frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela
the prisoner

Joe Matthews interview EXCERPT

One gets the impression that Mandela, during the '40s, was the kind of hot-headed, firebrand type that today he has had to restrain.

Yes, we all were, at the time. There was, to begin with, a fierce battle against the communists at the time.

This communist point--tell us about that.

Yes, when the Youth League was founded it was very nationalistic. African nationalism was the slogan of the Youth League, and it was very anti-foreign ideologies--as they were called. That included, of course, the Communist and the Young Communist League. There was fierce competition for the allegiance of the youth, between the Youth League and the communists. But it was ambivalent, because on the one hand, the mother body, the ANC itself welcomed anybody, including the communists, in its ranks. But you had this undercurrent of Youth League demanding that the ANC should put forward an African nationalistic policy which is anti-communist.

The Youth League even tried to get a resolution through at the ANC national conference in 1946, which would have the effect of removing communists from the ANC. The resolution was heavily defeated by conservative politicians ... Mandela was in the forefront of the anti-communist groupings, although he was at Wits [University] and a lot of the young communists were at Wits Even many of his friends were members of the communist party. People like Ismail Meer, J.N. Singh ... But on the political platforms he was well known as one of the people opposing the influence of communists in the ANC.

Do you have any recollection of the sort of things that he used to say from political platforms about communists?

I can't really be specific. It was the general sort of Youth League propaganda against foreign ideologies, against people trying to hijack the struggle of the African people. That Africans must stand up for themselves and that the strategies and tactics of the struggle should be determined by the African people themselves, and not by others. These were the sort of things that would be said in all the meetings. It was not easy because you had prominent communists who were in the ANC. J.B. Marks, and Moses Kotane and others who were leaders of the Communist Party and were on the executive of the ANC. So this was frequently a source of a lot of friction ... and the Youth Leaguers were regarded as a very big nuisance because of their attitude.

This African nationalism also included a certain hostility towards Indian people in the struggle, like Yusuf Cachalia and so forth, who later became his friends ...

Well, you see, at Wits he had Indian friends ... but they were communists ... that's why I say there's a great deal of ambivalence in the whole attitude of the Youth League, because here they were forced to work with people and yet they were going around, especially among Africans, condemning any relationship with Indians or whites, which had the effect of depriving the Africans of their own control over strategy and tactics and so on. This was the whole idea, that we had to be independent in the formulation of policy and not be influenced by others. Yet, practical campaigns demanded that in the fight against white rule and segregation and so on, you had to work with others, and that did ,in fact, happen. But the Youth League would say that cooperation is okay provided that the Africans have got their own independent body, the ANC, to which others were excluded. The ANC, at the time, excluded non-Africans from their membership.

Did you observe the transformation in Mandela? He evolved and matured--did you witness anything in Mandela?

I think that the transformation of the Youth League from an exclusive African nationalist organization into one with a broader outlook, affected all of us, not just Mandela personally. The Youth League was confronted by this problem as a result of practical struggles that had to be waged against white rule. Remember that in the beginning, the country was governed by the United Party. And there were some people who still hoped that changes would occur in a peaceful manner.

Later on it became clear that this was not going to happen. In the course of campaigns that were waged, when you had the Indian passive resistance campaign, which influenced us a great deal. We were outside it, but we observed what the Indian people were doing--how they had organized themselves and the way they were going to jail. So the passive resistance campaign had a big effect. The miners strike of 1946, which was led by J.B. Marx, a communist, had a very big impact. And then, of course, the National Party comes to power in May 1948, presenting a challenge to everybody, to reposition themselves. Because the National Party came in with a very strong anti-communist policy, very strong anti-Indian policy. They wanted the Indians out of the country--back to India.

So the African movement was compelled to reckon with the realities of the South African situation, and indicate where they stood. Could you be anti-Indian when the white government was demanding that Indians should be expelled from South Africa, and sent back to India? What is your position? What is the position of the movement on communism when the National Party made everyone a communist? Not just those who were members of the formal communist party.

I think that the May 1, 1950 strike was a particularly fierce battle between those who felt there should be a more progressive outlook, and those who considered that we should still stick to an exclusivist African nationalistic position.

If you tell me about that strike and the issue of the Indian question as it might have affected Mandela at the time.

Well, the ANC in 1949 December had adopted a program of action, [which] was seen as a victory for the Youth League and for the African nationalist position ... Yet, shortly after that program was adopted in December 1949 ... the Defend Free Speech convention was called by a large number of different organizations including the communist party, the Indian Congress, the non-European Trade Union Federation, the Transvaal ANC (that is the provincial branch of the ANC in the Transvaal).

The purpose of the Defend Free Speech convention was to register a protest against the bans that had been imposed on certain leaders by the Nationalist government. They had imposed a ban on ... four leaders. That was the main attack by the Defend Free Speech convention. But the conference then went on to take a decision to have a strike on the 1st of May 1950. The Youth League responded to this by saying it was an attempt to divert attention from the program of action, to introduce a new program which was the different from the 1949 program of action. So there was a split in the ranks. Some members of the Youth League supporting the May 1st strike, and others strongly opposed to the May 1st strike.

Mandela was a leading figure against the decision to hold a strike on May 1st ... and attempts were made by Yusuf Cachalia to go and persuade him to support the strike ... but ... he appeared on every conceivable platform preaching against the strike. Well, he was under terrific attack from the communists ... and many others who were against his point of view. Now it's a turning point because it is that strike and that fight which eventually led to the emergence of the Africanists ... whereas, Mandela didn't go along with the Africanists. He eventually went with the other side, with those who felt that it had been wrong to oppose the strike, because the strike was a mass movement against the oppressors. And the feeling was that whenever the masses are on the march, against oppression, then you should support the mass movement, and not be against it. This is really how people reacted ...

...

You must have developed a closer acquaintance, as time unfolded, with Mandela.

Yes, well I was his secretary. Remember he became president of the Youth League in 1951 and I was the national secretary. So we obviously had to work together ...

Can you remember, around that time, any particular encounter in which you developed a sense of the man?

Yes, well I had to have contact with him because I also had ambitions to become a lawyer. That's how we actually first became quite personal friends, when he was articled to Helman and Michel ... and I also was keen to go into the legal field. There were so few of us who were trying to become lawyers, and so we had that aspect as well, apart from the political. Then I was quite close to Sisulu, and Sisulu was close to Mandela. I had more contact with Sisulu, in fact, than with Mandela at the time. But gradually we got to work together.

Do you remember any particular first encounter?

Well, you must remember it's difficult for me to find anybody fascinating. I was Z.K.'s son, you know. That was the only fascinating man in South Africa as far as I was concerned. We were at the top of society at the time; therefore, we didn't think any other people were so important. So I could never say one was inspired by any of the people whom one met like Tambo and Mandela and so on, because they had been students and I had been the son of the professor, and we were ruling the campus as it were ...

So in the beginning one was not really aware of the merits of Mandela. I was very conscious of the merits of Tambo, because he was our teacher, and a very brilliant teacher ... therefore, we got to know him very well, and we regarded him as the inspiring figure rather than Nelson Mandela. And also at the time ... Sisulu was the one who was in the news more than Mandela. You heard all the time of Sisulu, the new secretary general elected in 1949, and he was the leading figure rather than Mandela.

Are there any moments in that Defiance Campaign where he might have made an elaborate show of burning his pass, for example ...

Well, we can start off a bit earlier. After the 1950 national strike, we then had a joint planning council established by the South African Indian Congress and the ANC to try and work out a joint program of struggle against the policies of the Nationalist party and the Nationalist government ... when we went to the conference in 1951 ... the person who introduced that program was not one of the members of the council, but was Mandela.

He dressed up in his favorite brown suit. He had a favorite brown suit, which he loved, and he introduced the joint planning council report, and, of course, that made him the key figure at that 1951 conference, as the man who had introduced the campaign for the defiance of unjust laws. And he was the first person the following year to volunteer to go to prison as a person who was going to defy unjust laws, and was in fact appointed as the national volunteer in chief to establish this core of volunteers who were going to defy unjust laws. So I think that that moment, December 1951, marks a very important step in the movement of Mandela towards leadership of the ANC.

Tell me about a meeting where you formed an impression of who this guy was.

I'll tell you where he created a very big impression, and irritated a lot of people ... as part of the campaign it was decided to hold protest meetings on April the 6th 1952 against the tercentenary of the arrival of whites in South Africa. They were celebrating this arrival of Jan van Riebeeck on April the 6th 1652. We then decided to hold protest meetings at the same time. The major meeting of protest for the ANC was in Port Elizabeth. And Dr. Maroke, the then president general, my father, who was provincial president of the ANC, and Mandela, who was the president of the Youth League, all gathered in Port Elizabeth to address a huge crowd of protest against the tercentenary.

That evening there was a black tie affair ... and Mandela made a speech as leader of the Youth League in that meeting, in which he predicted that he would be the first president of South Africa. Now, this was quite resented because you had the leader of the ANC there, Dr. Maroke, you had the leader of the provincial ANC, my father, you had the man who was going act for my father, who were all senior and then you had this upstart Mandela getting up in the dinner, and as part of his speech, saying that he is looking forward to becoming the first president of a free republic of South Africa. And it has happened. You see, ja, it's happened ...

Can you recall it in a bit more detail?

Yes, well ... he read a prepared speech. It wasn't an off-the-cuff speech ... and he wasn't wearing black tie like the other leaders. He was still in his favorite brown suit. It was a very glittering affair, nothing proletarian about it at all ... The main topic of his speech was the forthcoming campaign, which was due to begin on June 26th 1952, and he was going to be in the lead in that campaign. But it's in the course of that speech that he made this rather startling statement. Of course, everyone thought he was just being an arrogant young man, because nobody dreamed that we would ever reach the day of liberation and freedom in our life time, although that was our slogan--freedom in our life time.

But this is something I recall very vividly because a lot of us who were at that dinner, of course, have lived to see his prediction proved correct. So it means, he had strong ambition. That's what was reflected by that speech. The fact that he ignored his seniors, I mean this is what many people thought it would be more appropriate if that speech was made by the senior leaders of the ANC, but here it was made the president of the Youth League. It was quite a memorable moment, which I've never forgotten.

So he must have been seen as quite an irritating, arrogant, conceited guy?

... even when he didn't hold office, this we must always remember, Mandela always came forward and presented himself as a leading figure in the ANC. He ignored office as the criterion of leadership and very often he did and said things which should have been said by those who held office. Yet, he would say it. It was perhaps a kind of supreme confidence. I don't know if one could call it arrogance, but he was very confident, maybe over confident in himself.

He was regarded as fearless. It was known that he was fearless as a person. He was always ready to volunteer to be the first to do something, anything that had to be done, Mandela would volunteer to do it. Therefore, we ... never regarded Mandela as one of the thinkers of the movement, although he wrote articles here and there, of an ideological nature. But where we wrote articles by the hundred, he wrote one or two, over a long period of time. So he was not a theoretician. But he was a doer. He was a man who did things, and he was always ready to volunteer to be the first to do any dangerous or difficult thing, he would ready to do.

Do you remember any particular dangerous or difficult thing for which he volunteered?

Well ... if you look even at the banning of the ANC, he was the first to say that now we must go underground, defy the ban, and refused to disband ... He was the first to say leaders must go underground, and prepare for armed struggle. He was the first to advocate a violent struggle, and the abandonment of a long held and cherished policy of nonviolence which the ANC had had since 1912. Mandela was the first to say we must break from this policy. So he was an innovator in that sense. But always not on ideological ground but on practical grounds that we must do this, or we must do that ...

In subsequent meetings that you had with him, after that remarkable story that you tell about the speech in Port Elizabeth, did that stay with you that this guy said he was going to be president of South Africa.

Well, I then went and stayed with him. During the treason trial ... after our arrest on December the 5th, 1956, we then had a preparatory examination almost for seven-eight months in 1957 ... I lived with him at the time. He had already parted from his first wife, and we actually shared his room at his house in Soweto. So I was literally ... traveling with him and listening to him and we were having debates and arguments and so on all the time ... But we stayed together for a long time and during that time what emerged as well, was the change in his outlook from an African nationalist position to what you might call almost a left wing position ...

He is very uniquely emotionally uptight, he won't confide at all ...

I think maybe what we can say is that he had very few friends in whom he could confide. Now, one would be Walter. That's about as close as you will get to somebody in whom he could confide. Confiding to me would be other things which do not necessarily have a great deal of depth, like seeing a beautiful girl or that kind of thing. But there are very few occasions on which he would confide something outside of politics.

Politics--we had very close relations. When he decided that we should establish a underground violent movement, he did tell me that this is what he wants to propose, and we discussed the possible name--what would we call this organization ... He thought we should have an indigenous name, and we eventually got to Spear of the Nation, which is Umkhonto we Sizwe, but that was after quite a long discussion with him. We also discussed should we really stick to the name South Africa ... So we had discussions of that type, or discussions about relations between us, and white communists, or with Indians and so on ... But if it was a personal matter, then it would either be Walter Sisulu or Tambo. Those two are the only ones with whom he would share sort of deep secrets about his wedding or personal matters of that type.

Tell me more about Umkhonto we Sizwe.

Well, after the great strike against the establishment of a republic, he gave a very well-known interview to the press in which he thought that the time had come to think of new ways of struggle, and that the nonviolent struggle had really reached its end ... That's when he started to discuss with some of his friends, this idea of actually establishing what would eventually become a guerrilla army. Obviously, this had to be put eventually to the national executive of the ANC, but before that, he held discussions with Walter, with myself, with others. One of the things he was always concerned about was to have indigenous inspiration to any idea, and that must be reflected also in the names ... we eventually thought that the name Umkhonto we Sizwe was the best name, and that's what he put forward.

... The discussions on this whole issue of the armed struggle took place on a sugar farm in KwaZulu Natal, belonging to one of the big Indian sugar barons. Of course, the older leadership was against the idea. But ... Chief Luthuli and others said "Okay, we won't oppose the idea. Publicly we'll say nothing. We think that you young people have got an argument, a valid argument," and so that's how the matter went ahead, where the official position was against ... the majority was against the formation of turning the ANC into a guerrilla movement. And the link between the ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe came much later, in fact in exile. But internally there wasn't agreement on the issue.

The armed struggle, would it be correct to say that the first person who planted that idea in the movement was Mandela himself.

Yes.

When you had these first discussions ... was the nature of the violence ...

I think Mandela, from the beginning, really was looking much further ahead. The idea was not originally accepted that we are talking of what will eventually become a guerrilla army. It was more a question of symbolic attacks on targets which reflected the oppressor in one way or another. Pass stations, pass offices and places of that kind which could be symbolically blown up. But I think he had, from the word go, and even the literature that he was reading was based on eventual development of a guerrilla army. When he went about with Guerrilla Warfare by Ché Guevara, it was one of the books everybody was carrying around ... but this is what he had in mind from the beginning. But you couldn't, I suppose, put it starkly like that in the beginning, because so many people had been brought up on nonviolence, on civil disobedience, on Ghandian principles and so on. We knew that, for example, the Indian Congress would probably never go along, and they were very close allies of ours ... The communist party, well, they had never done it in South Africa. They had also operated very basically within the system, but at least their ideology provided for that kind of revolutionary movement. So there was a possibility that they would accept it ...

Did you discuss with Mandela the pros and cons of actually taking human life?

I remember that in the beginning there was a policy against taking life. I, myself, do not think that Mandela was against the taking of life at all, because as I point out, he from the beginning, did envisage an army developing out of this where others thought we were only going to employ violence but on symbolic sort of targets. And ensure that there is no loss of life. Hence the shock when the African Resistance Movement ... exploded something which killed a woman. This was quite a shocking event. But Mandela was never a pacifist or someone who was worried about loss of life.

A guy who says in 1951 he is going to be president of South Africa is a visionary or a lunatic ... he had this image of himself ...

Ja, that's what many of us thought of him as a kind of Garibaldi. Not the thinker, but the warrior, the brave chap who is ready to do anything which has danger in it, without the implications and consequences being fully considered. That is the sort of impression one had that this was a fearless man, who didn't know what fear meant. Therefore, people tended to be wary at certain stages, and think that now we've got to be careful of the fearless man, the brave man, who may not have considered everything.

One also gets a sense of him prancing on stage ...

And yet .... he is not a publicist or he's not a person seeking publicity in that sort of sense. Because he's quite a serious individual. So although there is that in him, something of the actor, and yet there is an underlying determination which removed the impression that this was a sort of a show off chap. He is very serious and he, in fact, respected curiously enough although he was not regarded as a thinker in the intellectual sense, but he was a reflective sort of man.

I remember once when we were detained at No 4 prison in Johannesburg, after our arrest in 1956, and I was sitting next to him and he observed Chief Luthuli [who] was staring in the distance, thinking, obviously. And Mandela said to me, "Do you see that man? That is the mark of a great man. A man who can think and consider things." Now we call that in Xhosa ... a man who stares into the horizon, thinking and so on. He obviously respected that kind of thing, and he actually said that's the mark of a great man. That posture by Luthuli ... if you read the accounts of him on Robben Island, you will find people remarking on him, having those kind of moments of reflection. He does do that deliberately to think and almost in the sense of the yoga kind of transcendental meditation type of thing. I think he consciously does that.

Mandela grew a beard at a certain point.

Well, that's when he went underground and this is after '61. I went to see him and was amazed that he was wearing this beard. Maybe it was part of the preparation for being underground, and changing his appearance, and so on ... I think it was just part of the beginnings of the underground leader mystique ...

Was this his Ché Guevara phase?

At different times in the struggle, people had different heroes. After 1949 the hero was Mao Tse-tung and everybody was reading Chinese literature and watching Chinese films and so on. But the hero of 1960 was, of course, Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara ... that was the literature that was being read. Everything we talked about was about Cuba. And the significant thing about these guerrillas was the beard. They all sported beards. My belief is that about that time, quite a number of people started to wear beards, and Mandela was one of them.

Apparently, he was counseled by his colleagues to, "Shave off that bloody beard because you are now recognizable."

No, I don't [remember], but what I do know is that we were very concerned about his traveling. Especially the decision by him to travel throughout South Africa, reporting on his overseas trip. That was discussed, and we were dead against this idea. People thought that moving around Johannesburg was one thing, but to actually leave the confines of the city, and now travel to other provinces, was regarded as reckless. But he nevertheless decided that he was going ... to do it ... and we were not surprised when he was arrested. It was almost something that you had to expect, and we were very unhappy about it ...

Were people openly irritated with him after his arrest?

Ja, there was quite a good bit of irritation that this had been unwise and reckless. But then you see, he had been so moved by his trip, he had to tell people about his trip abroad, and his visits to Algeria, his visit to London ... which was, I suppose, a laudable aim to want to report to people, but really the measure taken to secure his person and so on were laughable. I mean you had this vehicle preceded by another one ... the whole thing was so amateurish. But then everything in those days was amateurish. Not only on our side, but on the police side. The police were very amateurish at the time ...

Mandela, the political seducer. He has shown extraordinary ability in winning people over ... Choose one example which might serve to illustrate his political seduction technique.

Well, I am a bit hesitant, because this has been an ANC characteristic for years. One of the reasons for the survival of the ANC over such a long period, is their ability to steal other people's programs, and to adapt to situations. As extraordinary adaptation to a policy which previously they opposed, and then they realize its merits, and then adjust and it comes out as a different policy. That has been the characteristic of the ANC, for which they've been criticized historically, as being inconsistent. But it's that which enabled them to survive to a ripe old age, and they are still doing it. All one can say is that some people in the ANC are more adept at practicing this tactic and this policy than others.

But Oliver Tambo was the supreme persuader ... That has been the characteristic of the African National Congress all along. Therefore, I think it's wrong to ascribe this to Mandela alone. Remember, this is a man who has grown up and he's steeped in the ANC way of doing things, and he knows how to do it and when to do it ... There is that tradition of trying to see what the other side really wants, because that's the basis of it. It is to try and discover, out of all the rhetoric, what actually is wanted by the other side, and you then are prepared to concede that. And win concessions in return. And this is how they do it.

... You are saying the ANC is a sort of chameleon organization which adapts, absorbs and steals ...

Because you see, what you are describing as the Mandela technique, is an ANC technique. So I am trying to answer you by saying let's depersonalize this. This is not the characteristic only of Mandela, but it's an organizational technique, which has been used by a lot of leaders of the ANC. I gave the example of Tambo, who in our movement is regarded as the supreme example of this--not Mandela. Mandela has been regarded as the more heroic sort of individual. He was never regarded as what he has become now--the diplomat, the seducer. That was Tambo. That's the man who went to every trouble spot in the ANC. That's the man who brought people together. That's the man who could get a compromise out of nothing ...

So the Mandela you knew, and the present Mandela is really a different animal.

He's different. The Mandela we see now, who comes out of the prison experience and so on, is different from the Mandela of the '50s and '60s, who is the hero, the heroic individual. The guy who is afraid of nothing, almost the reckless chap. In contrast to Tambo who is the conciliator and the diplomat and the soft spoken man and so on. You'd never send the Mandela of those days, to reconcile people or bring people together. You would send Tambo. You can ask other people, and say to them, "Who was the chap who used to be sent if there was a big problem?" You send Tambo. You see. To some extent Sisulu, that's another great conciliator and diplomat, recognized as such in the movement. But Mandela ... what has developed now into his almost primary characteristic, is something new to many of us.

home + young boy + revolutionary + prisoner + husband & lover + biographers + interviews
synopsis + anecdotes + chronology + discussion + map
tapes tapes & transcripts + transcripts + credits + press + site map + viewers & teachers' guide
frontline + pbs online + wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS