frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela
interviews

interview: Govan Mbeki INTERVIEWED BY JOHN CARLIN

Eight years older than Mandela, he was a lifelong comrade and sometime ANC adversary.
Do you recall the first time you met Nelson Mandela?

govan mbekiIt was either early to late '40s.

Was that at Fort Hare?

No, it was at Umtata.

Why Umtata? It seems very early to have encountered him.

He remembers better than I do and he relates it better. I don't know why I was at Umtata. But I was there, and he says somewhere in the heart of Umtata he heard noises and when he went to find out, the people were saying, "There's Govan Mbeki, the author." I had then just published a book entitled The Transkei in the Making, and this book was quite the excitement in the Transkei, because it described conditions in the Transkei, at the time. But I don't remember particularly having any discussions with him then.

I remember the day we were arrested at Rivonia. I quickly went round [to] the chaps and without saying a word, I indicated that this was what we were going to get [slicing finger across throat].
Now ... face to face contact, I had round about the middle '40s, after the formation of the Youth League, I wouldn't say I had assessed, at that time, that he would one day form the top leadership of the African National Congress. There were still bigger guns ... like A.B. Xuma, at the time, who was the president general of the African National Congress. So here was this outcrop of youth, saying they wanted to be independent within the ANC of any support other than from the Africans. It didn't make much of an impression on me. They were under the leadership of Anton Lembede, and he was strong against the Communist Party. I had, myself, been influenced very considerably by some of the leadership of the Communist Party, at the time ...

At what point did Mandela begin to loom large in your consciousness?

He was already playing a leading role in the Youth League, and he was quite vociferous in the opposition to the Communist Party. With the passing of Lembede, he occupied quite a prominent position with the Youth League. He used to make statements--then one was aware of him as one of the top leadership of the Youth League. And the Youth League was working within the ANC, so that in acknowledging the leadership of the Youth League, at the time, it was also to acknowledge as an asset to the ANC, members of the Youth League, amongst whom were Nelson Mandela.

The Rivonia Trial and the decisions that you, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela took not to appeal your sentence ... Tell me, if you can recall, how that decision came about.

I don't think we had made up our minds on that before the trial was over. Then we were sentenced; we went to Robben Island. A week or so thereafter, we were visited by Bram Fischer. Bram Fischer pointed out that some of those convicted at Rivonia would stand a chance if they appealed ... such people as Raymond and Kathrada and Andrew Mlangeni stood a chance of getting an appeal either reduced or freed. But Bram said in the case of the three of us--Nelson, Walter and myself--the appeal judges may say [that] if the judge at the high court in Pretoria, [who] had imposed a life sentence, should recall that then the option was a death penalty. They might say that a death penalty for the three of us ... we accepted that a life sentence was a lesser sentence than a death penalty.

... On the night before the sentence ... you had to wait a period of 24 hours or so before the sentence was passed. When you were facing the very real possibility that you might get the death sentence, can you recall any exchanges, conversations you might have had with Mandela, at that time? Can you describe what you felt ...

I don't think we were unprepared for that. I remember when the day we were arrested at Rivonia. I quickly went round [to] the chaps and without saying a word, I indicated that this was what we were going to get [slicing finger across throat]--only indicated like that.

... At the trial, Mandela's famous speech. Can you recall the process by which that speech was created, the role that you played, any discussions you may have had with Mandela, with the lawyers ... about the framing or the content of that speech?

He prepared his own speech and he showed us a draft of it. (Read the speech) I recall one correction I made. Now, he was challenging ... he was defiant in his speech, [saying] it didn't matter if they decided to hang him. I suggested an amendment of that, so that it should not appear that he was defying. He was saying, "You can hang me if you like." He put in that amendment, and it altered the view that he was defiant.

There was a bit right at the end--the very famous lines that have been quoted many times. He says something like, "This is a cause for which I am prepared to sacrifice my life," and from what I understand someone suggested, I don't know if this was your intervention, he says, "if needs be."

That's right ... My view was you can't say to the judge, "You can do what you damn well want to do." It would not be correct to say so ... which was the effect of what Nelson had put in his original draft, and then I introduced my wording to that, which was softer. But, at the same time, did convey the view that if then it happened, then it happened. But it was not intended that he was challenging the judge to say he can do his damnedest. No.

Those three words changed everything ...

Here, you are not challenging the judge. You are not saying, "You have the power to pass the death sentence. Use it." You are saying, "If in the course of the exercise of your duties as a judge, you feel compelled by the circumstances of the position you hold, that is as a judge, you feel compelled to pass a death sentence, then if need be, if that is necessary, I won't blame you." But it is not saying to the judge, "Do it." Words have shades and shades. Or they are used to give one impression one moment, and to give another impression the next moment. I think I selected that phrase with a view to saying, "I am not calling upon you, judge, to pass the sentence which you are empowered to do by the law. But if it should happen, so let it be."

In this episode that you recount here and ... about you arguing for Mandela not to go to Natal when he was arrested, it seems as if you played a bit of a restraining role on Mandela, as if he were this horse that was running too fast...

I don't know ... he was my comrade, there was no effort on my part to restrain him, but the effect of the amendments, I made might have been to restrain him. Sometimes he accepted that. Sometimes he did not accept it. He did not accept it in the case of Natal, but he accepted it in the case of that amendment to his draft.

... Robben Island. Reading Mandela's autobiography, he says that it was decided to create this top leadership structure on the island, which he refers to in his book as the High Order, which consisted of yourself, Sisulu, Mhlaba and Mandela ... it was decided that of the High Order, he would be the head ... can you describe to me how that decision came about and why?

There was no problem about Mandela becoming the spokesman for us while in prison. But we differed on certain matters, and unfortunately, this became confused, either by those who told the stories to the media or by the media, itself. We differed on the question of participation in apartheid institutions and we differed very strongly. But the difference was not on who the spokesman would be. We agreed that Nelson should be our spokesman.

So spokesman would be the accurate word, rather than leader.

That's right.

Was he, in your judgment, the best person to be the spokesman?

He had been the volunteer-in-chief during the Defiance Campaign. He was a lawyer by profession. And he was the officer commanding when MK was started. So there was no difficulty in arriving at that, in the face of this.

Did you not sense ... after all this young man who you saw in Transkei in the 1940s, has now emerged as not only the president of South Africa, but a colossal international figure ... Was there some point, when you identified qualities in him, maybe natural qualities, which struck you as suggesting that it was possible that he might one day emerge as the president of South Africa, as this moral figurehead that he is for the world?

That decision we took on Robben Island as our spokesman indicated if, at the time, they were freed, he would naturally occupy that position. As to the heights to which he would rise, nobody could guess that. As to the assessment by the international community of his role, nobody could guess that. But our decision to talk if they are willing to talk with us, with our enemy, the leader of apartheid, we did not anticipate that it would make such an impact on the international community. We used it as part of the strategy of the ANC to get round, to get to where we wanted to go.

You say "our decision." You say very emphatically "we," but it is true, is it not, that Mandela embarked on that negotiations process, he took the first steps alone without consultation. What was the first exchange, conversation, you had with him after you discovered what he was up to?

... Nelson was removed with a certain group to Pollsmoor, including Sisulu, Kathrada, Mhlaba, Mlangeni. I remained on the island. And on the island we intensified political education. Political education was conducted by writing a lesson or an address on paper, and passing this through to the rest of the seven jails on Robben Island.

In the course of those activities, I wrote an address which was distributed throughout the jails on Robben Island, and it suggested that we should consider the possibility where the leaders of apartheid may want to talk to us. Now, they would want to do so because of the various pressures that were brought to bear on them. Therefore, they would be yielding to those pressures. So I said we should consider those possibilities. Now, as we know or we should know, the ANC operated in jails. It operated on Robben Island, it operated at Pollsmoor, it operated in smaller groups, other jails in the country. It operated outside jail within the country. And these people were also expressing their views on the situation. It operated in exile amongst a big group of the membership of the African National Congress. They also had their views on how things were taking shape and they also foresaw a possibility of having the thing not being resolved on the battlefield but resolved through talking. That's why those in exile invited South African leadership to a meeting in Senegal and that's why the leaders ... in business and otherwise visited Lusaka. All these were suggesting talks.

Now, Nelson had no access to the membership of the ANC, except the five people with whom he was in Pollsmoor. He was in contact with the cabinet ministers of the apartheid party. He was able to talk to them--face to face. He put out an idea and some members of the apartheid party saw reason in it, and they encouraged it. I am talking about people like Kobie Coetsee. There might have been die-hards among the Nationalist Party cabinet who felt that we can't talk to him. But then talks started then.

In retrospect, do you think that the decision by Mandela to talk to the government was not only necessary, but absolutely correct, almost an historical inevitability, and the best way to channel that expression of a desire generally?

No, I think it was correct. Incidentally, one day on Robben Island, early in the morning, the head of the prison comes to my cell and he says, "Come, dress up quickly," ... He comes shortly, thereafter, to fetch me ... I follow him and I find the whole of jail, the passages are sealed. The windows are closed and there are warders at various points to ensure that I can't communicate with anybody else ... They drive me ... we go to a point where ... they call it the fast boat. It's a small boat. I get in there and I am accompanied by the head of the prison and the chief of security, and both of them are armed. They don't tell me where we are going. Within ten minutes we are at the docks in Cape Town ... They lead me into a car ... and then we drive ... and they say this is Pollsmoor ... I am led into a side room, well furnished, and here is Nelson. Then the man who was accompanying me says, "You can talk there about anything you like. If you have problems, call me."

There is Nelson. And then Nelson breaks news to me of the approaches he has had with the cabinet ministers. So we discuss that. And then comes lunch. Whew! It is a huge thing they have prepared and I say, "Why all this fuss?" Well, they were trying to make an impression on me, and probably trying to soften my attitude towards Nelson ...

... then Nelson had told me about some of the happenings. He wouldn't disclose everything, because he said he had not even told those comrades on Pollsmoor because that was the undertaking between him and the cabinet ministers not to disclose. However, that much I got, which I took back to my comrades on Robben Island. Some of them were not happy. But we persuaded them to accept the position ... that Nelson was not selling [out]. He was doing it in the best interests of the organization, and then they accepted [that].

Your first reaction must have been surprise, and maybe, you were angry not to have been told about this before ...

I wouldn't remember the detail. But I couldn't understand why he did not consult the comrades with whom he was [with] at Pollsmoor, except to say, which was his explanation, that he had given an undertaking to the cabinet ministers that he would not disclose the contents to anybody else. My view was how was he supposed to work this out if he was not going to take it to his own organization. How could it work?

... did you find it rather strange, rather extraordinary, that Nelson Mandela was making these undertakings of secrecy with the government, with the enemy, and actually sticking to them ...

Now, that I was not happy about. And I was not happy about the fact that he kept that agreement so closely. At least, I felt, he should have broken the secret to us. I mentioned it in my report to the external mission, and indicated that he refused to give me the names who were involved.

So despite the fact that you had these long discussions ... you came away from that meeting a little frustrated that you did not have all the information.

I came away, I wouldn't say frustrated, but feeling unhappy about the fact that he wouldn't break the secret to me. And I pointed this out to my comrades on Robben Island and I pointed it out in the report to my comrades in exile. And then it was before my comrades in exile had established a relationship with him, contact with him, and they also could not understand.

What did this tell you about Nelson Mandela's character, his personality? You must have had conversations on the island with your comrades who were angry about this. What were you saying about him?

He was brought up in an environment of chieftains. There, he could do things without consultations. This was telling also on his style of work within the ANC. But ... he was a member of the ANC and a man, and one must make allowances for that background, as one should make allowances for the backgrounds of the individual members of the ANC. But it was not correct for him not to entrust what was taking place between him and the members of the Nationalist Party government, the leaders of the apartheid government ...

How did that name, Black Pimpernel, come about? Was there a deliberate decision by people in the ANC to promote that image?

I think it was started by the media, really. I think that was drawn from one of the writings of Charles Dickens, something like that. We used it once the media had started using it.

You mentioned about how the escapades of the Black Pimpernel was good for the morale of the people. Can you just elaborate on that for me ...

As I was saying, it was after the banning of the ANC and the people were rather at a loss what to do under the bans. The morale, therefore, was low. Now, when Mandela came back from abroad, and was evading the security police, who were then called the Special Branch, the morale of the people picked up. And it was this which I was defending. I felt that, at that time, if Nelson was caught, we would not have had any other means of boosting the morale of the people, as much as Nelson was doing through evading the Special Branch.

Was there anybody else in the leadership structures, who would have been able to elicit that sort of response in terms of morale from the people?

He had the chosen role, because when the organization was banned, he went underground, he went out of the country. Whereas, the other leaders, powerful as they were, were caught in the bans. It would have been difficult for them to disappear at the moment, and so Nelson was the only one available at that time.

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