without him. You know, his greatest sacrifice...
MARTIN: How so? Yeah, how did he?
RASOOL: His greatest sacrifice is not so much that he spent 27 years in prison. His greatest sacrifice was that if anyone on earth could be popularly understood as president for life, it would be him. If anyone would have no difficulty in winning a second term, as allowed by the South African Constitution, it would be him. Mr. Mandela chose to retire after one term because he understood that different times have different needs of leaders.
He understood that he needed to send an example to the rest of Africa that you can retire. And if the most popular person on earth could retire, so can less popular people retire. He understood that he needed South Africans to be able to contemplate a life without him. And he has given us the great benefit of being a moral presence since then with us - the reference point for our true north. And so I think that he had prepared us, but that doesn't mean that we are prepared.
MARTIN: Ebrahim Rasool is South Africa's ambassador to the United States. He was kind enough to join us in our studios here in Washington D.C. Ambassador Rasool, thank you so much for speaking with us.
RASOOL: No, thank you very much, Michel. This has been a wonderful, cathartic discussion.
MARTIN: As we continue to reflect on the life of Nelson Mandela, we want to take you back to a moment in June 1964. Mandela, along with nine other leaders of the anti-apartheid movement, was on trial for sabotage against the South African government. In a packed courtroom in Pretoria, Mandela stood and rather than plead his case to the judge, gave a four-hour speech setting out the principles that had brought him to that point. And he ended with this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
NELSON MANDELA: I have changed the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an idea for which I hope to live for, but may not. If it needs be, it is an idea for which I am prepared to die.
MARTIN: Nelson Mandela was convicted and would spend 27 years in prison. More on his life and legacy, that's just ahead on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.