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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
31 Jan 2003: Mahommed, Yusuf
POM Mac really began his recollections of activities with you at a pharmacy in Hillbrow where he said you were supplying drugs, or whatever, to members of the police force who had a habit or whatever and that he would on occasion stand behind the counter with you dressed in a white coat and take down the numbers of the guys who were getting the drugs and that this was a way, some might call it blackmail, some might just call it subtlety, of making an entrée into the security forces and getting them to supply information. Maybe you could talk (i) about how you met Mac, (ii) what you did in Hillbrow, what your associations were that put you in this particular field of struggle, and (iii) where Mac came in. Then he said you were also involved with him in Vula and you could just talk there of the broad parameters that he's talked about. So maybe I can let you take it from there.
YM I wish you had spoken to me earlier, I need to recollect a lot of my thoughts on this thing but I will touch on some of the things.
POM I'll send you on a transcript of the interview and if you feel there is a need or are prepared to give the time I'll just come back and we can do it again. We could do it by phone if that would suit you. I've now got a device that I can hook up to my phone and do a phone interview which is sometimes much better because it comes out absolutely clear.
YM I was asked to meet Mac by Mo Shaik. I am a very close friend of Mo Shaik, we went to university together, we were involved in the anti-election campaigns together in 1983 or 1984. Then I had moved to Johannesburg in 1985.
POM You had moved to Johannesburg from?
POM Now how were you able to did you have to get a permit to move?
YM No, no.
POM Oh in 1985. OK, got you.
YM And I had got involved with a guy, a partner of mine, Mark Beare, and he and I had decided to we used to work after hours in a pharmacy in Hillbrow because jobs were very difficult for us at that time. We decided to open a pharmacy together and at that time only a white person could open a pharmacy in Hillbrow or open a business in Hillbrow, so he took ownership of the pharmacy and I used to work with him.
POM What was his name again?
YM Mark Beare. He was a student at Rhodes University. We used to work and we used to take shifts there. I met Mac at the end of 1986 or early 1987.
POM This was when he had come back into the country?
POM So this was in Vula?
YM Let me answer your first question. Your first question that we had different kinds of clientele in the business is true. We used to have a lot of the police people because the Hillbrow Police Station was there and the Security Branch was in Braamfontein. Hillbrow was an area where a lot of people came to. It was a nice social area for people, lots of restaurants, clubs, pubs, all those kind of things. It was very nice, very different to today.
POM Was it kind of a grey area?
YM It was becoming a grey area at that time and you found people of colour starting to rent flats, etc., in Hillbrow. So Mac came there one day and Mo told me that, listen, somebody important is coming to see you. He sent Claudia to come and fetch me from the pharmacy and we met at the hotel in the bar upstairs, I'll never forget that thing. The first thing Mac said was, "I need guns."
POM He said: I need guns?
YM I need guns.
POM Now you had heard of him before?
YM Everybody had heard of Mac. I was involved with Mo and in the student struggles at Westville University, etc., and I was associated with Pravin Gordhan, Yunus Mohammed and all those types that came out of that era at university, student politics. And then I was involved with SACOS, the South African Council of Sport, you know fighting against teams coming to this country, etc. Dullah was involved at that time, Percy Sonn was involved, Krish Mackerdhuj. In fact I was secretary to Krish Mackerdhuj at the Natal Cricket Board when this whole SACOS thing was taking ground in the country.
POM So was Mac in disguise?
POM Did you recognise him?
YM I did actually, I did.
POM You did, you're the second person, because Claudia told me something very funny that when she was taken to meet him in Durban, she was called away for somebody very important, she walked into the room where Mac was, and you know Mac prides himself on being a master of disguise, and I think it was Pravin said, "Do you know who this man is?" and apparently Claudia who had only ever seen a photograph of him said, "Yes, that's Mac Maharaj." Totally deflated him.
YM Yes I recognised him. Mac said, that was his opening line, "How are you? I need guns." I said, "What kind of guns do you want?" So he said he was looking for R1 rifles and he said to me, "There are a lot of police coming here I'm sure you can talk to somebody and buy one or buy a couple, etc." And I said to him, "Mac, it's early days still. Let me know what's happening, etc." By then my girl friend and I used to have a flat in Hillbrow and a relationship started building between Mac and myself, he used to come, he used to have supper with me, we used to chat, we used to spend time together.
POM What were your first impressions of him as a person? You've heard of this guy, there he is, the first member of the NEC in SA. Did you have a preconceived image of what he might be and then he appears. Does the preconceived image fit the actual?
YM We grew up believing that these guys were heroes, that these guys were they were something else, but over the years that I knew Mac I realised what a decent well I don't want to say that they were not heroes, they are heroes, but the human side of the thing is that it touched me in feeling. You asked me a question, what was my first impression? I think for me I felt important that here I am meeting one of my heroes. It was like when you go to a football team or if you support a football side and you know these kids, they see Jonty Rhodes and they love just meeting the man. It was like that for me, it was an exhilaration that here I am meeting a man that is fighting for the liberation of this country. It was fantastic for me.
We had a few drinks that night and we will meet a week later or something like that. This was around October/November or so and in December I managed to buy an AK47 for him.
POM From the police or - ?
YM From a police officer. Slowly I was developing a network into these kind of things and it was in 1987 I think.
POM That's when he would have come in.
YM Yes. But he used to come and go and come and go, etc., but I used to see him regularly. I must be honest, my memory is not so hot. Mac used to spend a lot of time in the chemist. He used to come in the chemist, he used to I'll tell you stories about those four or five years but it will be all over the place.
POM That's OK, don't worry. Just let your memory flow, don't think 'what's next', OK.
YM It's true, he used to come and check the records of all these police guys. What was amazing, my partner, Mark, didn't know who Mac was and he used to be there. Only Maud knew, my girlfriend knew, only Maud knew. I told her. There were two ladies at the chemist, Martha and Nomsa. Martha is a bit of an elderly person and she was then too, a little bit older than I am, etc., and her brother at that time was spending time in prison. He was one of these chaps I don't know if you remember the story or if you've heard the story where the police planted these grenades that were bastardised, so when the kids were playing with it, they'd pick it up and it would blow up in their hands, etc., and her brother lost one arm from that.
POM And he was in jail?
YM He was in prison for something at that time.
POM A criminal offence or - ?
YM No, no, a political offence. Martha was always suspicious that she knew this chap and she used to ask me, "Who is he?" She knows the face but she could never put her finger on who it was. We behaved quite openly, go to the coffee shop, have coffee, have espressos, etc. His disguise at that time was very, very good. Very good.
I must tell you that in early or late 1989 this guy Dr Motlana came into the chemist. He used to come regularly. You've heard of Dr Motlana?
POM Oh I've interviewed him, yes.
YM He was standing and talking to me and Mac was sitting in the back there and change was coming so people used to talk openly about change and talk about democracy and the release of Mandela about to happen, etc. This was the time when Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada were released, that was in October 1989 or so. Motlana used to come to the chemist regularly. The one day Mac was sitting in the back and Motlana was having coffee with me across the counter and then he was telling me the story about this chap Mac Maharaj, how he's dying of liver dysfunction, that he was an alcoholic and he was drinking himself to death and that he was in Moscow and he was trying to recuperate from his illness. So the legend that was created was actually working, even in the community it was working. And Mac was sitting their laughing. It was amazing, absolutely amazing. The man was sitting there. I told Motlana the story that, you know, you told me this thing and the man was sitting about two years after he had told me this I actually reminded him about it.
Because of Mac, and then I used to work a little bit with Ronnie Kasrils and Janet. Janet used to keep in touch with me, Janet Love. I used to see Siphiwe Nyanda now and then, Gebhuza. Mac used to make me do all this logistical stuff for him. If he needed some cash I used to arrange that for him. If he needed blankets and stuff for his house or his safe houses, etc., that was my function to do those kind of things. I still keep the image of I'm a businessman, I've got nothing to do with all this stuff here. I used to drive Mac sometimes wherever he needed to go, like he will come and say, "I need to go to Cape Town now." So I had to go hire a car and then go with him to Cape Town, take him to his meetings, etc.
POM Now what would you talk about on the way on a trip to Cape Town? It's a long way to be with somebody in the car.
YM It was terrible because Mac used to sleep and couldn't give a shit about anything. He used to sleep.
POM He didn't say, "I volunteer to drive the next leg of the trip."
YM No, bullshit, except once when we were coming back I said to him, "Listen I can't keep my eyes open any more, will you drive now?" We used to talk very little in the car.
We had a lot of experiences. We flew once to PE, an amazing thing. Again I think it was in late 1989, he was going to meet oh yes, that was the big story. He wanted me to set up this thing with Govan Mbeki. So I went and did reconnaissance in PE, came back and reported to him that there is only one double story garage in PE, right opposite the police station. We had to find a way and a place for Mac to meet with the late Govan Mbeki. Soraya was involved in it, Maud was involved, I was involved. I'll talk some other time about the details, I need to refresh my memory.
POM Do you remember what that was about?
YM What the actual discussion was about?
POM Yes, why he had to go to PE. He talks about, and this is something that I'm trying to verify, that Mandela's letter, what Mandela had said in his letter to PW Botha was gotten out of Victor Verster and somehow or another a copy began to go around and people began to misinterpret it and say that Mandela was selling out. That's why Mac had to pull people like Valli Moosa here and get the leadership of the UDF and go through it line by line. He said he went to PE to talk to Govan because Govan was saying the same thing. But did he discuss anything about why he had to go places?
YM Mac and I did chat. I remember the stories about Mandela is selling out, etc., I remember that, he did mention it to me. But I also think that one of Vula's tasks was to convince the internal leadership of the ANC that negotiations was the way forward, it was the only way forward, and I think he played a critical role in that because I know he used to go and meet Cyril regularly, he used to go and meet the UDF leadership regularly, Murphy Morobe, Cyril, Valli, Jay Naidoo. He used to go and meet these chaps regularly. If I understood it correctly that's what I believe he was doing, to convince the internal leadership that, you know what, negotiations is the way forward. That would have been my understanding.
POM Did you set up some of these meetings for him?
YM Not directly because we always split up everything.
POM Compartments. Nobody knows everything. There were fire walls around everything.
YM Absolutely. And Mac was very good at that too. He was very good at keeping the tasks absolutely separate between different people. I don't think I played any significant role.
POM Was he able to recruit any of the police?
YM Yes we did.
POM That's very important.
YM We did, yes.
POM How did you manage to do that?
YM Well this one youngster used to work in our pharmacy. We knew he was one of these cops, we knew that because whilst he was a student he had infiltrated one of these other organisations like the End Conscription Campaign, there was another name for it, Just Go or something like that. Slowly we turned him and we got a lot of information out of him, a hell of a lot of information out of him about where he was operating, what was happening particularly in the left wing white circles, what were they infiltrating, etc. He used to work for the Intelligence Services at that time but we were fully aware of it.
POM This is a white kid?
YM White, yes.
POM And so you'd get information from him.
POM But how were you able to recruit people in did you actually get people who were in Intelligence or policemen to divulge to you, provide you with information that was useful?
YM We had this particular chap, before I actually appointed him, or Mark and I appointed him to work for us, he had approached us for a job and we understood why he wanted the job because they wanted to create some kind of base within Hillbrow because they realised it's a grey area and you're going to get a lot of these people coming through that particular street. Walter and them got released and people like Cyril and them used to come to Hillbrow, they used to hang out there. So it was strategic at that time for the Intelligence people from the apartheid side to deploy people strategically in those areas. This guy approached us for a job, we did a background check and then we realised that he was one of those types and we said, OK, let's bring him in. We fully briefed Mac about him, and let's see how we can turn this chap to feed us information of where they are going to in terms of who they're watching, what they're watching, why they're watching or who they're going to hit next. This youngster played a very useful role for us without him knowing that this is the information we're extracting out of him.
POM This is the same guy you're talking about?
YM The same guy, yes.
POM Now would many of the police who would come through have drug habits where they would ask for prescriptions to be filled?
YM Yes. Well I don't think, as you say, blindly drug habits.
POM They wanted pills.
YM They wanted their normal medication, etc., so you build relationships with people. You become their friend and they start confiding in you about this and that and whatever.
POM So Mac would be there.
YM Mac would be sitting there.
POM Sitting there taking notes.
YM Knowing who these people are.
POM Any anecdotes cross your mind?
YM Oh there's a lot, there's a lot. This is my friend Zolake. Today the winner of the second network operation in competition to Telkom. Maybe you should be there, you will see all black business there. If you want to write a book on black business that's the place to be.
POM There's a great story in the Sowetan today, a great story.
YM Which one?
POM It's an African applied for a job with the Port Authority, a menial job I guess, they'd advertised for cleaners or something like that, and he got a reply back saying his application had been rejected, under the Employment Equity Act there had to be different percentages of race groups in different categories and that the job of for cleaners was now reserved for Indians, Coloureds and whites.
YM Oh a wonderful story. That's transformation. One night we were having dinner and Mac was there and I think Gebhuza was there in our flat and a huge bomb blast went off across the road and the three of us ducked for cover under the table. It was a huge bomb blast directly opposite our flat in Hillbrow and it was some criminals that wanted to kill each other or something but a huge blast it was, huge.
POM Did the two guys get up and say, "Not one of ours"?
YM No, no, I actually asked, "Do you have to come and plant one right here?" Then, again I have to say my memory it's too long ago, I remember Mac got arrested. Oh we went to PE together.
POM Yes, you were saying that.
YM And we got off at the airport and you're not going to believe this, we walked out of the plane, Mac was in his disguise and things like that, and there was this man who looked like one of the Security Branch chaps, he's staring at Mac and he's staring at Mac and I'm telling Mac, "This fucking ou knows who you are, he knows who you are." Mac just didn't even blink an eyelid, he just walked right past him. But I was scared, I'll be honest with you, I was shit scared.
POM He never showed any fear.
YM Never ever.
POM What do you think that was due to, that a person that somebody never shows any fear in circumstances where a normal person - ?
YM Leadership. He's just a natural leader where he cannot allow anybody to think that he is scared of anything. What I liked about him most, he wouldn't ask you to do something he wouldn't do himself. He won't send you into a lion's den if he's not prepared to walk there himself. I think for me that was one of his, and probably still is, one of his finest qualities. He's straight, he tells you what he thinks, he listens to your argument, he never agrees with you even if he knows he's losing the argument.
POM That's a standard, by the way, from everybody I've interviewed who knows him. You know the story that Kathy tells about him on Robben Island? Well Kathy says that one night he was trying to sleep and he hears all this rumpus coming from Mac's cell and next morning they're washing and Kathy says to him, "Mac, there was an awful lot of noise coming from your cell." He said, "I was having an argument with myself."
YM You know in 1990 we got arrested.
POM So you were caught up in the arrests when everything broke?
YM Yes. So Mac had Maud's car so after Mac got arrested and I knew he had used Maud's car, he was staying at Valli's place, I think he got arrested on the Tuesday or Wednesday or something like that, and I decided I'm buggering off to my mother in Harding, that's 200 kms south of Durban. And they were having the ANC launch that weekend in Harding. The ANC was unbanned, etc., and Terror Lekota came to launch it for us in Harding. The Sunday morning before that I met Janet and Ronnie Kasrils and I said to them well I'm going to Harding, if they're going to come for me they must come to Harding for me. They came to Harding for me. I didn't think that they would ever come near there. They arrested me and they brought me back here to Johannesburg. After a couple of days this policeman, SAP, not Security Branch, SAP I was here at John Vorster, Jo'burg Central, he brings a cigarette. No, no, he didn't bring a cigarette, he comes there and he says, "Your friend wants some cigarettes." I said, "I don't have any friends here", and I only have a few left. I said, "No, I'm not having it, I'm not giving you a cigarette." He said, "No, your friend wants a cigarette." I'm thinking to myself well who could be my friend that's asking for a cigarette and I said well it's probably Mac so I gave one cigarette. The next day he comes to me at three o'clock in the afternoon, same SAP chap, and says, "You must go and have a shower now." I said, "What do you mean? It's three o'clock in the afternoon." I still had that bravado you know.
POM They hadn't punched you or beaten you in the three days had they?
YM No, no, no.
POM Interrogated you.
YM They had, they had started.
POM But they weren't abusing you?
YM Not yet. Well the abuse is mental abuse and things like that. "No, you've got to have a shower." I said, "No." He said, "No you're going to have a shower now." And immediately the stories start going through your mind, what are these guys up to now? Are they going to kill you in the shower or some shit like that? When I went there I went and I had two minutes with Mac. Mac was in the shower, having a shower and he had already, I think, compromised that policeman and that's why he arranged this two minute meeting. The most touching thing for me, he didn't ask me, how are you Joe? He said, "How is your mother handling this?" I don't have a father. "How is your mother handling this?" That was the first thing he said to me. Another thing he said to me is, "Don't forget you did this for the right reason, this was not for gain, it was for the right reason." And we just chit-chatted about things. I asked him how he was and you could see he was under pressure, etc., and then I had to go back.
I met him one week after that, this is the interesting anecdote, I met him one week after that and I said to him, "Mac, I don't need to sit in this place."
POM You're still in - ?
YM In Jo'burg Central. "I don't need to sit in this place, Mac. Everybody is talking about freedom and I know I'm going to get sick, I'm going to get depressed and I want to go to the hospital. I'll sit it out in hospital." He said, "What are you going to do?" I said, "I'll tell you tomorrow." I thought about it, what do you do, what do you do? So the next day I went to him, I said to him, "You know what Mac, what I'm going to do is I'm going to sit for a while and blink my eyelids, like for half an hour. What happens is that your balance goes. If you constantly blink and you get up you feel a bit funny." And I did that. When the cop came in the morning, the Security Branch chap came in the morning, I told him I'm going to kill myself, I'm very depressed, and he could see I was starting to lose balance. He got the fright of his life. At that time change was happening, they were too scared that somebody would die in prison or something like that and they took me that afternoon to the District Surgeon who was a young little girl, I shed a few tears and she said, "No, Yusuf is very depressed, put him into the hospital." When I got to the hospital I burst out laughing.
But the interesting story about it is they were taking Mac, he told me afterwards, they were taking Mac to Piet Retief or something and he tried that trick and it didn't work and he was swearing at me, why is this thing not working for me? I never realised I forgot to tell Mac you've got to have two eyes for that to happen, he's only got one eye. That's a fact. Seriously.
POM That's so funny.
YM It works with two eyes, not with one.
POM That's a great story.
YM Then I was in hospital for a while and the doctors wouldn't release me. My brother had gone to different psychiatrists and institutions, etc., and then he went to court. Section 19 under which we were held, there were three conditions under which you could be released. One was that the commissioner says yes and the next is that the minister says yes, but the third one was that the prisoner is serving no useful purpose. That was a condition under which you had to be released. So my brother went to court, my brother is a lawyer too, he went to court and he said to them, "If the man is in a psychiatric unit and he's depressed how can he be serving a useful purpose?" It was delayed for another month, etc., and then the judge ordered my release.
POM Great thinking.
YM So I'd blink. When I was in hospital what we did, we had planned this thing properly, I was doing communication, Mac had moved to a hospital in Durban or something like that and we used to be in touch through my brother, what's happening, who's got arrested, who hasn't got arrested, etc., etc.
POM How would that work? Could you just talk to your brother?
YM No, no, I was not allowed, I had four police guards.
POM You had four police guards all the time you were ?
YM Outside my door, yes.
POM Four, not two, four?
YM Suddenly I was a dangerous criminal. You see the police were clever at that time, they tried to hype up this Vula thing to make it appear that the ANC they wanted to split the ANC and the SACP so they hyped up the story to say that, see, the Communist Party are not serious about negotiating, they want insurrection in this country. I don't know if you are aware that they didn't even want Joe Slovo in the first negotiations. That's one of the reasons they gave, they didn't want any of the SACP chaps. But, again, the touching thing about Mac, the day he was released in Durban he came to Johannesburg and he came to the hospital with Joe Slovo to see me. You know when I talk about the human side of the man that's what I'm talking about. He didn't just think of himself and his position, etc., he didn't forget the soldiers. He didn't.
POM You were held in the psychiatric unit until?
YM The court released me.
POM Until the court released you. So he would have visited you at home then?
YM In the hospital, I was still in hospital after it actually gets to you. You start feeling
YM Exactly. You get depressed. I was 49 kgs when I left the hospital.
YM Deliberate. I didn't want them to let me out of the hospital, I wasn't going to go back to a prison. I wasn't going to go back, no way. The Professor and the Senior Consultant there they were sympathetic and I will never forget this guy Michael Burke. The one morning the Security Branch chaps came there and they said they want to interview me. He said, "Never, I'm never going to allow it. The court said you cannot come near this man." Because they used to trouble me at night. They used to come there late at night, etc., and trouble me and I used to tell him in the morning, "You know what, these chaps were here and they're harassing me and I couldn't sleep, etc." So the university actually made an application, the university and the hospital made an application to the court to stop these people from coming and harassing me at night. Michael Burke promised me he will never let me go from there into a prison. The only way he will let me go is out of this place. So these chaps were good, they were good human beings. They didn't want to compromise their professional integrity but they understood the history, etc., and they didn't want to do that.
There was another doctor there, a Dr. Aslaam Dasoo. Madiba came to visit me once because Zeph Mothopeng was on the level above us, he was dying. He died actually.
YM The leader of the PAC, Zeph Mothopeng, Aslaam used to treat him and he used to carry a lot of the messages for us.
POM Who is this?
YM Dr Dasoo. He used to carry a lot of the messages, he was a good man.
POM You'd use him if you had a message to Mac?
YM Not to Mac, my brother used to actually take it. I had the police on my payroll after a while. You know, the four policemen that used to guard me, one of those guys was on my payroll. He used to go to the pharmacy, take messages for me, bring me back cigarettes, bring me back money, whatever I wanted. He was on my payroll.
POM Was this a white policeman?
YM No, no, a black guy.
POM He saw change coming.
YM Oh yes. He wasn't interested, he couldn't care less. If I wanted to go for a walk or something he used to take me. Not a problem. They hated the Security Branch, I must be honest with you.
POM The SAP did?
YM The SAP chaps, they hated them.
POM That's something that's often overlooked, they're all kind of lumped together into one kind of thing.
YM I'm talking about these particular black policemen. I can't generalise. But they used to look up to me. They used to take me wherever I wanted. They only they made sure I stayed in the hospital grounds so there were no stories and they didn't get into trouble, etc. I used to go, for example, every day for psychometric testing. They'd give you things to play with to try and get your mind working.
POM This must have been driving you mad.
YM It was such a con. It used to drive me mad because I had to pretend all the time. You live a lie. Stupid things, a simple crossword puzzle that would take you ten seconds to do, I used to take an hour to do it. And this woman used to think that this chap is getting more and more depressed. In fact her reports used to say, "Progressively depressed", "Depression getting worse." It was the game you were playing.
POM So Madiba came and visited?
YM Once, yes he did, he popped in and said how is it, etc. You see that was the amazing thing even then, even though the cops were there he could just walk in and do what he wanted, really. That's a special man.
But coming back to Mac now, let me try and remember some of the funny stories, etc. It will take me some time to think about this.
POM I tell you what, I'll get this transcribed, send it back to you and then
YM I prefer it in bits and pieces.
POM And I can talk to you on the phone, maybe we can arrange a hook up one day after you've gone through the stuff and I can do it that way.
POM So just a final question. Who is Mac? If somebody came to you and said who is he? Let me put it in a different way, let's say, God forbid, Mac died and you were asked to say a few words about him and you wanted to talk about who he was, what would you say?
YM I would say, if I can use adjectives to describe this man I would use two, three words. A human being, a patriot and a leader. That's how I would sum up Mac.
POM OK, thank you ever so much.
YM But there are some wonderful stories I must tell you. I just can't put them together right now.
POM It's OK, don't worry, I won't forget to do wonderful stories.
YM You must come and have a few drinks with me at home.
YM I can tell you a lot stories about him because he's lived with us.
POM Whatever happened to Maud?
POM Whatever happened to Maud?
YM I live with her.
POM Oh you still do.
POM Oh that's terrific.
YM We're together, yes.
POM Maud is an Irish name.
YM Yes. When he got arrested and they asked him, "What are you doing with Maud's car?" He said, "Joe doesn't know I'm sleeping with her." That's how he tried to distance me from everything. They didn't buy the story though.
POM OK, that's a date and thanks ever so much.