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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
30 Dec 2002: Pillay, Vella & Patsy
POM Vella, my first question to you, and the way Mac tells it is that he left SA and the only phone number in his pocket he had was yours and that he rang you at the Bank of China and you responded by saying, "Ring me on Sunday at six o'clock", and that he rang you that Sunday at six o'clock and Patsy answered the phone and there was a silence, then she came back and said, "He's gone out for a walk", and he could hear your voice in the background and he said, "To hell with that fellow, I'll have nothing more to do with him", and that was that. The next thing Kurt Danziger arrived on the scene and said, "I want you and Vella to get together. I've a letter from Brian Bunting that is to be read in front of both of you." Mac said, "Well I want nothing to do with that guy Vella", and he got to your house and sat in the lounge and Kurt talked to you and you came into the lounge and said to him, "So, you want to join the British Communist Party?" And he had no idea how you knew that he had gone earlier to the BCP to ask to join. He said, "Well, Vella was a very arrogant fellow so Kurt had to come in and say hey, sit down guys, make peace here", and read a letter from Bunting that was about raising funds for New Age and he said the two of you guys will have to work together. So Mac looked at you and said, "Well if I have to I'll tolerate him for the cause." But he knew that you were a member of the BCP and head of the SA unit in the BCP and then that he joined and you took him under your wing and he became - that's almost fifty years ago and here you are still friends and still remembering each other. What was your first impression of Mac?
VP Let me first correct Mac's impression. I was at the centre in London, I was the contact in London for the SACP for the New Age group and for all of the underground organisations in London, constantly in various contacts with them. I would only therefore meet people that I was informed in advance that they would be coming to me. Anybody that phones me up and wants to meet me, I was very, very cautious about that and I am sorry for what I did to Mac because he became one of my closest friends. Now that's the explanation for that particular incident.
Again, your question?
POM What was your impression of him when he came to your house? When he uses the word 'arrogant' I almost laugh because Mac doesn't lack a certain degree of arrogance himself.
VP That's right, yes. Mac came to our house and he seemed to have a fairly know-all attitude and I was arrogant, I'm duly careful, I'm murderously careful, stand-offish and a bit difficult sort of thing like that. But those were the days when we were all very, very careful indeed, very, very careful, and it was understandable but that very quickly dissolved, very, very quickly dissolved.
POM So, again, did you at that point see him as bright? Did you see potential or did you see a lot of rawness that needed somehow to be moulded?
VP No, he was a very impressive man. I found him an extremely impressive man both of judgement, both of understanding of the SA situation and his total dedication to the cause to which I had already committed myself and my wife did, so I was very impressed with him. That built a very, very warm friendship that took place over that 50 years.
POM Now you left SA, did you, yourself?
VP I left SA very, very much earlier. I left SA to come and study at the London School of Economics with my wife. My wife is white and we got married.
POM Did you get married in SA?
VP In SA in 1948 in a place called Mafikeng in the Cape Province where they had certain exceptions. So we came over and I continued my studies and I worked her and my wife was a stenographer and worked here. Ultimately she worked for the Indian Government Office here at the Indian High Commission, the Embassy here. And so that was the arrangement, we lived together and became friends with a number of British people on the political left and sympathetic to the SA cause and gradually began to develop a core of South Africans, most of them students and others that I knew in SA and so on, various people that formed the SA Students' Association and in that way began to develop this core group in those early days.
POM What activities who would be in that circle? Who would be Mac's contemporaries who would be around today? Was Kader Asmal there?
VP Kader Asmal came very much later. There was Steve Naidoo, was he around that time?
PP Nandha Naidoo.
VP Does he mention him?
PP In Bournemouth.
VP He's now in Bournemouth but he was one of them. There's a chap called Manna Chetty, you probably must have heard of him. What's the name of the chap in Sweden, Patsy?
PP Freddy Reddy.
VP Freddy Reddy. These were guys that came, broadly progressive, brought in and became very important. I was a founder of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and I became very active in it as the first Treasurer, subsequently the first Chairman.
POM Was that founded by the SACP?
VP No, no, it was formed it started in various ways. We wanted to have a boycott of SA fruit and vegetables in the SA Students' Association so we began to demonstrate with placards and so on outside shops and outside stations and things of that character and from that we collected various sympathisers from the British population and out of that we formed the boycott movement, 'Boycott South Africa', and that boycott grew rapidly and that became the Anti-Apartheid Movement and was one of the leading movements in the country in opposition to the British policy of collaboration with the SA government. Mac was very much part of the boycott movement and of the early movements, not necessarily of the Anti-Apartheid Movement because by then we had ready set up a kind of a
VP No, not a forum, a
POM He always referred to the SA Freedom Association.
VP Right, Freedom Association. The SA Association was the one that followed after the various demonstrations we had on the boycott of SA goods and there was a chap, David Kitson you've got that name? He was very active and we knew him in SA earlier and when he came over we all worked together for this kind of SA Freedom Association. We got hold of some British MPs to support us and on that basis began to cultivate a British contingent around the kind of forces that we were. Within that contingent we had a Communist Party group that was working very closely with the BCP who gave us advice and various assistance and so on and Mac was very much implicated in all those developments in the early stages.
POM Was Solly Sachs?
VP Solly Sachs, he was a trade unionist and he organised a little organisation of his own which my wife was secretary for. Some South African not Freedom Association, another name. He was mainly at contacting, because he was a trade unionist from SA, contacting the British trade unions with a view of getting their support against some of the laws that were being passed against trade unions catering for black workers in SA. That lasted for a while and then went out of existence, I think when Solly Sachs himself got ill.
POM Mac gave me the impression that he was at one time the secretary of the Anti-Apartheid Movement before he went to the GDR.
VP Who? Mac?
PP Before he went to the GDR, on some committee maybe?
POM That he was secretary?
VP I think he may have been secretary of one of the sub-committees of the Anti-Apartheid Movement but the secretary of the AAM was always an English person.
POM Right, yes. And you were treasurer?
VP I was the treasurer first then I became the Vice-Chairman and the Chairman was a British MP, Bob Hughes. We had various chairmen.
PP Not Barclay?
VP No, he was involved in the movement. A liberal, the name will come. We had a liberal leader. We had Bishop Ambrose Reeves from SA, he's an Englishman but he came from SA, he was expelled. Mac must have told you that he played a very notable role in organising the church community around the new AAM. There were people like the Enolds(?) a very celebrated family of liberals and they subsequently joined the Labour Party and one of them became a minister and they were very active in the growing of the Boycott Movement and after a while the Boycott Movement transformed itself into the AAM. By then I think Mac had already moved on to various other things that he was doing.
Once the people at where Mandela and all these people were.
POM Robben Island?
VP No, no, this house that they had.
PP The Rivonia house.
VP All these people were banned from politics but they got this Rivonia house and in the Rivonia house some of them used to come for meetings and ultimately when they went underground they actually stayed there. They then developed the notion which was already somewhere going on in the background of South African politics of undertaking an armed struggle. Now my dates are not very clear. I was very much closely involved in having contacts from the outside world with this group at Rivonia, very, very closely involved by getting them in touch with communists and Labour Party leaders and others.
POM This would be Joe Slovo he would be involved?
PP And Rusty Bernstein.
VP And Rusty Bernstein was in SA at the time. In that process they enquired whether it was possible to recruit South Africans who were living in London to undergo military training and they asked me whether I could do that and I recruited a number of people, Mac was one of them, but by then Mac had become a very close friend of mine, very, very close friend of mine because he was also working on one of the other committees we set up for supporting the New Age committee in raising funds and that was chaired by Dr Max Joffe who Mac knew very well, he's probably mentioned him.
PP And Saura(?) Joffe.
VP Did he mention that in the notes he's given you?
PP In the early stages New Age came first. Early on they raised money for the New Age paper in Johannesburg.
POM That's Lord Joffe?
PP No, Saura Joffe, Max Joffe.
VP He was the chairman, he was a SA doctor and we all worked on it.
PP I was the secretary and we all worked on that to raise money.
VP Mac was very, very closely involved in raising money as well for New Age and that was the basis of the letter from Brian Bunting. So it developed on that basis. Then when the armed struggle became an issue of getting recruits and I was asked to recruit a number of people who would be able to undergo military training I enquired from Mac whether he would like to do it, and some others, and those that agreed were sent for military training, some in the Soviet Union, some in the GDR, East Germany, and some in China.
POM And he went to the GDR?
VP He went to the GDR, yes.
POM To a little town called
VP I don't know where it was.
POM But you were his only contact with the outside world. Now at this point you'd met Tim, his wife?
PP We'd met her, they got married in London.
POM They got married in London.
PP I think it was in London, wasn't it? We were very friendly with them, yes.
VP Very friendly with them.
PP And he was working as a teacher I think at that time.
POM That's right, yes, he was.
PP And she was nursing. I think Tim was nursing.
POM Yes, because they used to only visit each other every fortnight, she had 100 miles to come to whatever. Would you all socialise together?
PP He used to baby-sit for our children.
POM Mac? Babysat?
PP Yes. Well they weren't babies but he was very fond of the children.
VP Mac is a wonderful chap with young children.
PP He is, he really is, he's got that warm spot. You might not have found it.
VP Even now our two boys are grown up and they went to SA and the first thing they did was to contact Mac here in SA.
PP They're old men now. One is 52, one is 42.
POM Well thank you very much! I won't say what my age is.
PP They think they're old.
VP My elder son was here a couple of months ago and my brother organised a fantastic huge party for my son and Mac and Zarina were invited. Previously my young son came and he went to see Mac just for old times sake because he was very close to these young boys, very close. He had a jalopy of an old car and he used to drive over to our place, collect these boys, put them in the car and drive around.
POM When he went to the GDR that left Tim on her own. Did Tim stay in touch with you after he left?
PP Tim was in touch with us when Mac was in the GDR.
POM Would she come and visit you?
VP Oh yes, very much so.
POM We've talked about this. It must have been very difficult for her.
VP It was very difficult. You see I came to an understanding with the people in SA, Rusty Bernstein, Nelson Mandela and so on, that this was a very secret operation of sending these people for training. I did not know how far Mac was going to reveal to his wife that he is going for this training. I did not know that and I never told Tim where he was. Mac may have told her but as far as I know we never did. That I think was one of the problems that led to difficulties in their marriage.
POM So when he wrote to her he would send the letters to you and you delivered them to her and if she was responding she would give the letter to you and you would make sure it got to its destination?
VP Something like that.
POM When he came back out of training he spent a while in London before
VP Going off to Zambia.
POM Did you notice any change in him at that point?
VP No, no great change, he was quite good.
POM Did he talk about his experiences, how he found the GDR?
VP Yes he did talk about it and he spoke about it in positive terms. He wasn't very critical at all. They cared for him very well, gave him all the training that he needed. He went on to Zambia after that and from there he rose right to the top levels of the military command of the ANC. From that of course no, I made a mistake, from there he went straight to Johannesburg and the problem of integrating him into the organisation and at the same time making a living. So one of the South African white comrades who was running some newspapers and magazines gave him a job, Manny Brown.
POM Tim came a bit later. The problem was that she wasn't legal in the Transvaal.
VP That's right, yes.
POM She had to go back to Durban to do retraining as a nurse because South Africa wouldn't accept her she hadn't practised as a nurse in SA for such a period of time so they said she had to renew her certificates so she went to Durban. First she spent some time with him helping him with the printing and whatever and then he went to pick her up in Durban and they stopped at his parents in Newcastle and then when he heard about the arrests he said, "We've got to get back to Johannesburg", and they were arrested the following day.
VP That's right.
POM She spent six months in solitary confinement.
VP That's right.
PP They were arrested in Doornfontein, arrested in Johannesburg.
POM That's right. Then she was released and sent back to Natal and then of course he was
VP Found guilty and sent to Robben Island.
POM Went to Robben Island for 12 years. Then she came back to London in 1973. She would visit you when she came back?
VP Yes, she visited us. So Mac on his release, there was very marginal correspondence between myself and Mac while he was on Robben Island, we used to get odd letters addressed to my son for me but I was instructed by the remains of the SACP not to expose whatever the London contacts were. So my contacts with Mac were very, very limited for the 12 years he was in prison. When he came out of prison
POM But he would write to you while he was in prison?
VP He wrote to me, yes. Then what happened is that he came out of prison, he came to London.
POM Yes, he was going to transcribe Mandela's autobiography.
VP That's right. He brought in Mandela's autobiography and was transcribing that and Tim was here with him. By then the entire external leadership of the SACP resided in the position of Dr Yusuf Dadoo, he must have mentioned it, and there were a series of other people involved as well in that. I was no longer associated with that group primarily because I was working for the Bank of China and there was the Sino-Soviet conflict and because of the Sino-Soviet conflict I was gradually removed from any leadership positions within the SACP's hierarchy.
POM So you were no longer a member of you were a member of the Central Committee?
VP I was previously. They then, these people would be Dr Dadoo and that group, then sent Mac to Lusaka to work in the military command of the ANC and that story, of course, is something that Mac will tell you about where he developed a very close relationship with that outstanding African leader called Chris Hani. He was very close with him.
POM They had a very close relationship?
VP With Chris Hani. That's where, I don't know whether you will have to play this up in the book, you must consult Mac, where the beginnings of the tensions between him and Thabo Mbeki emerged.
POM Over his relationship with?
VP Between Mac and Thabo Mbeki, the tensions between them.
POM What did those tensions arise from?
VP As I say I was very much outside and once you've been part of it you have a very close grasp of the dimensions of the whole thing and the tendencies. I got the impression that there was a very strong view, strong grouping in the leadership of the ANC in Lusaka who was looking for a solution towards a negotiation with the SA government while at the same time the British were putting great pressure on the SA government to start talking to Oliver Tambo and the ANC because the British government was now under very severe pressure by the strength of the AAM, boycotts and so on, no British ships, no British aeroplanes or anything could land here with demonstrations and all that kind of stuff. MPs were raising questions in parliament and the British government was putting great pressure on the SA government. It was at that time that already Oliver Tambo had arranged for the editor of the Observer, or the owner of the Observer, to visit Mandela in prison. Did you know that?
POM I didn't know that, no.
PP David Astor.
POM I know David Astor, yes. He became very involved in later years in Northern Ireland where, of course, I've been involved for thirty years. There was an association called the British Irish Association and he was chairman of that so I would meet him every year at Oxford or Cambridge. We used to alternate between the two.
VP That's right, so David Astor under pressure from Oliver Tambo went and forced the SA government to give him a visa and was supported by British government pressure on the South Africans to meet Mandela. Therefore these kind of contacts would begin to unravel between the SA government and elements of the ANC. In Liberia or Nigeria a huge conference was held where
POM Senegal, Dakar?
VP Senegal. A large number of Afrikaners, economists and others, and they met a huge delegation of South Africans, some from the ANC, and these contacts then began to really establish a new pattern. Whether Mac was part of that I do not know.
POM Who was Mac close to? Just to back up a bit, when he came back from prison and came to London was he different in any way? Would one note that there was a difference in him after spending 12 years in prison?
VP The only difference that I felt from him was a marked distance between him and I.
POM A distance between the two of you.
VP Mainly because I was working for the Chinese and this was the height of the Sino-Soviet conflict and he was very much on the side of the Russians because the Communist Party was getting support from the Russian side and he was very much involved in that. But that didn't mean that we didn't talk to each other.
PP But you weren't so open with each other.
VP We were not very close to each other as we were in the early days. In the early days we were just like that and that was the relationship that we had. These things I think need to be explored by you with Mac. You'll be seeing Mac again?
POM Oh sure, tomorrow for five hours. He says I'm wearing him out because we do five-hour sessions at a time. I say, "You've been interrogated, you're used to it."
PP Fortunately you're not torturing him.
VP You see there are aspects of what I've told you that he may well find that might not be right to include.
POM That's the whole point of it.
VP And this is something that you'll have to settle with him once you've got the draft or whatever, you'll have to speak to him about it.
POM He has said everyone you see ask them anything you want. I think I was seeing Rashid Aboobaker and he rang Mac up and said, "Mac, what should I tell him?" Mac said, "Answer any questions just tell him everything." That's the whole purpose of the exercise, it sheds different
VP Are you seeing Mandela?
POM I've seen him.
VP Oh you saw him? He developed a very close relationship with Nelson Mandela, very close. Nelson Mandela was a very fatherly figure towards him. They've got a lovely African term, he'd say to Mac, "Hamba Kahle" go slowly, go carefully. Go slowly. Because Mac is a firebrand.
POM I told Mac, we talked about Tim and I told Mac I was going to see her. There was no problem finding out where she was and Mac just tapped into his telephone and gave me her telephone number and gave me her address and I will go and see her because I feel she went through an awful lot -
VP Trauma, yes.
POM - while he was in prison and she waited and then he comes out of prison and then the marriage collapses and within months or so he's met Zarina. So it must have been very hurtful to her.
VP It was a very, very sad experience, very traumatic experience. She had a very rough time. We were around in the background of that experience because when he came back with Zarina and Tim was here in London living with her sister, we used to see Tim quite often.
PP I remember going to London to visit Tim and Mac and I remember her saying, "You know Mac wants to go back to SA", she said to me and I don't think she was keen on that. I got the feeling that she did not want him to get involved. Robben Island I had the feeling that she wanted him to be secure. That's the feeling I got.
POM Yes. He talked about her saying, "Why don't you get a job at the ANC in London?"
PP She didn't want to go back after all that he had been through, to go back to SA again. I had the feeling that she was sad for him, she was worried probably about him.
VP Tell me, has he given you an explanation of why he resigned from the government?
POM No, I was going to ask you that question. I was going to ask you two questions, (i) why he resigned from the SACP and (ii) why well he explained he was resigning from the government on the basis of wanting to spend time with his family and the Mandela era was over. I have an interview set up with Zarina, I'm going to talk to her separately, but he says that he wanted to spend more time with his family and as minister they were growing up, they had not had him as a father when they were growing up and he felt an increasing obligation to spend more time with them.
VP And why did he resign from the Communist Party? Did he give an explanation there?
POM Yes he did finally, but why do you think he did?
VP I don't know and I can just speculate but speculation is not very valuable for a biography. I mentioned to you that there were already certain levels of tension between two powerful members of the ANC, that is Thabo Mbeki and Mac with Oliver sitting in the middle trying to hold it together. That's the impression I got. That has continued all the time. But why as a result, why did he resign from the Communist Party, because Thabo resigned from the Communist Party at the same time?
PP Did he?
POM The explanation Mac gives is that they wanted to be the leadership in the country after they were unbanned, that they wanted Harry Gwala on the leadership and Mac said that was completely unacceptable to him, that he knew for a fact that Gwala had had a comrade killed because he disagreed with him over an issue and to him he just couldn't be part of somebody like that being part of the national leadership. He thought the party should take the moral high ground, that they would be the guardian of the principles and that to include Harry would be a betrayal of those principles.
VP Has he ever spoken to you of his relationship with Chris Hani?
VP Please take that up because they were two of the most powerful left wing chaps in the national leadership of the ANC when he came out of prison, Chris Hani and him, very, very strong. Both of them were communists. Chris Hani remained in the Communist Party until he was murdered and it is very difficult to understand why Mac left while Chris Hani remained.
POM Chris Hani wanted Harry, he talked about a Politburo meeting where Hani and Slovo wanted Harry Gwala to remain on, to be part of it, and that's why he said he couldn't be a part of it. I suppose what's interesting is that, and this may be where you can throw some light, knowing him, because I'm trying to figure out who is Mac which is the thing and that when he talks about his childhood, and we talked about it extensively right through, and he never mentions his brothers or sisters. Never. This is a household of eight but he never mentions any of them by name. He's like somebody describing their childhood and everything that happened to them and he talks about his mother and his father and the relationship particularly with his mother. In our interviews he discovered that the real influence on him was in fact his father, that was a kind of self discovery for himself because we went through it step by step.
VP That is quite interesting.
POM But he doesn't mention anybody in his family and I'm saying how can you live in a house of
VP When I came to Johannesburg the first or second time Zarina had gone off somewhere.
POM This would be when?
PP When we first came. 199- .
VP I came here specially for I was appointed by the ANC to manage an institution called the Macro Economic Research to try to organise for the ANC a macro economic programme for the new liberated SA and I was a director of that operation, the group of economists. So I came here to do that and I spent about two or three years on that.
POM That would have been in 199- ?
PP Just before liberation, just on that period when they were negotiating.
POM So it would be the early 1990s.
VP That's right yes.
PP That crucial time.
VP Then I used to be in touch with Mac because Zarina had gone somewhere or other and the kids were there so he got one of his brothers, no one of his brother's daughters to come and live with them, with her husband, to come and live and look after the kids so there was some contact. I met her.
PP From Newcastle, from here.
VP They came from Newcastle or Durban.
POM It's just that he never mentions them.
VP He doesn't mention them.
PP And she came to make curry one day. Do you remember?
POM That was which sister? Was it a sister or - ?
VP A sister or the daughter of a sister.
PP It was Mac's family, so there was contact I'm sure of that. He didn't mention that?
POM Yes, he doesn't mention it.
VP It's a very, very large family.
PP His family comes from Newcastle, and he went to a wedding once in Newcastle. I wonder why he doesn't talk about it.
VP I don't know.
POM But in all our conversations, which have been pretty comprehensive, the two people, three people that he doesn't say much about are (i) Thabo, I had to pull comments about Thabo from him and haven't explored them fully yet. I've taken them to a certain level and let them sit there. The second one is Joe Slovo, he doesn't mention Joe hardly at all.
VP There were great frictions between them, very, very considerable tensions. On this particular question Mac had very severe contradictions with Joe Slovo towards the end, towards the end of the external enterprise as they were going back to SA and negotiating the change for a new constitution with the government. Both Mac and Joe Slovo were on the negotiating committee with a number of other people. I think the frictions rose in that context. Although Mac's resignation from the Communist Party took place earlier and probably the frictions between him and Joe Slovo arose when Mac in company with Chris Hani were thinking in terms of a very much more revolutionary outcome of the negotiations, whereas Joe Slovo was very much in league with Thabo Mbeki, was doing his thing with the SA government quietly on the core issues. The man that was somehow or the other deftly holding the balance without creating an enormous explosion in the ANC was that wonderful man Oliver Tambo.
POM I often wonder how he managed it.
VP It was very, very difficult. So what happened was that when the right moment came Mac resigned from the Communist Party together with a number of others. Chris remained, Joe Slovo remained. Chris was murdered and Joe died of cancer. Mac should be able, if he's willing to tell you about that, it's a pretty sordid series of things that happened in the phases, at the time when the capture of power was now looming and the jockeying for positions of different groupings.
I had a feeling of that while I was working here on the Macro Economic Research Group as a director, what were all these particular tensions. These tensions were also affecting me because I was thinking in terms of a macro economic programme for SA that was not revolutionary but very much Keynesian, but very much directed towards really overcoming the sort of worst of the features of the apartheid system in terms of the scale of the unemployment of the people, the provision of homes, provision of education and what were the instruments of policy available to do these things.
POM So you would have been for deficit spending?
VP Deficit spending, true Keynesian policy, because otherwise there would be no chance, but some members of the leadership under the pressure of the Americans and the British, and I know that because there was who would come to my office at Wits University trying to find out what we were doing. The leadership of the ANC, especially Thabo Mbeki and some of these others were saying don't go that way, you'll lose all of the support that we can get and there will be a bigger crisis in SA. That kind of debate was going on.
I tried to get from Mac an explanation of that particular scene, what was going on on the Macro Economic Research Group and he told me quite frankly, "I don't know." He wasn't privy to anything.
POM Mac was secretary of the Administrative Committee for both CODESA 2 and for the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum.
VP You know that multi-party thing and CODESA was, in my judgement, maybe not Mac's but my judgement, a piece of theatre because below that other negotiations, more deeper were taking place.
POM These were?
VP Some of the top leaders of the ANC and top leaders of the existing government, probably the British Ambassador and the American Ambassador, some of these guys were sitting in a cabal and really thrashing these things out. At that CODESA there was the PAC and a whole series of other organisations and it was a huge jam. It's one of these big exhibition halls, all of these guys were there, all of these people were there. It was going on and on and speeches and speeches and speeches and so on, that somehow or the other the deal was being made somewhere else. I don't know whether Mac will be prepared to reveal that. Maybe he wasn't part of it or if he was I didn't know.
POM Did he talk about it to you? How did you know that other talks were taking place?
VP Because I went down there once or twice.
POM To Kempton Park?
VP Yes, and I saw what was going on there. I once went to the ANC offices here at Shell House and I went to see Walter Sisulu, the old man, a very, very fine man, I have a great regard for him, and I had ready some of the questions about my doubts and so on, like what I was trying to do in MERG the Macro Economic Research Group and so on, and he said, and he held my hand, he said, "Vella, hamba kahle. Go slowly, please, I beg of you." I said, "Why?" He said, "I don't want to tell you. Please go slowly. You're a good friend of mine and I don't want you to be hurt." Just like that. The man's dead now.
PP No, no, Walter isn't dead.
POM No, Walter is alive.
VP Well who's that? Mbeki yes, Govan Mbeki.
POM It's your belief that outside of Kempton Park you had the British?
VP Oh yes I'm convinced because they were coming to my office and then of course there was the Negotiating Committee of the ANC meeting the Negotiating Committee of the government and these meetings were taking place in Cape Town and sometimes in Johannesburg and so on. They worked out the parameters of the transfer of power with a fundamental understanding of what the transfer began to take place after the talk without fiddling around with the basic structures either of the economy or politics until such time as a couple of years on. That I think, here I'm just speculating.
POM What converted somebody like Thabo? Did Thabo ever pass through your hands while he was in Britain?
VP Oh yes I met him several times.
PP When he was a student he was often at our house. When he was young and a student they were all at our house.
POM The Pahads?
PP Kader Asmal.
VP Kader Asmal was very close to us. He's a shifty character.
POM That's OK.
VP I don't mind saying it and I don't mind telling him that I believe that.
POM Did he ever join the Communist Party? Was he approached? He did?
POM Was he approached to go for training?
VP He was approached to go to training, I approached him and he agreed and the next week he got married to an English girl.
POM An Irish girl wasn't it? Louise?
POM Louise is from Dublin. So that was that. He spent 30 years drinking whiskey in Dublin.
VP So I think you can understand I don't have a high regard for him.
POM This is again speculation, it's a question I've asked Mac and other people too, do you think Mac could ever have served in a government headed by Thabo Mkebi?
VP I don't think so.
POM Why? Patsy, you first.
PP I think he's very honest, too honest. I think Mac would be too honest.
VP The second reason is both of them are equally very, very strong characters, very strong, independent minded characters and also that Thabo is a very much more shrewd operator and he's an extremely clever politician, extremely clever politician.
POM That's OK, we're in agreement.
VP Mac was a very principled chap.
POM When you met the young Thabo how did he come across? If you had to compare them, you met Mac as a young man and you met Thabo as a young man, what would you think of them both when they were young?
VP We met Thabo, he came to our house now and then and so on. He had a brother, Moeletsi in London who married an English girl. I think Thabo had all kinds of relationships.
PP He enjoyed himself as a young man. You know young men enjoy themselves. I'm sure he enjoyed very much.
VP He became very close to Oliver Tambo even as a young man when Oliver Tambo came to exile in London and began to work on behalf of the ANC Thabo used to go and see him and so on.
POM When was Tambo in London?
VP He came to London at Sharpeville.
VP Sometime in 1960, Sharpeville. He and Ronald Segal left for London. The ANC asked him to leave SA and go to London, go through Africa to bolster support for the ANC. He and a chap called Ronald Segal, you must have heard of him, he's an author and so on and was very much close to the ANC, both of them left together to Botswana and from Botswana went to Zambia and Oliver remained in Zambia and Ronald Segal came to London.
POM So the relationship between Thabo and OR began in London while he was still a student?
VP I would have thought so. Oliver Tambo and Govan Mbeki were of course very, very powerful colleagues that had gone into the development of the ANC for the past 30 years, very close colleagues. So you could well understand that Govan Mbeki's son comes to London, he would go to Oliver Tambo as the uncle sort of thing like that and there would be a close relationship between them.
POM Your relationship I had asked Mac why didn't he ever go to the ANC offices in London when he was there the first time and it was because, "Well, as an Indian I couldn't be a member of the ANC so I confined my activities to the Communist Party." But when that broke down, the barrier broke down after the Morogoro conference, would you have been in direct interaction with the ANC office at that point?
VP No there was hardly an ANC office really, I don't know who mentioned there was an ANC office. What happened is that when the Sharpeville crisis took place a number of people left SA including Oliver Tambo, Yusuf Dadoo and a whole series of other highly prominent political figures. They were asked to leave. Yusuf Dadoo planned to go to India, Oliver Tambo went to Zambia to bolster the new liberated African countries' support. It was at this time that I was very actively in touch with the underground movement from London, urged Yusuf Dadoo to come to London because I thought going to India was a useless thing. He came to London and organised a solidarity movement there that had tremendous impact on British policy and therefore on South Africans. It's far more significant than what the Indians can do. So he came to London and a couple of months later Oliver came to London and his wife also joined him but there was no formal organisation apart from both Oliver Tambo and Yusuf Dadoo using the offices of the India League in London as places of meeting people. In Trafalgar Square there was a building where the old India League of old days was still functioning.
VP Not when we came but that was when Yusuf came and Oliver came. So it wasn't very highly organised. But Oliver came to London because it was felt that he would be far more effective than having gone through Africa and that he could travel around very much more easily if he could get hold of a passport. I think we got some MPs and so on to arrange with the British government to give him a travel document of some kind. So there was no formality of Yusuf Dadoo, there was no formal ANC office. The ANC office came into operation very, very much later, very much later. When did the ANC office come into operation? Very much later, about 20 years later, 15/20 years later.
POM So they would meet informally?
VP And we would go to the ANC office when it was functioning, when it became functional. Yusuf Dadoo started going there and a large number of young Indian students used to go and work in the ANC office there. We had a very good relationship and Oliver Tambo was very good in constructing that. He was a fine man, a very, very fine man. Then they began to appoint representatives of the ANC in London and the ANC representative had his offices and some very good people came to London.
POM Why do you think the Indians, given their proportion in the population, played such an almost dominating role in the struggle? All the way back to 1894 they were the first to organise when the Natal Indian Congress was founded by Gandhi, the Transvaal Indian Congress. They were in the game before the ANC was even formed. If I go down the list of names and look at them every place you will find somebody of Indian origin playing a very significant role. I often wonder why do you think it turned out like that?
VP First of all you had the charismatic figure of Mahatma Gandhi who took the issue of putting provincial barriers against the movement of Indians from Natal into the Transvaal and he undertook a movement of forcing, of getting thousands of Indians just to cross the border and say come and arrest me. My mother's mother was very much involved in that movement of people across the frontier. The second and more fundamental reason was that the Indians were able to think in terms of advancing their own interests against the kind of anti-Indian laws that were being set up in those days by the early governments from the 1880s onwards. The Indians who came here were very much members of the merchant class. Some of them were farmers and so on very much concerned with the question of capital and making money rather than selling their labour. They knew at the time of the Anglo-Boer War that the money was to be made here where the war was taking place here in the Transvaal and where gold was being discovered. That's how my family arrived in the Transvaal. They were very much dynamic whereas the African population they were even below the level of peasant, they were just quasi-slaves on white farms, restricted in their movement in every conceivable way.
POM So Indians who came here they came with aspirations.
VP With clear aspirations. They wanted to advance themselves in much the same way as the Indians from India went to Malaysia and to other parts of south east Asia and to Kenya and so on.
PP And the indentured labour didn't come with they just came for work and they were supposed to go back again. Indentured labourers.
VP The indentured labourers were the ones who were recruited by the mining companies to work on the mines, they were not Indians, they were mainly Chinese.
POM I did not know that.
VP Mainly Chinese, the Chinese came to work on the mines because they couldn't get any experienced Africans to work on the mines.
POM So you had what we would call the indentured and you had the passenger Indians.
VP That's right, the Indians were the passengers.
PP Not all of them, what about the indentured sugar workers in Natal, they were indentured labourers.
PP They came as indentured labourers, they didn't come as traders.
VP No, no, they came as labourers but they were not indentured, surely they got jobs in the sugar industry.
PP They were recruited by the British, I am sure, to come to SA.
POM My understanding would be they were indentured for a number of years and then they could go back or they could stay. I would assume that if they stayed that they too would have aspirations to make something of their newfound freedom.
VP That's right. Probably Mac has got more information on that because I think his family, his original family was very much part of that.
POM Yes his father, they owned a little shop. They weren't indentured.
VP Now the question why are the Indians so prominent in the political movement? Well the Indians were prominent because we were driving towards acquiring the rights to become very rich capitalists, because they come from a class of businessmen and the SA government in those days, successive governments, began to impose restrictions on the right to own land, the right to be able to travel across the frontiers, the right to enter certain industries and these kinds of things, and they therefore became highly political in fighting for these things and they were able to be political because they had a supporter, and a very important supporter, that is the Indian government in India.
PP Don't forget Mahatma Gandhi, he was the force that gave them the vision.
VP Apart from him, Mahatma Gandhi, that was very, very important, the British were then running India, demanded the SA government have an Indian government representative here in SA as a foreign emissary. He was exercising great power of the Indian government to make continuous representations to the British government you can't treat our people like this, with a result the Indians had the support of the Indian government, they had already some of them have come from the moneyed classes, others had gone into the indentured industries and because of their education were able to climb up step by step. That's the reason. The Africans were kept down on the floor and never allowed to rise.
PP The Indians always had their mother, like their mother country was India. They always thought of India as their mother country. They did.
VP That's the reason, that's the answer to your question.
POM There's a second part of that question, in a way you've answered a bit of it, is that you had known that Irish people living in Britain even if they were born in Britain, their parents were Irish and they were born in Britain, they would still regard themselves as being Irish. In America you've got four or five generations and you've the people calling themselves Irish Americans. So when it comes to the question of identity how did your generation perceive yourselves? Did you see yourselves as Indians first and then South Africans or as South Africans first and then Indians?
VP At the beginning Indians first and then South Africans. Then later on, at least in the past 30 years we began to as I say we are South Africans and therefore want South African rights.
PP But earlier on, the fact of dividing the country, the Indians lived there, Lenasia, you lived there, the whites lived there and you were made to feel that you were Indian. They made you feel very much part of India, you were regarded as Indians first, not South Africans but Indians.
VP Then in the course of time we began to go to schools and set up our own schools using English as the main medium of education, and going to universities, some of us becoming doctors, some becoming accountants and so on. Many of the professions were closed to the Indians but nevertheless they one after the other. You could well imagine with the Africans not being able to do this by virtue of the repression, that animosities between the Indians and the Africans would develop. It's one of the most remarkable things that the leadership of the ANC, especially Chief Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and a man like Yusuf Dadoo who led the Indians, they always struggled to bring about unity between the two. It was a very difficult task to achieve that unity and even now when I see some of the young Indians how they look at the Africans compared to the way they look at the whites, these differences still linger on. But not among the young people, not among the young Indians.
POM Have you visited India?
POM Now when you go there people treat you as an Indian?
VP Oh yes.
PP Not when you speak. When you speak they know you're not an Indian. Even if you speak Tamil they know that that's not an Indian Tamil.
VP That's my wife, she's got a white skin. The Indians employed her as a senior official in the Indian Embassy in London.
PP Well that's a different story.
VP And they gave her an Indian passport.
PP I came from the liberation movement. I wasn't a white South African. I had a good reference from Yusuf Dadoo through the liberation process. And my name was Pillay so I was already part Indian.
POM This young woman who is very active in the Teachers' Union was going on a holiday, her first to India, and of course here she was part of the liberation movement and called herself black. They would say you go abroad, no-one is going to call you black, they're going to have one look at you and say you're an Indian. When you go to India and when people look at you and they say who are you and you say you're black, they're going to say nonsense, you're Indian for God's sake.
PP I talked to Vella Stanley the other day, you're talking about black people, and I said he's black and his brother said, "Black, of course he's black. He's not white, he's black." They get shocked because they never regard themselves as black. Indians don't regard themselves as black, not here, they regard themselves as brown.
POM I see.
PP He's not brown, look he's never brown. Come on.
VP I'm an Indian and an African. We come from different backgrounds. You've got in this country a population of something like 15/16/17 million called coloureds, this arises from miscegenation between the whites and the blacks.
PP Mainly Afrikaner.
VP And they now live as a separate community, under the apartheid system as a separate category. This is one of the most illogical countries in the world.
PP I find it very difficult here. You see when you go to a café, wherever, it's a 'rainbow nation', the Indians are sitting there, the Africans are sitting there, but if I come in with a group of Indians they think - what is she doing? It's not integration within the group. There's very little integration, you've noticed, within the group. So Africans and Indians are allowed to sit where they like and go to restaurants but if I come with them they'll ask me, "Can I get you a table?" They don't realise that I'm really part of the group. There's still a lot of that.
POM It's still going on?
PP Every day.
VP So tell me, how long is it going to take you to complete this book?
POM I hope to have the draft sent to my publisher by the end of May.
VP Oh that's good, that's good. Have you got many more interviews to do?
POM I have mostly done, I've about ten really intensive ones with Mac left. Tomorrow I'm giving him a draft of 300,000 words all on himself but he has to fill in, elaborate on questions and do things like that, answer more fully: this seems inconsistent with what you said three pages ago, you've given me two versions of the same event. That kind of thing. But it's a very compelling story but I want to put it in different context that people can see SA through using his story as a symbol of four decades of change.
VP I think the story that can come from him on his life and if it's immersed in this very peculiar country that you call SA and how it has emerged in its present state, I think it could be an extremely powerful book. All the other biographies that I've read, everybody's producing now something or other, and it's pretty pedestrian, it's I did this, I did that, we did that and that, but the socio-economic, political dynamics under which one is operating, one is living and taking part in the process of change, that is a far more compelling story and I think Mac has played a very, very notable role in that.
POM So to sum him up how would you describe him?
VP As a man of extraordinary courage, of great intelligence.
PP And warmth and integrity.
VP And ability. But also he doesn't what is the word tolerate hypocrites. He doesn't suffer all these kinds of people who are opportunists and climbers and so on and all that. He's very much more open and that's one of the reasons why he's probably had to leave politics because he will come straight out and say you're talking absolute nonsense. I don't think it's a weakness, I think he's a very, very honest person.
POM If you had to point to his weaknesses what would you point to?
PP Hard to find a weakness.
POM My God, I won't tell him that! It will go right to his head.
PP He knows I can't find his weakness. I've told him a hundred times.
VP He reaches a point of prejudice fairly quickly but within the course of time he realises that he was wrong and he abandons it.
PP He disagrees with you, is that why - ?
VP Yes, he may disagree with me. He may think that I'm a traitor because I worked for the Chinese as against the Russians but after a while he's abandoned the idea and says, "Good God, did I say that?"
PP The world's changed now.
POM Coming back here and looking at where SA is after eight, going on nine years of democratic government, what's your opinion of the direction in which the country is heading?
VP It's a dangerous question to ask.
POM That's OK.
VP I'm an economist by profession and I look at these things in substantially economic terms, but at the political level there has been a sense of liberation in the sense that all the horrible differences that marked national policy as between the races and the prejudices that these were in fact catered and dealt with and how they manifested themselves in all the social and other institutions of government whether it is in the sphere of education or on which side of the street you walk, all this was terrible and much of that has gone. Fundamentally the conditions of the black people, the African people, are materially not very advanced since liberation. Some changes have taken place but in my judgement not very quickly. You cannot after ten years of liberation still say you've got a liberated country when 43% of black labour is unemployed. That's something like 45% of African families are living in squatter camps when the public administration from local government right to the top is marked with widespread corruption and a country which has the makings of a very rich country by virtue of the resources they had, rich in people, rich in natural resources, rich in climate, a country which shores are washed by three oceans of the world. It's a wonderful thing and yet none of these changes that arise from these strategic advantages have been realised and they are not realised. The SA currency has been devalued by 60% since these people have come to power. There is no macro-economic policy that has come to deal with unemployment or the widespread poverty of the people, no inroads. It's a big error, a disgrace. Violence against the human person caused by the AIDS crisis and the involvement in that. What has been big changes is to create a black middle class and upper class, a small coterie, while the great mass of the people remain in broad unchanged conditions. This is my judgement, this is my criticism of what has been going on. They have imbibed policies in the economic field which are scheduled by the International Monetary Fund, by the Americans and by the British you can't do this, you can't do this, you can't do that, you can't spend too much money on that. Your main question is you must avoid having a deficit or high inflation or anything like that. In spite of that they have an inflation rate of something like 13% 14% which is higher than any western country.
These are the negative experiences that I would say, which I would give to you as a result of that question that you asked.
POM What happened? What happened, again since he's President, somebody like Thabo can have one set of beliefs one day, which he had for 30 - 40 years, and abandon them completely the following day?
VP I think I mentioned to you, in my judgement the transformation of SA, without changing its basic structure, was one of the central objectives of the policies of the great powers, the British and the Americans in particular. I was working here and I saw them operating, trying to get don't accept this, don't accept that, gradually bring the work - You know the IMF and the World Bank were sitting in the ANC offices. They had their offices there, they had their staff there telling the ANC you can't do this, you can do this, you can't do this and so on. It's called the new liberal relationship in economic policy. And I saw this and that influence you take this man who's the Governor of the Reserve Bank, I think he's a stupid man.
VP Tito Mboweni, they appoint him as Governor of the Reserve Bank and they send him to the Bank of England to be trained there for a year. Now can you imagine him being trained in the mechanisms of how the British are running their economy being imposed on a country where you have a fundamentally different situation in terms of living standards and social life as well as resources that you have at your disposal? So he comes in, he runs the Reserve Bank with those particular policies. So too with your Minister of Finance and the guys who work in the Ministry of Finance. They worked for six months to a year in the IMF in Washington and they come up and they impose these particular policies and yet the reality of the country calls for something totally different. That's my answer to your question. I think I'm screaming, I'm sorry.
PP Economists always go to that. What about the personal, the personal life? I mean people can live where they want to. We couldn't live in this establishment, this flat 20 years ago. I mean you couldn't move, you had to live in Azaadville and Lenasia and when I go down the street and see a black maid standing next to the school - I mean that to me is an improvement. Surely it's not all doom and gloom at the personal level, Vella.
PP You have the day to day issues, you talk to the person down the road and they say I have got the vote, I didn't have it before. Now isn't that an important thing? So you have to look at the personal level, that people regard what they had before and what they've got now. There are squatters, we know all that.
VP What I'm saying, the formalities of apartheid, the institutional basis of racism is gone but the structural basis in terms of living conditions, in terms of the life of the people, in terms of their housing, in terms of how they travel and the type of jobs they get, those institutional conditions they have been touched upon but have hardly changed in any significant manner in the ten, fifteen years that they've been in power, and from the present policies I don't see them changing very much.
PP Can you imagine, here you can sit on a bench you couldn't sit on a bench, any bench. There are a lot of things like the black Americans couldn't do this, couldn't do that and they did it eventually but it hasn't improved their standing that much in America.
VP What does Mac say?
POM I would say he's ambivalent. That would be our final session. I've taken as my cut off point the last ANC conference because I have to have a cut off mark because that's where they set their policies for the next seven years. I suppose what I would be worried about, and I am worried about, is the tendency for the total concentration of power, the tendency to denigrate all opposition as being enemy. They call everybody an enemy. If I don't agree with you I'm an enemy and I think it's very dangerous when you start saying that because if you and I have a difference you're an enemy, that if you don't agree with the way I go about transformation you're an enemy, you're somehow against it. I might say I have different ideas about how it should be done. No, no, no, if you don't do it my way you're an enemy. The imposition of total loyalty to the ANC that that's more important than anything else. I think that undermines you know, don't talk to the media, don't talk in a free society everyone says what they want. In the Labour Party in Britain, there's a revolt in the Conservative Party, there's a revolt, it's taken in their stride as part of normal political dialogue. Here it's like we can criticise each other but do it behind closed doors.
VP There's no dialogue here, you don't see it in the papers, you don't see it in the meetings or anything of that character, nothing of the sort, no really confrontational, the issues, the reality. The reality of the human person in terms of what the policies of the government are, that is no debate at all whatsoever. Oh, look at these lovely malls that we have got here. Have you been to some of those things? Lovely malls and so on. Oh, there are black people bumping around there.
My brother whose flat this is, he's a builder who constructed the magnificent business of developing little shops and so on and workplaces for Africans down in the south of Johannesburg and he's contributing more to employment than this damn government has done, per person, given greater opportunities to these people. There you see Africans working in a workshop there and making furniture and things of that character.
PP But there's sensitivity on the AIDS question. If you criticise and say they're not doing enough on the AIDS question then you are an enemy. On the AIDS question - they haven't done much on the AIDS question. They say you're an enemy, you're sitting in London, you don't know what's going on here. So I've had confrontations like that.
VP But Thabo, he's changing his position isn't he?
PP If you live in London then the argument is you're an exile, in London you can say one thing but what do you know about us. Do you agree about that?
POM I almost see it as a kind of genocide of sorts.
POM I have no tolerance at all for - Now of course you know there's what they call the 'malign' theory on AIDS. This is that it's based on what happened in Europe during the great plague where after the plague wiped out half the population you had this great spurt of economic growth that followed and the malign theory on AIDS is that if you confine it essentially to your poorer people and the unemployed it's a way of getting rid of unemployment.
VP It solves the social problem of unemployment.
POM And then the country that's left in 20 years time it's You could look around and say, statistics say one in every four people have HIV/AIDS.
PP If they have pneumonia, TB, a number of people have died and they said it's pneumonia.
VP How long have you been in SA?
POM Well I've been coming here since 1989.