Trevor McDonald: 'Interviewing Mandela was the highlight of my life as a journalist'

Veteran broadcaster Sir Trevor McDonald today described his interview with Nelson Mandela days after his release as “one of the most cherished memoires” of his journalistic life.

Writing in The Sunday Times, McDonald said he met Mandela in the back garden of his small home in Soweto in 1990.

“I had thought for a long time about how I would approach an interview with someone who had achieved an iconic status despite the fact that we had not seen or heard from him in almost 30 years.”
McDonald said the obvious question is how Mandela could reach accommodation with a white South African leadership that was opposed to extending the franchise to black people.

“Mandela’s response was the first of many surprises that day. He explained that once parties were prepared to negotiate seriously and in good faith all compromises were possible.”

McDonald said he tried repeatedly to draw Mandela on how he could forgive what had happened to him.

“I did my best to get Mandela to talk about the personal hardship of his years in prison. What were the worst aspects of his time away from the comforts of home and family? Had he been mistreated. I though I could spot a sensational headline: ‘Mandela tells McDonald I was beaten every day.’

“His reply gave me no headline of any sort: ‘That’s all in the past’.”

During the interview, McDonald revealed that Mandela asked him to turn down the lights because his eyes were sore as a result of splinters from the rocks he was forced to break on Robben Island.

McDonald said he was surprised by the complete lack of bitterness from Mandela about his years of detention.

Moments after his interview, McDonald said Mandela addressed a crowd of people outside his home – many of whom were children.

Mandela told the crowd: “Go back to school.” At the time there had been a boycott against the school system because of poor facilities.

However, Mandela said: “The future belongs to you. You must be equipped to face it. To do that, you must go back to school.”

McDonald said following his interview and listening to the brief speech, he was more confident that South Africa could avoid a bitter civil war. 

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