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BEHIND THE SCENES with Joe Richman and Sue Johnson


Did you go to South Africa specifically to tell the story of Nelson Mandela's life? Wh

We first decided we wanted to live in another country for a year and do international reporting and documentaries. Then we started looking for the right place and the right stories. This past April was the tenth anniversary of South Africa's first free election. A decade after democracy, South Africa seemed like a fascinating place to be. And it is. As for the Mandela series, we were both more interested in documenting the history of apartheid rather than doing a personal profile of Mandela. But we needed a framework, and Mandela's life provided that narrative thread and main character

How did your ideas about the series evolve as you began spending time in South Africa, meeting the people and becoming immersed in their culture

Before we left the U.S., doing a series on Mandela seemed like a great idea. But I remember as soon as we got to South Africa, I started drowning in complete, dark doubt. As overexposed as Nelson Mandela is around the world, you just can't imagine what it's like in South Africa. Five years after he left office, and at the age of 86, Mandela's name is still on the front pages and in the newscasts almost every day. You can buy Mandela snow globes, Mandela socks. And of course there have been hundreds of film documentaries and books about him. For a long time after we moved to South Africa, I wouldn't even tell people that we were doing a series on Mandela. I found it embarrassing. I hated feeling like I was just one of many microphones pointed at him

But I got over that. And now that the series is done, I feel like we were able to produce something that is unlike anything else that's been done before on Mandela. It aired on South African public radio and, much to our relief, got great reviews

But of course the highlight of this project was getting a chance to meet all the people we interviewed, to get a first-person seminar in the history of apartheid. We interviewed about 40 people for the series, from all sides of the history. And it was amazing to see how often our preconceptions -- about the history as well as the individual players -- would be shattered after each interview. Constand Viljoen, for example, is the former South African Defense Force general who almost led an armed rebellion to disrupt the elections in 1994. In our interview, Viljoen struck us as an incredibly thoughtful, honest and moral man -- not something we expected from someone who almost mounted a violent coup to stop South Africa's transition

We also interviewed many of the political prisoners who were on Robben Island with Mandela. They were a truly amazing bunch, and all very different. One of them, Fikile Bam, is now a judge, and on his resume he lists his decade on Robben Island as "National Service.

If I had to make a list of the ten most impressive, inspirational people I've ever met in my life, most of that list would be made up of people we interviewed for the Mandela series

Were any of your previous assumptions about apartheid challenged

We didn't have many assumptions going in. What we mostly had was ignorance. For instance I had the impression -- as many do -- of Mandela as this wonderfully Ghandian figure, peaceful resistance and all. Mandela was, in fact, the leader and founder of the African National Congress's military wing. Shortly before he was arrested in 1962, Mandela had been in Algeria training in sabotage, terrorism, and guerilla warfare. For three decades in South Africa, Mandela was considered a terrorist. Today the idea of Mandela as a terrorist seems ridiculous to most people. Things change

Speaking of how things change, the news in South Africa this month is that the party of apartheid, the National Party (which, in recent years, has called itself the New National Party) announced they are finally dissolving after a poor showing in the recent election. The leader of the party has joined the ANC and urged followers to do the same. Some things change more than others

The archival tape you collect is extraordinary - news reports, speeches, court hearings. How, in general, did you go about finding this material

We spent a good part of our year searching for archival tape. We were attempting to tell the history of apartheid without scripted narration, so the archival material was extremely important; archival tape was our narrator. We were also trying to find tape that was fresh. Most material about Mandela and apartheid has been well-mined by hundreds of film/video documentaries. But we had one huge advantage: we were working in sound, and over the years people have largely ignored audio-only sources and materials. Because we were looking where others had not, we were able to find loads of archival material that had never been used before

One important source was the sound library of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). We were sifting through old card catalogues, dusting off wax records, splicing together reel-to-reel tape and sending the wonderful archivists into even darker recesses of the basement with our requests. South Africa didn't have television until 1976 so the radio archives hold the most comprehensive historical record, despite the fact that the apartheid regime destroyed some of the more controversial recordings

The National Archives were another gold mine. It's an old farm house in Pretoria with thousands of 16-millimeter films that were commissioned by the government. Beautifully shot - think Leni Reifenstal - with exquisitely crafted ways to boost the moral arguments for apartheid. Lots of footage of happy blacks being relocated to their new (and very remote) government homes... so as to escape the squalor of the city

One of our favorite bits of tape was found on an old cassette in a drawer at the Robben Island-Mayibuye Archives. It was a phone interview with Winnie Mandela from the 1980s by a Dutch Radio reporter. Winnie is on a payphone. The interviewer is trying desperately to bond with her and demonstrate his sympathy with the movement. And as the interview ends, he practically yells: "We will meet in freedom!" You can hear Winnie kind of sweetly chuckle. It's a great scene - all that desire to connect across oceans with the struggle. But our best find - or at least the best story about a find - was from a guy named Cristo Brand. Brand was one of the warders (prison guards) on Robben Island, and over the years he became friendly with Mandela and other prisoners. Brand was given the task of recording and then transcribing every prison visit with Mandela and his family. (He also illegally recorded visits with Mandela and his lawyers.) Sometime in the '80s, Brand brought home one of these tapes to transcribe, and forgot to return it to the prison authorities. Brand rediscovered the tape in a box in his garage last year, and mentioned it when we interviewed him. It took us months to convince him to let us hear the tape. I was so excited the day we met him with a tape recorder for a listen. He showed us the cassette, which had some Christian rock music on the other side. And when we popped in the tape and pushed play, we realized that the most exciting material we had found all year was pretty much unusable. You could understand a few of Mandela's words here and there, but the tape was so old and the quality so poor that, in the end, we only used the tape as ambience setup for the scene where Mandela's daughter is talking about visiting him in prison. This tape is the only known audio recording of Mandela's voice while he was in prison for 27 years. And we used it as an ambience bed

And how did you find the previously undiscovered Rivonia trial tape, in which Mandela and other ANC members face death sentences

The Rivonia Trial of 1963-64 was probably my favorite scene to work on, because we had so much amazing tape to play with. A recording of Mandela's famous courtroom speech - where he tells the judge that he is prepared to die for the cause - was discovered a few years ago and is now widely known. We had a recording of the judge's sentence, which has also been used before. We had great tape from a BBC reporter, Robin Day, who covered the trial in 1964. His recordings provided all the setup and context we needed, including wonderful natural ambi from outside the courtroom. But our most exciting discovery was found in the basement of SABC when we came across an old reel-to-reel tape that just said the word "Rivonia" on the box. It turned out to be the prosecutor's opening statement from the trial. It had never been broadcast before. Most people - even those who had been on trial - didn't know the tape existed. Most of the trial recordings had been erased decades earlier by the apartheid government. I have no idea when this reel-to-reel tape was last played. It was in such bad shape that we had to keep repairing it - splicing it back together - as we went along. But the recording was absolutely chilling. We realized we were listening to the very words that would condemn Mandela to prison for 27 years

What was it like to meet and interview Mandela after you'd spent months researching his life

If I was answering this question a month ago, it would have been a different answer. That answer would have been: We never got an interview with Mandela

We spent an entire year trying to get that interview. Everyone wants a piece of Mandela in some way, and the Nelson Mandela Foundation has created a fortress around him. In fact, one of our many rejection letters said something like: "Please consult with our lawyers if you plan to use Mandela's name in your project." These days you have to pay (the Foundation, not Mandela himself) if you want an interview, a photo, a handshake. I never saw a price list, but I'm sure there is one somewhere. We call it the Mandela Industrial Complex

I've never tried so hard for anything in my life. We had Mandela's daughter, his doctor, friends from Robben Island, all trying to get us an interview with him. But it never worked out. Mandela has been slowly trying to retire from public life this past year, which made it even more difficult. (He's tried to retire before, but I don't think it's in his nature.

The thing is, we didn't really need the interview. Mandela has never been a very good interview, he says nothing personal or reflective. He may be the least charismatic speaker of any leader in world history. Plus we already had plenty of old Mandela interviews (most on video), including one very good one done by Afrovision soon after Mandela got out of prison. Still, we really, really wanted tape of him simply saying four words: "My name is Nelson Mandela.

But as I said at the top... that was until last month. Just a few weeks ago I got a call from Mandela's friend and doctor, Dr. Nthato Motlana, who was our guardian angel for the series. Motlana suggested I fly up to Johannesburg because Mandela was getting a big award and maybe there would be a chance to meet him and give him a CD of the series, maybe even do a brief interview. We had tried this sort of thing before and it never worked out, but I went anyway. The event was a bust: tons of people, politicians, and celebrities all wanting to see Mandela. After the event ended, Dr. Motlana offered to give me a ride back from the event to where I had left my car. The next thing I knew we were in front of Mandela's house. There weren't any police or extra security around, so we both assumed Mandela was not home. Motlana went in past the security guard at the entrance while I stayed on the sidewalk and waited. Ten minutes later, the security guard signals for me to follow. I'm brought into the yard, then into the house, then into living room, then into the dining room. And there, at the dining room table, I see the back of Mandela's head. Sitting around the tape are his wife, Graca Machel, his daughter, two of his grandsons, Dr. Motlana, and then there is an extra chair and place setting... for me. It was one of the strangest and most thrilling moments of my life: I sat down for lunch with Nelson Mandela. After lunch, Motlana, Mandela, and I went to the living room for coffee. And finally - three months after the series was broadcast - I got my ten-minute interview. The best part was when he said: "My name is Nelson Mandela"

What was the biggest challenge you faced producing this series? Other than trying to get the interview with Mandela, the biggest challenge was content management. We had 100 hours of interviews and about 70 hours of archival recordings. It was just an insane amount of material. Plus we were trying to cover six decades of history in a five-part series, without scripted narration. We were not prepared for how much work this would really take. The last two months of production were, without a doubt, the most intense, panicked, and unpleasant deadline I've ever gone through. Luckily we had amazing help from our editor, Deb George, and from Chris Turpin at NPR, and Teal Krech. And when things were looking really bleak, Ben Shapiro, the lone ranger of public radio, came to our rescue. He flew to South Africa and spent two weeks helping us produce and edit, and he did the final mixes. If it wasn't for Ben, this project would not have made it to air for the tenth anniversary of Mandela's election. Robert Siegel would have had to introduce the series: "Ten years and two months ago, Nelson Mandela was elected...

What is the future of the series now that the series has aired on National Public Radio

The series is tentatively scheduled for broadcast in a few other countries - CBC in Canada, BBC, etc. We are in the process of producing a CD of the series. We are also developing a study guide that will be distributed along with the CD to schools in the U.S. and South Africa. Desmond Tutu is the host (he introduces each story), and the CD will begin with an introduction by Nelson Mandela (the fruits of our ten-minute interview.) The CD will be made available to the public radio system as a fundraiser premium this fall, and will be released for retail and educational distribution this spring

What are your impressions of radio in South Africa? What new ideas about radio will you bring home to the U.S.? The main radio broadcaster in South Africa, SABC, is pretty disappointing these days. They've gone the way of cheap call-in shows, with very little original reporting and almost no documentaries. One of the problems is that there are 11 official languages in South Africa, and SABC has a mandate to serve all of them. This leaves resources spread very thin. There are some amazing radio producers here - Angie Kapelianis is one of them, and we will get her to Third Coast one of these years

On the other hand, community radio in South Africa is amazing. There are township stations like Radio Zibonele (which was started with help from Bill Siemering) that operate out of freight shipping containers. And there is XKFM which broadcasts to a community of Khoi and San people (sometimes called Bushman). Their language, with all the clicks, is considered one of the oldest living languages on earth

As for what I personally have learned about radio from doing this series: I'm more in love with archival tape than ever before. There is so much material out there in basements and garages and unlabelled file cabinets... just waiting to be discovered.