05/25/2013 06:55 EDT | Updated 07/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Making The Mandela Tapes

On May 28, the CBC Radio program Ideas will feature interviews withNelson Mandela that were recorded in the 1990s for his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. It will be the first time the recordings are broadcast at length.

Journalist and documentary producer Robin Benger obtained unique access to the tapes. Here he explains how he did so and how that led to the Ideas documentary. — CBC News

It was a fall-off-your chair moment.

Verne Harris, head of programming at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, had just said I could use a vast collection of Mandela's audiocassettes for free.

Looking back to that moment in February 2012 in Johannesburg, South Africa, I am reminded that journalism and filmmaking are 95 per cent grinding and frustration and five per cent breakthrough and inspiration.

When I think of how this all originated, I also think of the director Werner Herzog.

I was deeply gratified at a 2010 Toronto International Film Festival panel on documentary-making when the famed German-American filmmaker answered the question, "What is essential for the making of documentaries?"

In this digital age, in that visual medium, you might not have expected his immediate, convinced answer.

"Reading, reading, reading," was Herzog's reply.

Reading Mandela

That's me, I thought. And I've read most things on Nelson Mandela.

I grew up in South Africa when his name was banned. For 27 years, we who believed in what he represented — equality for all in South Africa — had no idea who he had become, what he now believed, how he would act on release, which finally happened in 1990.

In one of the great political autobiographies, Long Walk to Freedom, it was all there. You have to read the book if you want to know the story. Since then there have been dozens of books on Mandela, most of them forgettable, some downright silly.

But in late 2010, Harris put together Conversations with Myself. It's the best book on Mandela, outside Long Walk.

It was based on his own writings, correspondence and — here's the bit that got the hairs standing up on the back of my neck when I read it, — "50 hours of [taped] conversations with Richard Stengel, made when the two men were working together on Long Walk to Freedom.”

A great radio program

I mentioned this to my longstanding sounding board on all things Mandela, Zeib Jeeva, a Canadian businessman and philanthropist, and one of my generation of anti-apartheid South Africans who also ended up in Canada. He knows Verne and was on his way to South Africa and would mention my interest.

I also emailed Verne, saying it would make for a great radio program, and asking for a meeting on an upcoming trip to South Africa.

Thus to that moment when Verne told me I could indeed access the audiotapes.

But from February 2012 to April 2013 I let it drop. I had spoken further with someone who had transcribed the tapes and was told there were copyright issues with them.

Also, on my return to Toronto, I made some inquiries about independent radio production and got nowhere. The only independent radio producer I could find postponed two meetings with me, including one on the morning of the meeting.

Busy with my own documentary film projects, I let it go.

Urgency meets an idea

Flash ahead to April 2013. The news from Johannesburg is not good. Mandela once again is in hospital, suffering from fluid on the lungs. I am driving along, thinking of moments in his life.

As a sniffling infant in the chilly valleys of the Transkei. His father, coughing himself to death with emphysema. Nine-year-old Nelson fetching him his last pinch of tobacco.

The freezing winds in the early days at the prison on Robben Island, with only a single blanket. The damp walls of the cell at Pollsmoor. Tuberculosis, pleurisy, previous lung infections.

- Want to know more about the life and times of Nelson Mandela? Check out this timeline.

Neil Turok is on the radio, delivering the Massey lectures. That warm South African accent, thinking of his father Ben Turok, one of those Jewish Communists who were so pivotal in Mandela’s political hardening, enlightenment and maturation.

I can't understand half of what he is saying about quantum physics but when the program ends, I hear that the executive producer of Ideas is Pam Bertrand.

I worked at the CBC for 20 years, and I remember Pam Bertrand at The Journal, coming up to me to ask me for my advice about travelling to Zimbabwe. Her sister, she said, was doing aid work there and she planned a visit.

"Go," I urged. "Don't be afraid. It's one of the most beautiful and interesting places in the world." She went and enjoyed it.

So I called her about the Mandela tapes.

On the other end of the phone, she also seemed to do the falling-off-the-chair thing, too. She didn’t hesitate.

Off to the races

We were off to the races. She assigned my old Sunday Morning colleague Steve Wadhams to the task.

And Dave Field, the imperturbably good-humoured sound engineer, was on the job, too, a man who had put up with me — in the 1980s for God's sake — turning many a sow's ear into a silk purse for my benefit.

From Johannesburg, Verne Harris and Sahm Venter sent me 759 pages of transcripts, which kept me up until 2 a.m. some nights, with pleasure. Eventually, with Steve, we whittled it down to the hour on Ideas.

- Visit the Ideas webpage for The Mandela Tapes

In the end, you just need a handful of people to know the fine art of getting out of the way of a great story like Mandela.

When I hear Mandela talking, I pick up on moments that humanize the icon. When the iron rigidity of the revolutionary comes across, or when sadness fills his voice, or laughter, a mischievous laughter, lightens a memory.

Or it's Mandela showing concern for the reputations of lesser folks, or the painstaking care he takes spelling Xhosa terms for Stengel. The clink and sip of his tea cup, his stubborn dignity in refusing to give details of private, personal anguish.

All of these remind me what radio can do that pictures can't: yield the fuller man.