frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

interview: Amina Cachalia & Rica Hodgson INTERVIEWED BY JOHN CARLIN

Cachalia is a friend and confidante of Mandela; Hodgson was an early communist and one of Mandela's lifelong friends. (Hodgson joins the interview later)
There's a line from Shakespeare when Hamlet says to Horatio, "Give me that man who is not passion's slave and I will wear him in my heart." A lot of people think Mandela is the consummate expression of a man who is not passion's slave ...

amina cachaliaYes, Mandela is an interesting man. He is a man of many moods. A man of a great many seasons, too. His love for Indian food started very late in life. He was not a man that had Indian food as a young lad in the Transkei when he first came here. But when he first met the Indian men at university and became accustomed to eating with them, I suppose he was introduced to Indian food.

Later on, and specially early '50s, there was a restaurant in Court Street in Johannesburg that used to cater for all of us, for mostly black people, and Mandela used to go there very often and have an Indian meal. That's where he first probably had briyani. Subsequently he loved the food and I used to cook it for him from time to time and I still do.

Are there any stories which you can recall which illustrate this driving desire to consume briyani ...

... any time he feels like having some, he would phone people, not me, but other people and say, "May I have some briyani?" I remember one day I was working at the ANC offices ... with Rica, in her office. I was planning the veterans party ... and he was phoning from his office and he said, "Go home and cook me some food. I'm coming to have lunch." And I thought to myself, "What a thing to say--president or no president." Just like a chauvinist man who says go home to a woman to cook food for him. But I did come home and I cooked some food, and he came home that afternoon and had it ...

He likes to portray himself as being very much in tune with the women's liberation times. Are you suggesting that maybe he pays lip service to that ... and in practice tends to be rather despotic in the old style?

I think all these old men do. They absolutely are not so in tune with women's liberation. They talk a great deal about it, but a lot of them are still very, very chauvinist in their habits.

Let me narrow us down to one particular occasion I would like you to talk about--your first prison visit when Mandela was at Pollsmoor.

Yusuf and I went to Cape Town. Of course, the press got hold of it, and that night just about everybody phoned to find out what I was going to say to him. I said, "I haven't a clue." I had a million butterflies in my tummy. I was worried and excited--this man I hadn't seen for so many years. The last time I saw him was when he was sentenced in 1962 ... I didn't even know what he looked like anymore.

He never allowed his private life to faze him ... He's always absolutely in control of his emotions. But his one great wish was that he would come out of prison, and have a family life again with his wife and the children. Because he's a great family man and I think he really wanted that more than anything else.
We were taken to Pollsmoor that day, kept in a little waiting room ... until they fetched him... he looked so different from what I imagined. He was very frail, tall and just very thin looking. And he had a strange color. He wasn't black. He wasn't brown. He had sort of a pale grayish color. I said to him, "Are you ill? What's the matter?" He said, "No, no, no, I'm fine. Let's sit down and talk." Well, there were policemen all over the place. Yusuf and I sat on either side of him, and then policemen sat on either side of us, and others sort of in the room all over the place. We talked about the children, his children and my kids and family and friends ... but I kept thinking this man is not well. He doesn't look well. I asked him two or three times but he assured me, "You are just worrying for nothing. I am very well." But a week later, he did collapse with tuberculosis. So he couldn't have been well when I saw him, and he was very ill after that.

What do you recall of Victor Verster?

It was a bungalow, quite a nice little cottage, with a little swimming pool and a verandah where he sat very often. He told me he watched the birds every morning ... and he would talk to the birds.

There were two people in the house with him, a Mr. Swart, he was the cook and there was someone else, as well. But it was so strange. I told friends that I was going to see him, and everybody said you must take a photograph of him. I thought, "Well, I'm gonna try."

So I was given a little camera by the Weekly Mail editor, tiny little thing, and they said to try and take a picture of him because the world was waiting for a picture of this man. I said, "Okay." We went in. They didn't search me. I had the camera in my bag, and then they served us lunch. We went to sit at the table. Yusuf and I, and Mandela and it was a very nice lunch, and they even asked if we wanted wine. Then the guys left us alone ... and I zipped out this camera and I said, "I'm going to take a photograph of you." He held my hand and said, "Don't." I said, "Why not?" I couldn't understand it, I mean we were alone in the room. I put it away again, and then I looked at him very puzzled, and he said very loudly, "Mr. Swart will you bring me something or other" ... Mr. Swart said, "Yes Mr. Mandela, I'll be there right away." And Mr. Swart's voice sounded as though it was coming right here behind me. So I think there was some sort of bugging devices where they could hear everything we were talking at the table ... then I realized that must be the reason that he is stopping [me] ... He took me to the bedroom afterwards to show me his bedroom, and I was in there alone with him, and I sort of said, "Why don't you want me to take a picture?" He said, "Because, don't take a picture." That was it. Many years later I said to him, "You stopped me from being a millionairess. I could have had this picture" ... But he did say that everything he had said and done would have been taken note of. So they must have bugged him all the time, even though he was supposed to be partly free in the Victor Verster house.

So he never gave you a full explanation subsequently of why he stopped you from being a millionairess?

No, he just laughed when I told him. But he thought I understood that that they would have known if I had taken the picture and they would have probably taken the camera away in any case. And also, stopped visits, perhaps.

The day of the release ... what do you recall of that day?

Oh, that was just such an emotional day for so many millions of people. Me included ... India had sent a team of television artists here, especially for his release. Until then India had nothing to do with South Africa. But they sent this group of people ... we arranged everything for them ... and my son and I and the crowd went to Cape Town, and we stayed at a friend's house.

The day of his release we went to stand outside Victor Verster prison in the street. There were crowds of people, and we all stood there, and it was a blisteringly hot day. It was so hot. Scott McLeod of Time Magazine was standing next to me. We waited and waited and waited, and Mandela made no appearance. Finally, everybody said, "Oh, Winnie must be keeping him waiting" ... But she wasn't. We had the wrong idea at that time. Anyway, we waited and I got so tired. Eventually I said, "Look, if he doesn't come out in the next five minutes, I think I'm going to leave, because it's so hot. I just can't stand it." Scott said, "No, please don't go, because if you're here, your the only one he'd recognize, and then at least we get a picture." Scott gave me a cap to wear for the heat. We stood and stood, and finally he came out. Well, when he made his appearance, I mean, never mind me, the entire crowd made a rush for him and I was just trampled to bits almost. I couldn't get anywhere near him, and didn't see him. So I went home and looked at the television for the rest of the day. I didn't even go to the parade.

But the next day there was suppose to be a press conference at Bishopscourt and these chaps had the credentials, and they were gonna go for the interview. So they all went off and I was at home in the morning ... when my son called and said, "Ma, will you bring one of these gadgets for the television." They forgot it and needed it very badly ... So off I went with this gadget, and my friend drove me there ... they knew I was coming and they allowed me in ... I gave the television gadget to this man, and then Trevor Tutu came up to me. He says, "Oh I am so glad you're here. Come upstairs" ... So off I went ... there was a whole crowd sitting in the sitting room--Walter, Winnie, Mbeki (Thabo's father), and various other people. Nelson was sitting in an armchair and his eyes were sort of half closed. He looked as though he wasn't aware of anybody else in the room. I greeted the other people, and I went to stand near him. For a few seconds, he just didn't realize there was anybody there. I said, "A penny for your thoughts." He opened his eyes and he says, "Good heavens, where did you come from?" And he jumped up and hugged me, and I said, "Where were you a few minutes ago?" He said, "I've just been thinking." So I said, "What about?" He said, "Everything that's in store for me" And he sort of sank back into the chair and we had a chat ... it was just so wonderful.

One heard of tensions within the ANC, concerns about Mandela talking to the government ... was he selling them out ... There was the whole issue, the relationship with Tambo, which was terribly close, but also there was this tension, it seemed, as to who would be president ...

Ja, I don't think there was tension, as such. But I think by the time Nelson was released from prison, Tambo was already a very ill man. He was sick. He had the stroke and he was being nursed in Switzerland, I think ... one of [Mandela's] first visits was to go and see Tambo. He related this me afterwards. He said when he saw Tambo in this hospital ward, Tambo's face lit up and he said, "I am so happy to see you." He said, "Now the ANC presidency must go to you. You must be president of the ANC." From that moment he wanted to relinquish his leadership of the party. Nelson said he said, "No, you are the ANC president, and will remain as such until much later on." And Tambo sort of sunk back in his bed again and he smiled and I think it probably was a smile of relief, in a sense. I don't know. But Nelson said he wanted him to feel that he is going to get better, and he is still going to play a very wonderful role in the leadership position ...

Talking of presidents, you must have had some sense of his relationship with F.W. de Klerk. It's a very interesting thing how in the eyes of the world ... these are two Nobel Peace Prize winners. Yet, there's an awful lot of tension.

I haven't really seen them together except what the rest of the world has seen in pictures and so on. But at the beginning, he had a great deal of respect for de Klerk, and he absolutely regarded him as the man that has made a lot of things possible, and a man of great integrity. And every time he said that, I have a friend, Helen Joseph, who died some years ago ... and she would phone me every time Nelson talked about de Klerk's integrity. She said, "Tell Nelson that he's not a man of integrity. He'll soon realize what sort of a man he is." One day I told him that. I said, "You know Helen is very fed up with you. You keep talking about this man and his great integrity, and she doesn't believe in that at all." So he just laughed. He said, "No, de Klerk is a good man ... and he'll do as we want him to do." I think later on he realized after the negotiations started that de Klerk had tried to put spokes in the wheel perhaps, or did something different, and I think a little bit of his faith was lost along the way here.

Talking of his emotions ... Winnie ... do you recall that incident ... when the house burnt down in Soweto ...

Yes, I remember that very well. I heard the burning story on the radio. I was at home and I phoned Yusuf ... We had just seen Nelson. It wasn't so long after we had come back from Victor Verster. Yusuf said to me, "Well, you better go out there and see what you can do for her." So I got into the car and drove out to the house. When I got there everything was in cinders. I mean everything was just blackened out. Dozens of papers were burnt and photographs ... everything was burnt.

She wasn't around at all. I asked where she was and they told me they'd take me to see her. We got back into the car and went off to some part of Soweto ... Winnie was sitting in a chair looking absolutely ghastly, as though she was in a different world. I said to her, "Winnie, what on earth has happened." She said, "I don't know. I don't know what's happening in my life. I don't know" ...

Did you ever get any sense of what Nelson Mandela's response was to the burning of his house?

No, I never got a response from him as such, but I do know that he was very upset and very worried. Soon after that burning of the house, there were so many other things happening. I think the Stompie issue then came to the fore as well, and various other things was happening. That is the time that he had written a little note to me to say I must come to see him immediately. I had a feeling all along that he might have wanted me to tell him about what was happening in Johannesburg with Winnie and all the rumors and what the press was saying, and I didn't know anything further than what I read in the press. Yusuf and I discussed it, and I thought if I was going to get permission to see him, then I must know what to tell him.

I asked some of the "Committee of Ten" to come and see me ... Albertina and Sister Bernard came along, and I showed them the note and I said, "Look, I don't know what this is all about. But I have a feeling Nelson wants to know what's going on here. He feels, perhaps, I'll be the one to tell him the correct things, and I don't know anything about what's happening to Winnie. So you tell me and I can tell him." And Albertina said to me, "Ask him to tell Winnie to get out of the country for a while, because she is just making a lot of difficulties and a lot of trouble here, and she must go away. She must be away from this country for some time, and she'll only listen if he tells her."

I said, "All right, do you think what is happening ... is Winnie really involved?" They said, "Yes. She's terribly involved in [every]thing, and she's making a lot of difficulties for them in the township, and she must go. She must get out of the country." I said, "Okay. If I do go and see him, I'll tell him that." Well, I never got to see him, because they turned me down. I never told him that. I didn't put that in the telegram that I sent to him. I just said, "I'm unable to come and see you. But we'll continue to try and come."

When Mandela got out of prison did people tell him this sort of thing ...

I'm sure they must have told him. But I gathered ... people were afraid to tell Nelson the truth at times. They were afraid to upset him or to burden him more, or what the reason was I'm not quite sure, but a lot of people, even till this day, will not confront him or tell him things that he should know about the truth, in a sense. They don't mean to be telling him untruths, I'm sure, but I think they feel that they don't want to burden him ... and tell him things that they should not really be telling him.

Do you think that he himself deliberately turned a blind eye?

I don't think he deliberately turned a blind eye, but I do think that he believed so in Winnie that she could never have done what the press and people were saying at the time. He believed in her thoroughly, he believed in her innocence for a long time. Subsequently, he realized that she wasn't so innocent, but all along at that period, he did believe in her. He asked people to go to court to show support for her, at the time, too. In a sort of round about way he asked me to court, also. He didn't say outright, "I want you to come to court and give her support," but he did in a very round about way. Anyway a lot of people did go to court. I just didn't go because I felt it wasn't a political trial. It was a criminal trial and I wasn't going to go either in support of Winnie or not in support of Winnie. I just didn't feel I should go.

Were there people who came to tell him he really should separate from this woman ...

I don't know if there were people that told him that. At that time, he probably realized himself that he couldn't carry on living with Winnie under the same roof. He had been treated very harshly by her, in the sense that she never went to bed unless he was asleep, and she woke up while he was still asleep, or she was asleep and he would wake up, so he felt that she never wanted confrontation. She never wanted him to talk to her about anything. She never gave him the chance to ... He still loved her tremendously, even at that time. But I think it became unbearable for him to live under the same roof and not being able to be honest and straightforward and talk to her.

What is so fascinating here is what is going through Mandela's mind before he finally made the decision to separate. Did he confide in anybody at all?

No, I don't think he confided. Nelson is a strange man in many ways. He likes to keep a lot to himself. Because I heard that he was going to leave his home from members of his staff and so on, that he was moving out and he was going to live elsewhere. And he came home one afternoon for lunch, there was a meeting at my house ... some of the ANC fellows and he was there. I said to him, "I want to talk to you for a moment," and I took him to my bedroom. I said, "What's this I hear you going to leave your home and going to live elsewhere?" He said, "Who told you this?" I said, "Everybody's telling me this." He said, "No, not true. I'm still gonna live there. I'm still living there. I still share the home with Winnie and I share the bedroom with Winnie." But about two weeks later he left the house. So either he didn't confide in people and me or at that point he hadn't really decided yet. I don't know.

Did you ever see him really crushed and vulnerable during that period, talking about Winnie or was he just too careful?

He was very careful. He controlled his feelings magnificently. He really did. I remember when he separated from her, and he looked so absolutely sad on the television, and I phoned him, and I couldn't get hold of him. One of his secretaries said that he had left already ... I think it was Jessie who said, "Auntie Amina, you must phone him. He's really down and out. He's feeling very bad. You must phone him and talk to him." But I couldn't get hold of him at that time. I talked to him days afterwards only, but he must have felt very pained all that time. He looked very pained.

Do you think there was any particular incident which might have precipitated this decision finally to separate?

There were many incidents that prompted that, but I also think, when she was going abroad to the States and he asked her not to go. She was then taking a friend with her, Dali ... and he specifically asked her not to do that. She said she wouldn't. But that's the story I got, whether that was true or not, I'm not sure. But she did take Dali with her, and I was told when he phoned her one night, Dali answered the telephone and ... I don't know if that broke the camel's back, but that was one of the incidents I think that upset him tremendously. She didn't listen to him.

In the '80s, before the whole football club thing blew up, Winnie was his alter ego outside of prison. She played an important political role, and you were friendly with her. Can you capture that?

Undoubtedly she played a very wonderful political role because she was the contact that we all relied on. Back and forth from days that he was on the island even. Winnie believed then that she was the person to help the country through the difficult times, and bring us to perhaps liberation. She changed tremendously over those few years. She would be very arrogant to some people. She would talk to you if she wanted to talk to you and if she didn't want to, she didn't think anything of just leaving you standing there.

I never visited her in Brandfort. First of all, because I was banned for many years before, but by that time she had already decided she wasn't going to live in Brandfort anymore, so she'd made excursions into Johannesburg quite often. She was ill a couple of times and was also in nursing homes here. Then, finally, she decided she wasn't going to go back there. I remember Helen Joseph phoning me one day to say that she's at one of the nursing homes, and we should go and see her. So I took some food and I went to visit her, and she wasn't terribly ill, but she was there for some investigation or whatever. And she just looked so different to me. She wasn't the same woman I had known years before. She talked differently. She was absolutely hostile to press people and everybody else. Then she decided she was going to go back to Brandfort for a little while and come back, and she was never going to go back there again. She was just going to get some stuff and come back, and that's what she did, finally.

But subsequently she was one day taken from hospital to Ismail Ayob's house. She wrote me a little note after that and said, "I hate being here." She said, "If I have to choose between Section 6 [prison] and the Ayob's ... I choose Section 6 to be under." I don't know what that was all about. But that was Winnie, you know, she minced no words, and then she just didn't go back to Brandfort.

I remember going with her to Sandton Hotel. One of the American television journalists, one of the famous ones, came down, I forget his name now, wanted an interview with her, and she went there. She said to me to bring some Indian food ... I took her some food and she was having it there ... Winnie was wonderful when she was talking in front of the camera, but before she went to talk, we were in a little room by ourselves, she was lashing at just about everybody. Talking ill of everybody around there, and then I heard the interview, and she was perfect. Winnie has such a strange mind. She can switch on and off at will, and she gave a wonderful interview.

Maybe that is one thing that she has in common with Mandela--the great political self control ...

I don't know if she ever had any thorough discussions politically with him, because she tried to see as little as possible of him since he was out of prison, for that period that they were living together. He had people every day of his life that he had to see and meetings to attend and setting up everything else. So there wasn't very much time that they little time they had they ... she kept well away from topics that would have been confrontational.

Here was Mandela going through something terribly sad and traumatic, he had attached so much hope to her during his years in prison, and in a way she sustained him emotionally. Despite the terrible stuff in his private life, he still continued with his political goal and it seemed as if he was completely unfazed by that ...

Yes, he always gave that impression. He was completely unfazed by his private difficulties when it came to his political life it was absolutely the way he wanted it done, and the way he put himself forward. He was brilliant at that ... he never allowed his private life to unfaze him ... even a teeny weeny bit. He's always absolutely in control of his emotions. But his one great wish was that he would come out of prison, and have a family life again with his wife and the children. Because he's a great family man and I think he really wanted that more than anything else and he couldn't have it.

You say that Winnie changed ...

... Winnie could be so wonderful one moment, and the next moment she could be real witch in a way ... she had these conflicts in her own character. I don't know what the cause of it was. I think along the line when she was in Brandfort, things were very difficult for her, and something along the line might have snapped. She became very difficult. I was told she had turned to alcohol. I had never seen her drunk, but there were all kinds of stories at that time. But most certainly she behaved differently, on many occasions, from the woman I had known all the years before.

Tell us about the woman you had known all the years before.

I first met her when he brought her to the treason trial one day. At the old Drill Hall. They weren't married yet. She was a beautiful young woman and he brought her and introduced her to everybody there. We sat listening to the proceedings and then when he married her, we were invited to the wedding in the Transkei, but we couldn't go. A few days later, when they came back, he brought her to my flat to introduce her again to Yusuf and me. She was so different from the Winnie I knew afterwards. She was wonderfully shy and sort of coy in a way. Beautiful, and didn't have much to say for herself, and Nelson did a lot of the talking.

She carried on like that for some time, until she became politically active. After his sentence, she really became politically active, and we worked together in the Federation of South African Women. She was a very able and very wonderful woman all along. She did everything correctly. She was outspoken. She was a wonderful speaker when she addressed the crowds. She could whip up a lot of emotion. She was still a very beautiful young woman, and very easy to talk to and get along with. That sort of thing didn't happen in the '80s ... after that, it was difficult to understand Winnie and her whole manner of life then was completely different.

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