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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
19 Mar 1996: Mbeki, Govan
GM. You were asking about the apartheid art.
POM. That's right, what was the reaction among your white colleagues, particularly those who had served in the old parliament, or do they give any indication of any reaction at all?
GM. I don't think so because I was not part of the negotiations with them. But from what I understand they were made to realise that the period of apartheid is part of the history of South Africa and the presence of the photographs and other artefacts of the Nationalist Party in the building were part of the history of South Africa in the same way that before the Nationalist Party took over the Cape, the Transvaal, Natal and the Orange Free State were under British rule. Now there were photographs here and other things and when they took over especially from Smuts in 1948 they took those things away from the walls of parliament. They put them in a museum within the building, the parliamentary buildings. In fact I had not known about it myself until now that there was that museum of the British colonial period. Now what would be wrong with us taking over and removing everything that represented them and putting it like they did with the British colonial things, putting them away. And in any case what's more is that a period of six months would be filled in with paintings from the United Nations which means that the ANC was not just bulldozing everything down in order to place itself in position and for six months these paintings from world-wide sources are going to be there, then the decision will be taken after that as to what to replace these with on the walls and by that time probably the ANC will want to assert itself. So it's part of the historical process and I think they accepted that.
POM. Let me go back to a couple of things I didn't ask you before, and again this is a peculiar question in the sense of what are your 'fondest memories' of the 27 years that you spent on Robben Island?
GM. The fondest moments were when we beat the authorities. That's one. Like for instance on the question of communications.
POM. On communication?
GM. When we got there, you know Robben Island consists of seven jails really, A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Now they cut us completely off from them and also amongst ourselves, the Rivonia group, we were not allowed to talk to one another.
POM. Even within the same jail?
GM. Within the same jail. The Rivonia group lived in cells across the passage, within the same jail, and yet we were not allowed to talk to one another. If we were taken out for exercise we were made to march one after the other in single file and not allowed to talk to one another.
POM. You were saying that even when you went out for exercise you had to not speak to each other?
GM. That's right. And so we had first to beat the authorities on the question of communication. We had to find ways of enabling us to communicate with our membership in the seven jails. It was easier to find ways amongst ourselves, the Robben Island group, because we were in the same place. It was difficult getting to our membership in the various jails. We had to devise means and we did, a variety of methods we used, we used to beat what the authorities had laid down and we succeeded. Some of those methods are fairly well known today but others are not. When we beat the authorities on the issue of communications that was cause for one to rejoice because it meant we could keep in touch with our membership and we had a membership in those early days I think of nearly 2000 there and they were mostly young people. We had to streamline our methods of work to suit underground conditions in jail.
POM. You are talking about keeping in touch with the membership outside of jail?
GM. First with the membership inside jail but in different sections of the jail, as I say, there were seven jails. Now once we had succeeded to do that we were able to convey a lot of things which were necessary to keep the organisation together and to keep the morale of membership up because those days the authorities themselves were pretty rough if I may say so. They beat up our people and they hurt them, they hurt them in a variety of ways. We had to show our people. You know according to our traditions, all the African groups, we fought with spears. That meant either a spear thrown at a man across or hand to hand with short spears and if a man was stabbed he wouldn't bellow, he wouldn't cry, it was regarded as a tradition that crying was a matter for women but a man if he was stabbed, he fell to the ground but wouldn't cry. Now our people, younger people, grew up with this tradition that however much a man is hurt he doesn't cry, he doesn't bellow, and the authorities would beat up a prisoner and firstly our prisoners following this tradition wouldn't cry so that if the authorities, warders, were beating up one of us not far away from where we were we wouldn't know what was happening there. And after beating him up they would make him wipe up his blood, clean it, leave that place clean and in addition charge him with assaulting the warders. Goes to court it may mean an additional year, it may mean two years, an additional two years if he is convicted. So one of the things we did was to advise our membership if the warders beat you, bellow, bellow hard so that we can hear from a distance what's happening. Once we hear that we shout at the top of voices across to say that the warders must stop that and of course they will stop it. Now you see that could only be conveyed by these underground methods of communication.
. Then there was the question of political education. There are two forms of education which we pursued on the Island. It was a formal education and the next was political education. We were there as political prisoners, we had to keep up political education. It was more necessary there than outside. Outside you call a meeting or a rally of people, you address them and they go away. In jail you can't.
POM. You were talking about your breakthrough on communications and the necessity for two forms of education, a formal education on the one hand and then the absolute necessity for political education among the prisoners who were political prisoners after all.
GM. I say that these were moments of joy among us.
POM. What were the main techniques you used to break through the communications barrier?
GM. The first person who did was Joe Gqabi, that means the leaf of a tree, 'gqabi' is the leaf of a tree. He had received military training. He had been to China and underwent six months military training in communications. He came back into the country and was arrested to Robben Island, then he applied his skills in that area and he was successful. He was followed after that by Ahmed Kathrada, he is here in the President's office.
POM. I'm seeing him tomorrow.
GM. And as you may well know when Joe Gqabi left Robben Island he operated within the country all underground connections. Then we got to know, that is the ANC, that they were planning to get rid of him inside the country. So he was taken out and stationed in Harare to represent the ANC as well as being a cog in that long chain of operations. He was very conscious of security but they beat him that evening. There was his house which had been allocated to him and because it was not safe he lived elsewhere and then would now and again go to his house to get something. And this evening he left his hiding place within Harare to go and get something from his house and they were there and as he got back to the car they riddled him with automatic weapons. He was gone. He had done a lot of good work before they did that.
POM. What was the main technique that he used? I've done a lot of work among prisoners in Northern Ireland who had to devise all kinds of means of communication and I'm interested in what were the basic ones that you were able to work out that evaded the authorities' notice.
GM. You want a person to get in touch with, is that what you want?
POM. Or do you know how it was done if you wanted to communicate with somebody within the prison?
GM. Well Kathrada can give you those details.
POM. I'll tell him that.
GM. Some of the methods we used, as I say, have become well known. Others have not been and I'm not so certain if we would be qualified to disclose them now. Who knows, are we completely out of the bush?
POM. You do talk like an old revolutionary. Tell me, while you were in jail for such a long period of time you must have had a lot of time for thought and reflection and you were known as one of the intellectual dialecticians of the liberation movement. This is a two part question, how did your thinking change from the time you went into prison until the time you came out and how has it changed since the time you came out in 1987 until today?
GM. I don't think there has been a tremendous change. There has been a change. When we went to jail we had been operating underground structures for quite some time. For me in the Eastern Cape we had been operating these underground structures since 1953 and when the government finally banned the organisation, which was 1960, those of us who had operated in the Eastern Cape had had seven years head start on how to operate from underground. Now we get on to Robben Island and I am saying there were two major issues, formal education and political education. In the course of those years we had to develop a system of providing lectures to our membership in the various prisons. You write on a certain topic, it may be a matter of policy, it may be a matter of tactics, whatever, you write and give it in your section to man who has the smallest handwriting because when now you are sending that from your cell to the other sections it mustn't be a sizeable thing, it must be very small. It was small to such an extent that each section kept a magnifier because it would be reduced to very, very small handwriting. Now these lectures I kept copies of my lectures which I had given and the larger portion of those lectures I succeeded to bring out with me, bring them out of jail, in spite of the tight censorship security. They have been produced as a book 'Learning from Robben Island'.
. Now you would see from those lectures where there were probably shifts or anticipations of what could happen. I have one lecture in mind where I indicated that we have now been involved in a military struggle with the Nationalist Party but we should consider a possibility, and I put it like that, a possibility where we would have to sit around a table and talk. And then I gave also an illustration of what might happen if we do that. I fell back on the scriptures to say it would be like the day of the Pentecost, if we sit around that table we will speak in many tongues like on the day of the Pentecost. What of the PAC there, what of AZAPO there, what of these other political formations contributing as such? But of course always projected a picture that the ANC would be successful, it would be on top. And that happened. It was long before we actually got to think about sitting around a table to talk. Now this is an illustration of some of the shifts in our thinking. Whereas when we started MK we thought we would beat the Nationalist Party forces on the battlefield but by the time I wrote that essay ...
POM. I am talking also in terms of your being a Marxist intellectual and one of the driving intellectual forces behind the development of Marxist theory and its applicability to the situation in South Africa. How did that change, particularly how did that change after you got out of jail? To give you the extreme example would be that the party of nationalisation has become the party of privatisation so to speak, and if anybody had said to you ten years ago, do you know what? Rather than advocating the nationalisation of industries we will be talking about the privatisation of industries, you probably would have said you're out of your mind. How do you accommodate that in your scheme of thinking? What would you have said and how has you thinking evolved?
GM. I think in our understanding of Marxism, in our interpretation of Marxist teachings we did not become inflexible. We understood our situation in South Africa. For instance, South Africa didn't have expatriates unlike the rest of Africa while it was pursuing its line of independence it was dealing with expatriates. But here we were a settled community, black and white. We knew we couldn't drive the whites into the sea and even if they made the mistake as Verwoerd did of thinking that they could push us back into the Bantustans, into 12%, 13% of the land, that wasn't correct. We were dealing with a situation where oppression was a national thing, it wasn't anything coming from outside. Now how then were we to adjust our strategies in the fact of that reality? How were we to do so? That's why I say we were not orthodox about our understanding of the teachings of Karl Marx, we were not orthodox. Firstly, we accepted the fact that the first step is a national democratic revolution in this country and if we accepted that we had to accept the leadership of the African National Congress.
. The Communist Party of South Africa by comparison is a tiny organisation in a sea, in a mass of organisations that were fighting for the same end as the first step. Every African who was in the ANC, no I'm sorry, every African who was in the Communist Party invariably became a member of the ANC so that when the ANC discussed its strategies and its tactics it did so in the presence of members of the Communist Party. They became part and parcel of those decisions and we as members of the Communist Party didn't come into meetings from the branch level up of the ANC and say, we as communists say so and so. We couldn't do that. We couldn't do that unless we would be buried, we would have been buried. We would have placed our positions where we would not have been able even to apply those communist ideas. That's why, therefore, in the constitution of the Communist Party, I think round about 1966, we do concede that the national democratic revolution is the first hurdle to cross and that the Communist Party would therefore subject itself to the leadership of the ANC in order to cross that hurdle.
. Some people make a mistake, and especially what are usually referred to as liberal elements who own especially the media, largely the media in the country, they always projected a picture which was false. They allowed themselves to be guided by propaganda policies rather than the real realistic problems that were facing the country. They would say the African National Congress, especially during the days of the fifties, they would say that the Communist Party was leading the ANC and again they would say the Communist Party and the South African Indian Congress were leading the ANC. Now that was propaganda, that was propaganda. That was propaganda to make the ANC stink in the nostrils of the whites in South Africa.
POM. Now this liberal press in the fifties would have been anti-apartheid, would it have been the English-speaking media?
GM. It was the English-speaking media.
POM. So they were against apartheid but also against the ANC?
GM. That's right, they were against both. But if they were given a choice between the two they would have sided with apartheid rather than with the ANC, which in practice is what they did. And I say they misrepresented the situation and made them therefore to mislead the whites in this country.
POM. Do you think they are still doing that?
GM. They are not happy to this day.
POM. Do you think that element is still there?
GM. It is still there. They are not happy to this day. Take what the sort of lines they throw out in The Sunday Times and these papers. They are still not happy, to this day. But they must know that there is a difference between propaganda and the reality of the situation. They must know that the African National Congress is strong and is not going to be unseated by that type of propaganda because it's false and even our average membership at the lowest level, they call it the grassroots level, understands the policies and strategies of the ANC and interprets these and puts them into practice better than the editors of The Sunday Times and the other papers. That should answer your question of nationalisation and privatisation of certain institutions. We have got to do something to give to the people now. We have got to find houses for the people now. And it's not a matter that is going to be constrained by ideologies.
POM. So do you see the restructuring which is called now the restructuring of state assets or the selling off of state assets as a way of accumulating the capital that can be used for ...?
GM. We didn't foresee it, we didn't foresee it. Thinking five, ten years back we didn't think of that.
POM. You didn't that that you could do that?
GM. Of that.
POM. As an alternative?
GM. That's right. When Maggie Thatcher started about privatisation in Britain a lot of resistance was offered in Britain against that. How much worse must that position have been in South Africa? But we hadn't at that stage started sitting down and working at figures to say where do we get the money from in order to build houses? Where do we get the money from in order to build schools, in order to find new teachers? We hadn't faced that reality at that stage. We were fighting, we were fighting, we were fighting the Nationalist Party government to be out of power. Then once out of power we would apply ourselves to how do we provide the things that have been lacking in the country. It means we turn back to figures.
. If you turn back to figures it's going to be a different story from, call it propaganda that you have been throwing out in order to defeat the Nationalist Party government and its apartheid policies. So I am therefore not happy about comparisons between the Communist Party now and what the Communist Party was a few years back.
POM. This is the only country in the world that I know where people are still obsessed by communism. You go to any other communist country, that were communist countries, and they've changed, they've moved on. You see here people are stuck in old notions and old ideas that it is still the menace out there ready to pounce when the moment is right. You talked about the liberal press, could you talk about that for a moment? Where do you see liberals, white liberals, as standing? On the one hand they take a certain degree of pride that they stood up and worked against apartheid and the Helen Suzman's of the world were out there preaching against it and even though they lived in the northern suburbs they helped their maids and their people in whatever way they could and now they say they are the guardians of western liberal values, the right to individual freedom, the right to this, the right to that, the right to the other. Where do you see them fitting or are they a misfit in the way South Africa is developing? Have they lost their bearing, are they misinterpreting themselves, have they misinterpreted their own role in the past?
GM. We have been with the liberals ever since we left the battlefield in this country at the end of the wars of dispossession. We were with the liberals in our struggle, especially in the Cape for the franchise that the British government had given to the Cape to all males irrespective of colour, race or whatever who had reached the age of 21 to vote. Because when we left the battlefield we concentrated on the political field and in the Cape the franchise - they had their own liberal strategies.
POM. This is the English whites?
GM. The English, they are the only people who call themselves liberal. You have to go through the history of this country to study the role which they played towards the end of the 19th century when it got to political struggles, through to the period preceding the formation of Union and from 1910 on, you have got to see it. It has not changed much. Well you have them now, you have them here in parliament. I represent a political party that is operating in parliament. It is a dominant party in terms of numbers. They represent a point of view, they are a small point of view which is entertained by a quarter of the population of South Africa but their voice is larger than them. I don't see them performing better than their forbears have done. Maybe they have ideas which they are putting across and in a situation like this nobody is not affected by the ideas of the other in a situation like this. We may do something in the African National Congress which we have initiated and the Liberal Party will jump up and say, "Hah, they have taken that idea from us", so will the Nationalist Party also say and say, "Oh they have copied our idea." The Liberal Party has never been a major political party in South Africa, even when they sold us in 1907. I don't see them playing a more important role in the future in this country than they are playing now, I don't see that.
POM. Do you think their voice is out of proportion to their numbers because of their wealth, the fact that they are a wealthy community and they control the media, they control the conglomerates, they control a lot of different fora through which you can use to express your ideas and your opinions?
GM. I expressed it differently when I said if a small man with a big voice but because of his size in spite of his big voice that big voice is not going to hurt. Now they control the media and they control big business in this country but it's a developing country, it's a developing country. What was this morning is not necessarily what the position will be by sunset today. It's a changing situation. Already we are called upon to unscramble some of their big concerns.
POM. But the five biggest concerns still control over three quarters of the capitalisation of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, there is still a lot of unscrambling to do.
GM. That is not going to be the position for ever. The African National Congress has strong muscles but it hasn't got the power to control and the orthodox economists basing themselves on the ideas of Adam Smith about free competition and free enterprise and all that think that is always going to be the position. It is not going to be. The ANC being the dominant political party in this country is not going to wait until there is a strong middle class amongst the Africans before there can be any change. That middle class hardly exists. We have got what they call NAFCOC, a business organisation of emergent African business people, but if you see those corner shops in the African townships how long would we have to wait until those people have risen to a position with financial muscle where we could say they are leading the economy of the country. So we don't have to look that way in order to find an answer to how do we cut the sharp ends of the horn of the liberals. It will be the government finding ways of bending their power in that area.
POM. Like you have in the Eastern Cape where you have the situation where trade liberalisation, the reduction of tariffs has textile firms going out of business, you have manufacturers moving their business out of South Africa which they consider to be a high wage economy into lower wage economy than re-importing the materials back in. You have a situation where the biggest disappointment, as the President mentioned in his address to Congress, is that even though there has been economic growth you have had no increase in employment at all, right?
GM. And it's the ANC that is going to find an answer.
POM. But is it not the ANC who is saying we must liberalise, reduce tariffs and allow imports in?
GM. Within areas the ANC is compelled to do that. You take the textile industry, the textile and garment industry areas, 1925 Hertzog initiates legislation to solve the poor white problem. Let me repeat and emphasise, to solve the poor white problem, not so much to help the economy of this country, and in terms of that legislation he sets tariffs for those industries, and especially the textile industry, that will employ whites before you can think of anyone other than white in terms of employment it should be because there is no white man who is looking for a job in that area. That's what Hertzog said. And therefore the textile industry, protected like that, was built on that. So it went on year after year so that by the end of the thirties they could say the poor white problem has been solved, and it had been solved. Hertzog also brought in the Wage Act in terms of which a commission was formed to ensure that no white person received below a certain minimum wage because he or she had to maintain standards according to which whites were supposed to live in South Africa and they made four fifths of the population live below those standards unprotected by the Wage Act. But by the beginning of the forties during the war years no white worker did not belong to a trade union and therefore was protected unless he or she didn't want to, and the Wage Act was maintained purportedly to protect the interests of those who were not covered by unions because it wasn't government policy to allow Africans to belong to trade unions and they did not use the Wage Act at the end of the war to protect those unorganised workers. These are things that have got to be corrected and it's for this government to do that.
POM. Two minutes left, let me ask you a theological question. Do you believe in God?
GM. No I don't.
POM. This is a country that's a very religious country, where God is very important. You see people every Sunday all dressed up going off to church. Do you think that Christianity and the influence of the missionaries who in a way said turn the other cheek contributed towards people's passivity in the acceptance of apartheid in their own unempowerment? The lesson that it's not this world that counts, it's that eternal salvation in the next is more important.
GM. That's what has been preached all these years. It was used especially by the apartheid people. They used that. Take PW Botha, the other day, remember Nelson went there and PW Botha says what he did was in the interests of the nation and the nation was the Afrikaner. What he did was what God required him to do. So according to him God required him to oppress four fifths of the population to deny four fifths of the population rights, basic rights and he says it is God who did that. So you see how they used the idea of a God? What was it used for except to lull the sheep so that while you shear it, it is not aware that you are robbing it of its cover, its blanket?
POM. Well thank you. I've a million more questions but I appreciate the time. Do you miss the discussions you used to have in jail? Do you get the same kind of quality of intellectual - or are you too busy?
GM. I think we miss that. In a way sometimes I sort of want to go back, mentally or intellectually, to the period of underground because during that period of underground people were getting lectures. You don't get it now. Now you call a rally, you speak to thousands of people, they all clap hands, they all toyi-toyi, but at the end of the day they have forgotten what you said to them. During the period of underground you don't do that. Not only do you talk, after you have talked you reduce that into print, a leaflet. It's the leaflet that reaches out to the people and a leaflet will be studied by every family member. A speech from the platform at a rally, there may be one member of a family. He is supposed to tell the others. Or if he is not there he depends on hearsay. Now the quality therefore under conditions of legality is not as high as under underground conditions.
POM. One more little irony.