frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela
the prisoner

Fikile Bam INTERVIEW EXCERPT

He was on Robben Island with Mandela for ten years.
Even though Mandela was in prison 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 country.

Now, although he had been sentenced to life imprisonment, 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.

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.

Can 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 ... 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 saying. 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.

The theme of preparing for leadership. Were there any encounters which you might have seen between Mandela and prison authorities ... honing skills in dealing with the authorities within the prison, that might have come in handy later when he negotiated with P.W. and others.

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.

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. 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.

What sort of relationship did you have with Mandela in prison? You had a lot in common ...

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 of interest in people at every level, I should say. And that was very impressive.

... His 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, which was also during the prison period 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 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.

Yes.

Your sense of isolation ... you didn't really know what was going on in the outside world, and were hungry to find out ...

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.

... Mandela was a prisoner, and yet you all decided that he should not be involved in these slightly shady ...

Absolutely.

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 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.

Was Mandela quite clearly the leader in the prison?

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.

... 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.

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