frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela


He became personal chef to Mandela when he was moved from Robben Island to Victor Verster Prison in 1988.
The assignment that you were suddenly given ... were you given any choice in whether you took this job or not?

jack swartNo, in the first place I wasn't very happy. I had just filled a post which was really only meant for an officer, and I wasn't an officer at that stage ... now I had to leave that post and go and look after Mandela. For me, it was just a hassle and I must leave my job for which I had worked hard to get the post ... So at the beginning, I was not very happy ...

In the beginning I asked what I should call him. I mean, he was a much older person that myself, and I didn't feel comfortable calling him Nelson. So they said, "No, call him Mandela." I think after about three months or four months we got the order from the commissioner that we should call him Mr. Mandela and not just Mandela anymore.

Did he recognize you from the island? How did your first conversation go?

I told him that I had been at Robben Island earlier, but he couldn't remember me. But then I told him an anecdote that happened and afterwards he knew who I was. In the beginning, I sort of stood guard where they were locked up, worked nightshift, and during the day where they were working in the lime quarry, I sat at the post and sort of guarded them. Sat there with a firearm.

Some days they didn't go out, when it was rainy , and then they'd usually play cards. But it was remarkable that he always sat sort of to one side studying, while the others played cards, table tennis and so on.
Then later, I drove trucks, the bus and so on. The [prisoners] were transported in the morning in a truck, which was closed up. I had to drive them in the mornings from the jail to the lime quarry. I also had the order not to drive very slowly, I had to swerve a little and go fast over the bumps so that they would at least not sit still in the back. Then at one point [Mandela] came round to the window. I had the window rolled up, and he knocked on the window. I rolled it down a little way, and then he asked me, "What the hell do you think we are, bags of mealies?" I just rolled up the window and continued driving with the truck.

Did you ever reminisce with him about that?

I told him this story of what happened, and then he remembered. He said, "Oh, were you the driver? I hope you are a better cook than you were a driver!"

He had a number of guests round for dinner at Victor Verster. You were the chef. I remember having read that the two of you had some kind of a debate as to whether you should have sweet or dry white wine ...

The first guest who came for a meal with him was, of course, Winnie. Winnie and the two daughters ... when he told me that three or four guests would be coming, then I'd write a menu and tell him this was what I was going to make. He never changed the menu. What he did do was when people like Mr. Ayob or people were coming whom he knew did not eat pork, for example, who were Muslims, then he'd tell me, "Don't prepare pork."

But the specific meal where the wine is relevant. He didn't drink a lot, but when he did drink, he was fond of a semi-sweet white wine, not dry wine ... then Mr. Ayob, Omar and Bizos came to visit him. He said to me, "You must buy us some of that nice sweet wine that you bought the other day." So I said, "No, Mr. Mandela, I can buy it, but they won't drink it." He said, "But how can you know that? You don't know them." I said that that type of people don't drink that wine. He said, "But it's not cheap wine." I said, "No, it isn't about cheap, it's simply about, they won't drink it." Then he said, "Okay, buy two bottles of wine. Buy a bottle of dry wine and a bottle of that 'cheap' wine." I said to him, "Okay, then I'll bring it on a tray, but he mustn't say anything, I'll show it to Mr. Bizos. Let them choose." And they came to sit down to eat, when he said to me, "You can bring the wine." I took the wine on a tray, and Mr. Bizos immediately took the dry wine. Afterwards, he said to me, "Yes, you embarrassed me a little." So I said, "No, no, I didn't do that!"

But the week after that, he asked me for brown rice, and I said, "No man, there's no such thing as brown rice. You can make it brown, you can make it yellow with raisins or something like that but there's no brown rice." So he said, "Yes man, there is." And once again we went shopping. I found some brown rice and bought it. He said, "Ha! I told you, I told you!" I bought it once and it hasn't got a nice taste and I said, "No, I'm not gonna cook that anymore." But he used to tell that story as well. After he told the story of the wine, he go back to that. Then he embarrassed me again.

So you were equal.


What do you remember of Winnie Mandela's visits to the house?

Yes, she came there quite often ... a special room was prepared for her with a very pretty oak set which was bought for her. She just said that she wouldn't be able to overnight there, because it remains a jail. He's still in prison and she's not going to sleep in a prison. But, in general, some of the people told us beforehand that she was not a very nice person, but I never had problems with her. She was always very pleasant and always said thank you for the food ... she came to visit him quite often.

One Christmas, for example, she brought us little Christmas presents ... but like any warder you may not receive any gifts from prisoners' families or friends. This is just to prevent smuggling. So when she now brought us this, Mr. Marais phoned the head office and said, "Winnie brought each of us a little present, may we accept it?" And they said no. So we gave it back to her and she was very angry about it. She said, "But why not?" Then we told her, "It could be used as a bribe." Then she said, "Well, if I had wanted to bribe you, I would buy something much better than Old Spice." So then we realized that it was Old Spice that she had bought us. But in any case, she had to take it back.

You were able to see how relations between Nelson and Winnie Mandela were ...

It was quite good until the Stompie incident. I mean, he was very, very upset about the Stompie story. And then he made her come, and it was also the first time that he, in the room that was prepared for her, took her and Zinzi into the room and closed the door. I could hear him talking to them, and when they came out, you could see they'd cried. So he sort of chastised her about it. But you can see that the Stompie incident upset him, and from that time onwards, Winnie didn't come and visit so often any more. Whether she was afraid he would now ask her questions again or whatever, but it was remarkable, after the Stompie incident, Winnie didn't come as often as she had done before the incident.

How did he know about the Stompie thing?

In the papers, and Ayob and Bizos. They told him. Just after ... he asked Bizos and Ayob to come to him. Bizos defended Winnie afterwards, didn't he? So he spoke to Bizos. He wanted the best and in his eyes Bizos was the best there was.

... So if you say things were not so good between them after that, what do you mean by that? What did you see after that incident that made you say that?

Well, she didn't come to visit as often. I mean, where she'd come to visit at least every two weeks, she started staying away, and he started to ask where she was. Why doesn't she come? And then she'd always have excuses. It always came down to excuses. She can't come ... she's in another place. But it was clear that she didn't come to visit all that often anymore. And it gave me the idea that things weren't so nice between them anymore.

Let's go back a little to Robben Island. To what extent did you have contact with Mandela? Let me ask you that more specifically when you arrived in Robben island, you must have been aware of Mandela, the Mandela legend ...

... they were addressed as the Rivonians. They told us, "Listen, these are Rivonians, they sleep here, and these are the people who are politically minded." And also told us that they must not make contact at that stage with ... what was their leader's name ... Sobukwe, he was still there on the island and they said these two may not make contact with each other.

For the first year or two years when you've come from the college to Robben island, you only did post service, post guard. You never came near the prisoners ... [then] one week you worked day shift at a post, and the other week you worked nightshift. My meeting with them or getting in touch with them, that happened much later when I started to work nightshift at the cells where they slept. In the evening at 4:00 they were locked up, and the little cells were directly opposite one another. Then you'd walk up and down, and they never really chatted to you; you weren't allowed to speak to them ...

Then I can remember when we worked nightshift, when you're not at post, and you have to work with them, then you went in and in the mornings went to give them breakfast. Then they walked out to the vehicle. Some days the didn't go out, when it was rainy weather, and then they'd usually sit and play cards. I remember they were quite fond of playing bridge in little groups, but it was remarkable that he always sat sort of to one side studying while the others played cards, table tennis and so on.

... When you were on the island, was there something about Mandela ... that marked him out from other people?

Yes ... if there were problems. For example, we got the order that while they worked in the quarries, we had to keep time on our watches ... of what their resting periods were, because they had to work. [A prisoner] was only allowed to rest or stop working if he wanted to go to the toilet and we had to keep note, and if one, for example, rested too much, then he was charged, and then Mandela was always the man who went to represent them ... they always went to him when there were problems, asked him for advice ... He was always the person, the central person. When they broke for lunch also, they always went to sit with him and talk to him. He was the person who sort of went to defend them when they were charged with a misdemeanor in prison.

If someone had told you in 1970 or 1971 that this prisoner Mandela would one day emerge from prison to become president of South Africa ...

I would have said they're completely mad at that stage ... because there was no indication that a black government would ever come into power in South Africa. Not at that stage.

... when you're at Victor Verster, Mandela was your master, although he was also a prisoner. How did you feel about that ...

He never created the idea that he was your boss, that you worked for him. He was grateful about everything you did for him...

Then Mr. Mandela said to me he would wash the dishes. I mean, this gave me the idea, if he really felt that he was my boss, or he was in control, he wouldn't have offered to wash the dishes. Even his clothes he washed himself. I just had to show him how the automatic washing machine worked, because he had never seen something like it in his life ... I had to make little marks with a pen on the washing machine. "If you want to do this, you must turn the knob to there, and if you want to do that, you must turn the knob this way."

Even the microwave oven. It was something strange to him. I also taught him how to operate that ... some evenings I made him a bean dish ... and this I froze in packets for him and then he'd take out a packet in the evening and put it in the microwave oven and warmed it for himself. Now I only taught him that it's two minutes, start, and then he could just wait. When the bell rings then he could take it out and eat it. But it also happened on a few occasions when the power went out, the microwave oven's time had to be reset before you could use the thing. This he didn't know. Then they'd phone and call me and he'd say that the oven has broken down. Then I would have to come down from home and first reset the time on the microwave oven to show him. So many little things like this happened, which showed me that he never gave me the idea that I would do as he said.

Tell us another story about Mandela and his new toy, the microwave oven.

It was very odd to him that you could take a plastic beaker and you put it in an oven for a minute or two and you take it out and the water is boiling, but there's nothing wrong with the beaker. This he also often used when some of his pals from Robben Island and Pollsmoor ... came to visit. He'd first take them to the microwave oven when he showed them the house. He'd say, "Look, this is a plastic beaker, I'm now going to put it in the oven," and then he'd put in some water and put it in the oven, take it out and say to them, "Touch it." When they then burned, he'd have a good laugh about it, it was very funny to him.

Mandela had a television in there, I assume?

That's right ... I think he was used to the television, because in hospital he could watch television. But all he was very interested in was news. That he wrote the times down for, and he knew exactly. At that stage, there was only evening news. But during the day, if we watched television ourselves, we called him. If there was something funny on, I always went to call him to come and watch it. He'd come and watch, but he was only really interested in the news.

I can remember on one occasion we showed him this movie ... which had, among others, incidents where they were employing black women and then they'd have a white hand on the table, and people sitting, and then the hand goes like this and then they'd get a big fright and they'd jump. I thought this would now be very funny to him to show it to him, but I think because it was a black lady, he wasn't very impressed. He just said, "Shame." He wasn't impressed that we showed it to him.

As journalists, we didn't know, at the time, Mandela would go on these car trips around Cape Town right around the Peninsula. Tell us about these car trips ...

Yes. The press always watched us... the press always came down that road up to a distance from the house. They stopped and watched from there, but because the house was fenced in and there were a lot of bushes, they couldn't see anything. But they could see if we drove out with a car, and then they'd follow us immediately. Therefore, we often made use of decoy cars.

... Mr. Mandela, quite often, went out ... for a dental examination, or just for a medical check-up ... and then he could say where he wanted to go afterwards. I can remember we took him to Hermanus, for example. He wanted to see Hermanus. He wanted to see Hout Bay, and when we got to Hout Bay, he said he'd like to eat crayfish, and then he offered to buy us crayfish from his own pocket ... At one stage, we went to Saldanha ... I'll never forget this because we drove past a field where there were a lot of melons and he asked me, "What are those?" I said it was kaffirwaatlemoen. And immediately--"What!" When he became upset or a bit worked up, he'd always make (snorting sounds). He did this (snort) and he keeps quiet. So I asked Mr. Gregory, "Hey, tell me, what is kaffirwaatlemoen in English, a nice name, because the man is upset now!" Then he said to me, "No, it stays kaffirwaatlemoen. It's just like that."

And usually when he got angry, it would be for about five or 10 minutes, because he was very inquisitive. He'd ask which mountains those were, and what house is that, why is it here, and so on.

Tell us about yet another example of fooling the press.

Yes, the day of the release of Mr. Kathadra and Mr. Sisulu at Pollsmoor Prison, we coincidentally took Mr. Mandela to a doctor. Then he said we should drive in that direction, he just wants to see how it looks, how the press and everybody was standing at the gate. When we got there, there was chaos, you could hardly drive. We drove with this Mercedes right through them, and they told us, "Get away, get away, you're in the way" ... they wanted to take photos of Mr. Sisulu, but the one they really wanted a photograph of was sitting in the car they were chasing away, saying, "Get out of the way, get out of the way." And he enjoyed it very much. Had a good laugh about it ...

Why couldn't they see him?

... because ... it was a car with dark windows. So you could see outwards, but you couldn't see anything inwards.

[The weekend of Mandela's release] ... let's start ... when Mandela went off to see President de Klerk.

Yes, they told me that he would visit the president, and that I must pack food for them for about seven people. As I heard afterwards, it would have been the people who were on the aeroplane. I packed the sandwiches and fried sausage and boiled eggs. So the Friday when he left, I had not even greeted him, because they told me that I shouldn't because he didn't know that he would be released. They would tell him there, and this is how I went home the Friday afternoon after they had left. Saturday morning they came to pick me up again and told me that I had to go and clean the house. When I walked into the kitchen, the box in which I'd packed the breakfast ... was standing on the kitchen table. So I was already a little confused, because why was the box standing there? And then he came down the passage, and said to me, "Are you surprised to see me?" I said to him "Yes, Did you then not leave?" He says "No. I did not leave. They are going to release me the way I want to be released, not the way they want me to be released."

Then I made him breakfast, because all the food was still there ... he told me that he was expecting guests later in the day. So guests came to visit him on the Saturday, I can't remember exactly who all were there and I went home again the Saturday afternoon. I came to make him breakfast on the Sunday morning, and then I knew already that he would be released on the Sunday.

He was completely relaxed, and I don't know, around about 11:00 quite a number of people came to visit him ... I made snacks for the people, and for the last time made sorghum beer, because he was very fond of sorghum beer.

Then Winnie was late. I know the leader of the lot who came, was Trevor Manuel, he was sort of in command. He also made all the arrangements, phoned to find out where Winnie was, why hadn't Winnie come yet, and the worst of all were of course the helicopters that hung around above the house, above the building. You couldn't hear, you couldn't see, there was dust. Fourteen people would come, and eventually there were 23, I think. The whole house was full of people. You didn't know where to walk. They ate everything, there was no food left over, water, cold drinks, everything was drunk ...

... how was he was behaving on that morning ... the day of his release ...

He was completely relaxed. After breakfast he went to sit down and read the newspapers quietly like he always does, and made cuttings, because he cut out all the cuttings which dealt with politics. And again I made lunch for him. This he ate and then he went to lie down for a bit. Now he always ... was supposed to sleep in the big room where the big bed is standing. There he slept in summer, but in winter he moved to a smaller room where it isn't so cold. This afternoon he also went to lie down there, and to me it was quite interesting.

But he was a little impatient because Winnie was late. You could see he didn't like it. When the visitors started arriving ... when Winnie came, they started walking out together like that. So he just came past me and just pressed my shoulder. Not really fully said good-bye. Although, he did, on the Saturday, ask me whether I would like a book. He would like to buy me a book as a present. Then I told him, no, he must give me one of the books he's going to write, the Long walk to Freedom, and sign it for me. This I never got, I don't know, he probably forgot about it.

After he had gone, I walked through the house to see whether something perhaps stayed behind. His speech, which had been prepared, and his glasses, he had left lying in the room. So he went to the Parade in Cape Town without his speech and without his glasses. We frantically phoned after them to say how can he make a speech and then they let us know not to worry, because it was only a copy of the real speech. So this gave us the idea that he didn't write his speech, he had it written. So he just had to go and read it. We didn't know it, we thought he wrote his speech himself. And they gave him another pair of glasses. So with another pair of glasses, and with a second speech or with a copy of the original speech, he went to the Grand Parade.


Did Mandela ever meet your family?

No, he never met them, but he was always interested in them, always asked me how they were. At one stage, my little daughter, she was then in primary school, sent him a little note of a test she had written and a good mark that she got. Then he wrote on it, "Good luck! Very Good!" and sent it back to her again. But he never met them. Also back then, when my wife shortened his pants for him, the first suits he got ... Then he told me, "I must go and find out in Paarl what they ask for it." I said, "But why? We're not going to have it done." But he just said, "No, find out what it costs." I came back and told him what they normally charge ... for shortening pants. And then he let her shorten two pairs of pants, and gave me the [money] and told me to tell her that she had really earned it. I said, "No, she doesn't want it," but he said, "No, she must take it, because that's what it costs to have the pants shortened."

After Mandela's release, you've seen him on how many occasions?

... he invited us to the inauguration in Pretoria, both my wife and I, and Mr. Gregory and his wife, and Mr. Marais and his wife. Gave plane tickets and everything. But there was a little of a bit of confusion ... because there were so many people, the groups were divided up into tents, but we were supposed to have been in the white tent where he was ... He also invited us to the inauguration, his first speech in parliament, and it was interesting. When we got there, his secretary came to us and said, "You are not getting away this time. He really wants to see you ... you just stay here." We were then put into the Presidential box ... we went round to his house next to Parliament ... we had tea with them ... and the next occasion that I heard from him, was when he invited me to his birthday party ...

The Rugby World Cup final, do you remember that day?

Yes, who wouldn't?

Tell me how your feelings were that day ...

Yes, it was very interesting, because while he was in prison, while he was at Victor Verster, the only sport that you could make out that he was interested in, was a bit of soccer and, of course, boxing, because he was a boxer in his young days. For us who watched, it was strange and good that he, who is the president, is interested in rugby, which is predominantly a white sport. And at that stage I don't think there was a colored or a black player in the Springbok team. I think they were all whites. That he then also came forward with the jersey on, that they had given him as a present, and could hold the cup with them. You could see he was really glad. It warmed our hearts, to put it that way, to see that he is glad that we won the World Cup.

How did you feel?

... I thought it was very good of him to show that he was interested in everything. I mean, a person almost can't believe it, because you would think that he would hate the white people, but in all the time that I have known him, there was never a single moment that he told me that he hated white people. He always showed an interest in everything. I mean, it is something big.

When you see Mandela on television, maybe sometimes when you see him at these ceremonies that you've been to ... do you feel proud?

Yes, of course, I feel proud. This is the man who I helped, you could almost say, the last bit in prison to cross over to the outside world. We had to, educate isn't the word, but we had to sort of prepare him for the free life. When you see him there ... when we watch television ... then we talk about it, and you feel a little proud. This is after all the man ... he's now the president, and you cooked for him and you looked after him.

There's no instant that I did something about which I have regrets today. I often did things for him that I wasn't supposed to do. For example, when visitors came, Mr. Marais said, "Mr. Mandela, listen, Kobie Coetsee is coming to visit us, but don't say anything to Mr. Swart." Then he'd come to me and say, "Listen, Jack, Kobie Coetsee is coming to visit us, you must make something, but don't tell Mr. Mandela about it." We noticed it later, Mr. Mandela and I. Then he said to me, "No man, nonsense. I'll tell you if I know about visitors. And you tell me if you know about visitors." I then said, "No, I'll write it in my diary." And then he could go and see in my diary who the visitors were. Then we agreed: He tells me when visitors were expected, and I'll also tell him. But Mr. Marais didn't know about it. he still told us, "Listen, you are not allowed to know, you mustn't tell him." Which was almost stupid, really, because he can see I'm cooking extra food! For whom am I making it? And he knows that visitors are expected, but he isn't allowed to tell me. But then why am I cooking?

Barnard and Kobie Coetsee ... their visits to Mandela....does anything stand out in your memory?

No, they came to visit quite often, but because I could never hear what they were talking about, the visit was never of much value to me. The only times I could perhaps hear something, was when I took something in to them. I always had to ask them whether they wanted something to drink. What was interesting, especially with Mr. Kobie Coetsee, Mr. Mandela would always drink exactly the same as he did. If Mr. Coetsee said he wanted some whiskey, then Mr. Mandela said, "The same." If Mr. Coetsee said he wanted tea, then Mr. Mandela also drank tea. He would never follow a different direction...

... here we are, 20, 25 years later, and things have changed ... how has Mandela influenced your own thinking about South Africa, about the world. How has Mandela changed you ...

When he came to Victor Verster ... at the beginning stages when we started chatting, I told him I wasn't interested in politics. And he immediately accepted it. He never tried to force politics upon me ... We always chatted about the weather and how beautiful the mountains look or whatever ...

I don't mean politically, just generally ...

I don't think he changed my view, because, and I am completely honest ... I don't vote for the ANC. I also didn't vote for them in the last election. And I don't believe I'll vote for them if they come again. But it isn't because I don't like Mr. Mandela. I like Mr. Mandela very much as a person, but I think many of the things that are being done, also don't have his approval ... things which prevent one from voting for the ANC, aren't his fault. I mean, if things were done the way he wanted them to be done, then many more people would have voted for him. But there are too many other things that have happened in the ANC which scare off many of us, not only white people. I think many other people too.

When these famous people came [to Victor Verster], Sisulu, Kathrada, Tokyo Sexwale ... what was it like?

... you could see when the people with whom he had been in prison, like Walter Sisulu and Kathadra and these guys, he was always kind of happier when they came to visit, and because I'm sure he knew them better than the other people ... the prisoners who came to visit him from Robben Island and Pollsmoor, he always hugged, and they were loud and they'd grab him and the danced, toyi-toyied in the lounge. Something the ordinary visitors from Johannesburg and these places, of course, didn't do, so it was clear that he was glad when they came to visit him ...

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