About this site

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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

22 Nov 1999: Kathrada, Ahmed

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POM     Mr Kathrada, this is kind of our wind-up interview. I've been interviewing you now since 1990, I think you were one of the first people in the ANC who I interviewed. I recall I was introduced to you through the late Editor of The Indicator, Ameen Akhalwaya.

AK     He was a fellow prisoner of mine. Ameen contacted Chiba.

POM     Yes, contacted Chiba. I met him out at a rally in Lenasia.

AK     That's right. This was in the rally where Walter Sisulu and I spoke.

POM     That's right and he arranged a meeting. It's hard to think that it's nearly ten years ago. Since you have spent 25, 26 years in jail, your life took on quite a hectic pace during the negotiations, the elections, as Presidential Adviser, in those ten years how, if at all, has this changed you as a person?

AK     I don't know if I've changed as a person, I can't say. Of course it's been quite a learning experience. Even though the ANC was only banned in 1960, I was banned in 1954 so that we had been leading illegal lives. So we had that period right up to the arrest, the banning of the ANC and the arrest which in itself was quite an experience. We learnt a lot, met a lot of people, learnt something of working underground, working illegally. We formulated ideas about how we are going to set up things for the future. Then came the arrests, first of all the house arrest period and then the underground for a short while and then the arrest itself and prison. All these were different experiences really but whether they changed one's outlook I don't think so. Basically what we started off with in our minds remained. Here and there of course we added to experiences through ideas and so forth but basically our ideas remained.

     The question is often posed now, for instance, that after all the sufferings, pre-prison and during the prison, why are you not bitter? Why are you not full of recrimination? And we have explained to them it is not as if one day we sat down in prison and decided hence forth    it's not that. We have to explain to them, which people find difficult to believe, this was in keeping with the philosophy, it was the policy of the Congress Movement as a whole, the African National Congress Movement, so it was not a new one.

     In prison we had the unique experience which our colleagues outside did not have, the unique experience of being with the other side for 24 hours a day. These people were all white. One of the tragedies of SA is that under apartheid and even before apartheid the opportunities for people to meet across racial lines were very few, very, very few. Generally it was a master and servant relationship as far as Africans were concerned. As far at the Indians and coloureds were concerned it may not have been a master and servant relationship although for the bulk of the coloureds here, who were working class, and the Indians in Natal who were working class, there could have been the master/servant relationship. With us in the Transvaal it wasn't that but yet the relationship was not one of equality. In prison for the first time we were now, as I said, for 46 years, for 24 hours a day, in touch with the other side. So they started appreciating and there were literally hundreds of warders who went through that period, white warders. The went through a learning experience themselves. We did not go and work them politically. I like to believe that we did humanise them because for the first time they started acknowledging that these were ordinary human beings, not what they were indoctrinated.

     From our side also to some extent, although we had the philosophy, the advantage of a philosophy and the policy behind us, this contact was of great help. Even from our side this is the closest we came on a daily basis with the other side and for us too we learnt that these people had been indoctrinated. It also made us realise more than ever before what separation has meant, that people have started developing perceptions of one another. This contact, this constant contact helped a great deal, more so with the younger people who came into prison who had not had the benefit that we had of years and years of being in the movement, of internalising the policy and the philosophy of the organisation. The young people didn't have that benefit and for them too it was an experience. They came in very angry, they are our younger people, particularly before the 1976 crowd. They had come in very, very angry but they learnt as well. So to what extent that changed our ideas I can't say it did because we were just carrying on what we started.

POM     Now with new prisoners coming in were you allowed a degree of contact with them or was there an attempt by the authorities to keep you strictly segregated?

AK     What had happened of course is that, you've been to Robben Island, we were separated from the rest of the people because we were political prisoners. When the post-1976 crowd came in, say in 1977, 1978, we had built this wall, built another section. We had about 20 or 25 of them working at it, now these were just a lot of younger people, also some of the older ones like Harry Gwala and others who were senior ANC people who were also kept isolated because they had come in with that crowd. They did allow us some contact. Weekends they did until they constructed playing fields and so forth on the other side, so they did allow that contact but we also, as we did with all new prisoners, as soon as we were able to we established contact by letter because we were hungry for what was happening outside. Even the 1976 uprising, although it took place in June, we only first came to learn of it in August when the first group of post-1976 people started coming in. So we were hungry for news and the first thing we would do is communicate with them to tell us what's happening.

POM     Any letters that were arriving from the outside to you would be censored?

AK     No, no, these were illegal letters. Once they were on the Island our practice was any new people who came we used to get in touch with them, illegally of course, and ask them for news, for information of what is happening out there.

POM     How was that, since you were the person who set up the communications system, I'm always interested in details of it because in some respects it's a major part of the IRA in prison in Northern Ireland, they set up a whole internal communications system both inwards and outwards. They were faster than the Post Office in getting messages out and replies in.

AK     I was part of this group, I wasn't just the only one establishing the communications. There was a little group of us. We used various methods, sometimes we got caught and were punished for it but generally we succeeded. What had happened is that

POM     What would be the key, what was your key message?

AK     Well one of the things we did for instance is that, you see on the other side of the wall new arrivals were kept there before they were dispersed to the general cells or to A Section where the younger people were kept. A couple of individuals were brought to us. So they were kept there. Now we used to smuggle in messages to them through the food because we were obviously distributing the food and we would put a package in the food, underneath the maize or whatever in plastic packages. That was a very common method that we used. They would then tell us how they would get in touch with us, either in left over food, there will be packages in there.  We would attend a small theatre with them, but there were various methods that we used. Sometimes, for instance, when one of our chaps like Govan Mbeki who was not going outside to work but when the hospital orderlies came with their tray of medicine Govan Mbeki, because he was inside, he would be carrying the tray and he was allowed to accompany the hospital orderlies to that side and he would carrying a little message which he would just throw over when the guards are not working. He got caught also and got punished. But those were the methods that we used and we used various methods. There could be a whole chapter when you start discussing all the methods that we used. Most of our communication with new arrivals and the communication with the outside world and the communication within prison, from one section to another, was concealed matchboxes, concealed tobacco bags. We used to get the margarine, big white margarine, solid, we used to eat that. So what we did is we would melt it and then there would be big plastic messages and when that solidified we would tell the warder, "Look, we don't need this stuff, please give it to so-and-so", and he would give it to them carrying a message inside.  That was another method that we used.

     Generally, even with the communication with our general selves, for instance, on the other side the shoemakers, the prisoners, were ANC people so what we would do is we would send our shoes for repairs but then there would be a little opening here where we would put a message in, sew it up again. Chiba was an expert at that, he was a tailor outside by profession so he knew all the tricks.

POM     Who was this?

SK     Chiba. And the shoes would go for repairs and come back with a message there. But that was one of the more difficult ones. The easiest was a matchbox which had a false bottom and just on the way to work at the quarry we would just throw it back and then they come through and deliver the food they would just pick it up. For bigger messages you'd have a tobacco bag, which is bigger, so that will have a false bottom which would take bigger messages. We would give tobacco to people or we would go to the hospital and when the orderlies or not looking we would just pass on this tobacco bag and underneath the tobacco would be messages. We also tried the invisible ink, invisible method where you used milk, and of course when it reaches the other side they just use a hot iron and it will become visible, but the trouble is it has to be undiluted milk. Once it is diluted it doesn't work. That was another method we used.

POM     So if I took 100% milk today, wrote a message in it and sent it to somebody, a blank piece of paper, and they ran a hot iron over it, it would be legible?

AK     Yes. Now how to get milk, it wasn't easy to get milk so we would have some of our chaps complain of ulcers so the doctor would prescribe. That's how. Then there was some other chemical, I don't know what it is generally used for. Somebody struck a bright idea that that can also be used for invisible ink and indeed it did work. Again you have to put a hot iron on it.

POM     What's it called?

AK     Eusol. I don't know what it's generally used for.

POM     Invisible letter writing.

AK     We got it quite easily from the hospital, from the prison hospital. It wasn't something that we could drink, it may be something that we had to rub on or something like that. But I must say that those were not a very common practice because it was diluted milk and so forth. The most common method would be the food package coming in to us, for instance, from the general cells, from the kitchen and we would take the crust of the bread and you know the Indians and coloureds used to get bread before the Africans got it, so they would take out the inside of the crust, put in a message, put back this thing and cover it with margarine so it was not visible. And the crust would always come to me because our chaps who did the distribution knew that when I got the crust, and there would be only one crust from the kitchen, and that crust would come to me and I would just hook it out from the inside and save the message. That we used quite a bit.

POM     So the people working in the kitchen were ANC?

AK     ANC and PAC but the ANC fellows they would be working with the bread. Then within our section even our PAC fellows would know that when there's a crust of bread it must come to me. So we had it organised. Some of the methods like the shoe method was entirely ours, the bread was entirely ours. They could guess but we didn't have to spell it out to them why we wanted the crust.

POM     Let me ask you, because there's one thing that has puzzled me as you just mentioned the PAC, that the source of what still appears to be an enduring animosity between the PAC and the ANC, and certainly on the PAC side to this day they talk about how the ANC have tried to  - they use phrases like 'wipe them out', that could be misinterpreted five years from now.

AK     I see the type of argument. But it differs from individual to individual. Relations within us are very cordial on the whole, as the organisations, but you have got some, particularly on the PAC side, and some of these lower ranking people we've got on our side. But there is no continuous animosity. In jail there were tensions from time to time. Nothing very serious. At times, of course, I suppose they became a little difficult but it never became physical. If there were physical fights it would have been between two individuals, nothing to do with politics, it would be on some personal matter. We do see that they've got some hard liners now in the PAC, some chap who just lives in another world, and there are a few others. As I say both sides are also involved there. We had a case last year, or was it this year's parliamentary session, where the PAC had come out in a blistering attack on the ANC and all of the ANC chaps got up, I am just trying to show you some of the level of the serious political tension, and this ANC chap then asked in parliament, "Show me an organisation whose President gave evidence against his own people and sent them to prison." It was Stanley Magoba, he gave state evidence against PAC members.

POM     He did?

AK     Yes. In fact this was public. This chap Zulu who was a Commander of APLA, when Stanley Magoba was elected President he came out openly and said they can't have this man as President because he gave evidence against Zulu. So that was the level of the thing. Then the ANC went on and, not the ANC, it was an individual because that's who it was and said, "Show us the organisation where the Secretary of the organisation gets arrested twice for drug trafficking in Zimbabwe." The Zimbabwe government overlooked it because he was the Secretary of the PAC, the present Secretary of the PAC arrested twice for drug trafficking. What could they say? Nothing. Then came Stanley Magoba the very President, he makes his speech, talks about the suffering and hardship in prison and how the warders attacked one of their members and put his eye out. So I spoke thereafter, I said, "Look, I don't like to contradict the Honourable Bishop, Bishop Magoba, but he is not giving the true picture. It is true that Mr Mlambo lost his eye in prison. It wasn't a warder who did it, it was a member of the PAC who did it."

POM     This is called real politics.

AK     But generally the relations are still friendly. You've got some hard liners.

POM     But they are disintegrating, when I interviewed Bishop Magoba and Patricia de Lille last year they talked about getting 100 seats and I went back this year and said, "You said you'd get 100 seats and you're down to three."  Was there a little bit of mis-planning here, miscalculation? Have you analysed one gets the impression that no-one has sat around the table and said, as at least they're doing with the Freedom Front, they did analysis and said, "We don't represent our people, that's why we lost our votes. People got the wrong message, they don't want a volkstaat." But rather in the PAC you get this, "Well, ANC has so many resources, the ANC had this and the ANC had that", without ever focusing on their own structures or what they stand for, on what kind of message they send to the masses of the people.

AK     You will find that in this parliament both the right wing, white, and the extreme left, black, have all lost out. The Freedom Front has also reduced its numbers and Louis Luyt with his right wing came in with about one member and the other guy came in as one member. So both the extremes, black and white, have gone down.

POM     Just on that, why do you think, and I know this isn't a normal democracy, in a normal democracy a party going into an election where repeated opinion polls, their own and others, have shown that the majority of people across racial boundaries believe they have done a poor job in handling crime, a poor job in handling joblessness, a poor job in education, a very poor job on housing, a poor job in their overall handling of the economy, that party would say, "My God we've got problems", but the ANC goes into this election and gets a higher proportion of the vote than it did in 1994. What do you think accounts for that?

AK     I would say that the ANC message is reaching the people. It's not something that we must be comfortable about. It's not the euphoria of 1994 but there is still the confidence in the leadership, the confidence in this organisation which is rooted for so many years among the people. It's also the inability of the critics to give any viable alternative. The PAC tried with these two things, especially the one of the land which is the thing that they constantly bring up, now it's a burning issue. The other thing they tried was this chopping off the limbs where they hope to get the Moslem vote. They failed in both these things. I think basically among the thinking people it is confidence in the ANC leadership and the ANC policies, but I think to some extent also it's still the faith in the leadership and the euphoria of 1994 hasn't completely gone, and the inability of a viable black opposition to put forward - I mean Magoba, the whole PAC leadership is not highly respected anywhere. That's one of their problems.

POM     Do you see, the opposition parties, it would seem to me that there are two votes, after two votes, I see two voting patterns. You have white voters and maybe coloureds who waiver back and forth now between the DP and the NP, it's like a transfer of a fixed number of votes between two parties and with the ANC it's consolidated 97% of the African vote. None of the other parties can ever expect to make a breakthrough in the African vote until they get an African of stature in the leadership who becomes head of their parties. Do you see that happening any time in the foreseeable future?

AK     It's not going to be as easy as getting a leader, it's the composition of these parties as a whole. They are still white parties and their policies of course are not policies. So I can't see it in the foreseeable future. Any alternative to the ANC will have to be a predominantly black organisation for the foreseeable future.

POM     This is why they hang on to it's more of a hope that the broad church of the ANC at some point won't be able to contain its disparate components and either COSATU will break away and form a Workers' Party or the SACP will go out on its own, the radicals will move out and the centre will be the centre ANC and the more radical part of the centre will join up in coalition politics, it will be a break of the black vote between different components and different components within the ANC break off. That's not going to happen in the foreseeable future either, of building politics on hope that something happens to the other side, not on actively reaching out themselves.

AK     I can't see it in the foreseeable future. You see the PAC was a challenge when it was founded in 1959. I don't think that the ANC would have lost but they did present a challenge. What shot them up was Sharpeville. They didn't organise Sharpeville the way it happened, they didn't organise the shooting. They organised a very sensible demonstration but it was that one incident that shot them into prominence in South Africa, Africa and the world. They haven't been able to do anything after that, and that would have presented a viable opposition to the ANC. I can't see a single incident uniting people against the ANC. It will take much more than that because we still go into the townships and the ANC is still very much rooted among the people. Older people are passing their experiences to the younger ones but the younger ones are the ones that we have to be concerned about.

POM     I was going to ask you about that.

AK     We have to be concerned about them.

POM     You talk about the values and the philosophy that were embedded in you and which you took with you to prison, that were refined and honed and that you even passed on or were able to take the younger post-Soweto 1976 generation and instil those values in them. With the next generation that's an entirely different matter.

AK     That is why we have to deliver. I am not for a moment feeling that 2004 we're going to lose, we're not going to lose, but we have to deliver. The majority of SA's population are young. We have to do something to get them involved more and more, to provide employment for them, to open up avenues for them and then generally we have to provide housing, we have to deal with hunger, so many things that we have to deal with.

POM     Let me ask you, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing the country in the next 15 years?

AK     I would say it's unemployment, it's crime. Those are major challenges. I'm not saying we will solve our problems but those are burning issues in my mind. Education obviously.

POM     I'll tell you why I ask you that, it's for a particular reason. Why do you not say AIDS? That's undermining everything, the whole basis of society.

AK     A couple of years ago AIDS was there but now SA is the fastest growing.

POM     Fastest growing, it's going to reduce life expectancy. By the year 2010 life expectancy in this country will be in the forties. The whole educational structure of where you invest in children, half of them will be dead by the time they get to use their education. The whole social structure of families is going to completely change. Why would that not have come into your mind as the priority, that unless you deal with that there are going to be no people to govern?

AK     It's a very valid point you have made. You see I myself have not internalised yet the danger of AIDS.

POM     I've asked every person that I interview this question and no-one has said AIDS.

AK     That is a failing on our part. We talk about when we prepare to speak, we talk about AIDS. Every member of the Cabinet is

POM     Wears a ribbon.

AK     - and Premiers and so forth. But when we speak impromptu it doesn't, as it should and it should come automatically as top priority, it doesn't and it is a failing on our part, a very serious failing.

POM     Just to pursue that for a second, I'm particularly interested because I've been working in AIDS since the mid 1980s and done a lot of publishing in the area and now I'm doing a side book on it, well it's really for a journal that I issue at the university, doing an issue on the Social and Economic Impacts of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, so I spent a week at Lusaka and I've been looking for the names of economists and social scientists and whoever has done work, forget about the medical impact or how the disease spreads or whatever, what will be the impact if the projections stand up on the political development of societies that have democratised and very little work has been done in these areas I'm finding out. It seems to me personally when I look at the figures and I follow them very closely, that here they are reaching the point of like a plague. It's rising at such a fast rate that it will soon be out of control. You almost need a declaration of national emergency to deal with it.

AK     One would like to say that it's also linked with education. It is linked with education but then you have the University of Durban Westville where university students, a considerable percentage of them are HIV positive. Sure, and that means that the investment in their education, for every rand you put into investing them you're not going to get ten rand back in terms of their productivity. You might get two rand or three rand and then they're going to die.

AK     It's a frightening picture.

POM     Why doesn't President Mandela use his, or has it been suggested, that he use his tremendous moral authority to drive home to people, communities at every level that all that we fought for is going to go because a killer disease is overwhelming us and we must confront that problem. It's as big a struggle as the struggle for liberation. Again just going back, if he were to sign this letter that I had talked about with FW de Klerk, would that have to be cleared by the National Executive?

AK     I don't think so but he would consult the President, he would consult with the Secretary General of the ANC. He would consult. Apart from his own views I don't know what his own views would be on a thing like this. Naturally what he says the others will agree with, I think, unless the others put forward a very, very strong case because always they listen. To my mind he would certainly consult.

POM     Let me take that as a starting point for my next question and that is when Mr Mandela was released from prison the war in KZN was raging, thousands of black lives had already been lost since the mid 1980s and I would have thought that it would be among his first priorities to say this war must be brought to an end, we must unite, all blacks must present a common front when we go into negotiations against the government. He rings Dr Buthelezi after he gets out to thank him for his support while he was in prison and that he wouldn't negotiate with the government until he was released and the ANC was unbanned. He asks to visit the King and Buthelezi and the King and Buthelezi agree. They discuss some dates in 1990. Then he goes to Lusaka and the NEC in Lusaka turn the idea down. That's where he used the phrase, "If I had gone there they would have throttled me", or whatever. So he doesn't go. The King feels insulted because it was Mandela who wanted to see him. Two, the laying of wreaths, I guess, on Zulu graves is not something that is done and the King doesn't, I know, go to funerals. I don't know whether he visits graves. Three, Mandela has always, even while he was in prison as he says in his biography, he remained an adviser to the Tembu King as best as he could, he's a man acutely aware of royal protocol. Buthelezi, he would have known, is highly sensitive to anything, he sees everything as an insult so this is one more insult heaped on him.

     Why at that point, because there's a paragraph in his book that I'll get back to in another context, where he says he was removed from yourself, Raymond Mhlaba and Walter Sisulu and he was in a cell on his own and he says that even though he was disappointed and lonely to be away from his friends it gave him an opportunity to do something he had been thinking of doing and that was writing to Kobie Coetsee and suggesting perhaps they should open some form of dialogue about talks. He said he knew that if he had put that to the three of you upstairs that there would have been disagreement and you particularly would have been very opposed to the idea and the idea would die.

     Well going back to Buthelezi, in his book he says sometimes a leader must be a leader and he must stand out in front of his followers and take the bold step even it if incurs the displeasure of his followers or whatever. Why in this instance did he not say to the ANC in Lusaka or to the ANC here, "Listen, we have got to resolve this conflict with Buthelezi, my first priority." If he had met with him at that point, if there had been a public rapprochement between them and if he had gone around KZN, not just Pietermaritzburg but all the communities, addressing them that the war is over, there is now a new war, a non-violent war, against the government, we're in it together, a united front, would it have had an impact?

AK     I don't know because he would have had to persuade his own ANC people. You see the jail situation had this advantage, where he took this major step on negotiations, again negotiations was policy right through, we never ever envisaged that the armed struggle was going to defeat the SA army, some people thought of that but generally the ANC didn't. But in jail he didn't have to consult and he didn't. The day he was isolated from us and we wanted to kick up a row and protest, he said, "Cool it, something may come of it, something good may come of it." So he already had this in mind without talking to us. And he took this first step which, as expected, created confusion and Lusaka was disturbed by this, very much disturbed by this and they sent him a message, "What the hell are you doing?" because they were also isolated from things. He sent back one sentence, just one sentence reply, "I am trying to get the government to meet with you people." Once he's outside he can't act as an individual any more, much as he feels. He made that famous speech, I was with him, the first big rally in Durban which welcomed him and he said, "Throw your -

POM      pangas into the sea."

AK     Yes. He was very keen but once he's outside he's now dealing with the organisation, he's now an individual though even when he became President he still thought of the organisation, subject to the discipline of the organisation. We had in Natal particularly two factors, we had the Harry Gwala extreme radical, very influential in Natal, nobody would stand up against Harry Gwala and Harry Gwala believed, and people who followed him, that we can defeat these people physically, violently. But again in fairness to Harry Gwala, the ANC people who were on the spot they had been suffering, they had been going to funerals every week of their own people and they didn't think that a settlement was possible with Buthelezi. They took a very firm stand which won the support of the NEC. Mandela, even if he wanted to wouldn't be able to move as an individual. He may have realised that the decision of the ANC is wrong but he was not going to defy the ANC leadership.

POM     Isn't there an irony in the fact that there was a recognition all the time from early on in the ANC that in the end it would have to be a negotiated settlement between the government and the armed struggle or whatever was an avenue to negotiations not a means to overthrow the government because you didn't have the capacity to do so.

AK     Well you see the thing is that you also had the situation where the leadership was out of touch, Inkatha leadership was out of touch. But when you say that the ANC leadership had accepted that negotiations will happen there were people in the leadership who still believed in an armed overthrow and the younger people just went for that. You tell the younger people, I mean we had lots of debates especially when the younger people came in. I think they came with wild ideas of what an armed struggle could do. The first stories we started getting of Soweto, the uprising, was that we have infiltrated the army, we have done this, that and the other because young people are romantic, they start believing this thing. If somebody has said we've got one man in the army, they think we've infiltrated the army. So there was also that belief among some people that we can still overthrow these people by armed struggle.

POM     Do you think it was a mistake, again with the benefit of hindsight, that the ANC didn't at that time give Mandela the go ahead, say, "Go ahead and see what you can do"?

AK     I think if particularly the Natal ANC was able to detach itself from the experiences of funerals every week, being the victims of violence, if it was at all possible that would have influenced the whole executive. But I think the situation was such, it wasn't confined to Natal although the bulk of the killings took place there but it also spread.

POM     It spread around.

AK     Yes, where Inkatha was involved in the south of Johannesburg, Sebokeng and all that, Inkatha was involved. But I am sure that the Transvaal situation could have been contained, or rather the leadership would have been persuaded but the Natal thing was very difficult and Gwala, as I said, held sway over the Natal leadership, Gwala as an individual but he had other ANC leaders who felt equally strongly in Natal.

POM     To the extent, I suppose what I'm trying to get at, is the war in Natal ultimately a war for which like most wars both sides must accept their share of responsibility for the number of deaths, not counting who killed more than the other side but the fact that steps could have been taken that contributed to the 4000 people being killed between 1990 and 1994.

AK     Politicians find it very difficult to say 'I was wrong'.

POM     Well you are now an ex-politician. But you were never the right kind of politician.

AK     Yes. They find it very difficult. Right through the Rivonia trial the main document which was held as evidence against us was Operation Mayibuye. Some of us like Sisulu and myself and Bernstein we maintained this was not a document that was accepted by the leadership. I'm saying this because it's published. Govan Mbeki and a few other people, Raymond Mhlaba believed that that was passed, it was an accepted document and it was a feasible document. They will still argue that. You just have to read that document, and I have described it as people who were dreaming. I am told that Braam Fischer said in court that this was the product of schoolchildren. They talked of landing two ships of arms on the Zululand coast and driving with that by lorry to Johannesburg and producing half a million landmines on a little farm, and the first batch of guerrillas must be parachuted into the country. You know, such things, but those people will still argue today that we were right because for 26 years in prison we argued with Govan Mbeki and them. They still have not admitted that they were wrong. So all I am saying is that politicians find it very, very difficult to say, 'We were wrong'.

POM     But your opposition to Mandela writing to the government was that it would sow confusion?

AK     No, I tell you we were presented with a fait accompli by him. He had already taken the first step knowing that he was going to have problems with us and then he asked to meet with us. The prison authorities would not allow him to see us together. He had already taken the first step and then they allowed him to meet with us individually. So when he saw Sisulu, Sisulu said in principle there is nothing wrong but he thought the initiative should have come from the other side. Mhlaba and Mlangeni said, "Why didn't you start earlier? You should have started this thing earlier." Then he came to me, the last one, and he says we were on different wavelengths. Not that I opposed it in principle and I can't today give you a correct version of what went through my mind, I don't know. I can only speculate what must have gone through my mind. I could never have opposed it on principle because that would have been against the policy of the ANC. What I may have thought at that time is the timing. At a time when the mass struggle was gaining momentum, the armed struggle was gaining momentum, the isolation of SA was gaining momentum and I must have thought this would be showing weakness. That must have been my opposition to it. He said, "Well none of you are opposed to it in principle so why argue?" Then of course Lusaka at that time was consulted and when he wrote back that one sentence reply to say that all he is trying to do is to have the government talking to the leadership of the ANC, Lusaka also started accepting.

POM     If Oliver Tambo had not fallen into ill health, if he had been alive and healthy, would he have led the negotiations as President of the ANC? Would he have become the first President of SA? Would Mandela have insisted that, 'You've been President all along'?

AK     The relationship between them was so warm that in my opinion Mandela would have stood down.

POM     That's what I mean.

AK     I am firmly of the opinion, he had such a tremendous regard for Tambo and all along in prison too we kept on insisting, Mandela too, that the leadership of the ANC is outside, Tambo is the leader of the ANC.

POM     So would Tambo have headed up the negotiating team?

AK     Well those are practicalities. Mandela didn't head the negotiating team. It was Cyril who headed the negotiating team. Mandela was consulted from time to time. He set the process going at the opening but he was not the chief negotiator. So it all depends, it wasn't as if it was decided that Mandela should not be but for practical reasons it was better to get a person like Cyril who was Secretary General of the ANC to be involved on a day to day basis in the negotiations. I doubt if Oliver would have been agreeable to be in the day to day thing. I think that task would have been left to other senior officials from the ANC.

POM     In one respect history might have taken a different turn if Oliver had remained alive?

AK     He would have been the first President of the country, could have been. They had such a tremendous regard for one another, the trio, Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu, was an unbreakable trio. They had tremendous regard for one another. They consulted one another on just about everything and I could never even envisage a position where they would be in competition with one another, the way I knew them. Of course I knew the two much better than Tambo. Tambo I knew but to much less an extent, in jail you come to know people much better than outside.

POM     If you had to just finally compare and contrast Mandela and Tambo and their similarities and differences? How did they complement each other?

AK     The three of them?

POM     Yes, you have to think of three.

AK     I think there are similarities when it comes to policy, loyalty to the organisation. There, there was absolutely no difference. They are all very highly disciplined people, they are not individualistic, they are democrats. But then they differ as individuals. Sisulu undoubtedly is the father figure, the father figure in prison and outside, recognised, loved and respected as such across the political spectrum, in prison and even in black politics outside he is still the father figure. Unfortunately, of course, because of his health he is not able to be as active but still he is highly, highly loved and respected. Mandela is not the father figure. Tambo I can't say how he was. He was highly loved and respected outside. If one person could be singled out for credit, for keeping the ANC intact, if one person had to be singled out it's Tambo. Of course in the early years he had the benefit of other senior leaders like Moses Kotane, JB Marks, very senior leaders. When they died Tambo led the whole ANC.

POM     What was Mandela's distinguishing characteristic?

AK     Highly respected with an insight into Sisulu also had that but when it came to the attitude people had towards him I wouldn't say that he was regarded as a father figure. Highly respected, highly admired, people would go to him and consult with him but there was something about him that Sisulu had which he did not have and that is the personality that just evoked love and respect. There's not a soul in all the years, they argued with Sisulu, they would differ but nobody would utter a word which would be regarded as an insult, it would never happen with Sisulu. They all loved him as a father figure and, as I say, still do.

POM     Was Mandela perceived as ?

AK     He was the leader, no doubt, nobody would challenge that, in fact there was an incident, I think it's in the book, where a small grouping within the ANC raised the constitutional point that the constitution of the ANC does not provide for leaders, so how can Mandela be regarded as a leader. This came to a meeting and if you consult the book, Sisulu is the man who moved the motion, and we explained that this is a banned organisation, what constitution are you talking about in a banned organisation? Sisulu moved the resolution that Mandela is the leader, I seconded it, and that's recorded in the autobiography, and it was passed.

POM     And this was in prison?

AK     In prison, yes. The ANC is a big organisation and in prison too you had this little group that said the ANC was now a Marxist organisation so we had endless debates on that thing and Mandela is a nationalist, he's not a communist. Mbeki is a communist and particularly the younger people, but he was the leader, unchallenged, accepted by the small group and then too they accepted it after having challenged it.

POM     This might sound like a peculiar question, do you ever look back on those days when you were in prison and despite the hardships, debating and planning, do you ever feel any nostalgia? Was it a more principled world?  When you talk about the relationship between Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu and how close it was and how they each trusted and valued each other it's very difficult in today's world to think of over the years three people maintaining that kind of relationship. It's not that kind of world any longer. You know what I mean?

AK     It's not a competitive relationship, it's more harmonious. I look back to the prison years for various things. There was this close contact which we don't have any more.   Well then of course there are practical things, there was a lot of time to relax, time to do a lot of things that one wants to do inside of prison where you can have that thing back again, it can only happen in prison and one doesn't want to go back to prison for that.

POM     OK, I will stop there and thank you for all your help. I will be back to see you again anyway but I hope it will just be as a friend coming to visit you and to talk with you and to seek your advice or whatever but it's been a real pleasure and privilege for me how you've made yourself available always, unstintingly.

AK     Yours is a very exciting project.

POM     I hope I can do justice.

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.