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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, 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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

28 Nov 1994: Sisulu, Walter

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POM     If anybody had told you five years ago when you walked out of jail (you came out in October 1989) that within the space of five years there would be an ANC government in place and actually running the country, would you have found it difficult to say, "yes", or "no, it will take longer than that". Or has it come along the schedule that you thought it might come?

WS     No, if anybody had said to me, "do you want a government now", I would have said, "yes, I think we are ready for a government", because when I came out of jail I was already saying, "this is the first thing and there's no question of going back; we have reached our destination". On my release, I knew that this meant real victory in the true sense of the word. There may be difficulties in getting it; there will be an uprising from the right; I would anticipate all those things, but of victory I would have no doubt.

POM     How do you feel? The last time I talked to you was before the negotiations were concluded. Do you feel victorious?

WS     Yes, very much victorious, very much victorious. Indeed I sympathise with many who had doubts. That was very dangerous for us; many individuals had doubts. I had no doubts; once we had reached this position, there was no going back.

POM     So the point of irreversibility for you was when the leadership was released from prison?

WS     Yes.

POM     You first, and then the rest came later in 1990.

WS     To me that was irreversible because it was not a choice, a free choice of the rulers of the country. It was not a free choice. They had no alternative. The situation was such that they realised they could not be victorious even if we are not victorious yet by military means, they can't be victorious. They had reached a position therefore where they had to decide what is better for us. And I think the choice was good for them. It was well determined.

POM     It was almost their last point of being superior in the sense of security forces. The population was going to start growing smaller, the percentage of the whole population.

WS     Yes, the problem is that they had confidence in their superior methods: that is the military and all that. But one thing which they had no way of running away from, they could never be greater in the world than the noble people who had looked at the situation and decided to throw their lot in with those who were standing for justice. Once they had taken that decision, they duly advised us. "There was in the past a chance; not now when the world is organised against us."

POM     Can I take you back to when you arrived on Robben Island in 1964 (twenty-seven years later you come out). How do you remember your experience there, during those twenty-seven years, and how did you keep your morale obviously as high as it was?

WS     It was a bitter experience. It is easy for me to say I was never demoralized; it's easy to forget that there were days when the situation appeared to be too difficult. I always looked forward because I consider myself a super optimist, because with all those difficulties there was no way they could win. I can't say anything about the date and timing and all that. Whether I die or live, this has been achieved. That is how I look at it. Now when I arrived on Robben Island, I knew that I was placed in this position for life, and I knew it meant life, no short cuts. In other words, unless forces outside were victorious to bring us out, we would die here. But the question is: are the forces sufficiently organised so that we will not die here? Now by dying here, there are many things which mean dying here, but I am not talking of length of time, I am talking of spending our lifetime ... and I knew that we would come out.

POM     But as a group of prisoners you were allowed to stay together?

WS     Yes.

POM     And that was a big ...

WS     That's another important thing I should mention. Somehow the authorities in their desperation and confusion thought it wise to send all political prisoners to Robben Island and try and divide us there. That was in fact in our favour, because if we were isolated, completely isolated, some would have completely broken; but because we were together we looked at the situation not in the usual way. We worked out we would not be wiped out by the confidence of others, so I think it was to our advantage that we were sent together to a place like Robben island.

POM     Were you able to I have been reading extracts from President Mandela's autobiography in the first couple of years were you able to communicate with each other or did you have to devise means like tapping on the wall or working out a Morse code or something like that?

WS     No, when we were already on Robben Island that was something of the past. The communication was much easier; we were together even though we were in separate cells. We ate together, we went to the bathroom together and all that. We were sometimes restricted from talking to each other, but that didn't mean anything. Once we were together we found a way of talking to each other. In other words, the whole period of Robben Island with all the restrictions that applied, it was to our advantage, we were together, we made ... [we made our situation of confidential nature].

POM     Would you get access to books from the outside?

WS     In the beginning it was difficult to get anything to read. [We just ... the newspaper ... A prisoner never ... look at it, what is it?] It's the news. Another one will take another piece, then all this will be put together ... Somebody is going to transcribe it and read it. And when [... if you are sent by a warder you won't ... quite willing to do that because they kept the news.]

POM     Over that period of time, there must have been an influx of new younger prisoners. Were you able to contact them and draw them into this kind of cohesive ...?

WS     [That's another advantage why they sent the newly convicted prisoners ... However ... and that give us a clear picture because ...] coming from ... various parts of the world they tell their stories and these stories become one, and you get a clear picture of what is happening to the Nationalists, what is happening in the Movement. We also had those who were convicted at home, so we had a picture of what was happening at home; you also have a picture of what is happening ...

POM     During those 27 years, which was the lowest point in your life? When did you feel so bad or so non-optimistic?

WS     We were raided by a large section of warders; I think it was the 29th May 1978 or 1979 when they ... and they hosed the walls like this. They came on a day when I was not well, I had the 'flu and [I ... they took advantage of ...] I actually even considered whether I should not fight physically: must I surrender myself to these ... I debated that. I could use any instrument ... There was fighting in various cells ... I think it was the most upsetting incident which indicated that we were powerless and they were doing what they had decided to do. We were powerless to do anything about it.

POM     Did a lot of beatings go on during the first part of the period and then did they taper off or did they last ...?

WS     Only in that group?

POM     No from 1964 right through.

WS     No the beatings ... there were no beatings ... mental ...

POM     Like mental, like what? Do you mean mental torture?

WS     Mental torture? You are sitting in our cell, you make it your home ... it affects your mind. You want to start a new life in that cell and then in seven days they take you to another cell, that type of mental torture. You are not at home ...

POM     How long were you in jail before you saw your wife and family?

WS     I think after about six months.

POM     And then? You had no indication if she had sent letters to you in that period? Would they reach you?

WS     We were entitled to only one letter in six months. That letter will come to you in tatters, all torn. Now that sounds like an ordinary thing but it is painful. You want to know about your family, you want to know what is happening, why can't the letter it is in tatters, you can't read it, you don't know what's going on. That type of torture.

POM     And then she is allowed to visit you? The first time she came after six months, how long were you able to see her for?

WS     30 minutes.

POM     But you were behind a glass?

WS     Yes. No, I think on the first one it was even less. The first one we were lining up, we were standing in a line; they are talking. It is crazy, it is a madhouse. We don't know what they are talking about. You are shouting, you want to know, it is very painful and ... They have now built a room today where you can ... and all that. It is now much better.

POM     You sometimes must have felt much worse after your visitors left than before they came because you had very little contact with them and it was so difficult to ...

WS     One of the things which happened to me ... not because we talked about the Transkei and ...

POM     So you kept your optimism, you kept your faith, kept your belief in the justice of your own case. Did you ever think that you would be released during your lifetime?

WS     Yes I did, I did. I think there was always that feeling that the situation was developing; they cannot keep you ... there were some encouraging signs ...

POM     When Mr Kobie Coetsee came to see Mr Mandela in 1985, a kind of initiation, beginning of the process, did he confide in anybody else at the time or did he confide in you; because in every extract that has been published he always would count you as one of the people he counted on in terms of your judgement of what should be done or not done?

WS     In this case Mandela's approach was not ... at that time when we met. He adopted that method whereby any government official, there would be a discussion ... He took the line of indicating that we ... as long as they keep us in this situation ... between ANC and the government. This has been his approach even to the most junior. We had not formally discussed the question of negotiation, particularly at that time. There wasn't really much that could be encouraging ... I think it was only after the group from the Commonwealth, that was the beginning and through it was even greater confidence.

POM     Were you allowed to see the members of the Eminent Persons Group?

WS     No we were not allowed to see them.

POM     They talked to government officials?

WS     No, they also saw Mandela; they saw Mandela. I think it is one of the reasons why they isolated him because they realised that although ... if they see Mandela ... I believe that that was the beginning, to feel that they must remove this man from ... because they can't stop the people, a personality such as this ... And on the other hand if they don't want him to ... there is no way as long as they live together.

POM     So that passed on to the famous Town House tea drinking party, very British, with Mr Mandela and PW. I noted again [that your reflection of President Mandela is integrity] that it is a tribute to PW Botha as being the first person who began the process of irreversible change. Did they develop a mutual respect for each other?

WS     [Just before then I think that was written to us, saying that ... and he will be released ...]

POM     How would he have been able to tell the rest of you what was going on so that you were in the loop?

WS     ... What happened to Nelson was that he went to hospital and they never brought him back. That was a way of isolating him. But they couldn't isolate him completely because he ... I remember once I had lunch with him and developed how we could meet ... we were never completely closed off. There were ways we could exchange views in that place and that's how the idea of negotiations developed, bearing in mind that we never resorted to negotiating ... as such, it was merely an exchange of views [... not regarding it as leadership because we thought ... to see Mandela], the government was ridiculous. They could have talked to the leadership of the ANC, but Mandela, they took their advantage of him ... in one year's time they will be able to say to the external missions ...

POM     So you were the Bishops and he was the Pope, first among equals? What I have noticed in the five years I have been working here is that he continuously defers to the collectivity of the ANC and the fact that it is not he who makes decisions, but a collective executive body.

WS     That was the principle here ... at least we had meetings, exchanged views. At no time did he consider himself free to move without his committee ... but that was a difficult period because we would be separated for such a long time and ... that we should meet ... In the meantime ... in the back ... about what was happening, that there were three demands by the government ... That much we knew.

POM     What I was going to ask you: what happened when President Mandela moved from the statement he made that De Klerk was a man of integrity? He was saying in effect that he is not a man of integrity.

WS     ... I think he made it clear ... it was his honest belief that he was a man of integrity. But he also had a problem, [completely ... that] he was dealing with an individual in de Klerk and de Klerk was an instrument of the NP [so there were no ... from the policy of the NP]. But I think the reason [that he ... and unreliability ...] brought him to the conclusion that he had been too quick to make a decision that he was a man of integrity. There were limitations ... I think that's the position he's in today. He feels Mr de Klerk ... and that he could never completely rely on him ...

POM     How would you rate him? On the one hand it can be said that here was a man with a minority government who successfully negotiated himself out of power. Very few leaders in the world do that, but he did.

WS     We recognise that he is a ... but we also realise that he has an agenda ... He was convinced that there was no way out; he had to make the decision. But he was still entertaining the idea of being in power: that was his dilemma. It appears that he is a reasonable man but when it conflicts with ... he is a different man ... and that is the position even today, working together with the NP we are not unmindful that in whatever they do they still entertain the wish that some day ... They are thinking in terms of winning the election, getting back into power. And that is the problem with ... makes conflict ... between us and the NP.

POM     So are they in one way trying to beat the ANC on what may be called ...?

WS     Weaken the ANC, because they can't afford to be allowed to be ...

POM     In the government of national unity where decisions are arrived at by consensus, when there isn't consensus does the ANC say, "well that's too bad, we tried our best to get consensus, we can't get consensus but we are the majority party and we're going to go ahead"? Does it work like that?

WS     I don't think we have reached that stage. I think there is still a healthy relationship, but I think it is reaching towards that, that those who are not in ... on certain matters. Particularly ... the problem that we have got is ... working on different strategies. They have got a strategy to work on the ANC and not only the whites but some blacks ... looking forward to the elections in 1999 and this strategy is going to come to naught. We're going to ...

POM     Do you see that, within the civil service, in higher echelon positions where there will be many members of the NP, that they frustrate the implementation of policy so that to the ordinary man or woman in the townships the rate of delivery is exceedingly slow?

WS     I think that is happening now. Where there is an agreement to ... an agreement we are working with; but they are undermining that very process.

POM     But now that you are the government, how do you neutralise the powers of state to ...?

WS     ... role of weakness and we will be aware that there is conflict with our own minister ... but there is substance in what is said. That conflict works very much in the favour of the NP and yet ... that we are in the government of national unity, we have reached agreements ... We are not going to allow them to do what they like, but that is the situation that ... and also the liberation is slowing down ... come to you to say, listen there is a problem here, you can't do this and that and that ... But at the same time we know that there are pockets that are undermining the unity of ... [One institution developed and Mandela was obliged to talk ...] The complaints were quite genuine and that he was ... to compel the application and to exercise his position ... He spoke to the Generals, he spoke to the Police to indicate ... at our power and you are doing things which obviously undermine the very process which we are trying to work together on.

POM     I'd like to ask you a question that you may not want to answer, I'm not going to publish anything until 1998. There was one thing about the ANC and the changes that appear ... you have this situation of Popo Molefe ... You have somebody like Terror Lekota who is one of the most dynamic members coming up in the leadership, you have other manifestations of ... Thabo Mbeki ... Are there splits? ... somehow radically different ... on the economy, nationalisation ... talk about privatisation. If anybody had told me four years ago that the ANC would have dropped the word nationalisation in favour of the word privatization, I would have said, "I bet you're wrong, that will never happen". Can you take all of that and tell me what you think?

WS     There are a number of questions. When we talk of our constituents, they play an important role, a fundamental role. We have been more oppressed than all other people: we had no facilities ... and for years we have recommended, not only ... never mind that when we talk of ... we talk of Africans in particular. It will be emphasised from time to time that ... The Xhosa have been socially ... their religion, education. We know that the Afrikaner in the Free State are important ... We want to bring them into the family ... and we proved that they will do much more than the Afrikaner ... We don't distrust Afrikaners but we think we will soon be ... (tape is totally unintelligible here)

POM     I suppose my question would be that you have got these nine regional states with their premiers and their parliaments enshrined in the constitution with the right of the premier to reshuffle his cabinet, to fire whoever he wants ... he has got rights under the constitution.

WS     That is not ...

POM     Why did a case like the entire leadership of the ANC at the top: Mandela, yourself, Mbeki, Ramaphosa, to come in and preside over ...?

WS     No, it is because there were mistakes ... in which we debated the matter and Mr Mandela made a firm statement that Molefe is the leader of the region; he is the leader of the parliament.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.