This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
16 Oct 2002: Maharaj, Mac
MM. Have you seen Wolfie?
POM. I haven't seen Wolfie.
MM. He's been ill, he's had a prostate operation. Have you seen Ivan?
POM. Today let's deal with Robben Island, concentrate on that without any kind of deviations. Who was the American actress who came to visit you?
MM. Fran Drescher.
POM. She told you that you had regaled her with stories of Robben Island and kept her and her boyfriend amused for the whole afternoon so maybe you could start regaling to less attractive company.
MM. The truth is I don't even remember what I told Fran Drescher because, you know, they say I'm of Indian background and Indians like to cook a meal, a curry with spices, all sorts of exotic spices but you can eat a meal cooked by one Indian and tomorrow by another and they will be the same thing but it will taste completely different. Now when I tell my stories I like to leave them verbal because I can put the different spices on different days. But more often when I do talk about experiences they are cast in a semi-humorous way.
POM. Cast them both ways, I want to capture the relative deprivation, the levels of communication and life in a small community on an island from which there is no escape, the kinds of relationships which are developed, the kinds that fall apart, the rows, it wasn't all one happy sailing for the struggle and we're all for the struggle and when we get out we'll fight the struggle again. There must be enormous tensions that arise from living in that small space particularly if you're in the single cells where you are confined to a single quadrangle.
MM. I think we were very lucky in the single cell section, young people like me. I went to prison at the age of 29. I was very fortunate to be put into that section because even when I was in that isolation overlooking the quadrangle when I got to Robben Island and seeing Madiba and others seated in rows on bricks, concrete bricks and breaking stones, you inevitably had to look at those you could identify seated there, those you know personally or even by newspaper and record of struggle and by the knowledge that the Walter Sisulus, the Mandelas, Govan Mbeki, Kathrada, the Billy Nairs were seated there, placed you in an environment where you could look to people to see how they were conducting themselves because prison was a new experience for me. That immediately anchored you because you were able to look at your own circumstances but not drown in your own circumstances. You got a sense that you were with people whose behaviour would help to shape how you should deal with problems.
. Of course you went to prison saying to yourself, I'm not going to accept this treatment they are meting out and the treatment was not just brutality but you knew that that brutality was founded on race and then there was a deep hatred by the authorities, warders, the lot against you for your political activities. So these two things pushed you in that environment but looking out you could see your colleagues there, colleagues that you respected, and you could see how they were conducting themselves. So that was a great, great boon. The blessing was multiplied when I was joined to them to go out to work to break stones in that quadrangle and shortly after that they took us out to the quarry where we could now talk to each other, meet each other, get to know each other.
POM. Now when you were working in the quarry was there a daily quota imposed in any way?
MM. At the start of our work in the quarry, just as on the breaking of the stones, they had tried to impose a quota of the amount of pebbles that you broke by measuring it in drums and they had sought to push us to fulfil a quota. I don't remember what was the quota. But we were already resisting that.
POM. This was true with regard to when you were breaking the stones?
MM. Stones, yes.
POM. There was a quota.
MM. There was a quota to be measured by the size of a hit that you made and it was measured by drums and they had a group of what we called common law prisoners, that's criminals, murderers, rapists, delivering the larger stones to you where you were seated. You just had to sit there and keep breaking stones. You could only get up from there by express permission of the warder, say to go to the toilet, or when the warder said, "Right, it's lunch break now", then you could get up but you couldn't walk around. You had to be seated and just breaking away and the bigger stones were brought in, delivered to you. Each one had their part and then you had to chop, break those into pebbles and that heap they sought to measure it.
POM. So at the end of the day a warder would come around and measure.
MM. And look at your heap.
POM. Would he look at each heap?
MM. First they had said they would be measured by drums and then
POM. A drum is?
MM. A little pail.
MM. One of those larger sanitary buckets like a bin and you were supposed to fill that. I think you were supposed to make one or one and a half drums, but none of us were fulfilling it and they were threatening to punish us. When we got to the quarry they then insisted, now there they could not measure individual work, so they began to measure that by saying we had to have so many truck loads of lime dug up. Again an even better place than at the stone breaking, at the stone breaking you could quietly and clandestinely whisper to each other to try and get a collective understanding, "Look, don't bother, he's pushing you."
POM. You didn't want one person way out of line breaking stones like
MM. So you'd whisper to each other and the basic whisper was from Madiba, "Look don't be terrorised by these demands. Yes, work away but work at your pace. Don't feel you've got to be pushed." When we got to the quarry and they said there are truck loads of heaps we worked we began to feel out the capacity to talk to each other in little groups as we worked away and from time to time the authorities, the Prison Commander would descend on a visit, scream at us, instruct the warder to make a list of names of those who were not working to be charged for not working, for loitering at work. At the quarry we were better placed. We could talk in little clusters as we were working and at lunch time when we dispersed to sit in the shed and get our food we were able to talk in a larger body and we took up the position that, yes, we would work but we would not allow to be driven and we would face the charges. It didn't work, the authorities knew they were on a hiding to nothing because to charge us we said, "You charge us and our challenge is going to be where is there a rule that says how much you've got to produce?" It fluctuated, the threats, the intimidation, the overpowering environment, but a stage was reached where things had come to a standstill. We would get to work, we would each rush off, we had organised our studies and our classes, we were teaching each other, and we had organised the classes into clusters according to subjects and we had particular people amongst us who would teach certain subjects.
POM. You'd do this at the quarry?
MM. At the quarry.
POM. So you weren't working at all?
MM. So we reached a point where we were just not working at all, we would just go there and stick our spade into the ground and use that as almost a seat to lean on, like a golfer's seat, and we would re-form, stand around and start having classes be it history, be it Xhosa, be it English, and the warders would come and try and urge us, push us to work and we would turn and just take the pick and dig two or three blows and stand. One of the prison officers called Mandela, it was the Colonel, I think it was a Colonel van Aarde. He had been sent to us after the time of Colonel Badenhorst who had been extremely vicious.
POM. We'll get to him. So we'll keep to the second Colonel first. His name was?
MM. Van Aarde. I think he's the one that called Madiba into his office and according to the report we got from Madiba he virtually, he was on the verge of weeping and he says to Madiba, he says, "Mandela, it's unacceptable. I and my warders have lost control of Robben Island. You people are prisoners but you're totally ignoring our authority. You don't listen to anything we say and that's unacceptable. I need your help."
POM. To rescue my career!
MM. "I can't run a prison that's anarchy, that's run by the prisoners. I need your help and I'm not saying that I'm going to push you all to work but you should show my officers some respect." He says, "I come to inspect you at work and you guys are standing with your bums on the handles of your spades. Even as I drive up none of you will even make a show of trying to work. My officer reports to me in my inspection at the quarry, he says to me, 'Colonel, these people are refusing to listen to me'. Even I as the head of the prison, a Colonel, arrive there and you don't even show me a modicum of respect."
POM. Would that in a sense, and I'm just throwing this at you, if you wouldn't show him respect would that in some way undermine his own position with his officers?
POM. That if he couldn't get respect from you then they would give him less respect too because he couldn't impose his authority.
MM. Because they would say he couldn't impose his authority on you. And he says, "This is unacceptable. I'm not demanding this but I'm saying at least there's got to be some structure to your life and I need your co-operation." So Madiba comes and he reports to us and of course Madiba being the shrewdie he is, he says, "Well I can't give you an undertaking but I will go and inform my fellow prisoners what you've said and I will see how they discuss it and we will see where it goes from there." He doesn't say, I'll come back and report to you, but what he has done he has legitimised a meeting of prisoners. If a warder came there and we were sitting and chatting the whole group of us and he says what's this, we can say, no, we are having a meeting. You're not allowed to have a bloody meeting in prison. We are meeting to discuss what the Colonel has asked us to discuss. Now what's wrong with that? Are you saying we can't even discuss what the Colonel has asked us? Go and ask your Colonel. But Madiba would be quiet. So what it was legitimising was that we can meet.
. However, Madiba came and posed this problem and of course we went for Madiba, "Agh, you come back now bringing the message of this bloody Colonel, the prison authorities. You want us to become prison warders over ourselves?" But as we discussed the issue we said, "OK, OK, that Colonel has got a point. Chaps, can we agree on ground rules amongst ourselves that when the Colonel arrives on inspection just as in the morning when the officer arrives to take inspection we all stand at the window, now can we make it a rule that when the Colonel arrives for the inspection at work, at least let's do a show that we're doing a bit of work." Of course one of the comrades says, "What does it mean 'a show of doing work'? Are we saying we're going to work or are we saying we're going to make a semblance that we're working?" I remember it was Thompson Daweti who spoke no English.
POM. He spoke no English?
MM. He came to prison unable to speak English, only Xhosa, broken English, but bloody shrewd politically. He says, "I want to be clear what we're agreeing here." So we agree, it's a show, but Thompson wouldn't let go. He says, "If it's a show do you mean I can pick up the pick and just drop it on its own weight or do you mean I have to drive it into the ground?" So we debate this thing and we say, "OK, look chaps, we've got to show some output to it because just dropping the pick is no output. So can we agree that roughly every hour we will work for about ten minutes so that there's some output. The fifty minutes we will be having our classes and our chats." So he said, "Fine.""Secondly, when whoever comes as the senior officer on inspection as they drive up just do like you are working." We said fine. Then we get to work and of course the thing breaks down because nobody is producing so a discussion takes place and we say let's appoint some amongst us to go around roughly on the hour to say, "Chaps, time to put in that ten minutes work." And Thompson Daweti was in the unit that I was of the cell of the ANC so I turn up to this group of comrades who were working and Thompson is there, I say, "Chaps, it's time to put in our ten minutes work." And he says to me," 'Mac, have you become a policeman?" So I said, "But you appointed me to this job." He says, "To hell! Don't raise that question, you're behaving like a policeman. I'll work when I feel like it."
. The point is it broke down completely in the sense that under Van Aarde what had happened was that he unconsciously was recognising the authority of Mandela and he was recognising that he doesn't have an authority that is derived from law or prison rules. He was recognising that Madiba is acknowledged by the prisoners as a leader and that his appeal to Madiba was an appeal and not something that Madiba was becoming his instrument.
POM. In fact he had conceded control of the prison, or at least of the work party to Mandela.
MM. Yes. Shortly after I left prison some other problem arose. I think it was over a visit that was going to be made by Kaiser Matanzima, the Transkeian dictator, who is related to Madiba and it was over the question that he would like, from his position as head of Transkei to make an approach to the apartheid government.
POM. Transkei was now independent?
MM. Yes.To get Madiba released and released to the Transkei. Madiba reported this matter in our section but I am told that this time Madiba pushed the envelope wider. He said, "This is not a question that I can decide without consulting my colleagues in prison, not just in the single cells but also in the communal cells." And they said, "What are you talking about?" So he offered them a compromise, he said, "I want to contact the main section of the prison and they will appoint a delegation to have a joint meeting with the single cells. I need to put this problem to them and be guided by them and consult." He made it a political meeting because it was no longer discussing what to do about work, it was what political stance to take.
. I am saying those envelopes were being pushed, pushed to the point where we may not have conceptualised it as such but certainly if you look back to the events some of us may have felt that we could sense in what direction we were pushing the envelope but the reality is the authority over us became ourselves. The prison authorities now no longer could work with a prisoner except by virtue of the authority that we set up. That was almost prisoner of war status because one of the key issues in a prisoner of war camp is that the officers of the men who are the prisoners of war insist that their officer status be recognised and that they are the conduit for communicating with the soldiers. Without couching it in that conceptual framework this is exactly what was happening. De facto.
. Now of course many hilarious things happened. There was a prisoner, Dennis Brutus' brother, Wilfred Brutus, who had come there to serve a short sentence, two or three year sentence.
POM. Would he have been in a communal cell?
MM. He was brought to our side and at work a number of us said we're going to study Afrikaans, couldn't speak a word of Afrikaans. So Wilfred was assigned by us to be the teacher in Afrikaans for those who knew no Afrikaans whatsoever. There I was in a class, myself, Walter Sisulu, Billy Nair and a couple of others, introductory Afrikaans, and Wilfred Brutus is the teacher. So at work he says, "I'm going to handle my lessons by teaching you conversational Afrikaans in that I'll bring vocabulary, grammar, etc."
POM. But he's going to do this at the quarry while you're leaning on your picks during the fifty minutes.
MM. Conversational lessons but you were always given an assignment and you go back to your cell and you study this section of the introductory book on Afrikaans, here's your list of vocabulary, here's your grammar rules for that and next time we meet the discussion will be on that lesson. We met regularly but poor Wilfred was in big trouble because he would, in the course of the lesson, question you in Afrikaans and every time he put a question to Walter Sisulu, Walter would tremble because it made no sense, he couldn't understand what Wilfred was asking him and Walter would say, in impeccable Afrikaans, "Herhaal asseblief", which means, "Please repeat your question", and Wilfred would seriously repeat the question and Walter would say, "Herhaal asseblief."Wilfred realised that Walter had not studied, had not learnt what he had given us in his lesson so he is utterly frustrated and he tells us, "You've got to do this work." Now Wilfred had been a teacher outside, teaching little kids, and his utter frustration to get us to do our work we would turn the lesson into a political discussion in English. We would look for any excuse to bunk the work. Wilfred didn't know what to do so we had a little committee, we called ourselves The Robben Island Teachers' Association, those of us who were the teachers, teaching each other. Neville Alexander, we appointed him the chairman of the Teachers' Association and at one of the meetings of the Teachers' Association Wilfred said, "Chaps, I've had it, I cannot function as a teacher any more." We said, "What's your problem?" He said, "What do I do with a Walter Sisulu who doesn't do his work, who whatever I say to him in Afrikaans he simply says please repeat, and I repeat and he says please repeat. He knows only two words in Afrikaans, 'please repeat'." We said, "What do you need?" He says, "I need capacity to punish them like you punish children." So what punishment? He says, "I should be able to cane them to make them do their work."
POM. To cane them?
MM. Yes. So we all look at him and say, "Wilfred, which world are you living on? You want to cane the General Secretary of the ANC? It doesn't work." But Walter was frustrating every Afrikaans class. On the other hand in a history class Walter would be fantastic in the discussions. With all the will in the world Walter said, "Yes I'd better study Afrikaans", but every time he got into his cell to study it he just found it just outside of him so he never bothered. So you have that new environment undermining and poor Wilfred thinking like a teacher.
MM. "I need to administer corporal punishment. That's what's going to make this chap learn." I myself had
POM. You had a group did you?
MM. One of my groups was three old men from the Transkei. They had not come in as conscious political activists. They had killed a headman in the Transkei in 1963 in the ferment in the country over cattle culling and fencing, they had opposed the headman and they had led the rebellion and killed the headman so they were charged for murder and they were serving life imprisonment. These three ended up in our section, Baba Mvulane, Baba Batane, and the third one we had a nickname for him, Tausand, but we used to call him 'Tausand Dollars'.
MM. Well Tausand was his name but if you pronounced it, you took liberty in the pronunciation, you abbreviated to Tau or we would say Tausand and then we'd just change it to Thousand, Thousand Dollars. Now these three were in my class, they were really illiterate, not just in English but even in Xhosa but they said they want to be part of the classes so, of course, teaching English, the ABC. Then we said to them we're also running a Xhosa class for learners in Xhosa and the old man said, "No, we don't have to study Xhosa, we can speak it." We were saying, "But wait a minute, you need to study it, you need to be able to write it." And he said, "Why do I have to write it? I go to Fikile Bam, another prisoner, and dictate my letters and he writes it and when I get a letter I take the letter to Fikile Bam and he reads it to me outdoors." Anyway we persuaded them to study, that they had to study the basics, they had to become literate and for their literacy class and the basic subjects we designed a course equivalent to what was going on in the schools on social studies. We talked about the universe, about natural phenomena and about society and how it functions and that class was assigned to me. Again I used to conduct the class by outlining a field of subject, give them a talk on it and then engage in a question and answer discussion, both questions from me to them and questions from them to me and painstaking slow, simple English running parallel with their separate English classes.
. One day I am teaching them and I am on the quarry face and that day I was going to teach them about the universe, about the sun and the planetary system but to do that I was going to start with the earth and the sun and the moon. So I give them a talk, I talked for ten minutes and then questions around what I've talked about and then any other questions and then I would question them. So I give them this talk and I am thinking of the classic things that I have learnt in school, that the sun appears to go around the earth but in fact the earth is going around the sun and the proof of that is the ship on the horizon and the nearing ship and how it grows larger and how it disappears and all sorts of little illustrations to prove that. I do that and the old man, when I say now it's time for questions, clarification, they went silent, they didn't ask me a single question. So I said, "Haven't you got any questions?" He said, "No." So I said, "Well I have questions for you. By what observation can you prove that the earth is moving around the sun rather than the sun around the earth?" No answers, he wouldn't answer. There was totally no communication. Whatever I asked them they wouldn't answer me and when I invited them to question me they wouldn't put a question and I realised something's gone wrong. So in the end after utter frustration I say, "OK, we adjourn our class today, we'll meet again tomorrow", or whatever date it was. Fine.
. I go off to the next group where I'm supposed to be a student but I see the three old men walk to where Mandela is working and suddenly Mandela has got to adjourn whatever he was doing and Mandela and the three old men are working together and they are in a discussion and then a little later Mandela calls me. I go up to Mandela, he says, "Mac, I have a problem. The old men have come to complain. They are saying to me that they are not prepared to demean themselves, they are elders." They are older people so they are elders in our community and they say I'm teaching them patent nonsense. Their own observation can show that what I'm teaching them is false. They say, "We can see the sun travelling but this boy is telling us that, no, it's the earth that's travelling around the sun." They say, "We're not prepared to demean ourselves with this young boy and even debate the issue. It's a total disrespect of our status, he's telling us a lie." So poor Madiba is in big trouble. So I said, "But what do I do, Madiba?" This was my lesson. He says, "No, no, no, I appreciate that but they've come with their demand. They no longer want to attend classes with you because it's below their dignity to argue with a young boy but, number two, they want me to teach the subject to them." And I say, "Madiba, that's your hot potato. Fine, you teach them." He says it's not going to solve the problem, let's solve it, how do we handle these old men?
. So as I say there were a lot of hilarious incidents arising and it is the same Baba Mvulane that walks up to Walter Sisulu and he says to Walter, "Tychobo, you're the General Secretary of the ANC?" He says, "Yes." "Now how many wives have you got?" So Walter says, "One wife, Albertina." "How many girlfriends have you got?" Poor Walter is embarrassed, he says, "There are no girlfriends." Mvulane says, "General Secretary of the ANC, only one wife, no girlfriend. No, you can't be the General Secretary and be like that. You must have at least more than one wife and you should have several girlfriends otherwise we can't respect you as a General Secretary."
. And yet they had a simple justice. Years later they taught me a huge lesson.
POM. The same three?
MM. Yes. Taught me a huge lesson in politics because as the years went down we began to engage in political discussions with them and I was part of the people devising the syllabus and running political classes and I thought here's a wonderful opportunity, here are old men from a rural area, a rural village, let me investigate the land question in SA and from my theoretical position African people had been deprived of the land, confined to 13% of the land surface and 87% owned by a white minority so obviously huge agrarian questions are sitting and all our politics and classes used to say how do we solve the agrarian problem? So I go to these old men and I engage them in a discussion about what life is like in their community and what are their grievances around land. I am assuming there are huge grievances just waiting to be mobilised and ignited and I say to them, "Land, do you have problems about access to land?" They say, "What do you mean problems? We don't have a problem. There are no problems about access to land. We just go to the headman in our community and ask for access to land and we get it. We have communal pastures for grazing our cattle and our sheep." So I said, "There must be a problem. That headman has this power to allocate and take away." They said, "Yes, he has those powers"' So I said, "Well, problem?" They said, "No man, there's no problem." I said, "What do you mean there's no problem? Here's this headman who has the authority to allocate, surely there are people who want an allocation and don't get it or are given an allocation that they don't like?" "No, no problem." "What the hell do you mean no problem?" They said, "No but we have a Village Assembly, we have a meeting, we put our requests and together we discuss it and the headman then decides and allocates based on our discussion. So what are you talking about grievances? We've got no grievances about land." I said, "OK, wait a minute, can we come to your cattle and your sheep." And they said, "No, but what's the problem? We have common pastures, I have my sheep, I have my cattle and they go to common pasture. I don't have problems." So at the end of this discussion I am looking for where is the shoe pinching and theoretically the shoe has got to pinch on land and they're saying there's no pinching.
. I say it was a huge lesson for me because it said I cannot take a theoretical understanding of a macro issue and expect it to find an immediate resonance at the micro level. There is no way you can organise the people from that theoretical and macro position. You've got to relate that and see whether there is in their practical lives any point where the shoe is pinching their foot and if you're dealing with issues which are not pinching the foot don't expect them to agree with you on the macro problems. These old men delivered it.
POM. Is that happening today in a way? Is there a hangover from that in regard to the authority of traditional chiefs, headmen, communal rights?
MM. Yes I think it happens even now and it varies from area to area because these same three men had killed their headman because he had imposed the need to fence their places.
POM. The colour of the cattle they had to die for one that is yours, don't have him cross my fences.
MM. But they did not translate the problem as a problem of land possession. Theyinterpreted it as a headman abusing his power. They may well have agreed to a certain type of fencing if the problem had been discussed and the need for that fencing if they had been convinced of it through that discussion and then if the headman made that rule their response may have been totally different and they perceived the problem as the behaviour of the individual headman whom they killed, not as a problem of the system that the society was supposed to operate. They argued that this headman was operating the system not the way it should be. Different level of grievance.
. If you talk today in democratic SA couched within the jargon and the cliché are criticisms, perceptions right or wrong which say government, you are out of touch with reality. What's that supposed to mean? It's supposed to be an argument that says you have become detached from understanding how people are living on the ground and what problems they are experiencing and that's a connection that every democracy is supposed to address, that a democracy is supposed to be the cliché 'government of the people by the people', but that means to say their experiences on the ground have an avenue to be vented and addressed. That does not mean that their experiences as they articulate it are a correct reflection of the problem. The point is they must be able to express it, they must be able to discuss it and through that discussion be able to see what's the real problem and what can be done so that democracy then becomes governance by consent. That's the criticism and it manifests itself in different areas in different ways.
. Madiba likes to go to the other day I saw that he was opening a school in the presence of one of the kings in Limpopo province and he opens the school, there's the King sitting there and, trust Madiba, he opens this school and he starts telling them the story about the need for children of our Chiefs and traditional leaders to go for education and tells them the story about how he tried to send one of the sons of a Chief to study in the US but the community of elders met and refused him permission to go and study. Now he was trying to encourage
POM. Was this when he was - ?
MM. Just last week.
POM. But did he try to send this child to school recently?
MM. Yes, he's been doing this from the time he came out of prison, even while he was in prison he would encourage and write to -But he's telling this story to say, and he says, "It is absolutely necessary that our Chiefs should allow their children to go and study because it's important," and then, trust him, "Because without that education many of our Chiefs are reactionary in their thinking." There's the King sitting there. He says, "You are reactionary by education, you're uneducated, must educate." And he went on to say that in one instance the elders had refused a particular marriage to take place
POM. What happened with the boy where the elders refused to - ?
MM. I don't know what happened but I think he insisted. He says, "You will have blocked this man from serving your community from an enlightened position." Then he says, "Now we have customs, we say the marriage must be arranged, the parents must negotiate. And here were a boy and a girl in love and you prohibited the marriage in a certain area. Now you must allow that. The basis of a marriage should be firstly that the couple must love each other." And he says, "And I'm saying must love each other and who they are, what colour they are should not matter at all. They can be white, black, brown, it doesn't matter." So he's challenging precepts, customs in particular areas but his challenge is to say educate yourselves, because he takes that argument a stage further. He says, "Look at the monarchies in Europe. Those that have survived and are revered have survived not because they have opposed democracy but because they have adapted to democracy. Here we are battling and you are fighting back about your powers but your powers are hereditary, how do you adjust to a democracy? Do you oppose the democracy or do you learn lessons from the survival of monarchies abroad? You'd better do it by learning lessons. Your children had better be educated and you are needed because you are of great influence but you cannot use your influence to oppose democracy because if you do that you will throw yourselves into the dustbin."
. He comes at the argument by illustrating what's happening in that society and he challenges some of them frontally but then he appeals to them that they are important and they will survive as an institution if they accommodate democracy. So there's a huge problem.
POM. An odd comparison is like when PW Botha said to the Afrikaner, "Adapt or die." Madiba is saying to the traditional leaders, adapt or die.
MM. But he is saying the message is clear, adapt to democracy or die. You see the point is made. PW adapt to a cover to retain your power. A big difference. However, we're digressing again. Where were we?
POM. Back on Robben Island, your classes.
MM. Just as those things were happening at the level of the warder, relations with the authorities and relations amongst ourselves, similar things were happening, hilarious things, because after a few years we would be locked in our individual cells on a Saturday/Sunday. We would only be opened for an hour for exercise. We would be opened first in the morning to empty our pails and have a quick wash and get our breakfast and then we would be locked into our cells. Then at lunch time our food would be supplied through the grille without being allowed out of our cells and then in the afternoon we would be taken for an hour walking around the quadrangle in single file to get exercise.
POM. Walking around that quadrangle did that give you any opportunity to communicate with each other or were there warders?
MM. A little bit because you were walking in single file.
POM. So it was very limited opportunity to talk.
MM. Now when the grille was locked in your cell and the outer door was locked and in that phase one Sunday, which was the most boring day because you were locked up, there arrived a priest and he preached in the corridor.
POM. On a Saturday or a Sunday?
MM. Sunday I think. We're doing nothing so some of us listen and some of us object. A number of us were communists. And mumble, what is this nonsense they're imposing religion on us, that must be a Dutch Reformed Church preacher. We're not going to have religion rammed down our throats, we're not going to have that DRC religion rammed down our throats. So you mobilise the Christian, the Anglicans, the Methodists on your side amongst yourselves.
POM. Was this a Catholic priest?
MM. I don't remember which one it was. I think the first one was a DRC chap (Dutch Reform Church).
POM. I thought for a minute what you said was Democratic Republic of the Congo!
MM. A few weeks later there arrives a different priest, an Anglican. I remember his name, Father Hughes, and he preaches to us from the corridor but he brought a hand organ with him and in this corridor he began to play the hand organ and sing and he invited us to sing. Now just the opportunity to sing, so many people began to sing. Then we said to him when he came past our cells
POM. Now when you were signing would it be hymns?
MM. Hymns, led by him.
POM. So he'd do a line and you'd follow?
MM. Then we said to him, "Father, it's unacceptable that a church service should be run with us locked in our individual cells. We must be able to congregate." So he started that but before he had succeeded no when he started that we would be opened into the corridor and that's where he'd run the service and play his organ and we began to say up to this stage Govan Mbeki, Neville Alexander, "I'm an atheist, don't go to church service." So a stage was reached with Father Hughes and the other preachers that we said to them, "Why should we open in this corridor?" A semi-dark corridor with electric lighting. "Why shouldn't we be allowed into the quadrangle in the sun to a church service?" Up to now Govan would sit in his cell, Alexander would sit in his cell. I can't sing but just for being with a body of prisoners, open, go into the corridor. Anyway we proposed to the priests and some of the priests, the different priests from the different orders would come on different weekends. One priest took it up and they allowed us out into the sun in the quadrangle and when they allowed us in the sun Govan, Neville looking out of the window into the quadrangle see us sitting there on the concrete and here's Father Hughes with an organ getting us to sing and Father Hughes was a Welshman passionate about signing. He would be playing the organ and suddenly he would stop playing the organ and when he stopped people said, "Carry on, carry on", just to listen to it, beautiful African voices, natural singer and he would be entranced with the singing. Oh that's a Welshman.
. But the second time one of the priests arrives and we were opened out for the Sunday, poor Govan couldn't resist it so he crept out with us and there we are seated and we are whispering to Govan, "Zizi, Zizi, what's happened to the atheist now?" What happened to the atheist? The sun has taken precedence. But Father Hughes won our hearts also. I was going to tell the story. They now resorted to a practice because they were opening us out into the corridor. They opened us out, we would crowd into the corridor and they say, "All those who are Methodists put up your hands", meaning today there's a Methodist preacher, "And those who are not Methodists get back into your cells." But when they shouted, "All those who are Methodists please put up your hands", Billy Nair shouts, "Mandela." So, yes, Mandela had gone to the Methodist church as a child. But the following time the priest arrived this time they say, "All those who are Roman Catholics", Billy would say, "Mandela", so poor Mandela has got to go to the Catholic service too. Next time the priest arrives they say, "All those who are Dutch Reform Church", Billy would shout, "Mandela." Poor Mandela, his name is always shouted out and he's got to go to every service.
. So poor Mandela is going to every service but Father Hughes endeared himself to us because one Sunday he arrived and they left us locked in our cells. Now Father Hughes had reached a point where he would come and administer communion. Now we didn't know the practice, what happens at communion, but there were a number of Anglicans amongst us who had grown up in an Anglican environment. So the first time it was announced, "All those who want communion after this service they can come and see me, I'll be available to administer communion."
POM. But you were locked in your cells?
MM. No we were in the corridor. And we noticed Andrew Mlangeni from the Rivonia trial says he's going for communion. We said, "Andrew, what's happening?" He said, "Ssh." We said, "Are you an Anglican?" He says, "Keep quiet." So he goes off to communion. Monday we are at work, "Hey, Andrew, what's this? It's fine we go to church service to sing but this nonsense, are you a believer?" Andrew says, "No chaps, at communion you're given a thimbleful of wine." Oh! The next time Father Hughes arrives and says, "I will be administering communion", oh, there's a big rush. And so one weekend Father Hughes arrives. We are not open from our cells and Father Hughes starts to deliver a sermon in the corridor by walking up and down the length and breadth of that corridor and we realise that as he starts his sermon this old man is today on fire. What has fired him we don't know but he is suddenly telling us how he had been a chaplain in the second world war administering religious ministrations to the soldiers and he goes on to Churchill and how Churchill mobilised the people, "We shall fight them on the beaches." Oh, this Churchill speech! We are all sitting up. What's happening here? This old man is on fire today.
. Of course this was then the talk amongst us, what's happened to Father Hughes? He used his pulpit to deliver a sermon with fighting speech. Stand up to authority, virtually saying defy all dictators. What's happened? We find that they had observed this behaviour at communion that Father Hughes' communion services were growing and growing.
POM. More wine was coming in every week.
MM. So when he arrived this Sunday, he turns up at the docks, they searched him and they confiscated his wine and the old man was very offended. Of course later on they allowed him but this time they allowed him only to come with grape juice. So Father Hughes was a hero amongst us, (a) he loved singing, (b) he brought an organ. He fought to get us out into the sun and here now he was administering the wine.
. The hilarious one about religious services is that before I went to prison, when the Rivonia arrests took place, in our movement in Johannesburg and Pretoria was an Indian family the Pillays, Indres Naidoo's aunts, but in the Pillay family there was a young man who was serious about Hindu religion and was training, was quite serious, and we had proposed to him, his name was Gona, said to him, "Gona, you'd better go and study the Hindu religion because we are going to try and insert you as an accredited priest to visit these prisoners." From time to time when we got visitors I would say, I would cryptically try to suggest, "What's happened to Gona?" And with visitors, "You know we don't ever see a Hindu priest." As far as I'm concerned if Gona can visit us, accredited by the religious society of the Hindus, we would extract a lot of news and we could have direct contact with people in the movement.
. Now the Hindus celebrate their festival called Deepavali, it's like the Hindu equivalent of Christmas, and one of the traditions is that you pray and you are given Indian sweetmeats as part of it, all sorts of rituals take place but the Indian sweetmeats. So they come one Sunday, I think we had been in prison for two, three, four years and the officer stands in the corridor and says, "All those who are Hindus come to your windows", and he comes and takes the name down. But he had shouted this down the corridor and all of us are puzzled, "What the hell is this?" Then I think Billy or somebody said," 'Hey, hey, this is coming time for Deepavali." So whether you were a believer or not we all put our hands up, Kathy, the Moslem, put his hand up. Lionel Davis, the coloured, puts his hand too because we were whispering, "Hey, there are going to be sweetmeats." And the more people we can get to go to that the more parcels of sweetmeat we will get. There comes a day when they call out our names, those who had given their names as Hindus, and they herd us out.
POM. This is the authorities?
MM. Yes. This is serious now. Now we had been planning that if we ever got the priest, who amongst us
POM. This is Father Hughes? Or the Hindu?
MM. The Hindu. First of all what language will the priest be speaking? Tamil, Gujerati, Hindi? The second thing is, who among us can speak Tamil, who can speak Hindi, who can speak Gujerati? Kathy can speak Gujerati, it's one of the Indian languages, north Indian. Kathy and Isu can speak Gujerati. Tamil, Billy Nair, but poor Billy can't speak any Tamil beyond swearing. Hindi, Isu can speak Hindi a bit. I'm supposed to be Hindi, I can't speak a word except swear. So we say, Deepavali, most likely Tamil or Hindi. It's either Billy or Isu and we discuss how to handle the prayer. We said the priest would want us to pray also, can you guys instead of praying be putting questions in the Indian language on political news hoping that if it's Gona who's the priest he will then respond by praying and answer our questions and pass news. This was the plan, the grand scheme. We are taken to the visiting bay near the docks, all excited. We are taken into a room and there are two gentlemen but neither of them is Gona. We don't recognise who they are. They introduce themselves, they say the are priests and then they say, "One of us is today going go conduct the prayers for the whole group but the second one is going to take one of you for intensive prayer in another room." So we say, "Shit, this is news is coming. Isu, get over there." So Laloo Chiba goes with the one and we remain with the group and of course in the group the priest wants us to repeat these prayers and mantras aloud collectively. Poor Billy and myself and Kathy, what can we do? We can't even pronounce these words. The chap who tried the most gallantly to pronounce them was Lionel Davis the coloured chap from Manenberg. But of course we're enduring this suffering, saying the longer we prolong this service the more time Laloo Chiba has alone with the other priest. We go through this punishment and when it's over Laloo Chiba is still alone with that priest so we are not escorted back to the prison, we just allowed to congregate and hang around and we are given these food parcels in little packets of sweetmeats and eventually Laloo Chiba comes out. He comes out looking completely spaced out and dazed and we're thinking his mind is packed with news. When we get back to the prison what do the warders do? They say, "Each one of you go in with your sweetmeat parcel into your cell. You are not to share it with other prisoners, you eat it yourself alone and you finish it." I suppose it would be a pound,one and a half pounds of sweetmeats, highly sweet.
POM. That's unusual isn't it?
MM. They are very, very sweet.
POM. I mean to get that much.
MM. Yes, but it's the only time we got it, first time we are getting sweets but we are told, "You sit in your cell, locked up, and you finish it. You don't share." But we asked Laloo Chiba what has happened, Laloo says, "Guys, I tried to ask the chap news, he wouldn't give me a bit of news. He took me through a rigorous rigmarole of prayers and I've had to endure this." A year later when they came to ask us who is Hindu, we had now fought the battle about the sweetmeats, to be allowed to share it, and we were challenging the authorities but when they came and said, "Hindus identify yourselves", who identifies himself as a Hindu, Toivo ya Toivo of Namibia and the Chief Warder who was taking the names looks at him and says, "You're not a Hindu." Toivo says, "What the hell do you mean? The prison regulations allow me to go to any service in order that I make up my own mind which religion I want to adopt. How dare you stop me from going to a Hindu service?" So Toivo was with us.
. The funniest one was when MD Naidoo arrived. He arrived in I think 1968/69, serving a five year sentence. He was brought late afternoon, was locked up down the corridor. He's got his blanket and roll mat, prison garb, walks down the corridor and of course whenever a new prisoner came we would all be looking out of our windows to see who is this guy. I, as he walked past, identified him. He was an advocate but they put him at the end of the corridor and as soon as the warders went we shouted and identified so MD joined us. A few months later the Chief Warder arrives, early morning roll call and he goes from cell to cell, "Are you Hindu?" Of course we old hands know the routine, that means Deepavali is coming.So as many of us say yes. But when he reached MD's cell and he says, "Are you Hindu?" MD is a new prisoner, a few months old, he says, "How dare you insult me. I'm an atheist. Don't you ask me stupid questions." Loudly. And that was it. Goes round the corridor and we shout, "MD! It's Deepavali!" Meaning, put your name down on the list, there's one parcel short. When MD hears this he starts shouting, "Chief Warder, come back, come back." The Chief Warder is gone. We are opened out to go to the toilets and empty our pails and MD rushes up to the head warder on duty, "Meneer, I've got to see the Chief Warder." He said, "No, the Chief Warder has gone to the other section of the prison." He says, "No, no, I've got to see him." So as we were preparing to go to work, before you get up that ramp, suddenly the Chief Warder appears and he's standing at the top of the ramp and the warder says, "MD Naidoo, you wanted to see the Chief Warder." We are speculating, we've been laughing at this stage, "MD you're a fool, you've lost us one food parcel." But when they called for him we're all laughing, we're saying, "Let's see how he's going to get out of this jam." MD is determined he's going to take up this case, he's going to be on the list for the Hindu service and we say, "Oh well, Advocate Naidoo, let's see what he's going to do." And MD marches up the ramp and tells the Chief Warder, he says, "I misunderstood, I'm a Hindu." TheChief Warder says, "No, no, you were very rude to me, you spoke to me so rudely. You said it was an insult that I should ask you if you are Hindu. Now you're coming to me and you're saying you're a Hindu." MD says, "No, no, there's been a misunderstanding here Chief Warder, I thought you asked me which church I belonged to. Now Hindus don't have a church, they have a temple and that's why I was insulted and that's why I reacted that way. I took umbrage that you asked me the church I belonged to because I don't belong to a church, I belong to a temple. But clearly, Chief Warder, there has been a misunderstanding." The Chief Warder says, "No, no, you were rude to me." MD says, "Chief Warder, I apologise. The thing is I took offence at the way you put the question to me. That is why I was rude but I apologise." In the end the Chief Warder with all these arguments going on with MD in utter frustration said, "OK, I'll put your name down." And we said, "Shit, this bugger has won the argument!"
POM. And you were all listening to this happening?
MM. Yes, we were standing in the quadrangle. Oh MD!
POM. Food. Just to go back, if you took the twelve years in progression were the harshest years at the beginning, then some easing of restrictions, then a gradual further easing of restrictions?
MM. There was no straight line course. The best description of that is the interview that I gave in that book called The Struggle is my Life published by Defence & Aid.
POM. Where would I find that? I think I asked you that before, but let me put it on the top of the list.
MM. I'll have to check. I'm sure I've got a copy. The Struggle is my Life Speeches and Writings of Nelson Mandela.
. We were talking about food. I was saying, that was a description of our diet as at 1976.
POM. Which? The one in ?
MM. The interview that I did in that book published by Defence & Aid. It is itemised, the type of diet, etc., and the problems we had with the Red Cross. But, yes, at the beginning the food was discriminatory between Indians and coloureds on one side, African prisoners on the other.
POM. So even if you were in the single cell blocks
MM. And you were not allowed to share. We divided and we shared. And it was an extremely meagre diet, so much so that a number of us led to contain our hunger in our cells by collecting salt. When we worked at the seaside we would dip our towels into the sea and let it dry on a rock and when it dried it became encrusted with salt. Initially we would do that, that when we were punished with spare diet when you were punished for some offence or other and sentenced to a spare diet, the spare diet meant that, for instance, if you were sentenced to three days spare diet what you were given for two days was a mug, small cup of water drained out of boiling mealies. That liquid, the mealies crushed into pieces, it used to be called mealie rice, it wasn't really rice it was mealies just crushed into small pieces. That would be boiled, the mealie rice was given as the lunch time diet for coloureds and Indians. The water, unsalted, was given to you, one cup a day for two days of spare diet and then on the third day you would get your normal diet that you got as a prisoner but half the quantity and it would run in a cycle. So if you are sentenced to nine days spare diet you would have two days of this rice water, just one cup, then one day of half your normal diet, then two days of rice water, then one day of half diet and then another two days of this water and then half diet. That was your nine days spare diet punishment. Now that was just water from boiling mealies so it had a little bit of viscosity to it, a little thickness to it, essentially starch, but it had no salt and of course we found that for your hunger to contain it you collected grains of salt and you hid it away in your cell because if you took a little piece of coarse salt and put it on your tongue and you gently sucked it and let it dissolve it was a fantastic hunger quencher. Similarly, we would take the towels, dip them in sea water knowing that sometime soon you're going to end up in spare diet, if you'd already been sentenced you don't know which day you're going to be taken to the other wing so that people can't smuggle food to you.
POM. When you say 'the other wing' that would be the wing - ?
MM. Opposite our wing.
POM. Opposite the wing you were in.
MM. You would be kept alone so that no food can be smuggled to you but you took your towel, that little piece of cloth which was already somewhat stiff from having salt in it, and clean, but what you would do is that when you got the rice water in your cell you would dip a portion of this towel with salt in it into the rice water to salt that rice water and then it became more palatable to drink and more effective in quelling your hunger. So I am saying the quantity was a problem to adjust to for most prisoners.
POM. When you came on first the quantities would have been really small?
MM. Small, and some of the warders were particularly vicious. For example, when we demanded bread, Indians and coloureds would get a slice of bread in the evening meal and it was supposed to be two ounces, I think 2 or four ounces, I can't remember. It would be there in the book, the exact weight. But when we protested to the warder the warders brought a scale and in that open courtyard they had this bread only being given to Indians and coloureds but they would cut it and put it on the scale and if the scale went down fast, meaning it's heavier than the required weight, he would take the knife and shave it off into the gutter to bring it precisely to that quantity. Now here were breadcrumbs falling into the gutter and he would take it and throw it down the drain. Your soup which you got in the evening was measured by a small cup. Our mugs were bigger but the measuring cup was a smaller cup and having given everybody the cup of soup, in our presence he would take the remaining soup in the drum and go to the drain in that courtyard and pour it down the drain. He wouldn't give it to you.
POM. Would they all do this?
MM. No, it would be at particular periods. Say the screws are being tightened on you, then appear these methods. I remember there was one prisoner who landed amongst us, I forget his name, he was Donald Matangela, he had a mental disorder.
POM. Was he political?
MM. Yes, he had come in as a political prisoner but he could hardly communicate, he was a very well built chap and he was brought to the other wing. He was never integrated with us but we tried to communicate with him and we heard through the grapevine that somewhere in his detention and tortures he had gone off his mental rocker. So poor Donald, we would look out of the window, when he was exercising alone he would go looking for scraps. The warders used to treat him like you treat an imbecile and laugh at him. He would be picking up scraps to eat in that gutter where bits of bread, crumbs were thrown he would pick it up and these warders would be laughing. I remember them deliberately in his presence pouring a portion of the soup in a drum into the drain. Now they would do that not as a normal thing but during periods of heightened tension, provocative.
. I came with this because it was in the context of the quantity that you were supplied with was so little and they were doing it to taunt us. But the diet began to improve, the quality of the meat you were allowed two ounces of meat if you were Indian and coloured and I think it was one and a half ounces if you were African and it was just four tiny little cubes of meat boiled until it was leathery.
POM. Would Mandela get the same food as the rest of you?
MM. Same, same, exactly the same. A little later they introduced chicken into the diet, sometimes a little better prepared. In the main section there was a demand going on about the quality of the cooking and there was a stage where the political prisoners in the communal cells won a demand that they should be in the kitchen doing the cooking because they argued that the common law prisoner was smuggling the food and cooking it in a nicer way for themselves and for their nefarious activities and giving us terrible food, and there was a period when the cooking improved when our people were put into the kitchen.
. Then I remember a period, there was an occasion, probably around 1969/70, we had been complaining to the Red Cross about our food, about the discrimination, etc., and amongst our complaints were that we never
POM. Would the Red Cross get to visit you?
MM. Roughly once a year. But the first Red Cross man was totally unsympathetic to us.
POM. These would be South African?
MM. The first Red Cross man to visit us was a chap called Dr Sen, a Rhodesian. Oh before him was a chap called Hoffman. Dr Sen was particularly bad and we found out that he was of Rhodesian background because when we said to him, for example, that only Indians and coloureds received these four ounces of bread a day, Africans never saw bread, he said, "No, bread is bad for your teeth, it shouldn't be part of a normal person's diet." When we said to him we were suffering from back trouble and we were sleeping on these floors and they were cold and experiencing arthritic conditions, he said, "No, that's not caused by that. Human beings were never meant to walk on two feet. We are descended from the apes and we are supposed to be walking on all fours."
POM. This is a member of the International Red Cross?
MM. International Red Cross. He said it's by virtue of the fact that the human species, descended from the apes, was now walking upright that it was inevitable that the species would have back trouble. Anyway, even the Red Cross delegation composition changed over the years and they became more and more sympathetic to the point where one of them smuggled out a letter from Mandela in 1978.
. The incident I'm referring to is that we used to also complain that not only was the cooking poor but there was sand in the beans when they gave you beans, that there was no fruit in the diet. One year, 1970/71, they suddenly arrived with a whole lot of guavas, a fruit.
POM. What? It shows you where I am on my fruits, bananas and bananas.
MM. But they gave us, each one, like ten we had never seen a guava or any fruit but that day they just came and gave us a stack of each one, 15, 20 guavas each. Eat. And of course you went at it like gluttons but you hadn't eaten it for years, you hadn't eaten a fruit, and here suddenly you ate 10 or 12 guavas, your whole stomach was upset. Then you didn't see it again. That was the first time we got fruit. Up to the time that I was released you never saw a tomato so that I had a fixation when I came out of prison, while most colleagues that I heard about after their release would want sweet things, cakes, biscuits, sweets, I had one fetish for years, from the time of my release if I sat at a table and you put a salad and there was tomatoes and cucumbers in it, I became a glutton, I would just be taking any leftovers of tomatoes and cucumbers and eating them, just couldn't get enough of it.
. But I believe that the diet well the breakdown of refusal to share, that they prohibited sharing, we defied that. We even went to the extent that the small group of coloureds and Indians who were given bread, we prepared a roster in the section and even with using a string we would throw it across this day I've got to share it with Mandela, this day it's your turn to share it with Dingake and so we worked out a roster of sharing our bread. It was one of the key differentiators in the diet. The authorities had not conceded that there should be no differentiation in what was supplied to Indians and coloureds as against Africans. But as I say by sharing amongst ourselves we got round it but I have reason to believe that some time in the eighties they began to supply the same diet to Indians and coloureds and Africans, I'm not sure.
POM. Whites still would get a different diet?
MM. Whites had a different diet.
POM. So even if you wanted to overthrow the regime you still got a better diet than other people who wanted to overthrow the regime. They wanted to keep them healthy so they could continue to overthrow the regime!
MM. Then when we had hunger strikes what they would do
POM. When you had the hunger strikes, when did you have those?
MM. I can't remember the dates at the moment.
POM. Just the years?
MM. The Long Walk would have it better. But the first hunger strike, into our cells they delivered in the lock-up time in the afternoon, they made you go to work, they tried to push you to work while you were on hunger strike but when you came in the evening they put a beautiful plate of food into your cell and they locked the cell so that next morning they would collect the plates, so all night that plate of food stood there in this bare cell and it started off with the aroma of warm food which you never saw, usually it was cold, but this was warm and it was better cooked, the aroma was there. You had to sit through the night hungry but steel yourself not to touch it.
POM. Hunger strikes were organised on what basis?
MM. The first hunger strike in our section was spontaneous. We had got up in the morning and had gone to the communal bathroom when the non-political prisoners delivering the drums of food whispered to us that the prisoners in the main section were on hunger strike.
POM. That is the common law?
MM. Common law, the common law prisoners had informed us that the political prisoners in the communal section were on hunger strike. We didn't know why but the news was they were on hunger strike. So right there in the bathroom we started discussing the matter and overwhelmingly we said that if our colleagues were on hunger strike we were going on hunger strike and when we went to work that morning we confirmed our decision and we went on hunger strike. Mandela was put in a very awkward situation because as a result of our going on hunger strike they removed us from our corridor where we had our books and things, they shifted us to the opposite wing leaving us in cells with no reading material, locked us up and there the officer came past, it was Colonel Badenhorst, no it was Major Kellerman.
POM. Kellerman, OK, he's mentioned in Mike's book.
MM. He walked down the corridor and he went to Mandela's cell, "Mandela! You are busy discussing with me improvements to prison conditions. Now why are you now on hunger strike when we are still under discussion?" We don't know why we are on hunger strike, it was solidarity and of course a number of us are saying to ourselves, gleefully in our cells, "Uh-uh, Madiba is now in shit once more, let's see how he's going to get out of it."What I remember is Mandela in a gentle tone saying, "Major, let's sit down and discuss this matter." And Kellerman is saying, "No Mandela, give me your reasons why you're on strike." Now, remember, if Mandela said we're out in solidarity that's an additional charge. You are saying I don't have a grievance, but Mandela cannot articulate grievances because he doesn't know what are the grievances put on the other side so he is cagey and the only way to side-step is, "Major, Major, let's not discuss this matter this way. Can we just sit down properly in your office and discuss?" And Kellerman is saying, "No, give me your reasons here now, I want to know." And secondly Kellerman is saying, "I don't understand you, you have engaged me in discussions and discussions are still going on. Why the hunger strike?" And Madiba in his corner has only got one thing to say, "Major, let's not discuss it like this, let's sit down and talk." That was Mandela.
POM. So did he talk his way out of it?
MM. I don't remember what happened. I don't remember whether they called him to the office. All I remember is the glee which everyone felt.
POM. You talked about 'periods of tension' as being occasions when they would turn the screws on you, what periods would that be?
MM. Those would be related to internal problems of relations in prison but they were often dictated by external problems which we wouldn't know. We in fact developed a capacity to extrapolate from our treatment what was likely to be happening outside and one of the experts in ferreting out the news was Kathrada because at work when the screws were tightened and harshness, and Kathy who spoke fluent Afrikaans, comes from Schweizer-Reneke, it's a town out in the Transvaal, it used to be the old Western Transvaal, it's now North West Province, so Kathy came from a community where there were very few Indians and they all learnt to speak Afrikaans, that was the primary language of communication in the area. Kathy has been very fluent and idiomatic. At work Kathy's technique was to gently get into conversation with a warder whom he would target and at work he would get into a conversation about weather or anything, get the warder talking, steer the discussion to rugby or something about which Afrikaner warders were passionate, and then provoke them by saying, making some sarcastic comments. Invariably that discussion would provoke the warder to start insulting Kathy and attacking the terrorists and then he would blurt out something about the news. So that was Kathy's technique of extracting news from warders. I say it was extraneous. I know when the rugby team was harassed in Britain and in New Zealand, when the Namibians made incursions across the Zambian/Angolan border into Namibia conditions would get worse.
POM. Would this be at the order of the Commanding Officer or at the level of the individual warder?
MM. The fact that it was consistent across the warders suggested that at a minimum while there may not have been an order from the Commanding Officer, at a minimum in their social discussions it was common knowledge, those bastards. But often also under certain administrations like the time of Badenhorst the sign was that the top officer was supporting that sort of thing because he himself would behave aggressively towards us. We also learnt to read the behaviour to tell us when there was a visitor coming because suddenly, I remember one day we never had raincoats, but one day at the lime quarry a van arrives and we were all called round from the quarry face to come and collect raincoats and it's not even raining. What's happening? Oh, visitors coming. Raincoats oh, maybe Red Cross is coming. When Helen Suzman came, uh-oh, your conditions would change.
POM. So if you were having a visitor from the outside who's enquiring about your condition and demanding to see you because he or she had status or standing or whatever, they would orchestrate the whole thing.
MM. And they would become nervous and we noticed, some important visitor is coming.
POM. When one such visitor, say such as Helen Suzman, would arrive would she be allowed to have a one-on-one with Madiba? Could she ask questions of the prisoners? How was that orchestrated?
MM. No they steered the Suzman visit, they just allowed her to walk down the corridor, but because we could anticipate there's a visitor and because Madiba's cell was near the front end of the corridor, we would already anticipate it and Madiba would map out his position and that day as soon as Suzman came into the yard Madiba in the front cells already saw, oh, there's a woman. Looked, oh, that's Suzman, looks like Suzman. So as soon as she came down the corridor, "Good morning, good morning, which is Madiba?" "Oh, hello Mrs Suzman." "Oh hello Mr Mandela." He says, "Mrs Suzman, there are a number of complaints to make." By this time whatever the authorities designed that she should just walk down, sweep down the corridor, has been changed. They didn't allow him to go and have a one-to-one meeting, they discussed it with him standing in the cell and she standing in the corridor.
POM. And the door still shut?
MM. The door open but the grille locked.
POM. The wooden door was open but the grille inside was locked.
MM. With other visitors at their whim they may take Mandela to the office to meet the person. I recall some other prisoners having that sort of individual visit. Eddie Daniels was allowed visits by Judge Steyn who was trying to persuade Eddie Daniels that he would intercede with the authorities to release Eddie if Eddie would renounce violence. It's there in Eddie's book, it's called There and Back. Neville Alexander had received a visit on at least one occasion from some person, I think the Ambassador of West Germany and somebody from Humboldt University.
POM. What status did he have that would allow that to happen?
MM. He had been a Humboldt scholar, done his doctorate at Humboldt University And the West German government seemed to have been interceding with the SA government to have him released. So that's how it went. Again, no rules how these visits were conducted. But then they were so few and far between.
POM. In terms of weekly visits would there be some visits every week or just some weeks and then how many would be allowed to come?
MM. No you were never allowed weekly visits. The best category, A group, was once a month I think or two visits a month.
POM. A group being?
MM. The top grade, the most relaxed conditions. The lowest grade was D.
POM. You were D?
MM. We were D for years, all of us, and then some got promoted to C group and then B group and some got up to A group by which time you were allowed one letter a month, a visit a month, you were allowed to buy a limited list and quantity of groceries including tea and coffee.
POM. But for the period you were there you were?
MM. For the period I was there I moved up to we all moved up to C group because we protested it was an abuse of that categorisation. We moved to C group which allowed us I think a letter every three months. I moved up to B group somewhere around 1975 and I was promptly demoted once more to D group because
POM. To D?
MM. C or D because they alleged that I tried to bribe a warder to supply me newspapers and they never brought me to formal trial because it was the warder's word against mine. I didn't deny the charge when confronted by the Colonel and Brigadier Aucamp who had come from Pretoria. They were wary about putting us, at that stage, into the prison court but when it came to the classification in your assessment of your conduct I appeared there and they said to me, "We understand you tried to bribe a warder and you've been refusing to make a statement. Is that true?" I said, "What am I supposed to have bribed him for?" They said, "For a newspaper." So I said to the board, "I'm not prepared to answer such an accusation."
POM. You said to the court?
MM. No, the prison conduct board, "I'm not prepared to answer that, you charge me." But I said, "There is one thing I can tell you, if you put a newspaper there right in front of me on your desk where you're sitting behind a panel of desks interviewing me, if you put a newspaper there and you just turn your eye away for 30 seconds I'm stealing it because I believe you're denying me my right to news. So whatever you're saying about the charge that's a separate matter but I just want to tell you that your denial of me to have access to newspapers and news, I don't regard that as legitimate and I would steal it at the drop of a hat."
POM. It happened at the airport this morning. We were going to get our car, Avis, you have your trolley with your stuff on it and there was one woman standing there with her luggage waiting for her husband and he had his computer on the trolley and she had the trolley behind her waiting for him to come out and some guy ran by and grabbed the computer and was gone in ten seconds.
MM. Now you're not suggesting I did that?
POM. I would.
MM. I was nowhere near the airport.
POM. But the analogy is the same.
MM. The upshot was the officers were so offended they said, "We're demoting you." Thank you very much.
POM. So in your 12 years there how many visits do you think you received?
MM. 12 years, probably minimum 24, because I was allowed once in six months. Likely, if we total all the visits, 30 visits.
POM. Thirty. And they would have been split Tim?
MM. Oh different people, my Mum, then one of my brothers came once, then another brother visited me. Mum, Tim, one brother that came once, another brother that came at least twice. Did any of my sisters visit me? No. Once a nephew visited me.
POM. Did the visitors have to be blood relatives?
MM. First degree relatives, which was a problem for us too, but it had to be that. There may have been an occasion or two, I'm not able to remember yet, where somebody not related to me managed by some subterfuge to visit me.
POM. Would your lawyer ever be allowed to visit you or was that kind of kaput once your case was over?
MM. Lawyers you could only get access to by permission of the prison authorities and you had to motivate why the lawyer should be allowed to see you and that was not regarded as a visit. Who else visited me? My sister never managed, none of my sisters.
POM. Not your sister who is alive in - ?
MM. I don't think she could afford to come.
POM. Sure, there was still the restriction on any blood relative who visited you from Natal had to get a permit.
MM. To come to Cape Town. If they drove through the Free State, a permit to drive through the Free State.
POM. And they had to do all of this in advance.
MM. And a permit from Robben Island and Security Branch permission.
POM. So all of that in itself could have taken up to six months to do.
MM. And it frightened people. It intimidated people from coming. But I recall one of my brothers coming to me because he had a personal problem and then my brother younger than me because he used to bring my mother down, drive her over. The one was a teacher and I recall him visiting me at least once.
POM. Did any other of your brothers ever become active?
MM. No. I had three brothers at the time when I was in prison, they didn't become politically active.
POM. Did they all continue to live in the Newcastle area?
MM. No. Two continued to live in Newcastle, one, the teacher, taught for a while in Newcastle, then Ladysmith and then in Durban.
POM. So all in all you would have had fewer visits than the average?
MM. No, I think mine was average. Tim, of course, left the country in 1973.
MM. Took an exit permit. She visited me on her departure. I think she took a boat from Cape Town to the UK. On her departure eve she got permission to visit me but they wouldn't allow a contact visit.
POM. They wouldn't allow a contact visit, no? It was just goodbye through the grilles?
MM. And then with her departure the visits became fewer although I was entitled to I suppose shortly around her departure after, I might have been in B group allowed three monthly visits, but the pool of people, I suppose that's when one of my brothers visited me. Can't remember. Visits were very unsatisfying. All I can remember is some of the highlights around the visits. I distinctly remember seeing my mother but my mother would have seen me about, in those 12 years, probably six times, constrained mainly by the expenses of coming over, not just the expenses but also having somebody from the family accompany her and because it was Newcastle the train route would have been very complex.
POM. From Newcastle to Durban?
MM. To Jo'burg.
POM. So Newcastle to Jo'burg.
MM. Newcastle to Jo'burg, Jo'burg to Cape Town, but she usually came when my younger brother or relatives were in a position to drive her over.
POM. How long a drive would that be?
MM. Well in today's conditions Jo'burg to Cape Town is a 17-hour drive, Durban to Jo'burg another six hours drive but usually they would prefer to go down the east coast, that's a good 20 24 hours drive.
POM. So you're talking like for somebody of your mother's age this would be a two day - it would have to be at least one layover.
MM. Invariably they drove all the way because you didn't have hotels for blacks. If you wanted to break a journey you found some relative.
POM. So once you got out of Natal you had to have permission to go to the Eastern Cape?
MM. No, for the Cape.
POM. For the Cape, OK, it was all one.
MM. So you packed home cooked food for the journey.
POM. How about petrol?
MM. Petrol, you stopped and filled up at petrol stations.
POM. There wouldn't be any trouble on a colour bar with petrol?
MM. But you put blankets in the car. Usually my younger brother would drive right through in one stretch and get to Cape Town.
POM. It was an ordeal getting there physically, it was an ordeal getting there financially.
MM. And it was an ordeal bureaucratically with the police harassing you, questioning you, intimidating you by threats, "Are you going there to see him? Aren't you going there to get political messages?"
POM. So they would have to apply, would they, for a visit. So they would have to go to the Newcastle Police?
MM. They would apply to the Robben Island authorities.
POM. So that was a letter.
MM. The Robben Island authorities would get a Security Branch report, so suddenly the Security Branch would come to see you in your home town.
POM. So she would have to write to, or have somebody write to the Robben Island authorities which was in Robben Island and that would have to be posted?
POM. And you'd have to wait for a reply.
MM. You would have to send your ID card and all your particulars, who you're going to visit and which date.
POM. Would you specify the date?
MM. You would have to. Then the authorities, before they responded to you, they would then give that to the Security Branch who would give it to the Security Branch in your home town. The Security Branch would call on you and say, "You've applied to go to Robben Island to see Mac, who is he to you? When do you plan to leave? Why are you going to visit him? Why are you close to him? Oh you're his mother but do you agree with his views? Are you going to be smuggling out messages?" "No, I'm the mother and I want to visit him, he's my son after all." "Which day are you leaving? How are you going to travel? What's the car number? Who's going to be driving it? Who else is going to be in the car? Which route are you going to be going? Where are you going to stay in Cape Town?" Etc., etc. They would send that report to the Head Office of the Security Branch, they would send their recommendation to Robben Island saying, "Grant her a permit." Then you would have to go to the immigration authorities to say, "Here, I've got permission to visit Robben Island, now I want a provincial permit to enter the Cape Province."
POM. So if you were driving down from Durban you would go through Ciskei or Transkei?
MM. You'd go through Port Shepstone, through Umtata.
POM. Transkei wasn't independent at that time was it?
MM. Well even when it became independent you'd get a permit from there too.
POM. You'd have to get a permit from them?
MM. And then you would travel to Port Elizabeth and along the Garden Route to Cape Town.
POM. Now at each stop - would you have to get these permits beforehand?
MM. Beforehand. You had to get the permit beforehand from the relevant authority.
POM. So you'd have to write to them?
MM. You'd have to write or go personally.
POM. Giving all the documentation.
MM. Yes, or go and apply yourself.
POM. So all this would absorb more time, more energy, more waiting.
MM. But after the first few times one member of the family knew the ropes.
POM. In terms of letters, you were allowed to receive one - ?
MM. One in six months.
POM. One in six months?
MM. Five hundred words.
POM. That's from a blood relative, or anybody?
MM. They initially assumed, and they tried to use that as a tracking mechanism, then they said only first degree relatives but they were not able to maintain that because the person could write, sign off with a name and put any name at the back of the envelope as the sender. Generally they tried to restrict it to your relatives and tried to avoid anybody who was politically connected. In the reports you'll find at the Mayibuye Centre they have monitored a conversation with one of my nephews because they referred to it, in a report that Caryl found, justifying their position that I'm a hard liner. I'm unlikely to change my views, etc., etc., but they referred to the fact that I had a conversation with my nephew and I think they say something like, "He expressed views which say he will never change."
POM. So the visit was obviously bugged. Talking of which, I saw Indres Naidoo yesterday and he mentioned your police file.
MM. We've been looking for it, we haven't found it.
POM. He was quite familiar with its contents.
MM. No, is he referring to those documents that are filed from the National Intelligence Service at the Mayibuye Centre?
POM. He could be. He said police file because he had statements from, I think, Craig Williamson.
MM. That's right, that's the NIS file.
POM. The NIS files, did Caryl get hold of those do you know?
MM. I filed them at the Mayibuye Centre and Indres made copies. Kathy's researcher phoned me two days ago and she was saying that there are some prison documents which she has found in the Kathrada papers which she thinks relate to me. She said they were my philosophy lectures that I was giving in prison. I asked her to send them to me so that I can check whether they are indeed notes that I prepared.
POM. So that was letters received restricted to 500 words and they would censor them before you got them?
MM. They were censored and the censored words, sentences, etc. were cut out.
POM. So very often something mightn't make much sense?
MM. Sometimes you'd get a letter it'd just have salutations, "Dear Mac", "My Darling Mac", and the rest of it is cut off, cut off, holes, holes, holes, "I wish you everything of the best, with fondest love", that's what remains. Kathy has got an example of that, he's still got a letter like that.
POM. And in terms of letters received, what could you receive?
MM. That's what I mean, that's how it was cut out.
POM. Would it be one letter every six months?
MM. Yes. One letter coming in, one letter going out. One letter received, one letter sent out once in six months and each was restricted to 500 words.
POM. And the 500 going out was also, of course, censored.
MM. If you became, I think by C or B group you were entitled to one letter every three months but the same length, 500 words. You will find that more in that book, in that interview I gave in 1977.
POM. This is Mandela's book?
MM. Yes, Mandela Speaks, a selection of his writings and speeches. I think I gave you that book.
POM. No, you gave me Mike's
MM. No months before that I gave you a book with a yellow cover called The Struggle is my Life.
POM. I'll check, Mac, because it would be in a special place.
MM. If I haven't I'll look.
POM. But I'm just finishing Michael's book, which I found strange in the sense of just the total recollections of conversations on everything. They had to be, in a sense, created conversations because they were on a day to day basis on who said A to B and B to C and the technical, no matter what kind of memory you had.
MM. And also his problem was that he wrote that book in 1979/80. He had to gloss over a number of things.
MM. To be fair to him he maintained the interest, he wrote it and
POM. It's an extremely well written book.
MM. It hasn't got the grip of some of the other books that are written and the problem about a book like that is it's no longer being seen as a resource material and yet it is a first hand account.
POM. These books aren't even in print.Have you any correspondence that you have from those days?
MM. No I don't. I have moved around so much that whatever I took out and kept with me abroad got lost on the way as I shifted from country and house to house. Then my family Zarina had to leave Zambia as a result of that accident so she couldn't pack everything and take it with her. Somewhere along the line
POM. When you were in Yeoville you moved out of that pretty quickly too?
MM. Moved out of that quickly too. Moved out of Mons Road very quickly too, but the main losses were and then when I split with Tim we didn't sit down and separate files, documents and clothes and all. I was already in Africa so whatever was in London was left there.
POM. So there's no record of your 12 years on Robben Island other than yourself? Now we have this video that you talked about before, The Scarlet Pimpernel.
MM. I've had time to look around my stuff at home. I know I've got a copy. I'll try.
POM. On Robben Island before we depart it, what if you look back on it, what would be the three or four, I put the word 'happy' in quotes, experiences that stand out for you and what are the three or four worst experiences that stand out for you and what overall is the experience that stands out for you?
MM. The overall experience I've been very clear, I say it was a privilege to have been with those colleagues there, the type of people in that close interaction. The specifics, it's very difficult for me to even say there was a high moment of joy.
POM. I don't mean joy in that sense, I mean
MM. There are of course a number of key moments of pain. My father passing away.
POM. He passed away in?
MM. 1968/69/70?1969 I think.
POM. Were you just informed of that routinely or were you informed - ?
MM. Routinely. My brother passing away, my eldest brother.
POM. He passed away too?
POM. When did he pass away?
MM. I don't remember the date, it would have been about 1968.
POM. Did he die before your father?
MM. Mm. Then Tim being re-arrested, Tim being banished from the Cape Province.
POM. She was rearrested in Natal?
MM. In Natal somewhere around 1967. She was detained again.
POM. For how long was she detained this time?
MM. I don't even know. It might have been a month or so.
POM. Was she held in solitary?
MM. I don't even know. They wouldn't let us write to each other about it.
POM. Were you informed that she was detained?
MM. I only heard about it when she came out, when she was then her brother MD Naidoo was on trial then she wrote to inform me and she, too, wouldn't dwell on it. She just tried to lighten my burden, just cursorily referred to it. Then there is when Tim decided to leave the country.
POM. In 1973?
MM. 1973. My father's death, my brother's death.
POM. Tim leaves.
MM. Harassment, Tim being kicked out of Transvaal, then Tim being kicked out of Cape Town, then that Pietermaritzburg incident, then Tim trying to
POM. The Pietermaritzburg incident is?
MM. No, it was first the Transvaal, then she got a job in Cape Town, she gets kicked out of the Cape Province, then she's in Pietermaritzburg. It's about the time when her brother got arrested and was tried and she goes to work in Newcastle, she's kicked out of Newcastle, the African township. Then she's ill and then she goes under exit permit. My father, brother.
POM. When did your Mum die?
MM. My Mum died while I was in exile in 1984, 1983/84.
POM. When would have been the last time you saw her?
MM. I last saw her in 1978 in Lesotho and when she died I only heard about it accidentally about four months after she was dead. I received word from Lesotho once to say, "Are you aware that your Mum has passed away?" And I then enquired from the comrades when was this? They said, "Oh we heard that she had died about four months ago." Then I was still in exile when my next brother died.
POM. He would have been?
MM. My second eldest brother. I was passing through
POM. Your father had five girls from the first marriage?
MM. No, my father had five surviving children from the first wife of whom three were boys and two were girls.
POM. Then he had three there were six boys altogether in the family and two girls.
MM. No. Then he had two boys and a girl. So he had three plus two is five boys and three girls.
POM. So when you refer to the youngest brother younger than you?
MM. He was my kid brother from my mother.
POM. OK, so you were the eldest son?
MM. The elder son, the eldest from my mother is a daughter.
POM. OK. Your father's second marriage, where you were born, you had a sister.
MM. A girl and then myself and then my brother.
POM. OK, so you were the oldest son of the second marriage. OK. That would have been your brother from ?
MM. My Dad's first marriage. His eldest son died while I was in prison, his second eldest son died while I was in exile and I heard about it through SWAPO, SWAPO or a representative in Germany, in Bonn phoned me, tracked me down as I was passing through London or the United States to say that they heard that my brother had passed away. But prison, the moments, those were the moments that stood out. Yes. My father's death, my brother's death, the harassment of Tim and the eventual departure of Tim from the country.
POM. And you leave and your mother dies?
MM. First my mother dies, then my brother dies. Then I come back in Vula and when I'm in detention in Vula, I'm detained on 25 July and on 29 July my sister passes away, that's my father's first wife's youngest daughter in Springs.
POM. That's the one you'd gone to ?
MM. The funeral. Then my next brother passes away in Newcastle. This is now after I'm released. I'm released and he dies in a fire.
POM. In a fire?
MM. Yes, while I was in government, he got burnt when a gas fridge exploded in the rural areas then he was taken to hospital in Pietermaritzburg. I visited him, I was in government at that stage. He had first degree burns and never recovered consciousness. Then my eldest sister from the first wife died and then my youngest brother passes away. So all that's left is my one sister.
POM. Is that the sister from - ?
MM. My mother, the eldest child. She's in Durban. In December she will be turning 70.
POM. You missed your Dad's funeral obviously, you missed your Mum's funeral. Of all the members of your family
MM. Which ones did I attend?
MM. I attended the funeral of my one sister in 1990 from detention and I attended the funeral
POM. Were you allowed out for that?
MM. That's the one I was escorted to. So the first funeral I attend is 1990, then I attend the funeral of my brother who was burnt, then I attend the funeral of my youngest brother, then I attend the funeral of my eldest sister. So I've attended four funerals in my immediate family. All those happened post-1990 and all of them I went to.