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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
18 Feb 1997: Mbeki, Govan
POM I asked you a couple of years ago, what was one of the happiest of your memories of Robben Island and you had said it was the day on which Mr Kathrada had come up with the communications system and when you could finally all begin to talk to each other or communicate with each other, and then I asked you if you could elaborate on some of the techniques that he had developed that allowed you to communicate and you looked deep into my eyes and said, "You never know when you have to go back into the bush", so you gave nothing away even at that stage, that nothing is secure enough. First of all, Mr Mbeki, maybe we could just begin with how are you? Since the last time, it's been a year in fact since I saw you because you were sick the last time, how are you physically and how are you doing? I was at your book signing party in fact.
GM I think I'm fine. I'm recovering quite well. That's about the most I can say.
POM How many hours a day work do you put in now as distinct from the past?
GM Much less than before.
POM In the past it was 24 hours a day so is it now down to merely 18?
GM Much less, not because I am not able to do more but because there is not much that is being put out. It's the beginning of the year and programmes are not being carried out well and especially in the area in which I am, which is ANCOP, there are still uncertainties, programmes they have not been drawn up and everything is in the process of being drawn up so that doesn't call for much work.
POM Do you find that having worked here and having been in prison for such a lengthy period of time that in fact there was in prison more discipline, that deadlines, so to speak, were met in a far more deadline way than they are met in parliament, that parliament is slower and more inefficient than your operations were within jail?
GM I don't know if it would be correct to say prison, Robben Island, was more disciplined. Discipline has to come up from within rather than imposed from outside and in jail discipline is imposed on you. Now in a situation outside jail where discipline has to be part of you and you have to comply with certain things because you are willing, voluntarily to do so, it's a different situation from that in jail and if the two were to be compared it would appear that there is less discipline outside jail.
POM As a writer and an intellectual and a man who lives his life by a lot of discipline which would you, not jail, but which would you prefer - a regimen where discipline is imposed or where things are kind of chaotic and run around the place and you sometimes waste a lot of time? Maybe like this morning?
GM Maybe you get discipline out of an individual when an individual has to be disciplined within an atmosphere which calls for resistance, within an atmosphere where certain disciplinary measures are imposed on one and then one disciplines oneself to do certain things within that framework. That's probably the better approach to the word discipline. Within the struggle, within the struggle one disciplines oneself to do certain things which ordinarily in a fair atmosphere one wouldn't feel called upon to do. I don't know.
POM Very succinct. Now since I know your time is very limited I'm going to throw a number of questions at you and if you feel you have the answers or comments, say yes, and if you feel that you don't, say no. As one of what might be called the wise men of the movement, having spent your entire life in it, and as the struggle and the movement moves into the 21st century what would you see as the things that you would caution your colleagues, the younger colleagues, against as they move into the next century at the head of government, free men, free women? What must they not do in order to govern well and what must they do in order to govern well? What must they do to complete the transformation not in a material way but, more importantly, in a moral way?
GM Organisation, organise. Somewhere, I forget where I got it from, but it's a great expression, I'm Alpha and Omega, and I think organisation is the Alpha and Omega of any struggle, of whether running a government or running an organisation outside of government.
POM You were saying organisation is the key to everything. Just following that up, as you look at the ANC, say, since the election, has the ANC been organising in the intense way that, again, liberation struggles should organise or has it allowed things to slide a bit?
GM I don't think so. I don't think it's as well organised and I don't think it's making the effort to organise. Maybe there's a lot of work that has to be attended to compared with the past but certainly it is not that well organised.
POM When you make that point, is it appreciated that without organisation, and without holding the people and the local structures together, that the inevitable consequence is that you begin to lose support, you begin to leave your constituency outside of what you do?
GM You ask if it is appreciated?
POM Yes. And then is anything being done about it?
GM I think the people say yes, we are not, but they don't do it and to the extent that it is not done it shows lack of appreciation. There may be several reasons and explanations why it is not done but it is certainly not done.
POM Why do you think it is not done? Why don't you think that an organisation that has built itself since 1912 around the principle of organisation at a crucial stage in its own transitional development would start forgetting about the primary principle that guided it throughout all these years?
GM I don't know. It may be that some people find far too much hay on the fork and then they don't concentrate on everything. You get what they call scatter-brained, to touch here, touch here and touch there and everywhere, thus omitting to do some of the most important things like, as I say, organisation. I wouldn't say they have forgotten about organisation. Why should they forget? I think some people pay attention to other things which may not appear relevant to all of us and as a result our efforts are scattered, our efforts are not concentrated on things that matter.
POM So if you had to pick one word, like in your talks with people and your going around the country and whatever, if you had to pick one word to describe at the beginning of 1997, that is entering into the last phase of the Mandela years, maybe the last phase of the old guard's years, what word would you pick to describe the mood of the country, and at this stage of transition what word would you have liked to have picked? What word would you pick to describe the mood of the country?
GM That's a difficult one.
POM I like giving you difficult questions. Very rarely you ever say that's a difficult one.
GM Yes. What mood?
POM What is the mood among people? As you move among the people and you talk to them whether it's at high level, low level, in between level, township level, suburban level, cocktail level or whatever, how do you - ?
GM I don't think the mood is happy. I wouldn't say they worry themselves about the state of the organisation. I think there is a tendency sometimes to say there is someone to do this thing, there's a minister, let the minister do it, and there is someone employed to do this thing, let them do it, whereas before in the days of the struggle, especially in these underground conditions, you never passed on the responsibility to the next person. You did it yourself and everybody did it. I don't think that mood is there today. I don't know what would bring it back.
POM Do you feel, and as I told you I'm publishing nothing until the year 2000 when I may be well in the grave before you are or neither of us might be there, but do you feel that in the transition as it has developed that the spirit that drove it initially has slowly somehow been eroded?
GM Yes. I think I've already said it, that there is a lack of the spirit that was there before. Probably it is not fair to compare conditions of the struggle especially under underground conditions, to compare it with the struggle as we see it today, probably it is not fair. Under underground conditions it was almost a question of do or die. There is nothing like that today and especially what I've already said that under underground conditions it was all voluntary, nobody was paid. Today people are paid and according to one's perceptions they are paid highly and so the tendency is to say why should you worry me about something that someone has been employed to do? And then of course if I don't do it well it's left to the one who is paid. I do nothing.
POM After entering into this second last phase of these years of this century and after the years you have spent in prison and after the writings you have done and the intellectual direction you have given, are you disappointed in a way in the way things are turning out or can you rationalise it?
GM Rather than disappointed I say I see it as a challenge and especially to those cadres of the organisation that have been there for years and trying to do the things the way they did and succeeded. This appearance, or is it a reality that the people don't want to work, or is it an appearance or what is it? And is it willed or there is just lacklustre, people feel - let things go the way they go? Can it be that? If we are going to say it is that, what do they hope to get out of it because that does not achieve anything. It may be we require a core, a core of the membership to concentrate on things that should be done and without expecting everybody to have his hands on the plough like was the case before, but rather to encourage them, to appeal to them, even if they are not putting in as much effort at least to support so that at crucial periods they will stand by the African National Congress.
POM This is my last question and it's a peculiar one, but if you were on your death bed, lying there and you said - I want President Mandela to come in because I want to give him a last few words of advice, what would you say to him?
GM I would say what I said addressing the students of Fort Hare. I said a lot of things but ended up saying, "We demand of you work, work, work comrades." That's what I would say, get the people to work.
POM You would whisper that into his ear - tell them to work. Are your remarks at Fort Hare available on record? Can one get a copy of what you said there?
GM You would find it at Fort Hare.
POM Well I will go there and find your words. I would hope before I leave the country this time at the end of March that we perhaps could spend another just half an hour together if it's not too straining on you. I grew this beard especially for you so you would say at least he looks different. I remember talking to you for eight years and they're some of the most interesting conversations I've had with people in this country and I would like to keep it up and be able to call back and to say that we could arrange another half an hour together. Do you think that would be possible?
GM I don't think I quite grasped what you want.
POM That I would like to see you again later on before I go for half an hour? I will be going at the end of March. If we could spend another half an hour together?
GM It may be possible. Now when you go to Fort Hare, if you do go, the speech I made was when I was awarded an honorary doctorate by that university.
POM And that date was when you opened the Centre there at Fort Hare? Isn't that correct? You opened - when the ANC gave all its archives to the university?
GM That's right. It's got its archives there. And they are very good.
POM Very good, like yourself. Thank you ever so much and I look forward to seeing you again and I'm glad to see you back in health.
GM When are you proposing - you started writing?
POM I'm going to start writing this year and I will write through 1999.
GM Surely there's an end to writing. You can't be writing all that time.
POM You should put it the other way round. Are you sure there's a beginning to writing? You have to start some time. I would love to see you again before I go this time, for just 20 minutes, half an hour, whatever amount of time you have at your disposal because you're a wise man and the country needs to heed you. Thank you.