interview: Fikile Bam INTERVIEWED BY JOHN CARLINHe first met Mandela while helping out at the law offices of Mandela and Tambo in the 1950s. He later spent ten years on Robben Island with him.
When did you first come across Nelson Mandela?|
In 1955 ... he had a legal office in Johannesburg, together with Oliver Tambo, who was his partner ... Oliver Tambo had taught me at the high school ... so he'd always been a role model for me and when he became a lawyer ... my mind was made up, I also wanted to become a lawyer. So every Saturday I used to go into the office just to have a part and hopefully get some experience ... I never was introduced to Nelson at that stage. I was just a young student who was coming there to work on files ... I worked in a smaller office and we never really got talking. Until many years later, in 1964, when he came to prison, and that's when we actually first met.
In that period, Mandela was already quite a well known political ...
Oh yes, indeed he was. He was already very well known and he was already making speeches. It was just about the time, actually, that he also got involved in the treason trial. It was after the Defiance Campaign in which he had also played a role, so now he was quite a well known figure.
Before he went to prison, he was on the one hand a very flashy dresser, and on the other hand some people have said that he came across as slightly out of place in Johannesburg. He had a lot of the country air about him.
Yes, that is absolutely correct. He was never drab. He was always smartly turned out, but at the same time he was sort of Cape conservative intellectually, you might say. And looked pretty much like our teachers did in the Cape in the late '40s and early '50s, dressed up in the same way, double breasted suit ... As for his accent when he spoke, that was all Eastern Cape, Xhosa accent ... but I suppose most of us who related to the Eastern Cape and had our origins there, respected him more for that and he was sort of a figure who was a representative of Xhosa speaking people in Johannesburg, where we were really a minority group in those years ...
Do you remember seeing him at any event?
Yes, I have one specific one and this was in Sophiatown, where I grew up and where I first heard him speak from a platform, and I guess it should have been round about 1950, and there were other people on the platform, but I singled him out, because of his mannerism and his accent ... I wasn't really able to get the message so much of what he was saying, but that wasn't important those days. What was important is that there was a powerful speaker who was getting the applause and we as youngsters ... he's a good leader. He's a good man and we didn't really know the reasons why.
You said that you got to know him in prison. Are there any other moments or encounters that you had with Mandela in that period before which you think might tell us something about the man which struck you.
Not really, except that I used to see him walking to the office and walking into court from a distance. I used to see him, of course, during the Treason Trial period. And just his mere mannerism of walking, his gait and so on, was very impressive. He was never in a hurry, but at the same time, he never slouched. He was always sort of upright. It was as if he had a bit of a bounce to his walk. Almost a deliberate one, but he took his time and it was just very good to watch. A role model in that you sort of wished when you grew up, you'd be like that, you'd be able to walk like that and dress up like he did ... It always interested me about black lawyers. There were very few of them those days. He was one of them and it was just great to see him, on every occasion. But that's really all I remember from a distance.
You were on Robben Island with Mandela for 10 years.
In prison, even though he was there for life, he was preparing for leadership outside. Describe what you saw of Nelson Mandela learning Afrikaans.
Well, Nelson was very serious about his Afrikaans, and not just the language,
but he was very serious about learning to understand the Afrikaner--his mind
and how he thought. Because in his mind, and he actually preached this, the
Afrikaner was an African. He belonged to the soil and that whatever solution
there was going to be on the political issues, was going to involve Afrikaans
people. They, after all, were part of parcel of the land, apart from the points
that they were the rulers of the land, but ... they had grown up and they had a
history in the country, which he wanted to understand. And hence put a lot of
work and effort in learning to speak Afrikaans and to use it ... He had
absolutely no qualms about greeting people in Afrikaans, and about trying his
Afrikaans out on the warders. He did not have any inhibition at all about that.
I think it's the much later politicians, people who came in round about 1976,
we did have a problem and inhibition about Afrikaans. But not Nelson. He wanted
to really get to know Afrikaners, as part of the people who belonged to the
... He often said that one of his sacrifices was he hasn't been able to bring up his own children, he hasn't had a meaningful relationship with his wife Winnie. That she had never had much of him because he was either underground or in prison. He talked about all this.Now, although he had been sentenced to life imprisonment, it was always clear to us, and he made it clear in all his being, that [it] was unlikely that he would finish all his time in prison. You see, we couldn't afford to think of a life sentence in real terms that it meant just what it said. It was, in fact, a condition of our survival in prison, to believe that we would win. The struggle would be successful in the end. We'd be out of prison during our life time. This is a theme which ran through every little speech that was made [at] any formal or an informal gathering, that we were going to get freedom during our life time. Nelson actually lived that belief more than anyone else I knew. He articulated it and he believed that some day we would be out. But it applied to all of us. A lot of us, of course, were disillusioned. We never thought we were going to serve ... As far as the life people, and longer sentences, it was also a condition for their survival not to believe that out the full terms. Something would happen, either internally or externally ... we believed and had to believe, that something would happen, and that the people would be released before they died in prison ...
You said that Mandela believed it more fully, more vividly than other people. Expand on that a little bit ...
Nelson believed that he would play a role, and an important role, in bringing about freedom for people in South Africa, in winning the liberation war. There is no doubt about that. Whether he actually, at that time, knew that he, personally, would play the leading role, I don't think he even thought about it. He was not a sort of personally ambitious person. He had no personal ambitions of power, but he certainly knew that he had a role to play given his position within the ANC. Then he seriously prepared himself for that. He studied very hard, and the sort of things he studied were things which were obviously going to be of assistance in the future South Africa, be it in the actual political negotiations which subsequently happened. He was also preparing himself consciously for a liberated South Africa in which people would have to be developed in terms of their skills, and in terms of just being liberated socially and economically. He had an interest in all these things, but I wouldn't say, and I never observed this, that he was regarding that without him, these things would not happen. But certainly he seemed to act and to speak as though if he were there, he would be ready to do whatever had to be done.
You mentioned studies ... would you recall any books or any particular studies that he engaged in which served to illustrate the point you just made.
Well, as I already [said] he made a great study of Afrikaans. He actually took up Afrikaans as a course for a couple of years. That I remember well. He was, of course, also studying law. He'd been a lawyer and he believed that being a lawyer had worked for him and that it would continue to do so ... Within the courses that he was actually doing, he had a special love for things like public international law ... He had a great deal of interest in what we call public law and things like constitutional law. He loved studying that very much. It was always clear to see that his bent was the bent of a statesman, the bent of a politician, of a lawyer, of the people who go and hold public office. But once he'd done that, he also had an interest in learning about what other people were doing, what the economists, for instance, were sayin. Particularly, what the historians were saying and reading very widely about that. I don't remember whether he actually took a course in history, but I do remember that he read historical books that came our way very avidly ... there weren't too many of them. But, yes, he was a very avid reader and very widely spread.
We heard that he would read biographies of great leaders. Do you have any recollections of that at all?
I haven't got any of the books that came our way in prison. The trouble was that a lot of them were like books on Lenin, which did come. There were [read] very surreptitiously. We couldn't read them openly so we weren't quite sure who was reading which book when, but I certainly know he read the books on Lenin's biography that came in, and I think there were also a series of books ... on Mao Tse Tung, which I am almost certain he would have read. Certainly, there were some books also on Trotsky ... but I just know he had this very intense interest in historical figures and in history itself, including the history of the Afrikaners and also of Afrikaner leaders during the Anglo Boer war, for instance. He could tell who the various commanders were, having a great interest in that.
On the theme of preparing for leadership--are there any encounters which you might have seen between Mandela and the prison authorities ... honing skills in dealing with the authorities within the prison, that might well have come in handy later on when he met the likes of P.W. and so on.
There were many encounters and some quite unpleasant, some inevitable. If you are in prison, you have to deal with warders whether you like to or not ... The one thing I can talk about is that he was always generally very polite courteous to warders. He greeted them, but at the same time, he didn't cow down to any warder at any level. He was just very courteous. He also became quite angry with a certain type of warder, who was rude and could be quite sharp when warders addressed either the group or him, personally, in a rude fashion. He put his foot down immediately and telling [them] that that was not the way to treat prisoners, that prisoners were nonetheless people, and they deserved to be treated decently. He did this on almost a daily basis because someone did come up on almost every other day, and try and mess us around, and give us instructions left, right and center.
I do remember an instance which warders would be rushing us in the early morning, to get washed and dressed quickly, and to get our, what they call the ballies, we had little things which we used for toilets, to wash them up quickly and get right back. He always was very deliberate about that and gave us an example that the last thing we were to do, in our relationship with the warders, is to allow ourselves to be humiliated, and that we were to take our time, take our time dressing up, and go back like decent people. He deliberately did that. If a particular warder, there was a warder like that called Warder Zele who was very rude and was always shouting at people, and whenever Zele was on duty you could be certain that Mandela would be extra slow in getting washed and in getting back and getting his breakfast and that sort of thing. He did that in a consistent sort of way. But was otherwise very friendly to warders who were friendly.
There is one other instance, which I remember very well because it happened while I was working with him, and 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 also 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. He had no fear of any persons 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.
That Badenhorst story, Mandela very likely planned that ... Did you see him ever lose his temper?
No, I never saw him fly into a rage. I've seen him angry and I've seen him being very firm, and that's as far as it went. He never lost his cool, even when he was angry. In fact, I recall that he tended to be softer in his voice when he wanted to make a point, but firmer. This is how he treated warders, even warders who were nasty. He didn't shout at them ... I've never heard him swear at them, but he would just tell them and give them a very good lesson and a very good lecture in how he wanted to be treated and how he didn't want to be treated. How he expected decency and how he had been fighting for decency all his life and that he was not, now, going to abandon that particular struggle.
When he was first involved in politics, he was known in the rather conservative ANC as something of a firebrand. Then he goes to prison and one gets a sense that he starts honing his talents as a negotiator, as a conciliator.
It is correct that in prison he played a role, and, consciously so, of reconciliation ... We were different groups, we came from different political persuasions. In the beginning there were really two major groups--that is the PAC and the ANC. But there had also been a group of the unity movement within the section where we were, and he was known, and he did this publicly all the time, to be calling together leaders of the PAC, who were within reach and those of the ANC and to be discussing with them the idea of forming a patriotic front. And this he did consistently with people who came there ... and [they] got to talking how people might form a patriotic front, by which he didn't mean that they should abandon their ideological differences, but he felt that there was a very wide range of things that could be tackled in a uniform way, and he talked about patriotic front. I think he still believes in that idea, because he has continued to pursue and talk to people of other political groups, to try and find if any common cause can be made.
Any incidents you might recall which would illustrate what you have just been talking about now ...
The one thing that stands out in my mind ... regards his role as a conciliator and working for unity, was that he was instrumental and then probably the leading figure, although it was a consultative effort in forming what was called the prisoners committee, and the prisoners committee was primarily going to look after the interests of prisoners as such, without differentiating between whether they were ANC or PAC or Unity Movement. He was one of the people who spoke in favor of that idea, and finally it came to fruition. There were people who were against the idea, of course ... but finally his idea prevailed that as prisoners we couldn't afford that luxury of always apart. We had to stand together, and it was agreed that a prisoners committee should be formed ...
What sort of relationship did you have with Mandela in prison? You had a lot in common ...
Yes, we did. We had what I would say [was] a very close relationship. It was really, because I personally had always admired the man as a youngster, when I was growing up. The fact that he'd come from the Eastern Cape and we had that common root. But he also knew my family. He knew my elder sister very well, Jane, and they had been together, active, in the ANC. And so we had things to talk about, family things. We obviously were also made to be very close because we were both lawyers. I had just been on my final year of law. He had actually practiced, and we had continued consciously keeping up to date with the law ... He had permission to study law. I didn't have it, but I was able to get books from outside, and journals and case reports. So we had a lot to share in that regard, and we worked together most of the time because if he wanted to try out some of the theories he was reading about on English law, he would use me as a bouncing board.
As it happened, quite early, we also discovered that we had the same birthday, which is the 18th of July ... and that brought us closer together. Forever afterwards he was always keeping biscuits and sweets which he would earn at Christmas time, keep them until July, and when I'd exhausted all mine, which took me a very short time to do, he would come out on the morning of the 18th to present me with biscuits and chocolates, and so I had a rather charmed life. He also presented me a couple of law books during my birthdays. So that brought us very close together. We had things to talk about and I learned a lot from him, from his stories. He's a marvelous story teller, and so it was just a lot of fun to be listening to him. Even when he was talking to other people, listening to other people, and he would tell stories and he would laugh at himself, at some of the things that have happened to him when he never made out himself to be a smart person. He made mistakes and he talked about them and he laughed about them. He already knew a great deal about people and he'd a lot to interest in people at every level, I should say. And that was very impressive.
... keeping the sweets for seven months ... any other instances or anecdotes that illustrate this self discipline.
Yes ... Nelson was a very disciplined person in small things as in big things. One of the things I can recall is that he was very disciplined in food. He always was wanting to share his own food with other people, and he never wanted to be given favors, which other people couldn't have. I remember very well how at breakfast time ... we used to get porridge ... with a little bit of sugar on top, not even a full spoon of brown sugar, and that was what everybody got. Sometimes when we were dishing, the younger of us, we thought it was a good thing to do, to put two or three spoons of sugar and cover them up with the porridge ... for Nelson and then put a little bit on top. Once he discovered that we were doing that, he stopped us at once, and he says it shouldn't happen again. Because we would not be able to do that for everyone and the sugar would run short. He didn't want that kind of favor and he was just very firm about it ...
And again on the story of food, he at a certain stage had hypertension and he was treated for it, and was put on special diet ... So they started making special food for him in the kitchen, without salt. But some of this food, because it was cooked on a smaller scale was actually quite tasty, came with these mielies, and they looked quite fresh, and he would get some milk ... he always made sure that he shared some of this food, this special diet which he got, with someone around him. He would one day give half a cup of mielies to me or to whoever was around. He shared this milk he was getting as well ...
When Mandela's mother died, do you recall that moment? What was his behavior, his reaction ...
Well, Mandela was not all strengths, all the time. He was and did become very emotional sometimes. He became very emotional for days on end when he heard about the death of his son in a car accident. Similarly, when he heard about the death of his mother, he was actually quite withdrawn for a day and was not himself, and was not talking to us and even he didn't have his usual smile. So that you cannot say that he's always been just all strength and that he was not vulnerable to emotions. He certainly was.
If there is another vulnerability which I think I can talk about, it is that he tended to trust people too much. All sorts of people and he would [trust] them even where I felt that they didn't deserve the trust. And that he ought to have known that they weren't good people and that they would sooner or later turn against us, and so on. He could never, for instance, detect who among us had been a plant. You had to actually come with evidence and say, "We believe so and so is a plant, for reasons A, B and C." And then even after that, it would take him quite a while to be cautious towards a person whom we discovered to be an informer in our group. I think his assessment of people was not particularly sharp or good. He tended to trust people too much.
Without naming names, do you remember any particular example of precisely such an encounter in prison, someone there who was a plant, who he refused to believe was a plant?
Yes, I do ... we discovered at least three people, one of whom ultimately confessed to me that he was a plant. Before that, we had suspected that he was, but finally we cornered him when he had been receiving cigarettes from a warder, and sweets and all sorts of things ... and he told us the story that he had very much wanted to get let out of prison, and that's the promise he had been given by the security police, that if he stayed in our section and passed on information about us, that might assist him in doing that ... but before he told us the story, Nelson didn't quite believe ... He did become cautious after a few warnings, because he himself had known this person from outside, and had known that he was not politically active, and to that extent had questioned his presence there. But as I say, otherwise he was really very slow to judge people. On the other hand, once he had the facts and had made up his mind that people were cheating, or people were being rude to him, he then really never pretended. I can remember one or two people whom he stopped greeting, which was really sort of the ultimate end on his part was when he stopped greeting someone. Then you knew that, that person had it. Once he took that stance, it was quite difficult to change him around.
One thing Mandela cannot tolerate is betrayal.
Did you talk with him about his mother's death - about the question of the funeral.
No, I never had a conversation with him.
And on the son's death.
On the son I did talk to him about ... because I'd wanted to know, what he was and how old he'd been, and so on. But really just to express condolences over it, and we were careful not to poke each other too much on sensitive issues. So it was just to express condolences that his son had died untimely, and when we did this all the time to each other when any one of the prisoners lost a relative,
Is it true to say that Mandela would be someone that you would be more cautious about trying to probe on these sort of things than other people.
It would be very difficult for me to go to Mandela, even today and talk about personal things, and for me to initiate that. It would be so, partly, because ... [it's] traditional ... younger people don't concern themselves with the personal and emotional things, in particular, of older people. So I wouldn't do that, but it is also quite true that part of the reason is that he himself, his nature and his personality don't make it easy for people to probe him, but at the same time he does himself, on occasion, talk about himself and his feelings, in which case it's quite interesting when he does that. But mostly about things which he can talk about in a light vein, and they are not things that had hurt him too much ... As I said, he's full of stories and he loves telling stories.
One story I have heard from him, several times, because he told this story to whoever came, so every newcomer who came would hear the story about how he left the country. He was called the Black Pimpernel and went on this African tour. I noticed over the years that he never told it in exactly the same way. It was always something different, depending on who his audience was, and it was slightly different on every occasion, on what he said about that trip, what his reactions were. I finally noticed that reading his book, he hadn't quite told the story like he told it in the book. So he's not perfect. Like most of us, he has a sense of humor, and sometimes his stories are a little bit exaggerated, and sometimes not, as I say, told in the same way as you heard them originally.
Your sense of isolation ... you didn't really know what was going on in the outside world, and were hungry to find out ...
As a matter of fact, I don't quite agree that we were terribly isolated. We were hungry for information. We were hungry for news, and because we made great efforts at getting them, we did get some. We had a very complex, one might say, arrangement, whereby just about everybody who got a visit, would ask certain questions from the visitors, and then hopefully bring back that information. So we were always well informed about certain things. We were well informed, for instance, about what trials were taking place around the country at the time, who was giving evidence, and who had turned state witness, and these things in advance while in prison. We would also know some innocuous things like sport ... As you will have heard from a lot of people, we were all the time getting hold of newspapers in one form or another. Either buying them through the smuggler, and from nonpolitical prisoners, who could steal them from warders, or sometimes bribing the warders themselves for them to just forget their newspapers. And so we read these, everything up to the advertisements and in that sense sometimes we became more informed than the people who came to visit us. By the time the people came, we would be asking them questions ... [that] we didn't have the details of.
The other thing is that we shared a lot of things, and that sharing was very important. It's something which I'm missing to this day, which I have never had in quite the same extent. It's the kind of company you kept, and the kind of relationships you built up. I have never been able to experience since then. In fact, I have felt more isolated now that I'm outside than I was when I was a prisoner. We just learned a lot from each other, because we came from different backgrounds, different skills, different professions and different areas. That's what I really remember most about that. There were obviously obvious deprivations which every prisoner knows about--deprivations of food, deprivations of sex and of children. I've noticed by the way everybody has talked about how much they missed children when they were in prison, and nobody ever says how much they missed women, which was probably more felt in some cases than the missing of children. So I don't really remember this isolation part very well, and probably I didn't want to.
... What role did Mandela play in that news gathering?
He was exempted from that process, and also exempted from most obviously illicit things for which if he were caught, it would be bad for us, and for our image. So he was consciously protected by the whole group from getting involved in any of those things and the most that he did was to maybe look the other way when we were busy stealing newspapers and doing things like that, but he himself never really actively got involved. Except, perhaps, in himself sending out messages ... to people in the struggle outside, and from receiving messages, which he needed to receive from people outside. Once we had got hold of the news, he had no qualms about reading them ... most of the time, we selected certain people to be doing the reading, so that if anyone were caught with the newspaper cuttings, it wouldn't be Nelson, but some of us who were younger and no big reputations to salvage.
... Mandela was a prisoner, and yet you all decided that he should not be involved in these slightly shady ...
Did you decide that or did he decide that?
I am probably even using the wrong word to say decide, it just happened. We knew that he, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and all these people who were in may ways our fathers, and also our leaders in the sense that their images were important and had to be protected, and so we just didn't do that. Sometimes we went a bit further and tried to exempt them from doing menial duties within the prison. One of the things that the prison commission I talked about was responsible for, was that we did our own manual work and our own cleaning. Because we didn't like to be getting orders every time from the warders, shouting at us and barking at us, to go and sweep there ... or to go and clean the toilets. We decided we are going to do that ourselves, and organize it ourselves. Again one of the things we tried to do, was to exempt the older people from the most menial or humiliating of the tasks. Except that when it came to that, neither Nelson and particularly Walter Sisulu, agreed. They didn't agree that they ought to be exempted from washing the toilets. But we did it anyhow. We just didn't put them on the roster.
But certainly as for doing things that were obviously illegal, and which if they were caught ... I suppose one of the things we had in mind was that it would if the system got hold of anything against Nelson which was however small, they would blow it up out of all proportion, to try and discredit the entire movement. Whereas, if they got hold of someone else doing exactly the same thing, who was not a known politician, they couldn't make any capital out of that.
Was Mandela quite clearly the leader in the prison?
Yes, he was. He was the leader in the sense that the ANC recognized him, and gave him that position as a leader. He was also a leader in the sense that a lot of other people, not necessarily within the ANC, looked up to him like I did. But he was not the only one in that category. Govan Mbeki was similarly treated. Walter Sisulu was similarly treated. So you must understand that all these people had track records of the struggle and that's really what was most important to us. I don't think to sort of single out Nelson would be accurate. We didn't necessarily believe that he and he only was going to become ... but yes, for that moment, he had placed there in a certain position where he was the head and he obviously took that seriously and behaved as expected, and was just very suited for ... well disciplined ... He had connections outside at all levels, and all these things made him an important person.
You mentioned Mbeki and Sisulu. We are particularly interested in the relationship between Walter and Nelson.
Well, Nelson and Walter Sisulu were very great friends. They were very intimate. They had obviously known each other for a long time ... Nelson had actually lived at Walter's home in Orlando at a certain time when he was in Johannesburg. They were so intimate that they were even able to tease one another, which didn't happen easily with the other people. They could tell stories about each other. There's a famous story which Nelson tells, and he used to tell in prison as a dig at Walter that while he was staying at Walter's home, although he was treated exactly the same as a son of the family ... and yet when it came to dishing out, particularly the amount of meat, Sisulu's mother would make sure that the bigger piece of meat went to Walter, and he would tell this in Walter's presence, and Walter would laugh at it ... and they had a great time telling these stories of growing up together and always supported each other ... They just had a great relationship, which made things so much lighter for us.
Walter Sisulu and the relationship with Mandela ... what do you remember about it, in the sense of Walter developing him ...
According to my own observation, and also from what I heard them say, it was an
established fact that Sisulu had, from the very beginning, when Nelson arrived
in Johannesburg, played the role of being his mentor, in all sorts of ways.
First of all, it was Sisulu who one might say discovered Nelson and his
potential, and developed it. Walter himself had, by the time that Nelson came
to Jo'burg, been quite a suave townsman, he'd been in the town much longer, and
at the same time he seems to have had some traditional links with the Eastern
Cape. The very fact that his mother already was living here in a house
immediately makes Walter someone who had grown up in the city and was slick in
the ways of the city, and was running an office somewhere in Johannesburg and
wearing a suit and all the smart things ... He was of a generation who thought
that the struggle was important, and was there as a founding member, and then
would naturally have been looking, particularly among students, as to whom they
could entice on to the movement. I certainly know that Nelson was Walter's
choice. The fact that he not only took him, but housed him, in his mother's
house, and must have taught him a few things. Walter's spoken English was
better than Nelson's spoken English, although Nelson had the better education.
But because, as I say, he was an urban person and so on, he sorted him out and
brightened him up for the roles which he was to play. Introduced him to people
of the left, whom he knew at that time, and introduced him to trade union
leaders, and so on...
During the Treason Trial period,just his mannerism of walking, his gait, was very impressive. Never in a hurry, but at the same time, he never slouched. Always sort of upright, as if he had a bit of a bounce to his walk. Almost deliberate. But he took his time. And it was just very good to watch. You sort of wished when you grew up, you'd be like that ...I noticed even in prison, that Nelson never ever decided to do anything without consulting Walter ... Even if you asked him something, [he would say] "I would like to check with out with Walter" ... and by the time it went over to the group, he'd have Walter's approval or Walter's criticism, whichever, and that's the relationship which ultimately ... Even now, they still probably retain to this day, Nelson still attends just about every social event that takes place at the Sisulus, in spite of the many commitments he has. He always finds time for Walter.
The authorities tried to get at Nelson through Winnie. There was one particular incident when newspaper cuttings concerning Winnie were put on Nelson's bed.
I do recall that while we were in prison, the system tried very hard to break Mandela's married life and also to be bringing a lot of obstacles between the relationship of Mandela and Winnie. Quite early on, ... around '65-'66, we heard through the grapevine that Winnie had been a co-respondent in a divorce case, in which a man known as Brian Somane was being divorced by his wife, Mrs. Somane, and that in the divorce proceedings, Winnie had been cited as co-respondent. In other words, as the woman was breaking up their lives, the Somane's marriage. Now that story was carried among other newspapers, by the Sunday Times. Now, normally, the Sunday Times didn't reach prison at all because most of the warders read Afrikaans newspapers ... but on this particular occasion, [they] put it almost on Nelson's desk where he couldn't miss seeing it, was this headline of this particular divorce case in English, and it became clear to us that, although it had been made to look as if someone had just slipped it there, that it had deliberately been put there so that Nelson could see it, and so that it would hurt him, and that possibly the whole thing would demoralize him, and demoralize his marriage. It was a constant effort on the part of the system to break that marriage.
Did that particular Sunday Times cutting have that impact on Mandela. Did you see how he responded to it?
He responded very well to it. He knew exactly what was happening. He stood by his wife Winnie, and didn't move an inch. I think in fact his relationship with his wife became stronger during that period, when she was being attacked from all sorts of fronts, from the outside. And that actually built the relationship rather than the reverse.
You said there were various efforts to undermine Mandela in that way. What other methods were there that you became aware of?
Well, the particular placing of the Sunday Times was a culmination of feeding us with the news from other areas, and we would suddenly get from the B-section cuttings referring to this divorce, and we believe that those cuttings were manufactured or were facilitated by the system. But that was the main thing, and then just about everything that happened to Winnie, sure enough we got to hear about it. It seemed a lot easier to hear things about Winnie than it was to hear any other thing that was either political or a political trial that was going on.
Did you ever talk to Mandela about this.
No, I didn't myself talk about it. He used to initiate it himself, and just say, "Winnie is having a hard time," and be all for Winnie, and if he talked it quite openly to me ... but I never sort of asked him questions.
Did he ever in prison express regret at the classic dilemma that a politically committed man like him had sacrificed his family for the cause.
Yes, ... he often talked about it and said that one of his sacrifices was the fact that he hasn't been able to bring up his own children, that he hasn't had a relationship, a meaningful relationship, with his wife Winnie. That they had met when she was very young; yet, she had never had much of him because he was either underground or in prison. He talked about all this. In fact, one of the things which I appreciated from both Nelson and Walter, in particular, was that they treated the younger of us as if they would treat their own sons. In a way, they were compensating precisely because they hadn't got up their own sons. They were particularly careful on making sure that we learned the lessons which we should have learned from our own fathers. And we appreciated that a great deal.
You used the word 'Madiba' before. There are so many different names used to address Mandela. What did you call him when you were in prison, and maybe you could explain the different ...
There were a number of ways of referring to Nelson and to use them interchangeably. Myself, like most people, used Madiba, and this was done for two reasons. Generally speaking among people who'd been in the underground, it became a habit not to use first names, but to use some pseudonym or other, and when it came to people who were traditional Africans, the easiest way was to use a clan name, rather than use the name that was known by the system, the English name and so on ... everyone of us has a series of these grand names. It's not just one, because the clan names serially represent your father, your grandfather ... and so as many of those that can be remembered, become part of your own clan names. So Madiba was the most popular clan name used for Nelson ...
What is this calling of Mandela, Madiba, mean? What does that express?
It is, first and foremost, his clan name. So he is a Madiba, together with a lot of other Madibas around the area where he comes from. But then it is also an endearment. It's sort of when you want to be less formal and more intimate, and more endearing ... that's really what it stands for. As it happens, the Madiba clan is also a very well-known one in the Eastern Cape ... the most important clan in Thembuland in fact, are the Madibas, and they rule the roost there. So to be a Madiba is actually to be something quite special.
When you left prison in 1974, did you remember bidding farewell to Mandela?
Yes. I remember when I left the island in 1974 that I had a farewell party to start with, which everybody organized. In the very last days when it was known that I would be leaving, and that a group would be leaving the island, and Nelson did come out to talk to me specially about how I should really conduct myself. If I should get outside, how I should deal with the Mantanzimas, for instance. He sent me messages for them and I suspect the purpose of these messages was not so much that he couldn't send them via some other means. It was that he had wanted them to know me and in a way to the extent that they knew him to protect me ... he also talked a lot to me about the Matanzima's and the two brothers of Kaiser Matanzima and George Matanzima, how I shouldn't shy away from them. I should actually go to them and pay them their respects and so on, and in that way he felt that I might be better protected than if I didn't do those things. He just taught me a lot about chieftainship, on how to conduct myself and with people who are chiefs sent me messages to take to Sabata, which was also very good, because Sabata was just very warm towards me from the moment I gave him those messages.
What did he tell you about chieftaincy.
Oh, well, he was talking about it all the time, he had grown up in it ... he had lived in the homesteads of chiefs, so he taught a lot about its history more or less. If you wanted to know anything about the Thembus, their chiefs, the bigger chiefs and the small chiefs, he had all that information. I'd been interested in that. I'd been a student of social anthropology before I started law, and the Thembus has always fascinated me. And I learned about the Thembu chieftainship just from listening to Mandela, or from asking him questions, and he knew the whole story...
What is it about Mandela that corresponds with Thembu characteristics from what you saw and from conversations you had with him?
It's just all about this aura ... if you're a black African with this history and you know you and your fathers and so on were serving under chief so and so. The whole history is cast in terms of who is your chief, and who was your family's chiefs and who were the ancestors and so on. It's something you grow up with. It's a kind of a folklore which you get to know, and you get to love. I don't think there's anything particularly special about Thembus, it's just that they were an important part of Xhosa history ...
Mandela went to Johannesburg and acquired the ways of the European. On the island how did he display his chiefly characteristics?
Well, although Mandela came from a chief family, and had grown up as a chief, and obviously respected that tradition himself. On the island, he didn't particularly swagger around as a chief. Although, in terms of his dignity and demeanor, one could detect that he had that chiefly background, but he didn't make a song and dance about it. Apart from telling stories about chiefs, and apart from his gait, his walk, his reserve and as I say his general demeanor, there was really nothing ... he wasn't wearing a label of chieftain ship on the island ... Politically, he was, of course, anti-the-institution to the extent that the institution had now been taken over by government and was being identified with the whole principle of separateness, self-development or whatever they called it, and he opposes that line of it. But otherwise as far as the traditional chiefs were concerned, those were genuinely leaders of the people. He had a great respect for them, had a great respect for Chief Luthuli, as a chief, but also particularly as a political leader. And so those chiefs, who one might have called progressive chiefs, he was very much in favor of those. he could rattle their names off ... who were progressive chiefs ... they were traditional chiefs, but at the same time were not sucking up to the government of the day.
Where were you on Mandela's release day?
I was in Port Elizabeth, and working there. I didn't see him immediately ... I saw him about a week later, I think.
I bet you watched it on TV.
I watched it on TV. Yes, I watched it on TV.
What do you remember about your reaction on that day?
It was actually almost unbelievable. I didn't think it was really happening. The sort of situation where you really have to scratch yourself a bit and say, "Is it really happening?" You have talked about it so long, you've heard you talk about it, but when it happens, it was actually quite a traumatic experience. Unbelievable experience. I wasn't even able to talk about it too much to my own family, because I hadn't really sort of taken it in full. It was a gradual process. It took me until I met him at his house a week or so later. I don't think I really sort of fully accepted that it had happened. But it was a great moment all the same.
What did you make of that day when he announced this separation from Winnie?
When Nelson announced his separation from Winnie, I wasn't surprised at all. I had seen it coming, and I was sad in a way for him, because he had kept up the relationship. Then he tried to keep it together for so long, and stood by Winnie over the Stompie affair and all that ... I also had occasion to go and complain to him about Winnie, because when I got arrested it was through Winnie. I got arrested in Winnie's car, and when I got to the island I talked to him about Winnie, very strongly, to say that I didn't think that she did the right thing by me, that she exposed me to the police, and by associating with someone whom she ought to have known was an informer, because that's how I got arrested. But at that stage, he had said that he is sorry about this and he will certainly try and make amends about it. When we have the time I must come and try and make my peace with Winnie. And this is what we tried to do on that first few occasions. It sort of worked for a while, but all the time I still personally didn't feel that Winnie was playing the game the way that he was playing it towards her and that perhaps even at his age it would be if it came to that ... to a separation, then it should and it probably would mean a better and more dignified life for him. So I was expecting it and it didn't shock me and in the end it's what ought to have happened a long time ago, and he should have met Graca or someone much earlier.
When you were in prison, Winnie increasingly became the person who carried the Mandela name, who kept Nelson Mandela alive outside prison. What was the perception of the prisoners of Winnie?
Well, when I was in prison, and despite the unpleasant experience I had involving Winnie, I have to admit that as far as she became the person who was really caring and representing Nelson in the outside world, she began to earn my respect. She also earned the respect of other prisoners, both those who knew her, and particularly, those who had no knowledge of her in a personal sort of way. They had a greater respect for her and for the role she was playing at the time.
I've got to admit that because the system appeared to be really focusing on her and punishing her, deporting her to Brandfort and she was fighting with all she had against that, and doing it very impressively and I built up a lot of respect for her, which I still have that she really was a fighter. She obviously now, in retrospect, one is aware of the horrendous errors that she made and the misjudgments and a whole lot of other things. But as a fighter, she still has a lot of my respect, and as a person who also kept the Mandela image alive she obviously still has a lot of respect.
How important was she to Mandela when he was a prisoner?
She was the center of his entire life. He never stopped talking about her. He was absolutely in love with her and openly said how he regretted that he could not have actually lived with her in a normal sort of family situation as man and wife, and certainly his emotional life was centered around Winnie and I think he pictured that whatever his future life would be, it would be with Winnie.
Is that why he stuck by her so loyally and so long?
Well, the impression I got when I was in prison with Nelson is that it was something more than just loyalty to Winnie. He was, in fact, deeply committed and deeply in love with Winnie. And that he had a tremendous admiration for her and for her strength, being alone ... you've got to understand that Winnie had never been in politics in the same way that Nelson himself had been, and in the same way that the Walter's had been. She only came into politics as a result of her marriage to Nelson, and so was really a rookie in a lot of political things, of political theory and so on. Also, her politics, if any, were really more of the marshal kind of politics. They were not necessarily ideologically based. She knew the oppression was there, but her way of being an activist was literally to be on the stage on to be lifting the fist and to be involved in the rhetoric of the struggle. And because she had not grown up in it and she just met up with the struggle when she met Nelson. And for her to have been able as it were without the help of or the mentorship of the Nelsons and the Walters, still imbibed enough to be able to withstand the kind of pressure she was subjected to. I think Nelson really admired her for that and appreciated her for being able to do that.
Can you remember a moment when Nelson might have returned from a visit from Winnie and where he would report back what she had said to the group ...
One of the moments I remember most vividly is whenever Winnie had come to visit Nelson, it was something which just set up the whole section alight because it would excite us, just the prospect of it even before her visit was to come, just knowing that Winnie was about to come brought such a change over Nelson to start with and it then flowed over to the rest of us. We would look forward to the visit, and we were never disappointed. Every visit of Winnie's had something. She had information which she gave to Nelson, which he in turn would come and give to us. About all sorts of things. About political things, about personal things, about other families who were involved and what they were doing.
And Nelson would literally come back glowing from a visit from Winnie, glowing because it excited him to have seen her, and also glowing because of course she would always have something, some information, which was exciting. This was not made up at all. You could just see it from his face or he really doted on Winnie. I think by and large, he did feel sad and sorry whenever Winnie was being pressurized or being banned. But I think he also had this confidence in her that she was strong and she was powerful and that they could never break her, and so apart from the love he also had a very deep admiration of her strength in dealing with issues, and must have been looking forward on his release to really spending the rest of his life with Winnie.
What would he do before a visit from Winnie?
He'd just be bright. He would be all smiles. He would be all jokes and he would be really happy. He would be a happy man before the time and after, and I suppose specially during the time. In a way, one admired that, and just the depth of feeling that he had for her, and one hoped that, she was reciprocating in kind, but about that, I really don't know.
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