frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela
the prisoner

Fatima Meer interview EXCERPT

During Mandela's Black Pimpernel phase, he was undisciplined to the point of cavalier and reckless.

Well, it would be sort of double edged. He would be very conscious of the indiscipline and indiscretion of others, but in himself, he would take his chances. I mean, if he didn't take his chances, where would he be today? If he sort of retained himself in a cautious groove or something, now you wouldn't have the Mandela that you have.

So Mandela had to have that adventurous streak, and, of course ,that adventurous streak is reflected in the fact that he goes underground, he becomes referred to as the black pimpernel. I recall ... he was underground. Now he comes and he stays with us, here, in this house in Sydenham. Both of us had already been banned, and were in the eye of the authorities. So how safe was that? But he was comfortable.

... The very next morning, he is in front of the mirror shaving away, and the phone rings, and I answer it and another friend, wants to know whether Mandela was delivered safely. So I am absolutely flabbergasted. And I say to him, "What Mandela are you talking about. There's no Mandela here." And then I say to Nelson, "Oh, so and so phoned and wanted to know whether you were here." So he just flew into a rage, and he said, "Don't they know of such things as telephone tappings." You see what I mean. He was enraged that the other person was reckless, but his own recklessness did not really occur to him.

He took chances even when they were living in that house in Liliesleaf. He would have the family visit him over weekends. Winnie would take the children over there. They took their chances. They had to live. They had to live dangerously and they did so.

When he came and stayed with you, was this before his Africa trip? ... this must have been shortly before his arrest.

... This was before his Africa trip, because then he came back and he came to Durban, and he reported on his Africa escapade to Chief Luthuli. And then, of course, he has another what you might call bit of adventurism or recklessness.

We had a lovely party. He wanted to meet all his friends, and he wanted to meet them together, and he wanted to do it as a lovely big party. So at the house of G.R. Naidoo ... also in Sydenham, there was this party, and we all arrived there. All his friends, and we had a lovely, lovely party and there was he was. all dressed up in his guerrilla uniform, looking very splendid. Very broad shouldered, not the man you see today. His face also was rounder. And then he left from that house, and on the way he was arrested, driving his boss's car, who was Cecil Williams.

There were lots of his comrades in Johannesburg who said, "don't go down to Natal." Did you know this.

No, I didn't know that.

But going to this party with lots of people, the more people you have, the higher the chances of some kind of informer ...

Of course. Of course.

It was madness. When he came back from this African trip ...

But don't you think that history sort of ... what's the word I'm looking for?

Absolves him.

Well, justified it. I mean, it was a nice fling, and whatever happened later on, justified that fling. It was all part of his destiny. You can't plan things too much. Take your chances.

When he returned from his Africa trip we have heard he came back ... more conscious of his African identity and perhaps also more "guerrilla-ish."

Ja, guerrilla-ish, but you see, he had already shed his Africanism. It was through the shedding of his Africanism that the ANC also broadened its whole world view and its South African perspective. And when he went overseas, I think the strongest support ... which is often recognized as not being African, from Tunisia, from Morocco. These were the places from which his greatest support came and his training. His training was done in Algeria. You see.

So I can't see him coming back more African, but he had by then come back far more confident in himself, and far more confident in the status and role of the ANC because he had managed to garner such a lot of support for it. So this was probably being misread as an Africanism. Certainly, he was very imbued with the sense of Pan Africanism, but it was not in a racial sense at all.

You said at this party he was wearing his guerrilla uniform. We have heard he was told to shave off his beard, but he refused. Did he enjoy that role ...

No, it wasn't that kind of enjoyment. It was almost a kind of a puckish enjoyment, as if - well, we've done all these things and we've got away with it. We've beaten them, because in those days, there was a great game also going on between us and the Special Branch. And to get an opportunity of telling the Special Branch off. You never lost such opportunities. So there was also an open fight going on between you in the movement and the Special Branch, so there was a puckishness about it all. Not an arrogance.

Which suggest that that Black Pimpernel label is fairly close to the mark. He took great delight in ...

Tweaking the king's beard. That's it ... tweaking whoever though, the prime minister in those days ... even before he went, when you had that big conference in 'Maritzburg and there is was decided that he would go underground and make this call for a national strike. It gave him great pleasure. That kind of tweaking, puckish pleasure when he phoned the newspapers and said, "We are going to do this, and we are going to do that, you see."

So there was almost a sense of fun ...

Well, we all had fun in the struggle. We had our bad moments, but there was a lot of fun in the struggle and all that fun is gone now.

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