frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

Anecdotes & Insights

In many ways, a remarkably coherent picture emerges from these first person accounts -- Mandela's lifelong discipline and vanity; his deep assurance and determination; and a political acumen both realistic and visionary. Note: There are many more such stories in FRONTLINE's collection of in-depth interviews.

George Bizos is Mandela's lawyer and friend. He was a constant visitor throughout the prison years.

"Colonel Aucamp would at times pace up and down outside the room in which we were consulting, locked in with our clients. And Nelson went up to Aucamp, and said, 'You know these lawyers give me homework ... and the table that I have in my cell is a rickety one. Could I please have another table because I am under pressure to do this.'

He spoke politely, and the response of Aucamp was bombastic: 'Mandela, you are no longer a lawyer in your office to give orders. You are a prisoner. And we will do what we have to. You can't order us about.'

Nelson looked at him and he said, 'Have you finished, Colonel?' He said,'Yes.' He turned round, looked at the man with a key, who opened the grille door, and he came back, sat down, said nothing. Just continued with the consultation with us as if nothing had happened.

They took a break for lunch. And he came back, with a little smile that you often see and says, 'Guess what, there's a brand new table in my cell.' "

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Richard Stengel collaborated with Mandela on his autobiography, spending most of 1993 with him and taping approximately 75 hours of interviews.

"There's a story, it's not related to prison, but I am going to tell it anyway. We were once on this airplane flight down in Natal, and it was a prop plane. I think there were six seats in it, and there were maybe four of us on the plane. And as soon as he gets on an airplane he picks up a newspaper. He adores newspapers. He didn't have them for so many years and he revels in the touch of them, and he reads every stupid story. And so we were sitting on the airplane, the plane was up, and he is reading his newspaper, and we're about, I don't know, halfway there ... I was sitting right across from him, and he pointed out the window ... and I saw, to my great horror, that the propeller had stopped going around. And he said very, very calmly, 'Richard, you might want to inform the pilot that the propeller isn't working.' I said, 'Yes, Madiba.' I walked to the front of the plane, and the pilot was well aware of it and he said, 'Go back and sit down. We've called the airport. They have the ambulances out there, and they're going to coat the runway with foam or whatever they do.'

I went back and I told Madiba that, and he just, in that very solemn way, mouth sort of down, listened, and said, 'Yes.' And then picked up his newspaper and started reading. I was terrified, and the way I calmed myself was I looked at him. And he was as calm as could be. Like the prisoners on Robben Island must have looked at him when they felt scared, and he just looked as calm as could be.

The plane landed, no problem. He never changed his expression or anything like that. He put his newspaper down, and we came into the airport, and as we got into the airport and we sort of had a moment alone, he turned to me and he said, 'Man, I was scared up there.' It was such a revelation because that's what courage is. Courage is not, not being scared. Courage is being terrified and not showing it. So I was enheartened. I was given courage by looking at him, because he was pretending not to be scared, and that's what he did for his whole life. The more you pretend that you're not scared, the more not scared you become. The more you inhabit that role, and that's what happened in Robben Island."

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Joe Matthews is a fellow ANC Youth leader and has known Mandela since college days.

"I remember once when we were detained at No. 4 prison in Johannesburg after our arrest in 1956, and I was sitting next to him and he observed Chief Luthuli who was staring in the distance. Thinking, obviously.

And Mandela said to me, 'Do you see that man? That is the mark of a great man. A man who can think and consider things. Now we call that in Xhosa ... a man who stares into the horizon, thinking and so on.'

He obviously respected that kind of thing, and he actually said, 'That's the mark of a great man,' that posture by Luthuli ...

If you read the accounts of him on Robben Island, you will find people remarking on him having those kind of moments of reflection. He does do that deliberately to think and almost in the sense of the yoga kind of transcendental meditation type of thing."

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Wolfie Kodesh hid Mandela for nearly eight weeks in his bachelor apartment in a white suburb of Johannesburg.

"... I brought him into the flat ... We had a long discussion. I had to persuade him that it was a good place ... nobody amongst the special branch or government would ever dream ... because of their mentality towards blacks and whites, that a black man would be living in a white area ...

Then we had a discussion and an argument about who is going to sleep where. I had a tiny flat ... and I had a bed and I had a camp stretcher in a cupboard. So when I brought out the camp stretcher, I said to him, 'Well, I'll sleep on the camp stretcher. You sleep on the bed because you are six foot something, I am five foot something. So the stretcher is just right for me.' No, he wasn't going to have that. He hadn't come there to put me out, and we had a bit of a talk about that and ... it was arranged, and I would sleep on the bed.

We had tea and all the rest of it, and then time came to sleep. So he said, 'You don't mind, but I'm going to run around.' He told me that he woke up very early in the morning, about 4:00 in the townships, and that he always went for these long runs. So I said, 'No man, here you're in a white area. You can't get up at 4:00 or 5:00 running around here. They patrol ...' He said, 'I am going to run. You'll see, don't worry. Let's go to sleep.'

About 5:00 in the morning, I woke up and heard these camp stretchers squeak ... I looked and I saw him sitting on the end of the stretcher, putting on long-johns, and then the suits ... that athletes use ... and I said to him, 'Well, what's going on here?' He said, 'I am going to start running' ... I said, 'Well, I am not going to give you the key to go out. You can't go running around.' Then he got up, in his tracksuit, and he started running on the spot.

So that was his running. I thought, 'Oh well, if you want to run on the spot, good luck to you. I am going to sleep.' About a half an hour afterwards I woke up again, and he's still running on the spot ... sweating and heaving and it went on for about an hour, this performance, and each time I just turned over and went to sleep again. At the end of it all, I noticed he did a few frog jumps across the flat, jumping up ... he had his hands out like this, and he jumped so that he could kick his hands underneath ... that took at least an hour. So I said, 'That's all right, you can do this but not me.' He says, 'No, tomorrow ... you are going to join me.'"

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Neville Alexander arrived on Robben Island in 1964, the same year as Mandela, and he was imprisoned with him there for ten years.

"Mandela I have seen on only one occasion actually lose his rag as it were. And that was when a warder ... a chap by the name of Huysamen, really lambasted us. I can't recall the details, but it was about abuse of study privileges, this, that and the other, which was completely untrue. They were trying to orchestrate something or the other.

Nelson got so fed up with this chap at one point he actually went to him and said, 'Look, you don't dare talk to us like that.' And went for him. Really gave him hell, you know. 'Your day will come, and you will this, that and the other.'

I was standing next to him, and this chap sort of marched away with his tail between his legs. And there was a terrible awkward silence and real tension and nobody really knew what was going to happen.

So I then asked Mandela afterwards, 'What happened there? Why did you do that?' And I'll never forget it, he said to me, 'That was very deliberate.' And I must say, I didn't initially believe him. But when I thought about it, he is so deliberate. I thought it is quite possible that he really did orchestrate this thing you see. But I must say, it was as true to life as you can possibly think."

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Fikile Bam was a fellow prisoner with Mandela on Robben Island.

"There is one other instance, which I remember very well. There had been a newly appointed head of the prison ... he really wanted to turn the prison around. He said that the prison was too soft and too comfortable and he said [it had] become a university rather than a prison, and he was going to take off our study privileges and was going to do all sorts of things. He was quite rude, his name was Badenhorst.

... At about the same time, three judges came to see us in prison ... and they came to our group and naturally went to talk to Nelson, and to find out from him what the conditions were like ... They had come in the company of the commanding officer, Badenhorst, and they were asking [Mandela] about prison conditions. And he, as usual, was setting out a whole list of complaints to the judges, and complaining, particularly, about the treatment Badenhorst had brought about, in the presence of Badenhorst.

Badenhorst was a very fiery and temperamental person and he couldn't wait, even while Nelson was speaking, and he shouted at him, 'Nelson, you forget one thing, that these people are going to leave, and the two of us are going to remain here together.' And the judges carried that message with them. And soon after Badenhorst was transferred from Robben Island.

So he had this way about him that he really did not fear people at all. And he had a lot of confidence in himself as a person. He never regarded himself as being beneath anyone, even while he was wearing shorts as a prisoner. "

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Dr. Niel Barnard was head of the South African Intelligence Service and helped arrange the government's secret talks with Mandela. He recounts a memory of Mandela first meeting President P.W. Botha in July 1989.

"So we were driving on to Tuynhuys in the car. Obviously, Mr. Mandela was in high spirits ... he was finally going to see Mr. Botha. I tried to convince him, 'Listen, this is an ice-breaker meeting. It is not about fundamental issues. Come to learn the man. Talk about all those easy things in life. And don't mention the issue of Walter Sisulu ... if you mention the release again of Walter Sisulu, Mr. Botha will say no. I know him. And if he says no, it's no ... Leave that aside ... don't tackle difficult issues, that's not the reason for the first meeting.'

... And they went in and the discussion took place ... It was quite an interesting conversation ... It was typical of Mr. Botha asking him about his family and about his children and he was talking at length about that and he was touching on the Boer War ... and so on. It started off quite well. And then Mr. Mandela raised the issue of Sisulu. Obviously not listening to the advice in that regard. Strangely enough, Mr. Botha listened, and he said, 'I remember quite well. Dr. Barnard, you know the problems we have. I take it that you've explained to Mr. Mandela, but I think we must help him. I think it must be done. You will give some attention to that.' I said, 'All right, Mr. President,' not arguing in front of them.

So we were driving back, and Mr. Mandela was in high spirits ... and he was telling me, 'Listen Barnard, now the issue of Sisulu. I want it to be settled as quickly as possible.' I said, 'Listen Mr. Mandela, it will not be settled that quickly ... it cannot be done.'

The old man became quite furious and he said, 'Listen, you got an instruction from your president. Are you going to execute that or what are you telling me?' And I said, 'Well Mr. Mandela, quite clearly you have a lot to learn. With respect, even presidents of countries cannot make decisions on their own ...'"

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Christo Brand became Mandela's warder at Pollsmoor Prison.

"There were rumors that Mandela smuggled letters out and I asked Mandela about it. 'Did you smuggle a letter out?' He said, 'Mr. Brand, you know if I'm alone in a cell and there's an ant walking there, there is still life around me. It means there's many ways to send a letter out.'

There was one occasion when after hours I opened his cell to give him a message that Mr. Kobie Coetsee wanted to see him. While I was standing there ... a long rope with something heavy on the bottom in a bag was thrown through the window from the top story ... into his cell.

So he caught it, he gave it to me, he said, 'Mr. Brand it must be for you.' When I opened it, it was actually for him. Inside was a letter. The criminal prisoners were asking for some tobacco or any foodstuff which he could give them ... then he could put it in a bag ... and he could add his letters, they would take it out because ... the criminals go to court every day and it was way for them to take a letter out.

I showed him the letter and he said, 'Mr. Brand you must report this business.' And so I reported it to the head of the prison and then two days or three days after that he was moved to hospital. Immediately, the prison department got some louvres. They put louvres on the whole top part of the section ..."

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After Mandela's release from prison in 1990, Jessie Duarte was his personal assistant for nearly four years.

"He always made his own bed, no matter where we traveled. I remember we were in Shanghai, in a very fancy hotel, and the Chinese hospitality requires that the person who cleans your room and provides you with your food, does exactly that. If you do it for yourself, it could even be regarded as an insult.

So in Shanghai I tried to say to him, 'Please don't make your own bed, because there's this custom here.' And he said, 'Call them, bring them to me.'

So I did. I asked the hotel manager to bring the ladies who would be cleaning the room, so that he could explain why he himself has to make his own bed, and that they not feel insulted. He didn't ever want to hurt people's feelings. He never really cared about what great big people think of him, but he did care about what small people thought of him. That used to amaze me. He didn't mind if he insulted a very important person, or said something to them that was unkind, because he said they could fend and fight for themselves. But he would never insult someone who did not have power."

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Ahmed Kathrada was a dedicated friend and part of a committee which helped Mandela during his months undergound.

"... Now the question of the beard. I was involved with a few of my colleagues, including Wolfie [Kodesh], in a little committee which was given the task of looking after him when he was underground. Looking after him meant organizing venues for him to have meetings, to meet with his family, venues for him to have meetings with the media, all this we had to do.

But our view was at that time, he was already well known. His photographs had appeared and this beard was very well known. We had suggested that he should shave off that beard. He refused. He just refused ... I mean, he was also one of the best-dressed persons. His tailor was the tailor for Oppenheimer ... he used to have his suits cut there. But he was prepared to give up that for even overalls and so forth. But the beard, he would not cut.

And that beard went with him to Algeria. If you see that photograph ... in the training camp in Algeria, he's got the beard. He came back with the beard. He was arrested with Cecil Williams. So that beard only went in prison."

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Wolfie Kodesh hid Mandela for nearly eight weeks when he was underground.

"One day I remember ... a message came through about some Africans who'd got killed or brutalized by the police, therefore, the government. And he paced up and down there in the flat, and I could see he was fuming. Then he blurted out, 'Wolfie, one day I am telling you, it's going to be an eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth.' And he kept on pacing. I could see he was in such a situation, that I thought--look, I'll read and do something. I'm not going to interfere with this man.

Then about an hour afterwards, he tapped me on the shoulder, and he said, 'Wolfie, I didn't mean that at all. I could never do that.' Interesting, isn't it ..."

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Strini Moodley was a young member of the Black Consciousness movement and in 1976 was sent to Robben Island where his cell was diagonally across from Mandela's.

"After I was taken to B-section [at Robben Island] ... this young 17-year-old came to open up the doors and said, 'Good morning,' and I never greeted. I felt I had no obligation to greet prison warders. But he opened Nelson's door, and said, 'Good morning, Nelson,' and I freaked. I went straight to Nelson and I said, 'But how can you allow this little white boy here to call you Nelson? He must either call you Mr. Mandela, or Sir. You can't allow him to call you Nelson. He's a little kid.'

And he said, 'Oh, come on my boy, don't worry about that. These are little things. We're in prison now. We've got to take them in our stride.' I just thought no, that's something I would not be able to deal with that kind of thing, because this is my leader. I can't have some little white boy calling him Nelson."

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Jack Swart became personal chef to Mandela at Victor Verster prison. He secretly drove Mandela on trips in the surrounding Cape Town area."

"We often made use of decoy cars ... Mr. Mandela, quite often, went out ... for a dental examination, or just for a medical check-up ... and then he could say where he wanted to go afterwards. I can remember he wanted to see Hout Bay, and when we got to Hout Bay, he said he'd like to eat crayfish, and then he offered to buy us crayfish from his own pocket ...

At one stage, we went to Saldanha ... I'll never forget this because we drove past a field where there were a lot of melons and he asked me, 'What are those?' I said it was kaffirwaatlemoen. And immediately--'What!' When he became upset or a bit worked up, he'd always make (snorting sounds). He did this. And, he keeps quiet.

So I asked Mr. Gregory, 'Hey, tell me, what is kaffirwaatlemoen in English? A nice name, because the man is upset now!' Then he said to me, 'No, it stays kaffirwaatlemoen. It's just like that.'

And usually when he got angry, it would be for about five or 10 minutes. Because he was very inquisitive--he'd ask which mountains those were and what house is that, why is it here, and so on."

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Adelaide Tambo has been Mandela's friend for decades.Her husband Oliver was ANC president and led the ANC movement from exile.

"Nelson had made a speech--a speech that sometimes appears on television--where he is wearing a black jacket and saying that we can't forever take the oppression meted out by the regime ... our young people were getting tired of nonviolence.

And Oliver said to me, 'This is the president of South Africa.'

Now, that is going very far back. Chief Luthuli was still alive."

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