interview: Wolfie Kodesh INTERVIEWED BY JOHN CARLINIn 1961, during the first months of Mandela going underground, Kodesh hid him for nearly eight weeks in his one-room bachelor apartment in a white suburb of Johannesburg.
What was your first meeting with Mandela ... your first recollection of
really engaging with him ...|
... I was on the committee that had to protect him--a counter intelligence ANC
committee. We used to organize safe houses for these meetings to take place.
Every one of us, including myself, was banned from meeting more than one person
at a time. I had arranged this particular meeting at a flat ... we'd arranged
it for about 8:00 that evening, for all the banned and underground ANC members.
At the appointed time... it got dark and people were coming through to this
flat ... singly, because they weren't supposed to be with one another. They
walked along the passage towards the flat ... and I was standing at the bottom
of the steps, organizing, telling them where they had to go ... practically
everyone had come... Walter Sisulu ... J.B. Marks and several others ...
He grabbed hold of one of his greatest friends, Yusuf Cachalia, off a platform and threw him off as though he were a dog ... And he used to attack the Communist Party and the Indian Congress and Indian shopkeepers and all the usual sort of nonsense.Nelson Mandela (who was already underground) ... had been brought into Johannesburg by people from the townships, and the fellow who brought him in was going to come back at about 11:00 that night. That's how long they thought the meeting would go on for. He was already inside ... and I was looking to see that everything was okay, when I noticed a door just before that flat, open and an old man and old lady, looking, because they had obviously seen the reflection of the people going past their windows ... I heard him say, "Quickly, go and phone." I immediately knew that they were going to phone the police ... I ran round the front of the house, jumped over a little wall and knocked at the French windows ... and told them that they had to abandon the meeting because the police would soon be there. So everyone had to just disappear and disperse ... but what to do now with Nelson Mandela, who was disguised as a chauffeur? ...
I had already acquired a flat [apartment] under another name, prior to that, after the 1960 emergency ... Walter knew about this flat, and one or two others. So I said, "Well, what about taking him to this flat." They said, "Yes, what else can we do..." So it was arranged that he comes along to my flat, this flat that I'd had under this assumed name.
... I brought him into the flat ... We had a long discussion. I had to persuade him that it was best, 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. I told him about that, and we argued about it. I said, "You're safe over here. Safer than you are in the townships, as a matter of fact." Once he was convinced that it was so, he said, "Okay, right, this is where we stay."
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 there, 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. First of all, they patrol ... it would be strange for a black man to be seen running around." 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." I went to sleep and 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 going to join me" ...
So came the 'morrow ... and I got into a tracksuit, and I ran for about a quarter of an hour. I was quite fit, but not as fit as all that, to do this. Then by the time the end of his stay with me, I was doing an hour. He did more than an hour. He did about two hours, I think. The whole performance. I was very thankful in a way, because when I went to confinement, that's what I did to keep fit. I ran on the spot ...
How long was he with you?
I think he was there for about six weeks to two months ... I must tell you a story of what happened after he'd been there about three days ... I looked through the peep hole in the door, and I noticed that there was a man outside who did the cleaning, because in all the white flats, as they called them, you had African men cleaning ... I said to [Mandela], "Listen, has he been in the flat at all? Have you seen him at all?" He said, "No, who is he?" He looks through there and he said, "Oh, this chappie is a Zulu man. And he speaks Zulu." Xhosa and Zulu, in any case, are very near each other.
He said what we are going to do is bring about this legend that we had was that if anyone ever came to the flat by accident or whatever reason, and found this black man, in a white flat, we would say that [Mandela's] name was David, he was a student waiting to go overseas. He got a grant and that he wanted to be in the safe place because he wasn't sure which way he was going to get out to take up the grant ...
I assured [Mandela] that if this man didn't come in practically every day he would get suspicious and wonder why I wasn't letting him in, and he would report it to the owner of the flats, because he would be afraid that he wasn't doing his job of cleaning up. He agreed with that. He said, "Bring him in. I'll talk to him. You go and make some tea and you come along and join us," So I thought this is madness. The whole of the defense force, the whole of the police force have a picture of Nelson Mandela, they are looking for him, and here he is inviting the man into the flat. So anyhow ... I went and made tea, and the kettle hadn't even boiled by the time that I heard him cracking jokes and they were laughing ... and it was remarkable ... He got this fellow to get papers for him, newspapers, and magazines ... So we established that this fellow would [run errands] ... and he told him that he was a student and David and the chap took it all in and so on.
A few weeks later ... Nelson said to me "I want to send this chap somewhere tomorrow morning. Can you fetch him down?" This was in the evening. So I went up and they had just a few rooms upstairs, with electric light and just a bed ... when I got up to where where his room was, he wasn't there ... but I saw a newspaper or a magazine saying, "Black pimpernel ... still at large" [with a ] picture of Nelson Mandela. About three or four pictures of Nelson. Now he had a beard, at the time, and as I say he was disguised as a chauffeur ... I thought well, this is the last time that we are going to be here with this fellow ... There could be no mistaking the fact that one or two of those pictures was the man, David, down in the flats downstairs ... I said, "Come on, pack up, I'm taking you to the alternative place." Always had an alternative hiding place. That was pre-arranged, always. He said, "What for?" So I told him about these pictures. He said, "Don't worry, man, this fellow will never ever give me away, I know he won't" ... He was convinced that this person would never give him away. So I left it, and he stayed on for a while until ... one or two other incidents took place.
... he spent two hours exercising each morning and he had the whole of the rest of the day to deal with. How did he spend his time? I understand that one thing he did was read an awful lot.
He read a lot of books, yes. He read a lot of books about armies ... Then I asked him ... "Have you read this Clausewitz?" ... he said, "No." I said, "Well, if you are in MK and so on, you had better read that book. It's like reading Shakespeare for English classics. You have to read Clausewitz for warfare." I took it out and gave it to him ... and he got down to it. He had pencil, paper and so on, and he was reading it. He said, "Can I underline and everything in this book?" So I said, "It's yours, it's your book. You do what you like." And he sat there reading, making notes, I think, for days on end. You couldn't pull him away from it all, he so involved in it. After reading it, all the tactics and strategies, the political side of warfare that Clausewitz dealt with, he said that there was no difference between his views and Clausewitz' views. Because Clausewitz was a political man who knew that warfare was a continuation of politics sort of thing, and he agreed 100% about it ...
He sent me to get poetry books by a fellow Kunene ... He was always reading books, reading scripts that he had, and so on. And as I say, other people were coming up to the flat like Slovo, like Sisulu. I suppose they brought him papers from the ANC and so on. He read all the time and made notes ... he was also writing articles as I remember, for some of our magazines.
Let's come back to the details of the flat. How was it that Mandela was selected as commander-in-chief of MK ...
Oh, that's easy to tell you, because if you went back several years, to the defiance campaign, to the M-plan that he wrote out, whenever it came to implementing the decisions which the politicians had taken, it was always Mandela who did the implementation of it all. Once he was convinced that this was the correct policy politically, he implemented it to the nth degree. He was that type of person, who liked to have discussions, very serious political discussions, and very often he admitted he was wrong and others were right, but he'd argue about it.
But I know this for a fact that when it came for people to take the decision to put it into practice, Mandela was the man who was always chosen. Because, at the time, O.R. Tambo, J.B. Marks, several others, were more senior than he was ... but somehow ... you saw Mandela coming through the whole pack, so to say, and you could predict that when a real crisis occurred, it was Mandela who would be the man to lead it. The others would be around him. They would be the advisors. They would even have more to say about the policy making possibly, although I can't imagine him not talking, you see. But it was Mandela who had the personality, he had the charisma and he had even the stature. One has to say this about him, that he was an inspiring looking, physically looking man. So it came as no surprise to me that when on the 16th of December in '61, when MK was formed, when we came into the open and started the blasting, that Mandela was the commander-in-chief. I think everyone just took it for granted that he would be.
The sense of him being the practical man ... can you recall maybe any incident before he became commander of MK ... which illustrates the point you just made about he was the guy who went out and put policy into practice.
Yes, well I suppose the M-plan is the type of thing that I would say showed how effective he was in a practical way, because the M-plan was the idea that you had street committees in all townships throughout South Africa ... and the street committees communicated with one another because in those days the police were in and out of the townships, and sweeping all the townships with heavy armored cars and all the rest of it. And this was a counter to that. Mandela, himself, actually went to the townships, explained what it was all about ... he got these things together ... the plan was put into effect, street committees were formed, but the cohesion of it all, I think, was interrupted by events that followed. But that's the type of person that he is ...
For instance, another thing, he had to build up the ANC, which up to that point wasn't so terribly strong. He and O.R. Tambo were lawyers, as you know, and they used to go out into the country very often, never charged the poor peasants anything for their services, but wherever they went, they formed ANC committees. So if they went out to Blikkiesdorp or wherever it is, some place right out in the sticks, they would form ANC committees. He specially loved doing that type of thing.
Why do you think he loved that kind of thing?
Because he felt very closely attached to both peasants and town people. He came, after all, from a place like Qunu, which was a peasant place in the Transkei, and he felt now that he is a lawyer, he felt that he knows how the workers in the towns go about their jobs, both politically and otherwise, but he liked keeping in touch with the peasants as well. So he knew more about the peasants and the town people than probably anyone else in the leadership of the ANC, because he felt this strong attachment to both the workers in the town, and the peasants.
He was the only one who could bridge that gulf.
Yes, that's right.
Clearly Mandela/Sisulu is the closest of relationships ... one gets a sense of Walter as a couple of years older, bit of an older brother, groomed and developed him ...
Absolutely. As far as I am concerned ... there was a triumvirate really of Walter, O.R. and Nelson. They were the three big people in the ANC. Walter was a few years older than both, and Walter had been in the city longer, as well. He was the king maker of the ANC and he's an absolute encyclopedia of the history of the ANC. He gained the respect of ... everybody loves him. He is such a lovable type of person, but he is also a very serious person, and he's a man who spots talent even amongst the peasants. He'll put his finger on people who have the potential for leadership.
When he was introduced in Johannesburg to Nelson Mandela, there was no question about the fact that he was going to build him up into the leadership ... In 1959, in the African National Youth League, all three were in it ... from that time onward, as soon as he was introduced to people of that caliber, he, Walter, would build them up. He would advise them, he would talk to them, and he could see, I think, that here was a rare talent in Mandela. They've been friends for all those years, since 1949, or even before ... So Walter is the king maker for the ANC. And I dare say that he even had something to say about that decision of OR [Oliver Tambo] going out [of the country] as well.
I think Sisulu's played a major role. As a matter of fact, there are many people even to this day ... who say that in a way, they loved him more. They respected Nelson, they even loved him, but not as they did Walter, [he] was like an uncle ...
Coming back to your flat [apartment]. You talked about this narrow escape that you had. Run us through that.
Oh, well, I'll tell you what happened. Milk in those days was bottled, and Africans liked having the milk going sour ... we used to put it on the window sill where the sun could get to it. So it was on the window sill with a curtain covering the room of course. But from outside you could see these bottles ... and one day, I had just come in from going out somewhere, when Nelson said to me, "Just come here, ssshh, quiet." So I came to the curtain. He had his fingers on the curtain, holding it little bit away from the window. And we could hear ... there were about three African men, young fellows, standing there and he was translating to me what they were talking about. He said, "The one chap is saying, 'How is it that in this white area, you have got these bottles of milk lying there, obviously to make [amasi]' And the other one said, 'Yes, we better find out about it.'" The conversation was going like that, and whether they should or shouldn't find out about this funny business that was for white people to put bottles out like that was not the usual thing ... Of course, what we were worried about was that they might very well come in, and say to the man who cleans the flats, an African, that, "Look here, what's all these bottles about, and who stays in the flat?" We were sort of on tenterhooks about that, you see, as to what they were going to do, because if they did that, then there was no question that he would have to get out. And he didn't want to. He thought this was a very good place to stay ... I think that in his mind, he saw that as a mistake on our part for having left those bottles of milk there. That sooner or later he should leave, which he did after a week or so after that. But he always pointed that out as a mistake on our part.
The pictures, the photographs. Tell me how did it come about ... Was there a photograph session ... Why was it done?
Well, what had happened is that he had been underground for quite a while. Rumors were rife, you know, some said that he's left the country, others said that he'd been captured, others said that he was even dead. And it was spilling out into the townships, these rumors about his whereabouts, and what he was doing and whether he was alive, whether he's left the country. I think it was decided by the top committee that the best thing would be to have a picture of Mandela with that beard, which he never had before, and to take this picture.
Well, that was like a military operation, because we had to get Ellie Weinberg [photographer] to come in, with his cameras ... and take photographs of him. And that again was giving somebody else the knowledge of where Nelson was hiding out, which wasn't something that we wanted ... But what was more in favor in taking it, was the fact that we would dispel these rumors if we displayed a picture of Nelson Mandela. So Ellie Weinberg came into the flat, and as I say, there was a lot of security attached to it all. We had to see that everything was clear and so on, and took this picture, which I don't know whether it was published or whether it was given to the different ANC groupings or whatever, but it was evidence that he was alive and that he was around, and there he was, and so on. As far as that picture was concerned.
Now which picture was that?
The picture is the one where he is wearing a striped jersey, and if you look at the picture, you see that there's a cupboard ... the cupboard handle and the keyholes in it, of the flat that I was in ... So that was circulated afterwards, quite extensively.
What about this picture? [showing Kodesh a picture]
Oh, that picture. Now, I'll tell you what this picture reminds me of ... when he was captured in Howick, that was in 1960 ... He had been out of the country ... and when he'd come back, he insisted that he had to go ... tell Luthuli about his experiences, and what the leaders of Africa had had to say about our movement. Now I can remember Kathrada actually saying that he would take the message down, because it was too risky. As it was, it was known now that he'd been out of the country and came back. And he said no, it was his duty. He had promised Luthuli and having made the promise, he was going to go down. So he went down with Cecil Williams, as everyone knows, and then he was caught in Howick.
Now we received the message of his capture at the New Age newspaper on which I was working in Johannesburg. They said well, we have to let Winnie know about it as well. And as I say, a lot of us were banned. I was not supposed to speak to Winnie. So we got somebody to go in front of me, a woman who worked at the New Age, and somebody went down to a public telephone and told Winnie to be down in the vestibule of the building in which she worked ... so with the woman in front of me, I had to walk behind her to get a signal as to whether it was all clear ... because we knew the special branch very well, and which cars they sat in ... it was like second nature to us. Then I came in and I'd had a rough night the night before, and I could hardly open my eyes. I can remember that very distinctly, and they chose me to go and tell Winnie that he'd been captured.
Why did they choose you?
They chose me because I had had quite a lot to do with Nelson.
Who was "they?"
... it was several people ... together, a few of us decided that I should go and tell her. Because I had brought them together several times, during the period when he was underground and all the rest of it. So she immediately saw from what I looked like, and how disappointed I felt and how miserable I felt. So she said, "Is it Nelson?" I said, "Yes, and he's going to appear at the magistrate's court ... a day or two afterwards." And she must be ready, to be there and so on ...
When he was brought to court, this was an amazing thing ... The court was
crowded with special branch, with police with guns ... So I thought I'd sit
there so that when he came up from the downstairs, into the dock, he would see
me and it would give him a bit of an upliftment ... but in between all that,
Winnie asked the sergeant who was standing in the dock ... to give [Mandela]
this suitcase so that he could get dressed. Of course, he hthought that's very
respectful, I suppose, of Mandela to be nicely dressed, appearing in court ...
you know the way these blokes think. And I was waiting there. Now ... when the
magistrate came in, they called for [Mandela] to be brought up. I can never
forget this. It was amazing. When he came up--and he's this tall, big, athletic
man--he had like a kaross, like a skin across here, beads round his neck, beads
round his arms, and I am sure he had beads round his ... and he was half naked.
And he just came up and whether he saw me or not, it was his tactic, and the
tactic perhaps that they'd discussed somewhere, that he would look straight at
the magistrate. It was incredible, because as he came up, there was a complete
hush. Even the policemen, I honestly think they went pale, to see this huge man
standing there in his national costume, and he just looked at the man.
He was very much in love with her. There is no question about that. ... He valued family life... he felt that he should be there. It's a custom, particularly of Africans, to be with their families and he's the head of the house ... And here he was failing in this duty. We used to discuss it quite a lot.Now the magistrate, normally would ... bow to the prosecutor, then to the defense, and so on.But it was as though, when a mongoose stares at a snake, he sort of seems to ... almost paralyze the snake. That magistrate just looked, and he couldn't find his voice and everyone was waiting for him to say something, and only after about, I suppose, it was only about a minute or so, but by the time he's done this and done that, and just stared, and he also stared at Mandela with all his beads on. It was something that I'd never ever seen or evidenced before. It was as though as he was in a spell. But then the court case took place and it was changed from magistrate's court in Johannesburg to Pretoria, because outside there was a huge demonstration. The hearing only lasted for about a few minutes when the magistrate announced that it [would be moved] ...
Tell me about Winnie. You obviously saw Nelson and Winnie together quite a lot and you facilitated their more private moments and that's why you were chosen to convey the bad news to her. What can you tell me about the way that they related? Was it a great love affair?
Oh, yes. That's one thing that he used to talk to me about, when we weren't talking pure politics, which was amazing. He would tell me how he missed Winnie and the children. He got married to her in 1959, I think it was, and in all that time ... he was always moving around, going places and so on, and he'd always talk about how bad he felt at not seeing her. So that we arranged several ... I must have arranged at least three or four different meetings for him and Winnie ...
How were they together? Was it moving?
Oh, yes ... he was very much in love with her. There is no question about that. I think it hurt him a great deal, but you see, this is what he did ... he valued family life. There is no question about it. And his insistence on education became almost obsessive with him. You had to be educated and things like that. But he felt that he should be there. It's a custom, particularly of Africans, to be with their families and he's the head of the house and all this type of thing. And here he was failing in this duty, and we used to discuss it quite a lot. Then he decided, not because of the discussion with me, but he then decided well, these are two different matters. One is your dedication to the movement, which was supreme as far as he was concerned. But that didn't diminish his dedication to his family, which was another sort of matter, if you can understand that. It seems a bit Irish, but ... that's the way he felt ... you had to be dedicated, and I remember he used to sort of go like this, and say once you've dedicated yourself you have to have like [blinders] and ... you'll have enemies and friends, whether they agree with you or don't, but you have to stick to that ultimate ambition of yours. That is to free South Africa, of course. One must say about him, that I don't think anyone was more dedicated than that man, in spite of all the emotional, as well as political, criticisms that were made at times.
Can you remember anything in more detail on that topic of those kind of conversations you had with Nelson about the wife, about the children?
... well, just like a father, he would want to know how the children were, and especially about Winnie, how she was coping ... I suppose ... she must have told him that she was finding it difficult. I don't know. I can't go into all the details, except to say this, that there was no question about it, that the man was heartbroken about it, and if ever you found any emotion on that sort of side, it was always about his family, and that he was letting them down. And ... there's no way in which he wasn't going to let them down, because of his politics. It was a difficult situation for him, and a very, very emotional one.
Another thing about Nelson, everyone says he's so quiet and he's so compassionate, and he's forgiving, which is true. But he's also got a bit of a short fuse. One day I remember this ... 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 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 ...
Tell me about the bomb at the brickworks ...
The bomb. Ja. Well, it was before December 16th of '61, when the whole thing started, the MK started. We weren't sure whether this bomb would work and the one who got the bomb together, was Jack Hodgson. He was a Desert Rat at one time, and he'd been through the war ... It was just like ... a canister ... it was put together by Hodgson with a timing device ... we wanted to see if this would work. I and my brother owned ... some brickworks ... We were wondering how the hell could we get a safe place for a bomb to go off. I knew that my brother had gone on holiday at the time. So I said I have got the place for it ... there were holes where you got your earth from, to make the bricks. I thought that would be perfect because next door was a big engineering works that also made a terrific row ... So this was the place we were going ... and he insisted that he had to come.
It was the first one that was being tested before '61, and so we went to the brickworks, and there was a man that my brother must have left there to keep watch, a Zulu man ... I was going to give it up. Nelson said, "No, let me speak to him." He went and spoke to him ... to this day I don't know what he said to him, but ... the man went away ... we went there, and put the canister down into the hole, and we were waiting, because of the timing device, and nothing happened. So we had to get down into the hole, bring it up again, and then Hodgson sort of adjusted it. It was put down again in the hole, and ... it must have been a matter of 10 seconds when there was this terrific blast. What we'd also forgotten was that the sand in the hole was loose ... and that went up like dust, like these pictures that you have of an atomic bomb, in a smaller way, of course. But the dust just rose up and we ... God, we thought no, this is not the usual bomb, the sound of a blast ... so we tumbled into the car and drove away ... I was driving, a big '48 Chev, and instead of reversing to get onto the path to go away I just went through the bushes jumping like this ... But [Mandela] was overjoyed. He was congratulating everyone and congratulating Hodgson, of course, for having succeeded in doing it. Once we knew that this device was okay, and you can see how amateurish it was, that was only the beginning of MK. Afterwards, of course, it became much more sophisticated. He then insisted that Hodgson went round to various other areas, to show them how to do it. But the point about him being there was that he was being sought, you see. But he ... insisted that he had to be there. Nothing you could say to him would change his mind, once he ...
In a sense, even though it was a crazy sort of episode, it was also in it's own crazy way, rather historic.
It was historic. It was, because we didn't have all the facilities that MK had ... later on. This was something devised by Hodgson who could devise anything. He was a magician at that type of thing, and the way to do it. So it was a risky thing. But one thing that we also knew, is that if this device went off at any place, it wasn't going to spread out and be very harmful to anybody. Because, it was our policy that under no circumstances were people to be endangered.
Was that Mandela's ... ?
Yes. Mandela's and MK. The high command of MK, ja. Oh yes. And the politicians, particularly the politicians ... when we knew that we going to start on December the 16th, to blast the symbolic places of apartheid, like pass offices, native magistrates courts, and things like that ... post offices and ... the government offices. But we were to do it in such a way that nobody would be hurt, nobody would get killed. So we had to go and sus out a place to find out where there was very little traffic and people around. This we did on every occasion. We would go and have a look night after night after night, sussing out the places that we'd chosen to do. We also got a leaflet out, which ... was posted onto buildings, onto poles in the street and all over, saying that the MK were going to have this armed action against the government, and that in doing so, we were going to go for symbolic things of apartheid, and we were going to make sure, that nobody was hurt or killed. Well, you can do that up to a certain extent, I suppose, but I think that by and large we did it brilliantly. We were able to do it because we took so much trouble to sus places out before any action was taken.
Tell me about Mandela's role behind the decision.
... well, I can only put it this way, that it was made clear to anyone in MK, that they were secondary to the struggle. The first and most important side of the struggle was the political side, and they were subject to the political views of the movement. Now although MK was itself separated from the political bodies at the time, nevertheless there were people like Walter Sisulu, like Nelson Mandela, and several others, on the highest command. Then you had several other area commands. I was an area commander. Several of us were chosen because we were ex-soldiers ... So I think that we never, in all the time that MK existed, had anyone who disputed that fact, that they were politicians in soldiers clothes. And that what the politicians said, would have to be the decision, that the movement took over and above the MK.
... I believe that when Mandela returned from his trip around Africa, and Europe, he came back with a strong sense that the leadership should be African. How did you feel about that?
Let me tell you how I got to know about it ... I was asked to go up to Cyrildene ... and there was Mandela who had come back from his trip to outside of South Africa, to Europe and so on. We were chatting and, of course, it was great to see each other again. He said that he's had difficulty, and the difficulty that he had was most of the leaders at the Pan African conference and other places, wherever he went, they said, "We don't understand why it is that the spokespeople for the struggle in South Africa are very often white, or Indian or this or that. Not only Africans. It gives us the impression that this is not an African led organization."
He told them, "Look here, South Africa is different to all the countries in Africa ... because our population is different, and the whole structure of the country is different. Economically and politically in every way." He explained that all to them. They weren't satisfied.
He said what we'll have to do, what he was going to tell Luthuli, I remember him saying was that we would have explain to our allies, colored, African, whites and so forth, that it must be mainly Africans who are the spokespeople and who are seen by the outside world to be Africans. Otherwise, we may lose a lot of support and create a lot of suspicion. That what some people are saying that the whites are leading this and leading that and so on. And the Indians and so ... I think then, that that policy was pursued ...
Let us talk about that a little bit more. From reading Mandela's history it was clear that there was point in the '40s when he was a younger firebrand, when he had a bit of anti-Indian sentiment, and a bit of anti-white sentiment. Now ... we are talking about '61, '62. Clearly, he had evolved a more mature position. In that conversation that you had with him, did you detect any sort of hint of anti-whiteness that he'd somehow absorbed in Africa, or was it very clear that this was a political position ...
No hint whatsoever. None whatsoever. Because he had already changed from the 1949 fiery youth who was going for the communists and going for the Indians. He grabbed hold of one of his greatest friends, Yusuf Cachalia, of a platform and threw him off as though he were a dog ... and he used to attack the communist party and ... the Indian Congress and Indian shopkeepers and all the usual sort of nonsense. One of the things that led him to dispel that sort of thought about the Indians, for instance, was the fact that in '46 when they had that passive resistance thing. He was a great admirer of Gandhi's ... passive resistance policy. He marveled at the fact that there were so many people who willingly were going into jails, without retaliation at all. Because he was quite a firebrand. His idea was that this is a black nationalist struggle, and it doesn't concern the others, so there he was won over, you see. He thought well, if that can bring about such a force of thousands of people going to jail, women and young people, and elderly people, priests, the lot ... then there is something in this. Once he was convinced about something, he just took to it, and he must have then thought of the possibility ... and he now could see it, and I think seeing is a big thing with him as well. Not only theory, but practice, he could see it in practice. There they were going to jail. And that he must have taken something out of that for the defiance campaign which followed.
You talk about how the Indian community persuaded him by example. You talk about the communist party, which in a way is a way of saying whites in the struggle. How do you think that he came around on the white folks? In a sense the Indians were almost easier; they were also oppressed.
I can illustrate it only by little things that I have thought about. One is that ... he was taking law and he admired the whole structure of the law, the legal system as he was in favor of the parliamentary system, which was more or less British orientated. And amongst the people that he now met in the struggle was Bram Fischer ... He was a very great admirer both of Luthuli and Bram Fischer. They were his heroes ... when that anti-communism act was passed by the Nationalist party ... it was about 1950 ... He realized that this wasn't aimed just against the communist party. It was also aimed potentially, against any opposition parties, and although he knew that a lot of whites were in the communist party, he soon found out that the leading people were J.B. Marks, Kutane, Duma Nokwe, people like that. Kathrada were in the communist party, and that it was the only party in fact that any racial group could come and become communist party, which wasn't the case with all the others.
I think it was a sort of amalgam of all these sort about whites being in the communist party; yet, there they were in the struggle, and they were the ones if that were the case to be first to come under the whip of the Nationalist. When he met Bram Fischer in his legal right, and he was taken by Bram and various others like others who follow. His whole attitude changed towards the whites as well. Especially when they formed the Congress of Democrats and so on.
When you had that meeting with him after his trip, when he explained to you what the African leaders were saying, was there any sort of element of awkwardness at all. Was he sort of apologetic about the fact that he had to take that position?
No. No. He said that as far as he was concerned, the idea of the congress movement having all the various ... the coloreds, the whites, the Indians and so on together with the Africans, that was something that you couldn't change. But since, after all, the greatest majority of people in the country, and the most oppressed in the country, were the blacks, he could see no reason why the black people's representative shouldn't be the main spokesman, if it meant that it wouldn't antagonize the rest ... or rather if it would please the rest of African leaders ... and he would explain the whole thing and that he was sure that everyone else would see that that was the correct policy. I think that is more or less the ideas that were floating around. It didn't take much to convince anyone. We were all for it. Yes. It was common sense ...
Let's leap forward in time. To the day of Mandela's release ... what and where were you doing?
I was in London at the time. In exile. We were all gathered, thousands of people were gathered on Trafalgar Square. I had one of these little machines ... cassette recorders ... and I was running around within the crowd, asking them what they thought ... about Nelson Mandela's release. Of course, when we eventually got the news that he was released, we all went mad in Trafalgar Square. It was wonderful. It was such a release of emotion that must have been welding up in all of us for years ... oh, it was just, I just can't describe the feeling, the emotion of it all.
What kind of people were gathered?
Every community you could think of, and not only South Africans. Everybody had come to Trafalgar Square and we were amongst them, and I was anxious to ask people how this affected them, and what they thought about it, because it intrigued me to think that so many people were like that. Of course, what I found out is an interesting factor, when one thinks of Mandela and why he is revered to the extent that he is ... with Nelson Mandela, every black person, not only in South Africa, but in the world also felt this oppression, this racial oppression ... even in London. They were oppressed, they were singled out, by the police and everything ... it was very obvious. And [he] was the symbol of the release ... that's why he's so revered and he's known so well throughout the world. He was the symbol of black emancipation, that's what I think.
synopsis + anecdotes + chronology + discussion + map
tapes & transcripts + press + site map + viewers & teachers' guide
frontline + pbs online + wgbh
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation