frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela
the prisoner

Ahmed Kathrada interview EXCERPT

In the early days when you knew Mandela, he was something of a firebrand in those days. Can you describe the sort of clashes you might have had?

Well, ... it wasn't a series of clashes. What had happened, if I may give a bit of background, the ANC Youth League, of which he was one of the leaders, had a more exclusivist approach to things, not racialist, but exclusivist in that they believed that the initiative for any anti-government campaigns must be taken by the ANC, not in cooperation with any of the other organizations. That's putting it very simply, because there was some philosophy behind that ...

Now in 1950, this is a few years after I had already come to know him, the Transvaal ANC, the Transvaal Indian Congress, and the communist party (just before it was banned) had organized a strike against the banning of two leaders, Dr. Yusuf Dadoo and Sam Khan, who was a communist member of parliament .... a conference was held which decided to call a strike ... The Youth League opposed that move, and, of course, we worked for it because the Transvaal ANC was one of the organizers of the strike. The Youth League opposed it very strenuously, and Madiba himself was so strong in his belief that he physically pulled down Yusuf Cachalia from a platform, because the Youth League had taken a decision to smash up pro-strike meetings.

It was in the course of that, that I was walking down Commissioner Street, he was walking the other way. We greeted each other very pleasantly, and of course, the discussion went into the strike and we argued about that. It became a bit heated. I was all of 21 years old, very wise at that age, and very conceited. I then challenged him. I said, "Well you are a leader of the African people, I am just a youth, but I challenge you to select your platform, among your own people, wherever. I'll stand and debate against you and I'll win."

Well, it became very heated, and we parted and I thought it was all over. Until the strike took place, and the police killed 18 people. As a result of that, there was a joint meeting of the national executives, of the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, and I think the communist party's central committee, which must have been still legal, at the time. I was there as a doorman at that meeting. I wasn't a delegate. I was very young and out of the blue he raised this, at this meeting, as a complaint against me.

Now my heroes at that time were his colleagues, law students, Ismail Meer and J.N. Singh ... I depended upon them to stand up for me. Instead, Ismail Meer appealed to Nelson Mandela to forget about this hot-headed youth, and that was it. But that was the only serious clash we had.

Mandela was hostile to communism too, wasn't he?

Yes, he was.

Apparently he would be walking down the street with Sisulu, they'd see a communist coming and Mandela would want to cross over to the other side.

Well, I don't know about that, but he was hostile to communism. At the same time, he was very friendly with these two fellow law students, J.N. Singh and Ismail Meer. Ismail Meer had this flat in Market Street, which I then took over ... they were having discussions all the time about the necessity to work closer together. There were a series of meetings, formal and informal, around that time, and he teases Walter that the Youth League people had gone to a meeting well prepared to promote their line, and at the meeting, as Madiba says, Walter deserted them. He just didn't follow the decision they had taken. So they were very embarrassed, and he says that they went home walking on different sides. They wouldn't even walk home with Walter. They took the same train maybe, but they wouldn't talk to him because he says that Walter deserted them or turned traitor.

But the strike of 1950, the 1st of May strike, which led to this national executive meeting, which in turn led to a decision to call a strike in protest on the 26th of June ... that was a national strike of mourning and protest. That was the beginning of the change in the Youth League's policy of working together. Thereafter, of course, came the defiance campaign, in which he was national volunteer in chief, and his deputy was Maulvi Cachalia, not Yusuf Cachalia ... that was the beginning of their working closer together.

Mandela was made the first MK commander. How did that come about?

Well, [this is] second hand, but what I do know is that in 1961, there was a call for a strike. He was already semi-underground. What had happened is that the ANC had already been banned, and a meeting was called, an all African conference, which was held in `Maritzburg. He appeared suddenly there, and called for a national convention. The ultimatum was if the government does not agree to the national convention to draw up a new constitution for South Africa, there'd be a three-day strike. This three-day strike was held, but the newspaper reports were that it was a failure, and the police and the army were brought out in full force like never before to crush that strike. It is then that we made his first public statement, that a chapter has closed in our history, and the first hint of the necessity to go on to an armed struggle. Thereafter, he took the initiative in approaching a few of his colleagues and the national executive of the ANC, to allow them to form an armed wing. It was opposed by many of the leadership, including Chief Luthuli, but surprisingly it was Moses Kotane (the secretary of the communist party) who opposed it very strongly. But then a meeting was arranged by Walter between Moses Kotane and Madiba, wherein Madiba managed to persuade Moses, because Moses Kotane's view was that you chaps are running away from the political struggle. There is a lot of room for political struggle and this is an escapist view. So he took the initiative and eventually the ANC national executive and then thereafter, the joint executive of the Indian Congress and the ANC, gave them the go ahead to form MK. But at that time, on the understanding that it is an independent body, but overall under the discipline of the ANC.

I understand that several years before, Walter Sisulu went to China ...

Ja, what had happened is that in 1953, our secretary of the South African Youth Festival committee arranged for Walter Sisulu and Duma Nokwe to be invited to a festival as guests of honor. The festival was being held in Bucharest, Rumania, and this was a very secret thing, because we had to smuggle them out of the country.

That is when I approached Madiba [Mandela] and put it to him that we have now got the funds, and we've got this invitation, but we cannot take everybody into confidence. He then undertook to take full responsibility for it. He said go ahead. That is when he told Walter that in your trip you must to go China and speak about the armed struggle. Which Walter did, and the Chinese immediately turned it down. They said, "Look, it needs a lot of preparation, political and otherwise," and they dissuaded Walter ... so that, in fact you are right, was the very first hint that we should switch over to an armed struggle.

Were you aware that those conversations were going on between Mandela and Walter Sisulu at the time.

I doubt it very much. I could have been, but I doubt it.

He was simultaneously preaching peace and political stuff and it's like almost he had a secret agenda.

Well, let's put it this way. I was very much his junior in age and in politics. He wouldn't be discussing very serious things with me at that time. So I doubt it very much if this particular thing was discussed. It's possible that I was present at many things, just by accident, a thing would be held at my flat for instance, which was a venue for many things.

The famous Black Pimpernel episode when he was on the run. Tell me about the beard.

Yes. Now I am saying that to put it in perspective, he is not a saint, and while he's got overwhelmingly positive characteristics, he is also not without some weaknesses. One of which is vanity.

Now the question of the beard. I was involved with a few of my colleagues, including Wolfie, in a little committee which was given the task of looking after him when he was underground. Looking after him meant organizing venues for him to have meetings, other venues for him to meet with his family, venues for him to have meetings with the media, all this we had to do. But our view was at that time, of course, he was already well known. His photographs had appeared and this beard was very well known. We had suggested that he should shave off that beard. He refused. He just refused ... I mean, he was also one of the best dressed persons. His tailor was the tailor for Oppenheimer ... he used to have his suits cut there. But he was prepared to give up that for even overalls and so forth, but the beard, he would not cut. And that beard went with him to Algeria. If you see that photograph ... in the training camp in Algeria, he's got the beard. He came back with the beard. He was arrested with Cecil Williams. So that beard only went in prison.

If I may enlarge a bit on the vanity thing. We were in prison together at Pollsmoor--in 1982, five of us were suddenly transferred to Pollsmoor prison. Five of the Rivonia people. Two were left behind. For the first time in all these years, we were staying together in one cell - on Robben Island, we were in separate cells. And you see one another's habits and here we found out how attached he was to this brand of hair oil called Pantene. It's no longer manufactured. In fact, it was already stopped in those years. But he is a very determined person and he wanted Pantene. He went right up to the highest authorities. He wanted his Pantene, and he wouldn't believe the prison authorities when they said this is no longer being manufactured. He even raised it with Mrs. Suzman on her visit. Eventually the prison authorities instructed Warder Brandt to go from pharmacy to pharmacy and find that Pantene. This poor chap went and got hold of whatever that pharmacy had. So that was another example of vanity, if I may call it.

On the episode of the beard. It's amazing that this man was apparently prepared to risk the whole thing because of his beard. Would that be an exaggeration?

I think that he was very confident that the security arrangements around him were very good, which they were. I mean, I know that when he was temporarily staying at Rivonia, to go to him we changed cars twice, sometimes three times to see that if there's any police following us. We'd put them off. So he was very confident about the security arrangements around him.

I think it is Govan Mbeki who talks about Nelson's antics in those days, how he was rather rash at times when he was underground, took some extraordinary risks.

... I wouldn't agree that he was rash. No, I can't remember him ... you know all sorts of folklore emerges from that period and a lot of it is just not true. People hear ... I mean Govan, with all due respects, was in Port Elizabeth or Natal at that time, and he may have heard something, you know what happens after a while one starts believing some of the things one's hear. We were most closely involved with his day to day ... when he returned from this African trip, Walter and I had gone to Botswana two weeks beforehand, to prepare for his return amidst very tight security ... Cecil Williams had just acquired a new car, which was not known to the police - so we thought. We thought this would be the best way of bringing him back into the country, which Cecil did.

Now just before his return ... I don't know if there were newspaper articles, but somehow the other documents came, which disturbed people. It was misinterpreted by people in the Congress movement and leadership that he has become an Africanist. So it was in that atmosphere that he returned to the country.... we knew that not only did he want to report immediately to Chief Luthuli, to clear up this rumors that were being spread about him being ... Africanist, [but also] the leaders of the Indian Congress, some of whom were his close friends, he wanted to meet them in Natal and reassure them that policy-wise he hasn't changed. So that was the politics of it and he insisted that he just had to do that immediately. It was causing damage, quite a bit of damage, because at one stage, some PAC people claimed that he had joined the PAC, so he was very disturbed about that type of thing.

In our committee we said ... for him to go to Durban, we needed extra precautions. I said [I would] make arrangements on the way to change motor cars and so forth. But he insisted that he just had to go. So our little committee was overruled by the executive. He went ... they didn't even give us a chance to look for alternate transport. They chose that very Cecil Williams car. My own suspicion is that the Botswana police ... there must have been some working together between the two police, and they must have followed Cecil's car. My own theory is that that's how he got arrested. That, if you can describe it as rash or determined, he just had to report to Chief Luthuli and the leaders of the Indian Congress.

I believe that you were involved in a Free Mandela committee.

I was secretary of the Free Mandela committee. We campaigned quite a bit around that, not that we would have got him released, but we did also try to get him sprung from prison. Now one of the things we did, of course, we smuggled in a false beard and glasses and so forth. The other thing we wanted to do is to bribe the commanding officer of the [Johannesburg] Fort. I remember ... I was instructed to go and get some money (£10 000) to bribe this chap. But by the time we came back, he was transferred suddenly to Pretoria prison. We tried there again through a contact, a major in the police, who we knew had taken criminals out of prison. So in the dead of night this contact, our go-between went to see him, and once he'd heard it's Mandela, he said, "No, I won't, for any amount of money I won't touch him." Those were some attempts we had made.

The Rivonia trial. There's that famous speech ... apparently Mandela had written the speech in a particular way, and you studied it and maybe some of you had some doubts ... Can you describe that ...

Well, as the accused, we used to have regular consultations. We liked [the speech]. George Bizos ... he'll tell you the little thing about his little objection. It was one word. But we approved of the speech, because right from the start, with his initiative and his leadership ... right from the first day, he said, "Chaps, this is a political trial." And Bram and them had told us on the first day after we were released from detention, that we must expect the worst.

So Madiba's attitude was this is a political trial. We'd have to fight it politically. If we got the death sentence, the courts at that time were constituted in such a way that they are not going to overturn that. So this speech was consistent with that approach, and our evidence was consistent with that approach. So we approved of the speech. There may have been some amendments here and there ... and I'm told that ... the only alteration George then made, was where he says, "These are ideas for which I have fought to achieve ... these are the ideals for which I am prepared to die." And George added, "if need be" ...

The night before sentencing--do you remember that?

Well, we were all in single cells. But, of course, we were meeting at consultations, and we were meeting in court. My recollection is that, although, against me for instance, there was the flimsiest evidence, the only evidence against me is that I had typed a letter. Of course, I had done much more. But they had no evidence. I was not a member of the high command ... but there was always the danger that once you're in a conspiracy, you're going to get the same sentence. So that the expectation of a death sentence remained almost to the end, till we actually appeared in court. The lawyers had expected at least myself and Raymond Mhlaba and Rusty to be acquitted. Especially myself. But that expectation was there. So that we went to court on the 12th of June 1964, expecting the worst, you see. Then came the life sentence, and it was a collective sigh of relief, of course.

How did Mandela's leadership express itself in that?

Oh, tremendous ... I mean right through the trial, right from day one, as I had said earlier, he led us, he guided us ... Right from the beginning of the trial, from the first day that we met, he had said that this is a political trial. We'll have to fight it politically. And that was it right through. Regardless of what's going to happen, because the courts in the country, as constituted, were not going to change the death sentence, so we should be prepared for that. And that is an attitude he maintained. Of course, we couldn't argue against it because his argument was very powerful. Having fought a political trial, those of us who went into the witness box ... we had to maintain that attitude of a political trial. Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki--they were members of the high command. They took full responsibility for the 200 or what acts of sabotage that we were found guilty of. They took full responsibility for that. Those of us, of course, against some there was no evidence--we took full responsibility politically. But that's how the trial was conducted and that is really under his leadership.

On the night before the sentencing, what do you recollect of Mandela's demeanor?

But you see, we were staying in single cells, and besides that he was already a sentenced prisoner, so there was no getting together. We came straight from court, to prison, and we were locked up in our single cells with our thoughts to ourselves, really.

Did he ever talk to you in those meetings that you did have occasionally about the death sentence and preparing for that?

Oh no, he did, right from the start, that we have to prepare for the worst. And we are not going to appeal. We should not appeal if there is a death sentence.

Why did he say you should not appeal against the death sentence?

As the courts were constituted at that time, and throughout the period of nationalist rule really, the atmosphere was such that no court would have upset a death sentence or any sentence, for that matter. In fact, if we had appealed, after having got a life sentence, the possibility was mentioned by the lawyers that it's possible that the appeal court would have said these chaps should have got a death sentence. And if that had happened, cases that came after us, may have got death sentences, you see. But, of course, in our case there was no talk of an appeal.

Mandela was a lawyer. He understood this best. But it is still logical, that if you receive the death sentence, that you would appeal. What was Mandela's political argument for not appealing?

His political argument was that this is a political case. Among us were leaders of the movement, that if the leaders of the movement show weakness, in the face of this, what detrimental effect it would have on the followers outside. Leaders are there to lead, and show the courage that is necessary in the face of any consequences. That was his argument, that here were our leaders (there were the four among us were members of the national executive of the ANC), now they dared not show weakness in conducting the trial or deciding on an appeal, you see. Because if after conducting a political trial we suddenly decide that in the face of the severe sentence, we decide to appeal, t he followers outside would not take it very well.

The supporters outside would not want their leaders killed.

No, they wouldn't, but at the same time they wouldn't want their leaders to show any weakness.

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