Oprah: The last time we talked, you said that if you hadn't been in prison, you wouldn't have achieved the most difficult task in life—changing yourself. How did 27 years of reflection make you a different man?
Nelson: Before I went to jail, I was active in politics as a member of South Africa's leading organization—and I was generally busy from 7 A.M. until midnight. I never had time to sit and think. As I worked, physical and mental fatigue set in and I was unable to operate to the maximum of my intellectual ability. But in a single cell in prison, I had time to think. I had a clear view of my past and present, and I found that my past left much to be desired, both in regard to my relations with other humans and in developing personal worth.
Oprah: In what way did your past leave much to be desired?
Nelson: When I reached Johannesburg in the 1940s, I was neglected by my family because I had disappointed them—I'd run away from being forced into an arranged marriage, which was a big blow to them. In Johannesburg, many people were kind to me—but when I finished my studies and qualified as a lawyer, I got busy with politics and never thought of them. It was only when I was in jail that I wondered, "What happened to so-and-so? Why didn't I go back and say thank you?" I had become very small and had not behaved like a human who appreciates hospitality and support. I decided that if I ever got out of prison, I would make it up to those people or to their children and grandchildren. That is how I was able to change my life—by knowing that if somebody does something good for you, you have to respond.
Oprah: All the time.
Nelson: And that is what I am doing now—responding. There is nothing I fear more than waking up without a program that will help me bring a little happiness to those with no resources, those who are poor, illiterate, and ridden with terminal disease. If there is anything that will one day kill me, it will be the inability to help them. If I can spend a tiny part of my life making them happy, I'll be happy.
Oprah: So when you wake up in the morning, your day is all about giving?
Nelson: In particular, it's about building schools, clinics, and community halls and arranging scholarships for children. And of course, I have duties to my family.
Oprah: Are you making up for all the years you weren't there to help?
Nelson: That is not uppermost in my mind, but I will use the rest of my life to help the poor overcome the problems confronting them—poverty is the greatest challenge facing humanity. That is why I build schools; I want to free people from poverty and illiteracy.
Oprah: I recently spent time at Robben Island, the prison where you lived for the first 18 years of your sentence. I heard that you saw your youngest daughters when they were 2 and 3, and then didn't see them again until they were around 16! What was that like?
Nelson: Not seeing them may be why I've developed an obsession with children—I missed seeing any for 27 years. It's one of the most severe punishments prison life can impose, because children are the most important asset in a country. For them to become that asset, they must receive education and love from their parents. And when you are in jail, you are unable to give those things to your children.
We Hear You!