July 18th, 2008
05:40 PM ET

My interview with Mandela … breasts and sheep aside

CNN's Robyn Curnow had a chance to sit down with Nelson Mandela and his family as they celebrated his 90th birthday.
CNN's Robyn Curnow had a chance to sit down with Nelson Mandela and his family as they celebrated his 90th birthday.

Robyn Curnow | BIO
CNN Correspondent

Qunu, South Africa

As Nelson Mandela’s grandchildren sang a birthday song for him, little did I know that soon afterwards I’d been surrounded by about 40 young topless Xhosa maidens, wearing grass skirts, and singing traditional songs as they wandered around my live shot position.

The girls, who are from the local village community, were practicing for a show they are going to perform for Nelson Mandela and his family and friends at a 90th birthday party on Saturday, here in his family compound in Qunu in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region.

No matter how tight your deadline – it’s very distracting having about 40 pairs of breasts dancing around you as you try to write a story and prepare to go live on CNN International.

The afternoon got more colorful when – as a vegetarian - it was slightly disconcerting when a trailer of sheep, bleeding pathetically, readied for slaughter and waiting to be served for lunch at Mandela’s birthday party on Saturday. They were parked next to us as we frantically tried to edit our interview with Nelson Mandela.

But the show goes on – breasts and sheep aside. We made the deadline for our story and felt proud to have been part of such a wonderful and rare occasion. Nelson Mandela hasn’t given an interview to the press since 2004 when he famously commented that ‘he’s retiring from retirement.’

There were only three media organizations represented, local South African television and the Assocaited Press, and CNN. Despite having met Mandela before and covered his presidency in the late 1990’s, I was slightly nervous about meeting him – worried I’d forget my questions or trip over the camera cables.

But as usual, in true Mandela style, he made us feel comfortable by jokingly asking ‘what day is this?’ Of course, it’s his 90th birthday – something even he concedes is a milestone. He told me ‘I am happy that I am alive.’

But for me, the most interesting part of the interview was when Mandela – who spent 27 years in prison and many more years devoted to the anti-apartheid struggle – admitted to me he didn’t regret giving up his family life for to fight for democracy because it ‘pleased my soul.’

Now that’s someone who knows his life’s journey was worth every sacrifice.


Here are some snapshots from the interview:


Robyn Curnow and Nelson Mandela after the interview...


Correspondent Robyn Curnow and cameraman Barnaby Mitchell editing their interview with Nelson Mandela on the back of pickup truck, in Mandela's farm compound. The sheep behind them in the trailer will be served for lunch on Sunday at Mandela's birthday.....


Cameraman Barnaby Mitchell with the dancing maidens in the background as he edits CNN's rare interview with Nelson Mandela...

Filed under: Behind The Scenes • Global 360°
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. balasubramani

    Good interview with Mandela

    July 21, 2008 at 4:44 am |
  2. bala

    Its interesting

    July 21, 2008 at 4:40 am |
  3. Heidi

    Thanks Anderson. I enjoyed your comments and it makes me feel like I was there with you.

    July 20, 2008 at 6:15 pm |
  4. cloaknbadger

    Accusations of bias? Distractions of bouncy breasts? I certainly don't envy the journalism life!

    July 20, 2008 at 5:53 pm |
  5. Teresa, OH

    Boobs aside, I'm sure the Mandela interview will be in the top 3 of your career. Congrats! Good job on keeping focused and getting the job done.

    July 19, 2008 at 2:01 pm |
  6. Julie P.

    This was really a great look into the interesting circumstances reporters work in to bring us important stories! Writing and editing such an important piece for CNN International in the midst of so many dancing girls swirling around and loudly bleating sheep definitely sounds like a unique challenge! Thank you for sharing the photos and "story behind the story". It's stories like these that make me love CNN's blogs. I can't wait to see the interview!

    July 19, 2008 at 9:17 am |
  7. Gary Chandler in Canada

    now that's false advertising ))

    July 19, 2008 at 1:08 am |
  8. Alan Lantz

    Agreed. Applying American stigma to other countries distracts from the real story.

    July 18, 2008 at 9:58 pm |
  9. Heather

    Its not every day you see 40 breasts while on the job. I guess there are all sorts of unusual conditions and distractions when you travel . I thinks its funny.

    July 18, 2008 at 9:18 pm |
  10. Jim- Bishop,Ca.

    So Thats how the Old Boy keeps the blood going at his age- having 40 topless maidens dance for him.I'm half his age so do I need just 20???- Naw- Just 1 will be plenty for me- now if I can just CATCH her LOL.

    July 18, 2008 at 9:18 pm |
  11. Cynthia

    Good clip from your Mandela interview. Cameraman had a nice smile on his face.

    July 18, 2008 at 8:21 pm |
  12. GF, Los Angeles

    I envy your opportunity to meet Mandela and experience the culture in Africa – boobs and all!

    July 18, 2008 at 8:10 pm |
  13. Kent Fitzsimmons,Kewanee, IL

    The US is still too distracted by nudity.........I do understand your distraction, but in the US we are brought up where too often nudity is something to be shameful of................of course we don't live in South Africa........I think we would change our tune alittle if it was over 100 degrees everyday. And yes, Mandela is a wonderful man. I'm glad he will be alive to see the world view on race change with Obama's Administration...................

    July 18, 2008 at 7:59 pm |
  14. safina kichoncho

    the little girls dancing for mandela did not cover their breasts, i just wonder why are they covered in the pictures?

    July 18, 2008 at 6:45 pm |
  15. Larry

    Its interesting how we put such a taboo on what is just a secondary sex characterictic.

    July 18, 2008 at 6:00 pm |