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frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

interview: Adelaide Tambo INTERVIEWED BY JOHN CARLIN

She is the wife of Oliver Tambo, ANC president and Mandela's former law partner, and has known Mandela for decades. She is also a longtime friend of Winnie Madikizela Mandela.
Tell me about the first time that you saw Mandela.

adelaide tambo... Well, it was at a wedding reception at the Bantu Men's Social Center. He was with his first wife, Evelyn. I asked people who he was, and they said he was a prominent African leader. I think he was practicing law then ...

Mrs. Tambo, forgive the impertinence, but he was married, why were you asking about this young man?

Because he was outstanding. He seemed to be dominating the whole place. He was tall and elegantly dressed, and his wife was also very elegant. I thought what a beautiful couple, and so I wanted to know who he was ...

...Talk about your first meeting, when you actually exchanged conversation with Mandela.

Well, that was when he and Oliver were in practice together. I was doing some studies at a college, which was not very far from their offices. Oliver would take me home after the studies, and it would be time for him, also, to go off duty. We'd go out to dinner or somewhere, and so I met him at Mandela & Tambo for the first time.

... You must have become quite curious as to who this guy was. Do you remember that first meeting ...

President Mandela is a very sociable person. He goes out of his way to make people feel at ease. He started asking me about what I was studying, or where it was and so on. He made me feel very acceptable. Then he also cracked a few jokes .. and put me at ease. Later on, Winnie and I were sharing a dormitory at the Helping Hand Club. Ja. And then later on, when he and Winnie were going out together, I saw him a lot.

Without doubt one of the best dressed men in South Africa ... and Nelson used to like his food. That used to worry me--how was he going to be able to take prison? And his household was very well kept. So being a bit 'too much of an English gentleman'--whatever that meant-- if they meant the way he carried himself, then he came from the Transkei. They are very disciplined people.
You mention Winnie and Nelson. Now there's all kinds of different versions that one reads and one hears about how they met. Can you please give us, finally, the truth ...

The truth that I know, was that it was raining hard one afternoon, and I was working at the non-European hospital. I telephoned Oliver, it was actually hailing ... and I asked him to come and rescue me, because I couldn't get to Park Station ... As we were going towards Park Station, I saw Winnie and Florence Dube, who was a friend of Winnie, going towards Park Station. I asked Oliver to stop the car so that we could take Winnie and Florence with us ... I said we have to stop at delicatessen, because I was feeling hungry ... when we got there, Oliver kept on struggling to find some money ... and then he looked into the delicatessen, and he said, "Oh, there's Nelson in there. Buy whatever you want, and put it on him." So I went in ... and then as Nelson and I were coming out of the shop, Oliver greeted from inside the car and he said, "This is Winnie Madikizela from Bizana." Nelson answered, "Oh, a relative," because he heard Bizana, you see, and Oliver came from Bizana. So Oliver said something like, "Don't you know Winnie. She is always dancing up and down the newspapers," meaning that she is always appearing in newspapers. At the time, Winnie was at Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work. It was sort of a new trend in South Africa, mostly people used to do nursing and teaching, especially women ... and so Nelson greeted both of them, they were sitting at the back. I was in the front with Oliver. Then I'll tell you what I noticed, as the car was pulling away, he was standing on the pavement and he watched the car move. I also saw Winnie turning back and looking at him. That's what I know. Now, I hear of all sorts of versions, so I don't know where they come from. But that is the truth that I know.

... When Nelson Mandela and your husband were in their law firm, did they divide the nature of the work they did in different ways, maybe corresponding to each others skills and personalities, or not?

No, I never asked that. But I wasn't working there. I wasn't around to see what they were doing. But they each had an office at the whole floor of offices, Mandela & Tambo, at 25 Fox Street, Chancellor House. They were a practice that was politically linked, because they defended our people who were in difficulties. Of course, like all lawyers they charged fees, but no one was turned away at Mandela & Tambo, because they did not have money. Those were the days of pettiness of the regime. Africans were carrying passes, and they were arrested at every little excuse, by the police. The office was always full of people who came there to ask for help. But, of course, they dealt with many other cases, civil cases, and people came with other problems. Divorce cases, violence, where people were stabbed or people were shot dead. Things like that. A lot of cases went there.

A decision was taken that your husband, O.R. Tambo, would go into exile, and Nelson was going to stay in the country. Tell me about that decision. How was it taken and why?

Well, the why is going to be the most difficult part. There was a political struggle going on. The system was busy arresting our people, incarcerating them, and our people were being killed by the police ... We had the national executive of the ANC ... the marathon treason trial, for instance ... a lot of people who had businesses, their businesses suffered because they were there at the treason trial all the time. Mandela and Tambo--the family suffered a lot because the main principles were in the treason trial ... I know that the people that were the main advocates of apartheid were Malan, Verwoerd and Strydom. One of those people or all of them, perhaps, in a meeting decided that at some stage, because the African leaders were not stopping their revolutionary tendencies, and the political struggle, that they would arrest their African leaders, and they would put them on Robben Island. So while they were planning, the ANC was also planning.

One day Oliver came back from a political meeting, and it was about 5:00 a.m. in the morning ... he said, "A decision has been taken at the meeting last night that I was to leave the country to tell the world about the atrocities of apartheid here. That I was to take my family with me, because if I left the family, I would be worrying about the family, and my heart would be partly in the struggle, and partly worrying about my family at home." I resisted, and he said "Well, this is the instructions of the National Executive of the ANC." We used to have a song that says in Xhosa, "I'll not refuse if I'm asked to perform a task." I was hesitant. I had two children then ... there were elderly people in Oliver's family, there were elderly people in my family, as well. We had always made it our duty to look after the old people.

Then while I was hesitating, time was going, and then one day, boom, came Sharpeville. This time, Oliver was doing underground work here in Cape Town, except that I did not know that he was doing underground work. I thought he had gone to Cape Town to defend a case or something like that. Then the next thing that happened was ... I came home in the afternoon. I come from Sharpeville, that's my home, and I was very concerned about my family and relatives there. I phoned a cousin and she told me about the people who had died and so on. Then while I was going out of the gate to tell a friend across the road I saw Oliver in a strange car coming ... and then I came in to the house ... he was wearing a driver's coat and a driver's cap ... he started relating how he got the news the previous evening. They decided to drive straight back, and that it was now time to put into operation the instructions of the ANC. So I started packing a small suitcase for him and I put it aside. He said, "I don't think I'll need it, because I don't know where I'm going." I said, "Take it all the same. You will need a change of clothes." Then we then drove to go ... to the bishop's house to inform him that Oliver was leaving the country. Also, we went to see a lawyer ... so that Oliver could give me power of attorney. Then we went to Mandela & Tambo, and I left him there. He was attending to his files ... then later on ... I went to the hospital ... I took the small suitcase with me with his clothes and all that, and he worked at the office sorting out the files until about half past eleven. At quarter to twelve, he arrived at the hospital to come and say good-bye. I gave him the suitcase ... then they left for Botswana.

A lot of people say that one part of Mandela's nature is that he is something of an English gentleman.

Very well dressed man he used to be. Oh, yes. Without doubt one of the best dressed men in South Africa ... and Nelson used to like his food. That's one thing that used to worry me, I thought how he was going to be able to take prison because he ate very well. And his household was very well kept. His wife was a good cook. So being a bit too much of an English gentleman, whatever that meant, but if they meant the way he carried himself, then he came from the Transkei. They are very disciplined people. Young men have to respect older people and an older man can correct you, or caution you, if you did anything wrong and your parents would find that in order.

For a long time in your life someone who was almost like a dead man was Mandela. He was removed from the world and put on the island. I am told that when you and your family got together for Christmas, when you were in exile, that you would keep a chair empty for Nelson ...

Well, we are basically a Christian family, and when you are in politics it is very difficult. Oliver came about twice for Christmas. He couldn't be with us for all the Christmases, because we had a lot of kids in the camps, whose parents were out here in South Africa, and he had to be with them on those days. So twice he came over at Christmas ... and Oliver always said at prayer time, "Put a chair for Uncle Nelson." That was for him and for all the others that were on Robben Island, for the food that they cannot have.

The chair for Uncle Nelson meant that in your husband's mind, Nelson was clearly the symbol of those people who were in prison. Your husband made the decision to elevate the cause of Mandela into this international issue ...

Well the slogan was "Release Nelson Mandela and all the other prisoners." I remember a letter coming from Walter Sisulu to Oliver comparing Nelson to Simón Bolívia. He said we must not get the message confused and the international world confused. When we talk of the South African struggle, we must put up one person as the main leader of the political struggle inside the country, and that should be Nelson ... Then Oliver said to me one day when he was writing his speech, and he was going to South America and he said, "Nelson is the Simón Bolívia of South Africa." So when we are talking to people, there were many other people in jail and all that, and when we are asking people to support the struggle in South Africa, we are saying we want the release of Nelson Mandela and all the other prisoners. Then we had a campaign where some of our people were outside South Africa House protesting, and the placard that they carried said, "We are here until Nelson Mandela is released."

... The decision was taken to build this kind of myth around Nelson Mandela. Why not make the symbol of all the prisoners, Walter Sisulu ...

No, that's the decision that they took in jail. I wouldn't be able to satisfy that question. But the decision came from them on Robben Island, and we carried it out.

When ... your husband decided to do this, he didn't hesitate. When he gave this stamp of approval, he must have known that in the eyes of the world and of South Africa, that Nelson Mandela was going to be seen as more of a leader than he, even though he was the main man in reality. Wasn't that a conflict?

No, I mean, Oliver was a very funny person in a way. He wasn't jealous and I remember--this always surprises me--when Chief Luthuli was still president of the African National Congress, and Oliver said to me ... about Nelson, Nelson had made a speech--that speech sometimes appears on television, where he is wearing a black jacket and saying that we can't forever take the oppression meted out by the regime because our young people were getting tired of non-violence -- And I remember Nelson saying that. And Oliver said to me, "This is the president of South Africa."

Now that is going back far ...

Very far back. Chief Luthuli was still alive.

Was that a perception that remained with your husband? He was the president and adored by the ANC followers ...

By the world.

During the time that Nelson Mandela was in prison, did that perception stay with him? That story is more than 40 years ago.

Yes. Well, I am telling you what he said to me. Chief Luthuli was then the president of the African National Congress. But he said this to me. Then these chaps, when they were in jail ... Look at Walter Sisulu. Walter Sisulu built all of them. When parliament started, he didn't even have a place in parliament. He is still working for the liberation movement. Even now, when we are in government, but he is still a leader of the ANC. And a lot of young people still go to him for advice. He doesn't say, "I built all of you. I made you what you are. And I haven't got a place in the government of the day. And I haven't got a salary." He doesn't say that. What is paramount to him, is the nation. So that's how they were.

How did Walter Sisulu build Nelson Mandela?

You were ... [saying that] Nelson came out here as a country bumpkin. Walter went and collected him from Alexandra township. The first suit that Nelson wore, was bought for him by Walter. He encouraged him to go and do law studies, just as he encouraged Oliver to go and do law studies. Because he said you can't fight the law unless you understand it. Oliver wanted to do medicine, and he wanted to be a priest, because according to him, he would able to cure people spiritually and physically ... But Walter advised them to go and study law ... so they did law. That was in preparation of getting them ready to understand the law and to be able to fight it.

When Nelson Mandela was released, what were you doing?

We knew he was going to be released at a certain hour. Of course, we were all very excited ... I was with the children. I don't know where Oliver was. He was in Zambia somewhere. So we sat in the television room ... and we were watching the television screen, waiting for him to come out of the gates, and there were other people with us ... When he came out, I don't know, I was dazed with excitement. I was so happy when Winnie came out like this. I was absolutely excited. I was jumping around. All the people in the room were jumping around. It was great.

We were jumping around before, when Winnie one day phoned and said that she had gone for a visit, and they had a contact visit. Before they used to look at each other through a window, and talk to each other through it. But that was exciting, that she had a contact visit. This was even more exciting. After 27 years in prison, a life time, and when you think of a man, what type of a man is it, when it is so easy to say, "I have stopped opposing the regime, and therefore, I am released." Which would have meant you are breaking down now. You are sacrificing and selling your principles, but no, not that man. He was in jail for 27 years ... because he said, "These are the ideals I am prepared to die for." The liberation of his people.

Because he did have opportunities ...

Oh yes. Other people ... there was a ... I can't remember that white man who was in jail too, but he felt tired of it and he gave up, and he had been there for 20 years. But a time came when he gave up and he was released ... But not this man. Not Walter. Not Govan. Those chaps were there all that time ... and they were prepared to die there, but they were not going to sell the nation.

Tell me of your first contact visit with Nelson Mandela after he was released from prison.

Well, Oliver had a stroke before Nelson was released. He went to the London Clinic, and then from there to a rehabilitation center. Only for him to get worse there ... When that happened the Swedish government sent one of the neurologists to come and see Oliver. Then they decided that Oliver should go to Sweden to be treated there ... I went with him and we were accompanied by other people from the ANC office ... so Nelson went to see him there. That was the first time when I set my eyes on him We went to the airport to meet him and Winnie and the other people that were with them. And it was just too much. I had seen Winnie over all that time. I spoke to her over the telephone. But that first contact, I think I was swinging around.

Looking at it from the outside there seemed to be some sort of doubt on whether Mandela should become president of the ANC to take over from your husband because of his stroke ... What was going on there?

No, no. When Oliver came back to the country (remember these people are very good friends) the first conference was in Natal. People always have their own opinions, but Oliver made a speech giving the report to everybody about the 31 years, and I remember him saying such and such a day, such and such a year ... I was struck by a stroke. He said (I can't remember the exact words) "I cannot continue as your president, but luckily Nelson is out." But he knew that he could not. Even though he continued to work, to go to the office and all that, but he knew that God gives you a one neuron only. And when that neuron is gone it can not be rehabilitated.

Some people say Mandela is a different kind of man ... he does not confess or admit to his feelings or weaknesses. There is something stony about him and that is the impression that people got, for example, during the whole situation with Winnie Mandela ...

Well, I would say that if he was not in control of his emotions, he would have burst at his jailers, he would have lost his temper with them, and some of them were quite cruel, I understand. They showed favor to Robert Sobukwe, and they would say to Nelson ... you know, sort of trying to stir him to hate Sobukwe, or to have an attitude towards Sobukwe. But he never did that.

He is a very, very honest person. If he doesn't like a thing, he doesn't like it. But he is not going to say it in such a way as to hurt or antagonize the other person. He is a very loving man and he realizes the good in other people. He spots it. When he appeared on television, and they asked him about Winnie ... he said, "She has suffered for many, many years while I was in prison," and he said, "Now I am out, and she is going to get all the care that a married woman deserves to get." He announced to the world his recognition for her part in the political struggle while he was in jail.

Mandela's separation announcement later on ... Did he confide in anyone?

I wouldn't know about that. He's not the type of person who'd go out to bad mouth Winnie or to say anything against her. He is traditional ... and he respects other people, and especially that Winnie was his wife. He respected her and he wouldn't say anything bad to anybody about it. Remember, it wasn't an easy thing. It was very painful. They had been married for 37 years. It's not a short time. Things must have happened between the two of them that brought them very close to each other, and to break that must have been very difficult.

Maybe on a happier note, Graca Machel, do you know her?

Yes, I know Graca. I knew her in exile. I knew her when she was married to President Machel. And I had contact with her, and she was like a ... brother to Oliver.

Have you seen them together much? Do they look like a happy couple to you?

They are. I mean you can see it yourself. Everybody can see it. When I was unveiling my husband's tombstone, they were there together. And I have seen them here at functions together. They are very happy.

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