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

One winter morning in 1992, Richard Stengel discovered that his rented house in the suburbs of Johannesburg had been robbed. The television was gone. So is the stereo. Worse, his tape recorder disappeared, along with a three-hour interview with Nelson Mandelain the service of what would become Mandela’s memoirs,”Long walk to freedom.(Stengel, then a 37-year-old freelance journalist, was hired as a ghostwriter on the strength of his previous book,

“January Sun.”) At the time, the project was a secret, and Stengel feared that exposing the tapes might ruin it.

The officer assigned to carry out the robbery reassured him. “Oh, man,” the officer told him, “they already put music on those tapes.”

However, there are more tapes, the last 70 hours of which. Transcript, plus a manuscript that Mandela wrote 27 years in prisonin the hands of Stengel, became the memoir that cemented Mandela’s international fame.

Stengel never listened to those 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 overheard a few passages. Catching once more the softness and warmth of Mandela’s leonine voice, Stengel realized one thing: He had a podcast on hand. On Thursday, Audible will release “Mandela: Lost Tapes,” a 10-episode series based on those recordings generously.

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

Stengel, a former managing editor of Time magazine and former secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, has devoted a significant portion of his career to Mandela, who led the public South Africa’s liberation from white minority rule and became the country’s first black Head of State. (He also wrote a distillation of Mandela’s thoughts, “Mandela’s Way: Lessons for an Age of Uncertainty.”) But the podcast asked him to do something new, to see. Mandela is a man as well as a hero.

“Mandela: The Lost Tapes” does not function as an exposition or critique. Very little revealed. The goal was not to knock Mandela off any pedestal, but to make his statue a little more human.

One hitch: Stengel had never done a podcast before. Before this project, he had never really heard of a project. But one August morning, he was found in a Hell’s Kitchen studio, throat lozenges and a jug of Mason water at his elbow.

Stengel, 67, is a gentleman, an old-school messenger. The informality that most podcasts deal with doesn’t come easily to him. (“I’m much more like an Apollonian,” he would tell me.) But that morning, he had taken off his shirt and bent his head toward the studio microphone, wrapping his tongue some magic. Xhosa languages, such as umqombothi, a corn-brewed beer and works to inject enthusiasm into his script.

“It was so good and so dramatic!” Deena Kaye, Stengel’s vocal coach, was listening online.

“Probably too impressive,” Stengel replied.

Stengel originally envisioned the series as a better and more analytical story, reflecting on what made Mandela so good and great. That’s still there, but after a conversation with Christopher Farley, an executive editor at Audible, “Mandela” became clearer, a reflection on the process of making the tapes and the dynamics between the tapes. personally informed them. The podcast recounts the story of Mandela’s life with the places, how, and why of the interviews. That means Stengel, perhaps for the first time in his professional life, has to put himself at the center of the story.

Farley, who had worked with Stengel at Time, urged him to work on personal matters. “In the world of audio journalism, people want to know more about who is telling the story,” says Farley. “Because they want to know, OK, what bias do you bring to this? What kind of platform do 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 struggles with this sometimes. He is still struggling. “I don’t mean to be modest, but now that I listen to it again, I feel like I have so much of it,” he told me, in mid-November, after all the episodes had been recorded. Figure. “Because it’s Nelson Mandela, anything that’s mine has a real reason.”

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

Later, in the podcast, Stengel tells stories of missteps and happy accidents, of times when he should have moved on, and moments when he was wrong. Mandela rarely revealed anything personal. (‌ “It’s a proverb that pulls teeth,” says Stengel.) At one point, after telling the story of using the toilet in a white-only bathroom, Mandela immediately turned around.. “Well, we can say that I went to wash my hands in the white toilet,” Mandela told him.

That strict sense of correctness, as well as his dislike of personal privilege over the collective, makes him reluctant to discuss his intimate habits and feelings. Now Stengel tries to delve into those feelings.

Since Mr. Mandela’s death in 2013, his reputation has suffered. The African National Congress, the party he leads, usually accused of corruptionand, especially among young South Africans, there is still a feeling that Mandela may have been too complacent with the white leaders.

Eve Fairbanks, author of “The Heirs: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Calculation,” Eve Fairbanks, author of “The Heirs: An Intimate Portrait of Calculation.” South Africa’s racial group,” said: “I think there are a lot of young people who feel outraged that the entire country is defined by Mandela. “This leaves a rather cramped personality that you can live with as a South African.”

“Mandela: The Lost Tapes” does not question Mandela’s legacy, but it does attempt to reposition Mandela as a man as well as a politician. It even shows some slight flaws, like his tendency to ignore the flaws of his close colleagues or his reluctance to reconsider his relationship with his first two wives.

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

“I hope that it gives a texture to Mandela’s life that is being missed,” Mangcu said. “I hope Mandela doesn’t look like a saint. He’s an imperfect human being, like all of us.” (I also asked Mangcu about the Xhosa pronunciation of Stengel. “I forgive,” he said.)

The tapes record an attempt to get Mandela to open up, to deliver something more than just an audio clip. And the podcast is also a record of Stengel learning to open up. In his work, he reveals something journalists often don’t admit to having a crush on their sources or those who ghost their subjects.

“I love him. I’m not ambivalent about it,” Stengel told me. “There’s something so endearing about him. It’s painful and sad at the same time strong and powerful.

Perhaps because of this love or because of Stengel’s unusual status, an unusually intimate approach for an outsider, “Mandela: The Lost Tapes” rarely questions or evaluates its subject matter. .

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

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

I have repeatedly asked him what making these tapes mean to him. But even after doing a podcast, personal discovery was hard for him. Politely, he delayed his answer.

The next morning, Stengel sent me an email. “I struggled to answer your question because my voice from 30 years ago felt so familiar, no different,” he wrote. “I recognize the man I have become because I became him in the making of ‘Long Walk’.” The best things that have happened to me come partly from this experience. In a sense, I feel like I’m giving it back.”


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