frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

interview: Strini Moodley INTERVIEWED BY JOHN CARLIN

He was a young member of the Black Consciousness Movement and in 1976 was sent to Robben Island, where his cell was diagonally across from Mandela's.
Before you arrived on Robben Island ... what was in your mind at the prospect of coming across Nelson Mandela at that time in your life ...

strini moodleyBefore we were on our way from Pretoria to Cape Town, I think we all discussed the issue and we were very pleasantly surprised by the fact that we would be going to Robben Island. We didn't think we'd go; but that then would have opened us to a possible meeting with Nelson Mandela and all the other leaders who were involved in the ANC and the PAC. So we were tremendously excited by that prospect. Primarily, because it would give us an opportunity to initiate a discussion as to where do we go from here, and what do we do now. Because for us, we believed that even though we were going to prison, the struggle for our liberation must continue, even the prison must become a site for struggle. We thought that that would be reinforced by the presence of Nelson Mandela.

What was it about Nelson Mandela, at that point, before you'd even set eyes on him, how would you characterize that mystique, that hold that he had over a young activist like yourself?

We, who came out of the universities and were involved, the youth in the mid-to-late '60s, always held Robert Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela and people like that in awe. We thought these were the leaders of the revolution. They were the people who had continued the carrying of the torch, and our job was to pick up that torch and continue with their work. We had tremendous respect for them.

I will concede that when we were really toe-to-toe with the prison authorities, Mandela would, because he had this conciliatory approach, be able to step in and ensure that peace reigned, and that something could be negotiated.
In all my discussions in my meetings, I made it quite clear that we recognized the legitimacy of our leaders on Robben Island. We had often called for their release. We based whatever we did on what we had read about the work Nelson Mandela had done in the ANC Youth League, what Robert Sobukwe had done in the PAC.

... what was it about Mandela's example in the ANC Youth League that struck a chord with you?

You must remember that we were very young at the time. Our interaction with people from the community, particularly from the older generation, found us very often in conflict with them, particularly in terms of strategy, in terms of definitions of what we thought was the essence of the struggle for liberation in this country. So that when we looked back, we identified more readily with the Youth League's approach to how it dealt with its seniors in the African National Congress. We identified more readily with that period in Nelson Mandela's life. Primarily, because it reflected what we were doing in relation to the older generation that was with us in our struggle during the late '60s and early '70s.

How would you characterize Nelson Mandela's role when he was the young lion in the Youth League ...

When we looked at the history of the African National Congress, we recognized that there was a marked turning point when the Youth League began to take more radical moves towards freedom. The older history of the African National Congress was one of more wanting to talk to the enemy, wanting to go and meet the Queen, and put a memorandum to them. It was wanting ... not to free the country, but actually to become part of the system that's already existing.

Whereas, from the pronouncements and actions of the Youth League under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, there was a shift away from that towards a more radical approach that this system is corrupted. There's everything wrong with it, and it's got to be completely overthrown and replaced with an entirely new system. Which fell in with our way of thinking as members of the Black Consciousness Movement.

You got to Robben Island. Tell me about your first sighting of Nelson Mandela.

We were taken as soon as we arrived, the nine of us, and kept in what was called the C-section, which was a punishment section. C-section lay adjacent to B-section, which was the section which Nelson and them were. So at times, when the warders opened our doors to let us walk up and down the passages, we could look across into the courtyard of B-section, and by signs and that kind of thing, communicate with Nelson and Kathrada and all the others that were there. So it was like a long distance, "Hi, how are you? The struggle continues, " that kind of thing, but from a distance.

I heard a story that you had conspired with one of the other leaders so that Mandela would be standing in a particular place so that you could get a good look at him.

Yes, that's true. When we arrived it was just before Christmas, and by some trick that the people in B-section engineered, they were able to bring for us some sweets for Christmas, and they quickly were passing it to us. I think the person who came was Ahmed Kathrada, and I said to him, "All of us here in this section would like to get a clearer view of Nelson Mandela, because he's been one of our heroes. So could you arrange for him to stand in a particular spot on the stairs ... for us to get a glimpse of him, and ask him to look in this particular window, so that he can greet us when we greet him." And that's, indeed, what happened. It was either Christmas , Boxing Day or the day after Christmas that he did that. Well, all of us got tremendously excited because here we were looking at Nelson Mandela.

It is almost as if he was a celebrity.

With us, it was. For me, I had come up in terms of political involvement, partly because my father was also involved in the South African Communist Party, and so I used to have great debates with my father. Obviously, a generational thing, but every time I wanted to make a point, my source of reference for why I was doing what I was doing, was always Nelson Mandela. If Nelson Mandela can be on Robben Island, what I am doing is simply continuing with the work, so I'd ask my father not to come down hard on me and tell me to stop doing all these crazy radical things. I said, "Well, Nelson Mandela did it, why can't I do it?" I think with us, that was a kind of inspiration. In a sense, for us he was our pop star. I mean we weren't into Mick Jagger or the Beatles or things like that. We were more into Nelson Mandela, Ché Guevara, people like that.

On the island, do you recall any particularly vivid encounter when you actually had a proper exchange with Mandela?

Well, shortly after we arrived on Robben Island, we spent about six weeks in the punishment section. Then they moved us to D-section, which was made up primarily of all of those who came in 1976, 90% of whom were youth from the Black Consciousness movement. The prison authorities insisted on us going out to work on the quarry. When we got there, we looked at the conditions and we said to them, "We cannot work here. These conditions are not healthy. Secondly, you don't have any medical facilities here; you are forcing us to use dangerous instruments like picks and shovels, and anyone could get accidentally hurt. So as far as we are concerned, you are putting us in an unlawful position by making us work under these conditions, because prison regulations state clearly that if you give a prisoner work, you must make sure that the environment is safe, that there is access to a first aid kit, and all of those kinds of things."

So we refused to work. Upon which the prison authorities saw fit to unleash their dogs on us. Of course, we weren't going to take that lying down, and we picked up those picks and shovels and we beat off the dogs. Subsequently, we were taken back to the section, and then nine of us were pointed out by the prison warders, and we were taken and put back into punishment and subsequently charged.

You must remember, we had spent two years awaiting trial, so we knew the prison regulations backwards, and we used every clause in the prison regulations to be able to defeat the warders. And as a result, we won our case; we were found not guilty. So when we were released from there, they couldn't put us back into punishment, and because they saw us as the leaders of the group in D-section, they then thought the best thing would be to disperse us, and so that was how I came to B-section, to stay with Nelson Mandela.

In fact, my cell was diagonally opposite Nelson Mandela's cell. So that on arrival, with his usual graciousness and aplomb, he greeted us, offered us a cup of tea, and said we should make ourselves at home, that we are going to have a lot of time together and we can exchange ideas. We could tell them what was happening on the outside; give them a first hand account. So every morning he would wake me up, through his window ... I had a kind of nickname on Robben Island. I was called "Connection." So he would say, "Connection, wake up, the warders are coming. Don't oversleep. You've got to stand up now. Don't let them catch you in bed." He was like that.

So with me, my initial thought was that this is fast developing into a father-son relationship, and it immediately reminded me of my own relationship with my father. The one thing that struck me is that I hoped I was not going to end up in the same conflicted relationship that I had with my father over political issues. The first time it struck me that Nelson spoke a lot like my father, was when he asked me why is it that we were so opposed to the homelands and the Bantustans. From that point on, I can remember, our debates became more and more detailed, with him and I taking positions that became quite distant from each other.

At the second level, was a whole question of how you dealt with the prison authorities. From our point of view, these little warders here, by our analysis, were those young pimply white boys who were afraid to go to the army or the police. The safest outlet for them was the prison, because in prison, the person you are dealing with is unarmed, and you can lock the person up and deal with the person in any way you see fit. The one thing we knew was that 90% of all these warders were cowards. So when it came to issues, we refused to obey their orders. We refused to treat them as though they deserved to be treated as human beings. We said you are less than human, because anyone who does this job, has no respect for humanity. Particularly, in the case of Robben Island. So ours was an aggressive attitude towards the warders. Whereas, with Nelson it was far more conciliatory.

When we arrived on Robben Island, 95% of the prisoners were sleeping on a mat and given four blankets. No pajamas. No underwear. And prison outfits--pair of shorts, pair of longs, a short sleeved shirt, long sleeved shirt, a jacket and a jersey. That was all. And a pair of prison shoes. That's when we thought now a new war begins. We have got to change the conditions here. Ours was, obviously, an aggressive approach. We entered upon hunger strikes. We refused to work. We refused to be locked up. We did all those kinds of things, which was very different from the way in which Nelson Mandela was doing it. So from the point of view of political philosophy, and from the point of view of strategies to deal with the prison authorities, we dealt with them very separately, very differently. That is how my initial kind of belief that I'm coming to meet a real revolutionary, each day I found this is not a revolutionary. He is more the reformer, from my point of view.

After I was taken to B-section ... this young 17-year-old came to open up the doors and said, "Good morning," and I never greeted. I felt I had no obligation to greet prison warders. But he opened Nelson's door, and said, "Good morning, Nelson," and I freaked. I went straight to Nelson and I said, "But how can you allow this little white boy here to call you Nelson? He must either call you Mr. Mandela, or Sir. You can't allow him to call you Nelson. He's a little kid." And he said, "Oh, come on my boy, don't worry about that. These are little things. We're in prison now. We've got to take them in our stride." I just thought no, that's something I would not be able to deal with that kind of thing, because this is my leader. I can't have some little white boy calling him Nelson.

As you describe Nelson's attitude and demeanor towards the prison authorities, it reminds me of a World War II prison camp movie where you would get the Steve McQueen type and you'd have a sort of English colonel. Is it stretching a point too much to say that there is sort of English gentleman quality that Mandela ...

Ja. Ja. There was another occasion, this character Kruger came to Robben Island to visit. I think he was the minister of justice or something. The warders came into the section and said, "All of you must shine your shoes, and put on your jackets and dress up smartly, and you must stand at attention with your prison spoon in your pocket, and your card in your hand, your prison card, and stand to attention." So I said, "Why must I do that?" And they said, "The minister of justice is coming," and I said, "To hell with it. I must stand to attention for the minister of justice, you just got to be crazy. I'll never do that." Kruger duly came in, and I just lolled on my bed reading a magazine ... while Kruger came past and he looked in at me, and he asked them, and they said, "No, don't worry about him, he's one of those klipgooiers," which [meant] stone-throwers. I was curious, so the moment he passed my door, I got up and I looked and there was Nelson standing at attention. I just thought, whew, I certainly didn't come to Robben Island to see all my dreams, my vision of a great revolutionary shattered like this.

In fairness, could it be said that there was some method in his madness, by taking this conciliatory role, playing by their rules and so forth that he achieved the long term effect ... securing some concessions, winning certain debates ...

I then began to understand it, because you must remember on the outside, as members of the Black Consciousness movement, we were having exactly the same debate with the Fatima Meers of the world, who are in the ANC, and other members. I think the only person on the outside who supported us from within the ANC, was Winnie Mandela, who said we should go ahead, we must do what we must do. Robert Sobukwe supported us. But the other senior members ... had a different attitude and a different approach to us We have to take it easy ... [we] have to incorporate and get everybody involved.

We said, "No, we don't believe in that kind of politics. I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees." I mean that was a slogan we used--quite openly. Standing on your feet meant upholding your pride as a human being and as a black person, so that you weren't going to kowtow and be conciliatory to white racists. That was just not in our book.

Were there instances when you thought, "Okay, here's a point, because he's achieved this result."

Let me say that within two years of our arrival there, every prisoner had a bed, every prisoner had a set of pajamas. We brought in the Cape Provincial Library. We insisted on it. Every prisoner had the right to study. Whereas, all of these things were privileges before. We insisted on them being rights. It was because of the hunger strikes we undertook, because of the refusal to work, because of our insistence on being treated as human beings, and obviously the persons who acted as our negotiators, were the International Committee for the Red Cross.

But in between those visits, I presume, yes, and I will concede that when we were, really toe to toe with the prison authorities, Nelson Mandela would, because he had this conciliatory approach, be able to step in and ensure that peace reigned, and that something could be negotiated.

The sense that we have from talking to other people who were on Robben Island was that in contrast to other kinds of prisoners elsewhere, you were, at least initially, extremely isolated from the rest of the world. We have heard some stories from other people about just how absolutely clueless they were about what was going on. Can you talk to us ... about this sense of isolation ...

Well, when we got onto the island, that is one of the things that struck us, is the way in which this group had become so isolated from the rest of the world, that as we watched them for a period of time, it was as though these men were trapped in a time warp. They were still living the era of the '50s. They hadn't actually come to terms and understood what was happening through the '60s and the '70s. Particularly, in the context of the revolutions that were taking place, not only in our own country, but on the African continent and around the world. So that they were still governed in terms of their strategic thinking, their political thinking, as though they were living in the 1950s.

For us, it was important to find every strategy possible to be able to keep in touch with what was going on in the outside world. And that we did, obviously, by continuing to try to smuggle newspapers, and we developed it to a relatively higher plane than what it had been in the past, where you would carry your warders lunch box and carry his hat, and go and get a glass of water for him, and all those kinds of things, and hopefully, in a moment of weakness, hope that he gives you a paper.

For a period after, we got bored of just sitting around and doing nothing, went back to the prison authorities and said, "We want to go back to work. Give us something to do." So they would take us out, because we wanted to get out of the confined space of our prison walls, so we could walk along the beach and do all those kinds of things. And also we wanted to get in touch with the prisoners in the so-called criminal section, and exchange with them our toothpaste, our toothbrush ... some shampoo, and they would give us the newspaper in return. But not only get the stories and read them and pass them around, but also analyze them. Analyze them in the context of what we think is happening and what is developing on the outside. So that we do not get caught in a time warp. Fortunately, for us, we had relatively shorter terms for imprisonment than did Nelson and company. So yes, they were caught up in a time warp, and yes, we were isolated ...

Let us move ahead when you were out of prison, towards the end of Mandela's time, I think it was July 1989, you would have heard the news that Mandela had gone to have tea with P.W. Botha. What do you recall of that time ...

When Nelson Mandela met P.W. Botha for tea, a lot of people came up to me and asked me, "What is going on? Why would Nelson Mandela do a thing like this." And I said, "I'm not surprised. It's the logical conclusion of my observations of what he had been doing on Robben Island ... so I will not be surprised that he will meet P.W. for tea. In fact, I'd go further, and say that I think the next thing you must expect is that Nelson Mandela will be freed one of these days." And it happened. My analysis of it was that because Nelson Mandela had adopted the conciliatory approach, in dealing with his warders, that message was relayed to the people higher up.

Once a year, some very clever psychologists from within the prisons department, used to come to Robben Island. Basically they were doing assessments of us as prisoners ... there was a thing you started prison life as a D-prisoner, and then you'd get promoted to a C-prisoner, and then a B-prisoner, and then an A-prisoner. With each promotion, you got more and more privileges. So once a year these psychologists would come around to interview you, and see the extent to which you have actually become well behaved. And so you would get a promotion. Our political position was that we reject this with the contempt it deserves. We won't even subject ourselves to being interviewed. We refused to be interviewed. We refused to be promoted or demoted or anything, because that kind of divide and rule tactic won't work with us. But this is the culmination of what happens when you embark upon that kind of program of conciliation. It leads in the end to you actually now being able to sit down and have tea with your enemy. Once you do that, particularly in revolutionary struggle, that is when the revolution begins to be compromised.

Would Mandela have been among those who submitted themselves to these psychological assessment ...

... he was an A-prisoner, so obviously he had either been given it automatically, or had gone through it in the years previously. I'm not sure about that.

On the day of the release ... were you there, or were you watching it on TV?

No, I was there. I was there in Cape Town covering it for the Natal Witness.

Tell me about it ... the highlights ...

Obviously, there was that long wait outside the prison and people ... were saying, "No, they're held up, they'll be out shortly, Nelson's talking to Winnie, he's talking to so and so." But the first real eye to eye contact between Nelson and I was when he held the press conference at Tutu's place. Of course, when I raised my hand, and I was asked to ask my question, I stood up and introduced myself. Nelson burst out and said, "Strini, my boy!" Kind of like--there's my son again, that naughty little son of mine, prodigal. Then afterwards I asked him my question. He answered and subsequently he called me over ... we exchanged pleasantries. He asked about my mum and family and the children, because [in prison] ... when a letter came from my wife, with pictures of my children, or my mum sent pictures of herself, he would want to look at it, and sit and talk with me and play chess together, and we did all those normal things as well. So there was a truly, between him and me, a father son relationship, and so for him it was more that relationship that held us together. It wasn't so much the political relationship. So ja, well very embarrassed I was, because here he was in front of all my colleagues, treating me like I'm his little son. But I didn't mind it, because in the end I came to the conclusion eventually, I mean it's like dealing with my own father, and politically we are going to differ until the day the both of us are no longer around.

You mentioned chess there. Is there anything to tell in the way that Nelson plays chess that gives you a broader sense ... is that stretching a point a bit too far?

We used to have a thing called summer games, to keep ourselves occupied, and all of us in the section would be divided into different teams, and over the Christmas/New Year period we'd have tennis, table tennis, draughts, bridge, snooker and karem board. One of the competitive games was chess. I know I ended up playing Nelson in the finals. I was playing chess, but I was also in my table tennis team. So I'd come and make my move, and then I'd go and play a game of table tennis, and I'd come back, and Nelson is still deciding on his move. So I think it was the longest chess game in the history of chess. I think it lasted two and a half to three days. Because we had no time limits on the movement. So that was how Nelson played chess, he took a very long time to decide on his moves.

Is he a very calculating sort of guy?

I wouldn't say calculating in a negative sense. But I think he took a long time to make a decision. But once he made up his mind, nothing would change it. That was the significant thing about it. I'm not sure whether that was a part of his psychological make up or whether it was ... because one of the things I assessed is that there is this element of aristocracy in Nelson. That might be because he came from a royal family in the Eastern Cape. That this has filtered through. It's come to be a part of his demeanor, his make up, the way in which he carried himself, the way in which when he said something he expected everybody to obey it. But certainly, he was a person who took time before he came to a conclusion. Whether that is calculating, I am not sure.

Something that you must have observed fairly keenly, is Nelson Mandela's relationship with the press in recent years, which has, at times, been very fraught ... black journalists, in particular. Have you had any exchanges with him on this subject?

No, I didn't. My major observation was from afar ... In my personal experience as a journalist with him, if I asked him a question, he would readily answer it. I suppose that might be because of the personal relationship between us from the days of Robben Island. But an objective assessment is that I think in some respects Nelson can be right, and in this respect I would have supported the way in which he tried to bring to the attention, particularly of black journalists, of the responsibility they owed, largely to the struggle for liberation. Because it's my criticism of black journalists as well, is that the agenda for black journalists cannot be set by either the owners of the newspaper or by your white editors. The agenda for the black journalists is set by the black journalists, in the context of reflecting the voice of black people. In that respect, I supported Nelson's criticisms 100%.

But at the same time, that does not give us the right to carry that criticism to the extreme where you think it becomes right for you to gag a journalist, or try to tell a journalist what to write and what not to write. You can criticize, but certainly I don't think any one of us has the right to tell journalists what they must write and what they must not write....

Has Mandela crossed that boundary on occasion that you just marked out there?

I'd have to think about that. I can't remember the occasion but I suspect there was a time when I thought now he's wrong. I can't remember the time. But there must have been instances where he did cross the barrier.

I want to gauge your response to a couple of incidents when Mandela made waves, mainly in particular the Rugby World Cup ... when he turned up wearing Francois Pienaar's jersey ...

... I'm not a rugby fan, so I wasn't watching, but somebody told me about it or I saw it subsequently on a news broadcast. And I thought, well, what can I say? At a time when the leader of the country needed to be embracing black people, and putting his heart out to black people for all they'd been through, here he was doing this -- in a game which was closed to the black community, first of all, and which very few black people supported.

But then I thought well, here's this old man ... he'd do a thing like that. It didn't surprise me. It didn't shock me. I felt that, again, we are doing something that is sending the wrong signal to both white and black people, but it was done, and there was nothing more one could do or say about it. I had hoped that what would subsequently happen is to see some kind of reciprocation from the white community, and it just reinforced my belief and my analysis that rather than have it reciprocated, he eventually gets taken to court, and is forced to be subjected to the most harshest examination. Now, those two things just in my mind are so inconceivable, so mutually exclusive, the man bends over backwards to reconcile. Not just with the sport, but the people who love the sport, who are primarily white, and those same people then take him and place him in a court and subject him to cross examination over the same issue of rugby. I just think well, there they go. Slapping him in the face again. I wonder if he is going to learn a lesson from it.

You say you are not a rugby man, but ... you are a political man ... the Springbok rugby team, the Springbok jersey--these were symbols of apartheid repression ...


And there was Mandela wearing that jersey.

... if you want to know about the political aspect of it, I think Nelson simply demonstrated how he was caught in a time warp. Even though he was released from Robben Island, he was still living in the '50s. It was a slap in the face for black people in terms of a political statement, that you take something like the Springbok emblem, and the Springbok rugby jersey on top of that, wear it, and black people must have felt appalled that this could be done. Politically, I think it was the worst thing that he could have done, in terms of representing black people. From the point of view of what everybody is now calling the rainbow nation, I suppose, ja. You know, who's in the rainbow nation? What have we got, about 13% whites and add another five or six percent black people into that, and that's your rainbow nation. Because at least 80% of people in this country don't know the meaning of the word rainbow, because they're still struggling to survive--living in poverty, homeless, jobless.

People we've talked to in government who were involved in those pre-release negotiations ... tend to give the impression that they were engineering the whole process, and they thought it all out. They were prodding and pushing Mandela into action, whereas, of course, on the ANC side, you would hear ... that Mandela manipulated and wooed and duped people like of Niel Barnard and Kobie Coetsee ...

I think both sides were doing their own kind of dance. Certainly, on the side of the Nationalist government, and clearly with the assistance of some international governments, or other governments being involved in it, were looking to find a model leader from within the black community, who could take this country to a process which will largely leave it intact while putting on a facade of democracy. So that both parties would not be wrong.

Because from the point of view of the Nationalists, they were looking for this kind of strategy by the mid '80s they certainly had to accelerate it. That is why they were making these kind of mid-stream maneuvers, and allowing the doors to be opened for discussions in Lusaka, and discussion here and discussions there. Because by that time, what Nelson had done was probably to convince the people internally and externally that this is the road to follow, and that he would be able to manage this delicate process of negotiations. So that neither would be wrong. They both would be right. But what we need to look at is who won in the end. My analysis of what is happening in this country today is that I think Niel Barnard and them won. That is how I see it. So Niel Barnard would be right and the ANC people would be right. It was happening from both sides.


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Solitary NationApril 22nd