frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela
the prisoner

"The Black Pimpernel" BOOK EXCERPT

From Chapter 40 of Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom
c. Little, Brown and Company 1994 [reprinted with permission of the publisher]
... Living underground requires a seismic psychological shift. One has to plan every action, however small and seemingly insignificant. Nothing is innocent. Everything is questioned. You cannot be yourself; you must fully inhabit whatever role you have assumed. In some ways, this is not much of an adaptation for a black man in South Africa. Under apartheid, a black man lived a shadowy life between legality and illegality, between openness and concealment. To be a black man in South Africa meant not to trust anything, which was not unlike living underground for one's entire life.

I became a creature of the night. I would keep to my hideout during the day, and would emerge to do my work when it became dark. I operated mainly from Johannesburg, but I would travel as necessary. I stayed in empty flats, in people's houses, wherever I could be alone and inconspicuous. Although I am a gregarious person, I love solitude even more. I welcomed the opportunity to be by myself, to plan, to think, to plot. But one can have too much of solitude. I was terribly lonesome for my wife and family.

The key to being underground is to be invisible. Just as there is a way to walk in a room in order to make yourself stand out, there is a way of walking and behaving that makes you inconspicuous. As a leader, one often seeks prominence; as an outlaw, the opposite is true. When underground I did not walk as tall or stand as straight. I spoke more softly, with less clarity and distinction. I was more passive, more unobtrusive; I did not ask for things, but instead let people tell me what to do. I did not shave or cut my hair. My most frequent disguise was as a chauffeur, a chef, or a "garden boy." I would wear the blue overalls of the fieldworker and often wore round, rimless glasses known as Mazzawati teaglasses. I had a car and I wore a chauffeur's cap with my overalls. The pose of chauffeur was convenient because I could travel under the pretext of driving my master's car.

During those early months, when there was a warrant for my arrest and I was being pursued by the police, my outlaw existence caught the imagination of the press. Articles claiming that I had been here and there were on the front pages. Roadblocks were instituted all over the country, but the police repeatedly came up empty-handed. I was dubbed the Black Pimpernel, a somewhat derogatory adaptation of Baroness Orczy's fictional character the Scarlet Pimpernel, who daringly evaded capture during the French Revolution.

I traveled secretly about the country; I was with Muslims in the Cape; with sugar-workers in Natal; with factory workers in Port Elizabeth; I moved through townships in different parts of the country attending secret meetings at night. I would even feed the mythology of the Black Pimpernel by taking a pocketful of "tickeys" 20 (threepenny pieces) and phoning individual newspaper reporters from telephone boxes and relaying to them stories of what we were planning or of the ineptitude of the police. I would pop up here and there to the annoyance of the police and to the delight of the people.

There were many wild and inaccurate stories about my experiences underground. People love to embellish tales of daring. I did have a number of narrow escapes, however, which no one knew about. On one occasion, I was driving in town and I stopped at a traffic light. I looked to my left and in an adjacent car saw Colonel Spengler, the chief of the Witwatersrand Security Branch. It would have been a great plum for him to catch the Black Pimpernel. I was wearing a workman's cap, my blue overalls, and my glasses. He never looked my way, but even so the seconds I spent waiting for the light to change seemed like hours.

One afternoon, when I was in Johannesburg posing as a chauffeur and wearing my long duster and cap, I was waiting on a corner to be picked up and I saw an African policeman striding deliberately toward me. I looked around to see if I had a place to run,but before I did, he smiled at me and surreptitiously gave me the thumbs-up ANC salute and was gone. Incidents like this happened many times, and I was reassured when I saw that we had the loyalty of many African policemen. There was a black sergeant who used to tip off Winnie as to what the police were doing. He would whisper to her, "Make sure Madiba is not in Alexandra on Wednesday night because there is going to be a raid." Black policemen have often been severely criticized during the struggle,.but many have played covert roles that have been extremely valuable.

When I was underground, I remained as unkempt as possible. My overalls looked as if they had been through a lifetime of hard toil. The police had one picture of me with a beard, which they widely distributed,.and my colleagues urged me to shave it off. But I had become attached to my beard, and I resisted all efforts to get me to shave.

Not only was I not recognized, I was sometimes snubbed. Once, I was planning to attend a meeting in a distant area of Johannesburg and a well-known priest arranged with friends of his to put me up for the night I arrived at the door,. and before I could announce who I was, the elderly lady who answered exclaimed, "No, we don't want such a man as you here!" and shut the door.

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