frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

interview: Joe Matthews continued

page 2 of 2:  click here to go to the last previous page

Nelson and Winnie seems to be a marriage made in heaven. Would that be accurate?

... it was very accurate. He met her during the treason trial preliminary hearing ... and I noticed that he disappeared from the house. I would be sleeping, because we were on the same bed, you see, we had a king size bed, and would expect him at 8:00 p.m. or something, and he would come at 1:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m. One assumed that he had been with her across the township. But it was really a made in heaven sort of couple ...

You went to see them in the first days of their marriage ...

Oh, this was obvious. I mean the man was head over heels in love. It was just there, it was reflected in the whole atmosphere in the house. The joy in the house, the way friends were received ... a lot of the political people were in and out of the house. But it was a wonderful home, and, of course, there was, as he himself pointed out, wonderful food. The food was good.

We have heard that she was shy ...

No, she was never a shy girl. From the word go she was obviously community oriented. She was a social worker. She could speak, she was articulate. And, of course, she mixed with all these people from the beginning. I mean Duma Nokwe was a big friend, an admirer of hers, and there were always political discussions. There was a big library there. Mandela had a big library consisting largely of left wing literature. So there was a lot of political discussion and reading and discussions and so on. No, she participated fully, I mean there was no doubt it, from the word go. She was a political animal. And her friend was Mrs. Tambo ... that's how she came to meet Mandela.

What do you know about that?

You see Adelaide was Winnie's friend, and Adelaide would be coming to the treason trial, for example, to pick up Tambo. In fact, I very well remember an occasion when ... before Mandela met Winnie, when he said to me, seeing a car with the two ladies sitting in there waiting for Tambo and he said to me, "My God, look at that thing in the car." And it was Winnie with Adelaide. So even before they met, he was conscious that there was a beautiful girl who was going around with Adelaide Tambo.

The day he meets her--can you remember that day at all?

No. No. He wouldn't ... an African man wouldn't do that. I don't think he would come back and say, "I've just met the most wonderful thing," or something like ... No I don't think he would ... even with a friend. Maybe he would do it with Tambo. He was closer to Tambo than to me ... I was eleven years younger than Mandela. So ... he's regard me as a youngster. Though I was married before him.

He won't confide at all ... any thoughts on that, maybe relating to his mother.

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.
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 heroic individual...  You'd never send Mandela, in those days, to reconcile people or bring people together. You would send Tambo. 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.


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.

When you say consciously--you mean as a way of projecting a certain image.

No I don't, you see, I don't want to give the impression of something artificial. Yet, a lot of the things that Mandela does, are not the result of an unconscious reflex action, but are things that he has actually considered and feels he should do or should cultivate. Just like his exercises, to cultivate his exercises to produce fitness, but as a conscious decision, not as something that really belongs to his nature. He's got a lot of things of that kind, where he consciously takes decisions.

What sort of things do you have in mind?

Well, for example, giving the villagers a treat over Christmas. He would think about it ... in other words he wouldn't do it as a spontaneous act of kindness, which it would be from someone else. But in his case it would be, "If I am in my village at Christmas, I must not forget to share the Christmas with the villagers." Whereas the rest of us would sort of sit down and have Christmas turkey and so on, and if people happen to come around, you welcome them, without having taken a specific decision that, "Look, when I'm having Christmas, I must share with the rest of the community." With Mandela it would be a conscious thing that he's thought out ... that he thinks is the right thing to do.

What you are describing is a quintessential political animal.

He is a genius at that. That's his genius. Very different from Oliver Tambo, who is the brilliant thinker. Here you have got the deliberate decision maker, who decides that what is right and as a gesture of reconciliation, I must go and wear a rugby shirt. You see. Therefore, you don't have the feeling that this was a natural or spontaneous act. With ... Mandela always thinks about things and what to do.

Anatomize that genius for me a little bit more.

Well, for example, the whole idea of inviting the wives of ex-presidents ... he doesn't involve the men in this--it's the wives. Yet, all those wives are Afrikaner wives; therefore, the effect on the Afrikaner community is profound. Of course, he caps it all with the one who was absent, at the occasion, that is Betsy Verwoerd. So there's the gesture of actually going out of his way to go and visit her. Now he knows that it would have a profound effect on the Afrikaner community, and virtually kill the right wing, whose philosophy is these are bad guys who are going to take our farms, and who are going to do this and that and all the other evil things. In one gesture, that is blown away. A gesture of a kind which I think would require very deep thought to decide that this is what I think I should do. He has touches of that kind, which mark him out. Other politicians wouldn't do it. They would try and do it politically, not inviting women to tea or anything of that ... They would do something different of a political kind, or of a political gesture. Rather than one which is so homely, and yet has got very important political effects.

I have seen American politicians trying to pull this off, but not even Clinton, who is a master of this ...

Ja, he's a master of this.

If Clinton were to come out for the Super Bowl final wearing the American football shirt of the Dallas Cowboys, he would be laughed our of court. Mandela came out wearing that jersey and did not invoke that reaction.

Well, it could also be the advantage of age. Age has certain advantages. There is a kind of sublimation of feeling that this is put on. If a man is over 70 and so on, 75, there's that grandfatherly aspect to it, and it applies to all of us who are grandfathers. [We] are considered more sincere than the younger people by everybody, including grandchildren and children and so on. They think that a grandfather is more reliable, has no ax to grind and so on. It could be that. In fact, in this case it is also part political calculation. So it's not as innocent as all that. But he also has the gift of being able to recognize a moment when it had not been prepared for ...

In cabinet meetings, have you seen him really lose it?

No, I have seen it once or twice. Sometimes unfairly applied. For example, when we had reports from the intelligence services ... he felt that he wasn't getting a quality report. And really he criticized the people who appeared to make this report in a manner that was actually not fair ... So he then snaps at them in a way which was a bit unexpected. Now you do now and again get a thing like that based sometimes on a misunderstanding or based on an unfair expectation by him, of something which belongs to another forum.

Does he acknowledge his mistakes?


Does he apologize?

He does, yes. Once he sees that he has made a mistake, he will apologize, and say sorry and that he was wrong.

Is he an autocrat in cabinet?

No. I've had experience of ... very interesting reactions from different people who run cabinets. Mandela's is not like that. Maybe because he doesn't preside. Always it's Thabo Mbeki who presides. Therefore, he participates as a ordinary person ... and perhaps his practice of allowing the deputy president to preside, has prevented that kind of a thing happening.

After the release, you entered into a different kind of relationship with Mandela ... what was your reaction to that separation announcement ...

Too much had happened and had happened publicly for one to be surprised at what took place ... in fact, I was astonished because Mandela is a very proud person, and also would not like anybody to make a fool of him in any way. I was quite surprised that when he came out of prison, that he had been so tolerant and wishing to rebuild his family and not refer to the past. But obviously he made some attempt to get back to normal, and it clearly didn't work. But I never discussed it. I went to see him immediately I arrived from exile ... and had a discussion with him about KwaZulu Natal and we were discussing whether he should visit the king at the time. Winnie wasn't present at the house then. She came as I was leaving then she arrived. But he never uttered a word about any difficulties that may have arisen. Everything looked quite normal.

One thing puzzling about the Winnie business is that clearly Mandela is such an extraordinarily proud man, and also manifestly a somewhat vain man, not the sort of man who would like to be sort of ridiculed. Yet, he really set himself up for a fall.

Well, there is this feeling, you see, if a man has been in prison for 27 years ... an older man has the feeling that, "I have been away all these years, what did I expect? But I am now back ... Therefore, whatever happened must stop." That would be the feeling, but it wouldn't be a raking up of all the stories and all the things that have happened before. Because a man would say "Look, I must be reasonable. I wasn't there for this woman. So I can't be too harsh in criticism." We are a migratory labor country, who are used to having men working in Johannesburg and the wives in the rural areas in the country and so on. These separations, they have taught people to be a bit more sometimes more tolerant, where others would go very emotional about things that had happened.

You went into exile in '60?

'60, but I was in Lesotho. I lived in Lesotho until '65.

Mandela grew a beard at a certain point.

Yes. Ja.

Tell me about it.

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 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.

Do you think Sisulu played a big role in this?

He is not the only one who groomed him. There is another fellow who later joined the PAC ... chap from Alexandra township, Gaur Gadebe was his name. He was a great organizer of the first bus boycott in Alexandra in 1945. Now Gaur Gadebe and Mandela met at Helman and Michel. That was the first meeting of Mandela with an out and out political type.

Gaur Gadebe was a member of the communist party and he himself tells the amusing story of how he was told by the white secretaries there that, "Now you see these cups," because [Mandela] was the tea man and he was told, "Now these are the cups for the white people, and these are the cups for the black people. Those are your cups, you see. So when you make tea, that's what [you use].". And of course there was Mandela with his tray, with his cups neatly set out on the tray, and along comes Gaur Gadebe and he takes one of the white cups, you see, to have tea, and so Mandela protests, "No, no, no. These are your cups, you see." And Gaur sort of said, "That's nonsense," That was one of his first political lessons, which he got from Gaur Gadebe. And he admits it himself, that he learnt a great deal from this wild Gaur Gadebe chap. And that was before his experiences with Walter Sisulu.


When you were in exile, you must have observed the explosion of the Mandela myth.

I didn't observe it. I was one of those who worked out the policy.

Tell us about the deliberate policy ...

That was done quite deliberately by the organization ... the policy to have a person as a symbol and that person being in prison ... Some people were uneasy about it, because they thought you don't know what's happening in prison. Also, you might be making the man a target for the authorities, because the more you say Mandela is the symbol ... the more the authorities might seek to revenge on him. Secondly, he was not the president of the ANC. The president of the ANC was Luthuli, and Luthuli died in 1967, and Tambo was appointed as acting president. Mandela was not the president when he went to jail, he wasn't the leader of the organization, so they were some misgivings about his campaign.

The policy making process that went on within the ANC on the question of making Mandela the symbol ... a letter was received from Walter Sisulu from prison suggesting this ...

No, I don't recall any letter. If there was a letter, it was one expressing misgivings in the light of the possible punishments that may be imposed on Mandela, as a reaction to such a campaign. That I think came from the Robben Island people. But then there were others who said, "Look, what do we know ... what is the man today? Is he a broken man? Is the same person we knew? Isn't this a risk? What happens if we are building up somebody in this manner, and it turns out that his views have changed or he's not the person we knew?" But it was nevertheless decided that it is a useful thing, which has been observed in other struggles, where a leader was imprisoned, you make that person the symbol of the struggle. So it was decided ... to make the release of Mandela a major feature.

We were also reacting to the refusal of Amnesty International to take up the issue of Mandela, because Amnesty International said they can't have a campaign around Mandela, because he advocated a violent struggle. They only supported prisoners of conscience and people who preached non-violence. So they never adopted Mandela in those days. We used to have endless argument with the founders of Amnesty International ... but they were adamant. So we decided we have to have our own campaign to urge the release of Mandela and the other prisoners on Robben Island.

Did the campaign work?

The campaign for the release of Mandela, which had the fact of making Mandela a cult figure, did work, but I think that must be said in hindsight, because at the time we thought it was a huge gamble and there were so many stories. Many people in the media told us, "Oh, you chaps are all wrong. Mandela is a broken man. His health has suffered and so on, and he isn't the man that you are describing as the heroic sort of figure." Therefore, we were quite apprehensive, some of us. We thought maybe they are right. The period has been too long. When it reached 20 years, we thought it's far too long. But we persisted, nevertheless, in the campaign.

Weren't you getting information out of prison?

Very rarely, we got actual letters. Of course, people visited. But the visits, at first, were once a year, then they were once every six months, and we were anxious that only family should go, because ... the thing was on a first come, first serve ... so we discouraged others apart from close relatives from visiting him ... it was those visits which told us more about what was happening. The communication side wasn't as well organized as all that. It's quite rare that you got a proper report of what was going on inside. It really came from released prisoners. As they were released ... they told us what was happening on Robben Island. But there wasn't a first class communication between the outside leadership and the leadership inside.

When he was about to be released, did you worry that the man who was going to come out of prison was not going to live up to expectations?

I don't think there was that thought in the ANC itself, because we knew the man, but what we were worried about was that the person we knew, may no longer be there, either through old age or ill health. That it might actually not be the strong heroic sort of figure ... this is what was worrying us. Not intellectual ability or political ability. That we knew was obviously still there. But the physical aspect we thought would be difficult.

home + young boy + revolutionary + prisoner + husband & lover + biographers + interviews
synopsis + andecdotes + 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