frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela
the prisoner


He was Mandela's longtime lawyer and friend, and a constant visitor during the prison years.
When Mandela set off to Robben Island, was he laboring under any delusion that maybe he would be out in two or three years?

He certainly did not show that he believed that it was going to be a short period, like most of his comrades that were caught and thought that they would be back with their families within three years, which sustained them and their families. He was more realistic about it.

The title of his book, A Long Walk to Freedom, was a phrase that was used earlier on, including the phrase that the road to freedom passes through the jail, and although he was encouraged by what was happening with the de-colonization process in the rest of Africa, he was sufficiently well informed and could deduce that even though the theoreticians in the liberation movement spoke about domestic colonialism, he was smart enough to know that the whites here would try and string it our for as long as possible. And the one thing that he didn't do was to express a feeling of despair, because that would have been counter productive to the people that remained relatively free, whom he wanted to continue the struggle.

You saw him in prison. He somehow elicited a special kind of treatment from the warders. Do you have any recollections or anecdotes on that?

On my first visit, in the middle of winter, he was brought to the consulting room where I was waiting. There were eight warders with him, two in front, two at the back, two on each side. Prisoners do not usually set the pace at which they move with their warders. But it was quite obvious that he was--from the open van that they came, right up to the little verandah of the consulting rooms. And I stepped down, past the two in front, and embraced him, said, "Hello." He returned the greeting [and] immediately asked, "How's Zami?" which is, how are the children. And he then pulled himself back, and said, "George, I'm sorry, I have not introduced you to my guard of honor." And then proceeded to introduce each one of the warders by name. Now, the warders were absolutely amazed. I think that this was the first time that they saw a white man and particularly a lawyer, I suppose, coming and embracing a black man, but they were absolutely stunned, and they actually behaved like a guard of honor. They respectfully shook my hand. And there was a lot of evidence that he was treated special, which I knew to my advantage as well. As a visitor, if you visited Mandela, you were invited to lunch at the officers club on the island, where they lived well with seafood cocktail and grilled lobsters. If you visited anyone else, you were left to your own devices, and the only place that you could have lunch at, is the warders canteen, where the specialty was liver hamburgers.

There was some other story involving a sandwich or some food, and a warder who let him eat the food ...

Yes, I remember that. As a matter of practice, the warders offered tea and sandwiches to lawyers that went there. Beautifully served. Usually they would bring a teapot and a little tray cloth from their home, judging by the appearances. And I had refused this because they did not make provision for the people I was consulting with. And this would upset them. And in relation to my visit to Nelson, I was asked--but this was a couple of years after, it wasn't right at the beginning--if I would have tea. And I said to the lieutenant, "You know, I do not drink tea alone when I am consulting with someone." And he appeared to be genuinely offended, and said, "We are really surprised, Mr. Bizos, that you would think we would offer you tea and not Mr. Mandela." I said, "In that case, please."

So they brought a wonderful tray of sandwiches and I noticed that I was having more sandwiches than Nelson was having. And I said, "Why aren't you having more?" He then said that [some]one--I don't remember who--had beaten him at tennis a couple of days earlier, and he had decided to become fitter in order to take revenge. Now that was quite an eye opener for me, as to the special place that he had. Something that he, himself, would never have wanted, and he always insisted on his colleagues being treated in the same way, and, of course, it's well known that he made it quite clear that he would not walk out of prison until all his Rivonia colleagues went out before him.

This special response that he received from prison authorities--was it an early policy on the part of the government? Or was it something that Mandela himself, evokes because of the power of his personality?

I don't think it was a result of any policy on the part of the government because even before his conviction, during the Rivonia trial, the most inhuman prison official was Colonel, later Brigadier, Aucamp. Nelson Mandela said that we lawyers must not intervene between him and the prison officials. He wanted to do it himself.

Colonel Aucamp would at times pace up and down outside the room in which we were consulting, locked in with our clients (there was a grilled door so that the warders could see us) and Nelson went up to Aucamp, and said, "You know these lawyers give me homework ... and the table that I have in my cell is a rickety one. Could I please have another table because I am under pressure to do this." He spoke politely, and the response of Aucamp was bombastic. "Mandela, you are no longer a lawyer in your office to give orders. You are a prisoner. And we will do what we have to. You can't order us about." Nelson looked at him and he said, "Have you finished, Colonel?" He said, "Yes." He turned round, looked at the man with a key, who opened the grille door, and he came back, sat down, said nothing. Just continued with the consultation with us as if nothing had happened. They took a break for lunch, and he came back with a little smile that you often see [and] says, "Guess what, there's a brand new table in my cell." So that his superiority as a human being had its effect even on the most inhuman of the people that he had to deal with.

You mentioned the story where you were stuffing more sandwiches down yourself ... and the explanation was an example of something that had been seen elsewhere of Mandela's self discipline.


One gets a sense that it is almost as if he was preparing himself for leadership, for what would happen.

Oh yes. He believed that he had a role to play and that he would play it. And I think that that is evidenced by [how he] applied himself to learn Afrikaans. He spoke Afrikaans to the warders, not in a patronizing way, but he thought that he would learn to speak their language. And when Jimmy Kruger ... went to visit Mandela, in his capacity as Minister of Justice and Prisons and asked him if there was anything that he, Jimmy Kruger, could do, [Mandela] would jokingly have said, "Well you can release me" but he would lose no opportunity to show that he had no quarrel with the Afrikaner people. After all, he had so much admiration of the great Afrikaner Bram Fischer.

But he said to Jimmy Kruger, "You know, the collected works of Opperman, an Afrikaner poet, are not in our library. Could you arrange for it be put there, because I like him very much." Well, soon thereafter, the complete works of Opperman were put in the library due to the courtesy of the publisher. He then sat down in his own very characteristic and clear handwriting to write a letter of thanks to the publisher, who turned it over to the then Sunday Afrikaans newspaper--I don't remember its name--but the forerunner of Rapport. He wrote a letter in Afrikaans, and the last paragraph read, "Of course for such a wonderful gift, one would not want to thank you in writing. I am sure that I will have an opportunity in the very near future to call on you and thank you personally."

Now, this was in the late '70s. The newspaper actually did show quite a lot of respect for him. They published it in handwriting ... the first part of it on the front page. So he thought that if he is to play a meaningful role in governing South Africa, he could not ignore the wishes of the Afrikaner people. And I think that he has shown that after his release. He is even subjected to some criticism that he is too concerned about them.

The prison years ... he was submitted to a degree of harassment and there was obviously pain. For example the death of his mother ...

He knew that he would not be allowed to go to his mother's funeral. They almost invariably refused. It was absolutely devastating for him. Not only for him, for all other prisoners when a loved one was not given permission ...

And, of course, [prison] was not a holiday camp. Particularly, in the beginning, when they had to break rock, when they had to pull seaweed out of the cold Atlantic waters to be sold to the Japanese as fertilizer. But by 1976-77, when greater numbers of prisoners, particularly the young ones, came along, there was, I believe, a change of policy, in relation to treatment of all prisoners, and not in relation only to Mandela, who without his wanting it, was receiving special treatment. They allowed them to have music and footballs and tennis. I think that they wanted to show that there were not the brutal people that the death of Steve Biko had shown them to be.

Winnie was used by the state as an instrument to try and get at Mandela's mind.

Yes, I suppose the relationship between the two of them was probably correctly described as a great love story. One of the first things that he would ask is, "How is Zami?" He was very concerned about the fact that she, herself, may be sentenced to a term of imprisonment. I defended Winnie between 1958 and 1993, I suppose on more than 20 occasions, when she was in Brandfort, when she was at Soweto, and particularly in '70-'71 when she and 20 odd others was charged with furthering the aims of an unlawful organization, and she was acquitted, and then redetained and charged with terrorism.

He was very concerned, and not only because he didn't want her to be in prison, but also for the children. But at the same time, his pride that Winnie had taken the initiative in forming an ANC network at a time when it was very dangerous to do so was great, and there was an admiration. He asked me what did I think was the public reaction to this. And I still remember the expression of pride on his face when I said, "Well, we'll try our best to get her off."--which we did eventually--"But I want to tell you, that she mirrors your image outside very well." This was a matter of great joy to him, even though he must have had a conflict in his mind as to how bad it would be if she, herself, was sentenced to a term of imprisonment.

Given the fact that he had to ask you that question, one gets the sense of what must have been the tremendous isolation they felt on Robben Island from news generally.

Yes, generally speaking, they were kept in the dark about what was happening in the outside world. And what I learned from experience is that don't ask prisoners how they are doing in the prison and don't take up their time wanting to know what's happening inside. What they really want to know is what happens outside. The vital question for Nelson when I saw him, by gesture, would be, "Is Bram Fischer still free or has he been caught?" because he didn't know whether he would be told about this or not. He didn't [know] about what was happening with his wife and children, except this very hurtful newspaper report that they put on his little table in his cell, which was worrying, and he wanted to know about that. But there is an obverse side to that. We must remember that, in many respects, the public in South Africa including ourselves were kept in the dark ...

The wall of silence in legal terms--was it watertight?

Oh, yes. Even when they allowed them to get newspapers and magazines, they would cut practically everything that had anything to do with national or international politics ... the silence was deafening for them. And they were very hungry for information ...

... we worked on the assumption that both the consulting room on Robben Island, the consulting room at Pollsmoor, and the house as a whole at Victor Verster were bugged. But you know, the matters of a sensitive nature could be discussed without the bugs picking it up. We had a habit of taking a piece of paper and writing key words on it, and what the bug would have picked up, would be, "If" and I would be pointing to the name of Oliver Tambo on the piece of paper "would take the attitude that" negotiations (point) ... and so it would go on. So you could actually have quite a meaningful discussion both by reference to the pointing of the words, and by gesture and eye movement

Mandela, in the '80s, was submitted to what one might describe as a series of temptations. One of them was the temptation of his freedom in exchange for abandoning the armed struggle.

... Yes. I think that the apartheid government believed its own propaganda almost right to the end. And they believed that they could bribe Mandela in the manner in which they had bribed the bantustan leaders. What they were saying to him, "These exiles are led by the nose by the communists and by the Soviet Union. The people of South Africa would reject that. You have an existence independent of this organization. You come with us, and we will settle the matter, get some authority and we will give some sort of qualified rights to the majority of the people, and all will go well."

They didn't know Mandela ... This is why I think they gave him special facilities, at Pollsmoor and at Victor Verster prisons, and this is why they allowed him almost to run an office in the late '80s, where the warder and his son did the cooking, served the meal, the wine and gave him a telephone. That the house was locked but not to prevent Mandela from going out, but preventing people from coming in. And they thought that he would not have able to resist this special treatment.

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