frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

interview: Walter Sisulu INTERVIEWED BY JOHN CARLIN

Mandela's lifelong friend, confidante,. mentor and fellow prisoner on Robben Island. He was imprisoned there for 25 years.
Why did he become the leader in jail? When you went into jail, the hierarchy was not so clear.

walter sisuluWell, we took a deliberate decision that we should have someone in jail who is the leader. We decided on him, because he was more in touch with the situation, [news]papers and all that.

Only because he was more in touch with the situation or did he have some special qualities that distinguished him?

No, he had qualities of leadership, and he was the best man to handle the situation. Even the question of visitors, distinguished visitors, coming from various parts of the world ... we had to choose him.

How would you describe those qualities that marked him out?

Well, first of all Nelson is a remarkable man ... He can be sharp. He can be moody, but he is naturally very warm. And he fits into the leadership. He has the ability to conduct himself as a leader.

Did the other prisoners on Robben Island see the two of you as a team, as a sort of special pair?

Well, they saw us as a team that had confidence in each other.

I knew other people were a bit uncomfortable about [the secret talks.] I had confidence in Nelson's approach and thought that he was taking the right direction ... I thought he is a man who is developing and who is able to rise above the occasion.
In the conflicts that you had with the head of the prisons, with the prison warders, is there anything that stands out, in your mind?

Yes, when we were working in Robben Island in the quarry ... there was a tendency always to get the prisoners to run, as it were ... one morning we were going to be taken to quarry and in the usual way ... Nelson [made] a decision, which meant a great deal for all of us, that we will not stand the question of being pushed ... he suggested we must move even slower than we have ever been. That changed the situation because when they could not now get us to move they were faced with the question of what to do. They then decided to recognize the leadership. That moment was of importance.

That was early on?

Early on.

So that established a certain ...

A certain pattern, the way in which we have to operate. The warders found themselves completely helpless. They now had to talk to us, to discuss what is to be done. Not to give orders.

On Robben Island, was there any episode that stands out of Mandela's behavior, that really inspired you to believe this man is going to be not just a leader on the island, but a great leader beyond.

... the question of negotiations. He [made] a decision there. He knew that the entire movement would be concerned. Others will agree. Others will not agree. It also had the possibility of undermining his leadership. And yet he took it. Now I regard that as one of the most outstanding courageous moments when a man is alone in the face of that situation, particularly in politics where you have got a lot of criticism from everyone. He was confident of what line he was following.

I was reading President Mandela's autobiography in which he describes his first meeting with you in ... [1941] ... He came with Garlick Mbekeni ... to your office ... and Mbekeni introduced this young man to you ... you leaned back in your chair, you paused, and as he says, "Walter Sisulu sized me up, he looked me up and down." ... What was your assessment when you looked him up and down ...

His very visit was something of importance to me. He was brought by a young man who was also in some form of leadership in the organization. He happened to strike me more than any person I had met. I was an estate agent at the time. I was also active in politics. When a young man of Nelson's nature, came, it was a godsend to me. It's me who asked him what he wanted to do, and he told me he undertook to study law. And that fitted me too, because ... as an estate agent, I was dealing with lawyers a great deal. And so politics and law and all those things came together. I, therefore, welcomed the idea of meeting a person like Nelson and his demeanor just answered that.

Describe that demeanor to me ...

Well, when Nelson is introduced to people, he is very warm. He can be cool, but generally he is warm. I like a person who is warm. And then the knowledge of what he wanted to do, and his background, I thought that he would do well if he is prepared. We'd try to help him towards leadership. I had no hesitation that it was a godsend for a man like him to come along at the time when I needed a man of that stage.

"I needed" meaning as a political organizer?

Yes, that's right.

What was it about his nature? Did you smell an ambition in him?

He is a warm person, foresighted. And you like a person like this, and you are going to introduce a person like that. You feel happy introducing a person acceptable and warm to other people.

Do you think that at that very early stage, you could have imagined that it was possible that he might become the overall leader of the ANC?

Well, it is very difficult to claim that, but my whole approach was to look for leadership and I needed people of that caliber to be around me. I knew that the movement would advance a great deal if it met people of this nature.

In his autobiography, he has a chapter on how he became politicized and says he owes his political education to many people, but singles you out. Were you consciously a tutor?

It so happened that that introduction led to a very warm friendship from the beginning. I naturally would want a person like that to be in the limelight, to what was happening. Especially, because we were looking for people who could finally influence the situation in the country.

On the day of Mandela's release, you were standing by him in Cape Town ... What were your feelings of that day?...

It was the most remarkable day because I knew that we had reached a position whereby our ambitions were fulfilled. We knew that we were in a position where we could emerge and give leadership in the country.

How would you distinguish your political role from his political role? Because you are two very big figures, very closely identified. What is the difference? Or even going back to the beginning, to the way that you saw the two of you developing.

... I thought Nelson had even better qualities than me, and I wanted him to have even more ... I was also encouraged by his ability to change, by his attitude to people ... because of that, my natural behavior was to encourage him to take a leading position.

Do you think that has something to do with his upbringing in ...

Yes, there would be something about that. You see, Nelson comes from a rural family. He was prepared for leadership. The difference is that he was being prepared for leadership ... of the Xhosa, you see ... To that extent I was different. I wasn't that. I found myself developing a natural leadership, and taking interest to that extent.

Do you remember the meeting where Mandela informed you that he was having these secret talks with the government? What can you recall from that encounter? It was a big moment.

Very big moment. I knew other people were a bit uncomfortable about it. I had the confidence in Nelson's approach and thought that he was taking the right direction. I happened to know him better than the other people. Therefore, I had no reason to have fears, and I thought that he is a man who is developing and who is able to rise above the occasion.

Did you not feel personally a little bit betrayed that he hadn't confided in you?

No. I understood the situation very well. And I thought that he had sized it quite correctly and therefore I was not hurt at all.

He is vulnerable to pain the way that other people are. For example when you were in prison and he heard the news of his son's death ... How did he show to you his normal humanity, if you like, in that moment?

Well, I was myself touched with the death of the boy. But I thought Nelson was very courageous to face the situation, the manner in which he did. He behaved in a normal way. He heard, but he was strong. He managed the situation, and I was overwhelmed by the situation.

On the night before the sentencing at the Rivonia Trial ... what do you remember of Mandela's state of mind, his behavior on that very night? ...

Well, I can't specifically say I remember this but I remember that his reaction was made up that he must face the situation....But I made up my mind. I was convinced that there was no way of escaping death penalty. That's how I looked at it. I looked at the cases that were going on, comparatively minor cases, sentences were very heavy, and I reasoned that if that be the case with ordinary rank and file leadership, where you have people who deliberately were prepared for prison, you must naturally expect death penalty ... would be inevitable.

Did you have any plans in the event of getting the death sentence? Was Nelson going to give a speech or something, or had you looked that far ahead?

Yes, we did look at the question that the very fact that ... I was chosen to play a particular part, Nelson would play a particular part. Therefore, we had different parts to play. And ... I wanted ... Nelson to take the line he took.

Meaning ... ?

The line of defying, of speaking irrespective of what the consequences would be, of speaking as a leader, fearlessly.

So in other words ... Nelson would make a particularly tough speech.

A tough speech, yes, certainly, ja.

The sort of great historical moment, that would be the idea?

Yes. As for myself, I had reached the position of deciding my personal role that is the death penalty, I must face it with courage. I will in fact sing when I go to the death sentence. To the gallows.

You actually pictured that?

That's right. I worked at that properly ... that this is a situation where there is no way ... in which we can avoid death penalty in terms of the law of the country. Therefore, my own situation is if we are sentenced (I thought at least four of us) to death, and I should go to the gallows singing, in order to indicate my determination for the other people who may come.

Do you have any recollection of how you and Mandela reacted when you heard the sentence? You already had this vision in your mind that you were going to die ...

Well, speaking for myself, the sentence was like a discharge. I was overwhelmed by the fact that it was not death ... because I was almost sure. I don't think we all shared the same views; others, they never thought that there is a death penalty at all.

How was Nelson Mandela the first time you talked to him after the sentence was passed?

I think Nelson also expected that the death penalty was a possibility.

Nelson Mandela's relationship with de Klerk ... it remains to me something of an enigma ... because at that televised debate when they traded punches, in the end Mandela reached out and shook his hand ... Can you illuminate us as to what is going on there?

I discussed with Nelson in particular his relationship with de Klerk in that situation. He was determined, because I didn't agree with him in everything but he thought that de Klerk has played a particular treacherous role. I thought that perhaps that was too harsh and that's how he looked at the situation.

Treacherous in what sense?

That he doesn't mean what he says. He is undermining the very process of our approach. You see, let me say first of all, when Nelson ... praised de Klerk, he meant it.

People, possibly around the world, are amazed at the way that Mandela has managed to defuse the threat from the white right wing. What is your observation of that process of how he removed the teeth from tiger?

I, myself, say that I was amazed with what he did in this success. But that highlights one very good quality in Nelson. He is a brave man. He can do things with great determination. And that was one of the remarkable successes. It allowed him to pay tribute to the Afrikaners and at the same time to prepare himself against them, in case they took things too much for granted. It was one of the remarkable achievement to have changed the situation the way we did. In particular, that we could use the right wing to the advantage of the entire cause.

Everything you have said about him is just full of absolute admiration. Are there any flaws in the man? Any weaknesses?

Well, one weakness with Nelson is he developed too much confidence in a person and he can go wrong completely in handling the situation in that way ...

You mean that he can be very stubborn in his loyalty to people. Is that what you were saying?

Absolutely. Absolutely. He can be very stubborn ... That's my conclusion--the manner in which he does things. He develops too much confidence, that is one fault.

Is he too trusting?

No ... well perhaps one thing which is a development in him ... it is when he does trust a person, he goes all out. And that is one thing where there could be a mistake.

... maybe he comes to judgment on people too quickly, without assessing ...

No. No, no, no. I think there is no room for that. He considers a situation very seriously from all angles. If he has gone wrong, as I think he has in some cases, it's not because of a lack of examination of the situation. I don't know how I could make it clear to say that he has too much confidence in the human being. I am even reluctant to say that because I can't justify it. He has not let us down on any issue because of the confidence he has.

What is your impression of Graca Machel - what are your feelings? Do you feel happy for your friend?

Yes, I am feeling very happy. I think she is a wonderful woman, and that she would do justice to Nelson.

Why do you say that?

Well, I have known her for quite some time. She has got ability to size up the situation, understand it, and she has excelled in all implications of what has happened. She is meant to champion the cause of Nelson this way.

How do you mean champion the cause of Nelson this way?

... I am trying to say that she fell in love with Nelson with a view of taking into account the situation of Nelson and making him feel at home ...

How has Graca Machel changed Nelson Mandela?

I don't think she has changed him. I think on the whole she has made him feel more confident about life in general.

But he is a very confident man. Why does he need even more confidence?

No, the differences in a person. There is a particular situation, which was in a particular way of happening. And she would help develop that situation.

You mean his more private emotional side?

Yes. That's right.

Would it be right to describe you as a sort of big brother in Johannesburg ... in the early days? ...

Ja. Yes.

Does he still regard you as the older brother today, do you think?

I think he does.

Why do you say that?

Perhaps I can't give you facts, but I know today he won't take a decision that affects his life without taking me into confidence.

What kind of decisions do you mean? You mean personal decisions?

Both political and personal.

Is there any other person that he does that with, that he has that kind of relationship with?

No, I don't think so. I can't say positively...

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