First journalist to interview Nelson Mandela after prison

President Bill Clinton with Nelson Mandela, Ju...
President Bill Clinton with Nelson Mandela, July 4 1993. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the days since anti-apartheid leader and former South African President Nelson Mandela’s death, many have mourned his passing and spoken of his profound impact on social justice. Arrie Rossouw, a South African political journalist and father of CSU graduate student Klara Rossouw, spoke about Mandela’s character and accomplishments, having witnessed them first-hand.

Arrie Rossouw said that no journalist had been allowed to interview Mandela during his 27 years in prison, but that when Mandela was released, he selected Rossouw to be his first interview as a free man. This interview occurred on Feb. 11, 1990.

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Rossouw was the political editor of Beeld at the time, a publication based in the country.

“As we sat in the living room of his crammed one-bedroom house, (Mandela) struck me as a very warm person who took genuine interest in fellow human beings: their personal well being, their family, their fears and their personal struggles,” Rossouw wrote in an email to the Collegian. “But, for a man who was in jail for 27 years, he was also extremely knowledgeable about world affairs, the psyche of the violently divided South African nation, the hopes of the millions of black people and the fears of the minority of white people.”

At the time of Mandela’s imprisonment and later release, he was considered by several governments to be a terrorist, and many were unsure of what to expect from him after 27 years in prison.

“What’s remarkable is that, in spite of the fact that for several decades (Mandela) was portrayed as a terrorist when he was in prison, much of the white population came to understand that he was a unifier,” said Thaddeus Sunseri, a CSU African history professor. “That’s a big achievement.”

After being released from prison, participating in political discussion toward peace and becoming president of the African National Congress political party, Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994.

According to Sunseri, Mandela’s affiliation with the African National Congress was important because it emphasized that the enemy was not white people or any one South African group, but apartheid and its supremacist policies.

Rossouw said that during their interview, Mandela defied public opinion and made a positive impression. The journalist’s first interview with Mandela would be followed by many subsequent encounters and interviews with the South African leader.

“Remember: for decades, he was portrayed as a ‘terrorist’ and the number one enemy of the South African Apartheid State,” Rossouw wrote. “But meeting him face-to-face a week after his release was the most pleasant surprise and made me realize that he was a true, committed leader with integrity and a vision that would change the country and society forever. He had a profoundly positive influence on people he met.”

Despite the fact that Mandela was forced to suffer through prison and accusations of misconduct for so long, Sunseri said that those experiences demonstrated Mandela’s strength and gave him a unique perspective as a leader.

“The thing about Mandela that stands out is that he went through that process of imprisonment and complete disempowerment — I mean, he sacrificed his life in very physical ways from the 1940s into the 1980s — and so it’s his ability to not leave prison as a bitter man,” Sunseri said. “I know very, very few people who could go through that, and could come out talking for reconciliation and peace. Most political leaders simply are not tested that way.”

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Klara Rossouw said that her father worked during one of the most exciting times for journalism — he was editor in chief of two South African newspapers, Beeld and Die Burger, from 1990 to 2006. She also said that her household was influenced by her father’s interactions with Mandela.

“My dad, as any journalist would be, was very unbiased… he was a great resource, because I could always ask him and I could trust that he would give me an honest, unbiased opinion on events of the time. I would say I definitely took interest in politics pretty early on just because of what my dad had done,” Klara Rossouw said. “My parents were always pro-Mandela, and (we were) a completely non-racial household.”

Having spent time with him during many interviews, Arrie Rossouw said that Mandela was so successful because of a few personal traits, the greatest of which was his ability to forgive his oppressors.

Rossouw said that because of Mandela’s “humbleness and warmth,” he was ultimately appreciated even by people who began in opposition to him or as his enemies.

“His greatest attributes were his humbleness, his ability to listen, his deep insight into human nature, and his commitment to peace and reconciliation. And the greatest of all was his love for children. It was contagious, a charm nobody could resist,” Rossouw wrote.

Collegian Reporter Ellie Mulder can be reached at news@collegian.com.