frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela
the prisoner

Wolfie Kodesh interview EXCERPT

"Life Underground with Mandela"
... What was your first meeting with Mandela ... during this period...

... I was on the committee that had to protect him--a counter intelligence ANC committee. We used to organize safe houses for these meetings to take place. Every one of us, including myself, was banned from meeting more than one person at a time. I had arranged this particular meeting at a flat ... we'd arranged it for about 8:00 that evening, for all the banned and underground ANC members. At the appointed time... it got dark and people were coming through to this flat ... singly, because they weren't supposed to be with one another. They walked along the passage towards the flat ... and I was standing at the bottom of the steps, organizing, telling them where they had to go ... practically everyone had come... Walter Sisulu ... J.B. Marks and several others ...

Nelson Mandela (who was already underground) ... had been brought into Johannesburg by people from the townships, and the fellow who brought him in was going to come back at about 11:00 that night. That's how long they thought the meeting would go on for. He was already inside ... and I was looking to see that everything was okay, when I noticed a door just before that flat, open and an old man and old lady, looking, because they had obviously seen the reflection of the people going past their windows ... I heard him say, "Quickly, go and phone." I immediately knew that they were going to phone the police ... I ran round the front of the house, jumped over a little wall and knocked at the French windows ... and told them that they had to abandon the meeting because the police would soon be there. So everyone had to just disappear and disperse ... but what to do now with Nelson Mandela, who was disguised as a chauffeur? ...

I had already acquired a flat [apartment] under another name, prior to that, after the 1960 emergency ... Walter knew about this flat, and one or two others. So I said, "Well, what about taking him to this flat." They said, "Yes, what else can we do..." So it was arranged that he comes along to my flat, this flat that I'd had under this assumed name.

... I brought him into the flat ... We had a long discussion. I had to persuade him that it was best, that it was a good place ... nobody amongst the Special Branch or government would ever dream ... because of their mentality towards blacks and whites, that a black man would be living in a white area. I told him about that, and we argued about it. I said, "You're safe over here. Safer than you are in the townships, as a matter of fact." Once he was convinced that it was so, he said, "Okay, right, this is where we stay."

Then we had a discussion and an argument about who is going to sleep where. I had a tiny flat ... and I had a bed there, and I had a camp stretcher in a cupboard. So when I brought out the camp stretcher, I said to him, "Well, I'll sleep on the camp stretcher. You sleep on the bed because you are six foot something, I am five foot something. So the stretcher is just right for me." No, he wasn't going to have that. He hadn't come there to put me out, and we had a bit of a talk about that and ... it was arranged, and I would sleep on the bed.

We had tea and all the rest of it, and then time came to sleep. So he said, "You don't mind, but I'm going to run around." He told me that he woke up very early in the morning, about 4:00 in the townships, and that he always went for these long runs. So I said, "No man, here you 're in a white area. You can't get up at 4:00 or 5:00 running around here. First of all, they patrol ... it would be strange for a black man to be seen running around." He said, "I am going to run. You'll see, don't worry. Let's go to sleep."

About 5:00 in the morning, I woke up and heard these camp stretchers squeak ... I looked and I saw him sitting on the end of the stretcher, putting on long-johns, and then the suits ... that athletes use ... and I said to him, "Well, what's going on here?" He said, "I am going to start running" ... I said, "Well, I am not going to give you the key to go out. You can't go running around." Then he got up, in his tracksuit, and he started running on the spot. So that was his running. I thought, "Oh well, if you want to run on the spot, good luck to you. I am going to sleep." I went to sleep and about a half an hour afterwards I woke up again, and he's still running on the spot ... sweating and heaving and it went on for about an hour, this performance, and each time I just turned over and went to sleep again. At the end of it all, I noticed he did a few frog jumps across the flat, jumping up ... he had his hands out like this, and he jumped so that he could kick his hands underneath ... that took at least an hour. So I said, "That's all right, you can do this but not me." He says, "No, tomorrow ... you going to join me" ...

So came the 'morrow ... and I got into a tracksuit, and I ran for about a quarter of an hour. I was quite fit, but not as fit as all that, to do this. Then by the time the end of his stay with me, I was doing an hour. He did more than an hour. He did about two hours, I think. The whole performance. I was very thankful in a way, because when I went to confinement, that's what I did to keep fit. I ran on the spot ...

How long was he with you?

I think he was there for about six weeks to two months ... I must tell you a story of what happened after he'd been there about three days ... I looked through the peep hole in the door, and I noticed that there was a man outside who did the cleaning, because in all the white flats, as they called them, you had African men cleaning ... I said to [Mandela], "Listen, has he been in the flat at all? Have you seen him at all?" He said, "No, who is he?" He looks through there and he said, "Oh, this chappie is a Zulu man. And he speaks Zulu." Xhosa and Zulu, in any case, are very near each other.

He said what we are going to do is bring about this legend that we had was that if anyone ever came to the flat by accident or whatever reason, and found this black man, in a white flat, we would say that [Mandela's] name was David, he was a student waiting to go overseas. He got a grant and that he wanted to be in the safe place because he wasn't sure which way he was going to get out to take up the grant ...

I assured [Mandela] that if this man didn't come in practically every day he would get suspicious and wonder why I wasn't letting him in, and he would report it to the owner of the flats, because he would be afraid that he wasn't doing his job of cleaning up. He agreed with that. He said, "Bring him in. I'll talk to him. You go and make some tea and you come along and join us," So I thought this is madness. The whole of the defense force, the whole of the police force have a picture of Nelson Mandela, they are looking for him, and here he is inviting the man into the flat. So anyhow ... I went and made tea, and the kettle hadn't even boiled by the time that I heard him cracking jokes and they were laughing ... and it was remarkable ... He got this fellow to get papers for him, newspapers, and magazines ... So we established that this fellow would [run errands] ... and he told him that he was a student and David and the chap took it all in and so on.

A few weeks later ... Nelson said to me "I want to send this chap somewhere tomorrow morning. Can you fetch him down?" This was in the evening. So I went up and they had just a few rooms upstairs, with electric light and just a bed ... when I got up to where where his room was, he wasn't there ... but I saw a newspaper or a magazine saying, "Black pimpernel ... still at large" [with a ] picture of Nelson Mandela. About three or four pictures of Nelson. Now he had a beard, at the time, and as I say he was disguised as a chauffeur ... I thought well, this is the last time that we are going to be here with this fellow ... There could be no mistaking the fact that one or two of those pictures was the man, David, down in the flats downstairs ... I said, "Come on, pack up, I'm taking you to the alternative place." Always had an alternative hiding place. That was pre-arranged, always. He said, "What for?" So I told him about these pictures. He said, "Don't worry, man, this fellow will never ever give me away, I know he won't" ... He was convinced that this person would never give him away. So I left it, and he stayed on for a while until ... one or two other incidents took place.

... he spent two hours exercising each morning and he had the whole of the rest of the day to deal with. How did he spend his time? I understand that one thing he did was read an awful lot.

He read a lot of books, yes. He read a lot of books about armies ... Then I asked him ... "Have you read this Clausewitz?" ... he said, "No." I said, "Well, if you are in MK and so on, you had better read that book. It's like reading Shakespeare for English classics. You have to read Clausewitz for warfare." I took it out and gave it to him ... and he got down to it. He had pencil, paper and so on, and he was reading it. He said, "Can I underline and everything in this book?" So I said, "It's yours, it's your book. You do what you like." And he sat there reading, making notes, I think, for days on end. You couldn't pull him away from it all, he so involved in it. After reading it, all the tactics and strategies, the political side of warfare that Clausewitz dealt with, he said that there was no difference between his views and Clausewitz' views. Because Clausewitz was a political man who knew that warfare was a continuation of politics sort of thing, and he agreed 100% about it ...

He sent me to get poetry books by a fellow Kunene ... He was always reading books, reading scripts that he had, and so on. And as I say, other people were coming up to the flat like Slovo, like Sisulu. I suppose they brought him papers from the ANC and so on. He read all the time and made notes ... he was also writing articles as I remember, for some of our magazines.

In your flat ... you talked about this narrow escape that you had.

Oh, well, I'll tell you what happened. Milk in those days was bottled, and Africans liked having the milk going sour ... we used to put it on the window sill where the sun could get to it. So it was on the window sill with a curtain covering the room of course. But from outside you could see these bottles ... and one day, I had just come in from going out somewhere, when Nelson said to me, "Just come here, ssshh, quiet." So I came to the curtain. He had his fingers on the curtain, holding it little bit away from the window. And we could hear ... there were about three African men, young fellows, standing there and he was translating to me what they were talking about. He said, "The one chap is saying, 'How is it that in this white area, you have got these bottles of milk lying there, obviously to make [amasi]' And the other one said, 'Yes, we better find out about it.'" The conversation was going like that, and whether they should or shouldn't find out about this funny business that was for white people to put bottles out like that was not the usual thing ... Of course, what we were worried about was that they might very well come in, and say to the man who cleans the flats, an African, that, "Look here, what's all these bottles about, and who stays in the flat?" We were sort of on tenterhooks about that, you see, as to what they were going to do, because if they did that, then there was no question that he would have to get out. And he didn't want to. He thought this was a very good place to stay ... I think that in his mind, he saw that as a mistake on our part for having left those bottles of milk there. That sooner or later he should leave, which he did after a week or so after that. But he always pointed that out as a mistake on our part.

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