frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela
the prisoner

Ahmed Kathrada INTERVIEW EXCERPT

He was a dedicated friend of Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island from 1964-1989.
One thing that is intriguing is how it is that Mandela seemed to emerge so naturally as leader on Robben Island. Why not Walter? Why not Govan Mbeki?

They are different personalities. Mandela immediately emerges as a more assertive people. He has a presence which is immediately noticeable in any group that he goes amongst. I have put it down before to his, what you call, aristocratic background. He's grown up as a chief, and that's his demeanor. That's one thing. But then over the years, he was already emerging outside as a leader.

In those years, any black person, who was either a university student or a professional person, immediately became a leader in the eyes of the people. Because there were so few. And then added to that was this man's personality. So that already in the Defiance Campaign you found him being the national volunteer-in-chief. In the Treason Trial, of course, there we were placed in alphabetical order, but he was looked upon by all the accused--there were a 156 of us--he was looked upon for a lot of guidance and so ... Chief Luthuli was there, Professor Matthews was there. Yet, many of the accused looked upon him for leadership. He was on this committee of the accused people in the Treason Trial. So that already, years before Rivonia, he was already emerging as a significant leader.

On Robben Island, do you recall a meeting to discuss this?

No, it's not as if we called a meeting to do that. What would have happened is that from time to time when we became aware that there is a visitor, we then decide, "Well, whose going to be our spokesperson?" For instance, in 1967 when Helen Suzman was coming, all the prisoners in our section had already decided that Mandela is going to be our spokesman. Now if you know Robben Island, if you know the section where we were staying, he was staying quite in front, as you enter, but the day Helen Suzman came, they moved him right to the back. They were hoping that by the time she reaches him, we would have all talked to her, and wasted a lot of time and then they'd say the time for the ferry has gone.

But we already knew that we had chosen him, and we had decided that we just greet Mrs. Suzman, without stopping her to raise any complaints. So she went him, she reached him quickly, and he spoke on our behalf. So there were times when we selected him as our spokesperson. But then he would have visitors who especially, 99% of them, really sought him out. They wanted to speak to him ...

Writing the biography--was there a similar process?

No, there was no wide discussion on that. If I remember correctly, Walter, Madiba and I were walking up and down the courtyard, and his birthday was approaching, his 60th birthday,

I suppose, I'm not too sure any more, I suggested that he should write his biography. Mac was being released. We said, "Well, we should smuggle it out with Mac." Naturally, because it was a clandestine operation, the only people who were consulted were the leadership ... they were told that this is the plan. Thereafter, nobody had anything to do with it, except Madiba. He'd pass on whatever he wrote to me. I would read it to Walter. If I may just add this, because Madiba's writing is illegible, he is very neat, but not very legible, I had to read it to Walter. I wrote my comments and I also wrote Walter's comments because Walter's writing is worse. Then gave it back to Madiba. He then did the final version whether he accepted our comments or not, but that was left to him.

So those are the people who were actively involved. Then we'd pass it on to Mac and Chiba, who were experts in very tiny handwriting. They reduced 500 or 600 pages into about 50 pages. Chiba is the technician ... who constructed what roughly could be described as an album ... they used the rings of a ring file ... and concealed about 25 pages in the one cover and 25 pages in the other cover. Mac then smuggled it out from Robben Island.

Why did you and Walter come up with this idea? ...

I made the suggestion that it's a political statement we were making. We knew the impact politically outside. This was 12 years or so after our sentence that they have not crushed Mandela and the prisoners on Robben Island. It was a political statement. We also thought that the fact of it being published outside was an act of defiance. We also knew that the consequences would be that things will come down very heavily. But it's again a leadership thing ... The leaders have decided this. If the consequences are negative, well, so be it, you see. But essentially, our idea was we were making a political statement. The prisoners have not been defeated, have not been crushed. Their morale is still as high. That was simply stated the motivation.

You had a sense of the impact this would have outside. How?

We were in touch with the outside through one means or the other. Through visits, through letters, smuggled and otherwise. So we had some sense of what was happening outside. There were periods, of course, when we were completely cut off from the outside. But generally, we had a sense of what was happening outside. We knew that after the dark period of the '60s, things have started moving again towards the end of the '60s, beginning of the '70s. We knew that a biography of this nature, an autobiography, written on Robben Island, by Mandela, would have a huge political impact on the movement itself, on the people outside.

Tell me the story about the biography being buried in the yard.

Ja, the idea was that the transcriptions had been taken out by Mac. The arrangement with Mac Maharaj was that he would send me a signal that this has reached safely abroad. He'd send me an innocuous card, under some name that we had agreed on ... and that would indicate either that it's failed or it's abroad. Once we hear that it is safely abroad, we would then destroy what we had buried in the garden in plastic containers ... we thought, "Well, who's going to touch the garden?"

What was it that was buried in the garden as compared to what Mac took out?

Mac and Chiba had transcribed everything as finalized by Madiba. Everything. Word for word. They were not editing it any way. As Madiba gave it to them, they transcribed it. We don't know what comments of ours he included or excluded. So the original manuscript of Madiba, in Madiba's handwriting, and my handwriting, and Walter's comments in my handwriting, were buried in the garden. We got the signal from Mac that everything's okay. We felt very secure that nobody's going to touch the garden, until one day they started building this wall. After we were locked up. So the following morning instead of the usual routine, those of us who were in the know, went out to try to retrieve what we could. We managed to take a few of the containers, but we were too late in saving the lot. Those that we retrieved, we destroyed. But the rest were caught.

Was there hell to pay from the authorities when they found the stuff?

The authorities did not react immediately, but I think it was in December of '76, that General Roux, the then-assistant deputy commissioner of prisons, came over from Pretoria, called the three of us, that is Madiba, Walter and I, just to inform us that they have decided to cancel our studies as a punishment for this biography that we had written ... that we had abused our study privileges by using ball-point and paper for purposes other than studies, and for that we lost our studies ... they never ever tell you for how long. As far as they are concerned you have lost your studies for good. So end of '76, I got my studies back I think in 1980. So three of us lost our studies as a result.

To what degree did you play ball with the authorities, and to what degree you didn't.

I think that differed from time to time, and from commanding officer to commanding officer, depending on how they treated us. Let me give you an example of this very general rule. One day, early in the morning, the authorities came to our section and [took a prisoner away]. He doesn't come back. Second one, third one, fourth one. They don't come back. And prisoners are masters at speculation. Absolute masters, you know. There's somebody speculating he's gone home and somebody speculating something else and the other.

Towards the evening, Madiba [Mandela] is called, because this went on the whole day. We don't know what is happening at all. Nobody tells us because these chaps don't come back. Madiba is called. We don't know what happened. Then I'm called. I see these chaps and they introduce themselves, General Roux and other brass, and they said, "Have you got any complaints.?" I said, "I've got plenty of complaints, but I don't want to talk to you." Just for saying that they said, "Okay, isolation." So they don't take me back to the other prisoners. They take me to the prison hospital. I'm put in one office. There I'm told by the warder that Madiba is also in another section of the prison. Because he also refused to talk to them, you see. That was our thing with Roux.

Now Madiba, thereafter, wouldn't talk to Roux when Roux came, so there was very bad blood between them, but Madiba being what he is, patched up his differences after a little while. I never did. But Madiba patched up his differences with him, and they were on talking terms again. So it would differ from officer to officer ...

You must have been desperate for political news. What length would you go ...

Any length. Beg, borrow, steal, blackmail, bribe, anything, and we succeeded. But when it came to blackmail, well let me tell you about Mac. Only Mac could do that ... Shall I tell you?

Tell us ...

We were absolutely desperate for news, and being political people, we thought that's our first duty to keep ourselves informed ... There was a warder working in our section on night duty. He came to me to solve some sort of a competition ... a crossword in Afrikaans. And the idea went through my mind that this is somebody we should exploit. I couldn't do it ... so I sent him to Mac. Mac is a guy who knew no Afrikaans before, but he especially learned Afrikaans in prison ... so Mac did this thing for him. The fellow came to thank him the following week that he won ... one night Mac wrote something on a piece of paper and said, "Look, take this thing to Walter." And this poor old man took it. He was two years or so before retirement. Walter sent it back at Mac's request. Mac then says, "Look, I have now got your fingerprints on this thing. You better play ball otherwise" ... This poor old chap was desperate, you know, two years before retirement. "So what can I do for you?" Mac said, "Newspapers. Bring newspapers" ... she brought the Daily Mail regularly to us. That's just one of many methods how desperate we were there to get news.

Pollsmoor, how did Mandela break the news to you that he was engaged in these secret talks?

What had happened is that first of all, five of us were transferred. Four of them first, and a few months later I was transferred to join them ... we were transferred in 1982, so we stayed together in that one cell till end of '85, when he went for this operation, prostate. Then he didn't come back. They didn't bring him back to us. So our instinct was to protest about this, that he is being punished. In retrospect, he already had in mind what he was going to do. Because when we said we wanted to protest, he said, "Cool it, chaps. Something good may come from here." So he took this first step without us knowing. Then after having taken the first step, at some stage he then asked the authorities to see us. Because he was completely separated from us at Pollsmoor. They then gave him permission. They wouldn't allow him to see us together. Said you can see them one by one. And that's how he told us what he had done. And we reacted differently, of course.

How did he tell you?

He had just reported to us what he had done. Because, I mean look, negotiations was part of the agenda. All the time. So that wasn't surprising but we reacted differently. Two of our colleagues said we should have started this long ago. Walter was cautious. Walter said, "Look, in principle we can't disagree with this. But the initiative should have come from the other side." And as Madiba himself exposed me one day ... I had completely forgotten about this, but at a meeting he then he reminded me, or reminded the crowd, that when he talked to me, we were on different wave lengths. I had completely opposed this thing.

Thereafter, they allowed us to meet him from time to time, and specially when things became much more serious. When he was transferred to Victor Verster for instance, they did allow him to see us from time to time, and reported to us what had happened. Of course, they had bugged the whole place.

When you went to Victor Verster for the first time, you must have been stunned by what you saw there.

I suppose we were surprised. I mean they gave us lovely food. He could serve us liquor, but none of us drank, so we didn't take advantage of that. Food, of course, we took advantage of. But they had bugged the place. For instance, once we met outside under the trees, and then we heard later on from a friendly warder, that they had had a listening device ... in the tree ... so they were listening in all the time.

Did they try and get to him via his family to try and break him down?

What I remember, for instance, there was some unflattering newspaper report about Winnie. So what they did is they made a cutting, when we were not allowed newspapers, and they just put it on his desk. So they did do that from time to time.

Do you remember how he responded to that?

Again, he'd just tell us they've done such a thing ... as I said, he's the coolest man I have met, and exasperatingly so, too ... for instance in January of 1985... at Pollsmoor, we were always looking forward to visits, to get news. Even after we were getting newspapers, because we wanted news about the organization. His was the best source, because he had this understanding, especially with Winnie, where she could convey things to him which our visitors couldn't. So when he was called this particular morning, we all looked forward as usual to him coming back and telling us our news. So he came back, greeted us, went to his table and started doing whatever he was doing, either reading newspapers or something. Later on he said, "Well chaps, I was called to the front, because P.W. Botha has offered to release us." That was the statement, you know, Botha had made it in parliament. So he's like that. Exciting news like this, he just told us that in his time. In his stride.

Why did he do it that way?

Well, he must have already decided in his mind what his reaction was going to be, and he already decided what we are going to say. I mean, I don't think it took hours. But he didn't come back excited and say, "Chaps, let's get together. This is the news!"

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