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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

19 Jun 2003: Nair, Billy

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POM     How's your health?

BN     All right, but I'm still using crutches, but it's all right, it's improving.

POM     I was just reading last night when you were in St Aidans during Vula when you had your heart operation and, my God, that's a long time ago and you're still going strong.

BN     Yes the heart attack. It was during detention.

POM     That's one way to get them to stop interrogating you.

BN     Well they released me the next day.

POM     How long were you in St Aidans?

BN     Well you see at that time they diagnosed me with a heart problem and they thought, that I would die because the specialist doctor suggested that I should have a by-pass operation and that I required surgery immediately. So the very next day they released me from detention thinking that I would die. They didn't want to take responsibility, they didn't want to take responsibility for the operation, and then there was a fear obviously on the part of Jimmy Kruger, who was the Minister of Justice at the time, that I may die. They quickly released me from detention, allowed my wife and the media to see me, take photos and interview me. Two days later I had a double heart by-pass operation.

POM     Mac says that he visited you in the ICU?

BN     As a matter of fact I visited him in his ward. He was a patient and was bed-ridden with his arm in a sling.

POM     He had found a way into the hospital at the same time.

BN     As a matter of fact he was in detention at the same time.

POM     You were both in detention over Vula.

BN     Yes.

POM     What did you understand Vula to be about?

BN     Well this was a special and a secret operation. Even people within MK, except for President Tambo, Joe Slovo and Mac included, I think there were about five or six people who actually knew of this operation. It was, as you know, a secret operation where cadres who were well trained would be placed in the country. Mac and Siphiwe Nyanda later were sent into the country. First it was Siphiwe Nyanda who was followed by Mac. Vula was highly secretive and detached from the ordinary MK operations.

POM     What was its purpose?

BN     Well its purpose was to establish within the country MK cadres who were to be equipped, not to conduct ordinary MK operations but to prepare to forcibly overthrow the government. It was part of MK but completely detached.

POM     Detached from it.

BN     Yes.

POM     So I would be correct in saying that you saw Vula as an operation that was designed to put into place well trained cadres and the ultimate aim was to overthrow the government by force?

BN     Yes and at the same time adhering to strict principles of using force as a last resort. The state at the time was equipping itself and establishing the most horrendous military might to crush, not only us here within the country but also all our neighbouring states. They were conducting a massive war aided and abetted by the western powers. They were working in close collaboration with Israel, testing atomic weapons and having joint military exercises at the time. So they were quite determined not only to use the ordinary conventional force within the country and outside but to even go to the extremes of using chemical, biological and atomic weapons and we knew of that preparation. It was, of course, impossible for Vula or MK as such to take on the state because they were aided and abetted as was well known by the western powers, and it meant taking on the might of the western powers.

POM     So you would have been working with Pravin?

BN     Yes, Pravin Gordhan, Mac Maharaj, Siphiwe Nyanda and other cadres. We constituted the core and of course there were a number of other cadres located in different parts of the country, fairly well equipped. They were under a very strict discipline not to engage in day to day activities or expose themselves to any danger.  You may say they laid pretty low not to expose themselves to any activities, they were completely unknown.

POM     In Natal were any of those cadres deployed in fending off Inkatha, in protecting the UDF from attack from Inkatha?

BN     To some extent yes but they were not to expose themselves in any day to day activities and this was left entirely to the MK cadre. We didn't want exposure of the Vula operatives to any day to day activities, not even protecting the UDF by aligning themselves to any open, overt activities which would have got them into trouble. They were highly protected.

POM     In fact the operation was still secret even after Madiba was released even though he knew about it.

BN     He knew about it.

POM     He said keep it going but keep it secret.

BN     He was well briefed while he was still in jail.

POM     Now I want you to cast your mind back if you can to 1989 when Madiba wrote his letter to PW Botha and a copy of it got out and got circulated and the word was spread around that Mandela was selling out.

BN     Yes.

POM     And Mac drove to Durban to see you to brief you and asked you, I believe, to go on to Pietermaritzburg to see Harry Gwala and to go through the letter with him and to explain, because Harry had been spreading the word too, Harry had been saying some prison warder had visited him and said Madiba was selling out or whatever. Do you recall that?

BN     Yes. As a matter of fact Mac was also there. You see we had to protect Mac and we were to have met Harry Gwala at a particular location and then we had to constantly move that location for fear of exposure. He was here on a mission completely unknown to anyone. Harry Gwala was probably one of those responsible to some extent for spreading that rumour. What we wanted to do was to allay not only such fears but also the false theory that Madiba was secretly negotiating and selling out.  Mac is absolutely on all fours with the details that he's given you.

     We did show that with the mass pressures building up in the late eighties the whole country was enveloped in massive demonstrations. People took to the streets in their tens of thousands. There was open defiance of beach apartheid, hospital apartheid and so on. It was in this atmosphere that pressure was put on the state to start talking, with Mandela.

     Remember that Mandela was moved from Robben Island, placed in Pollsmoor Prison, then taken to Victor Verster Prison. He was given a three-roomed house, well located so that he could meet diplomats and so on. All this was done as a means of trying to open up a dialogue with Mandela. This is what happened. Kobie Coetsee was Minister of Justice at the time, he was one of the so-called verlighte, verlightes being the enlightened ones, and he was the one who was the emissary of the Botha cabinet who was opening up a dialogue with Mandela. It was in the course of this that Mandela was laying down the conditions for discussions with the state. What had happened was Botha was insisting, I don't have the document but Mandela has got it, he has been very shrewd, he preserved them and I think he even gave exposure to that particular document. It followed on the discussions that took place earlier between Kobie Coetsee and Mandela. Mandela later went to Groote Schuur or Tuynhuys and had discussions with Botha where they insisted that Mandela disavow violence, number one. Number two, that he must accept, if he is released from prison, that he would not go to Johannesburg or any part of South Africa but go to the Transkei. He must come out openly and disavow violence and to disown violent means of solving South Africa's problems. The main thrust was that if he is released from prison he will then go to Transkei and in this way accept in principle the Bantustans and Matanzima as the leader.      Accept Matanzima as his lord. Mandela was not prepared to accept any of that. He said, if I recall correctly, that if he is released from prison he will be in Johannesburg the very next day. That is where he's from and he is not prepared to accept any other conditions. He also insisted that negotiations must take place, the ANC must be unbanned and negotiations must take place with the ANC.

POM     That was a very important moment because this rumour was swelling all over the place and could have undermined the mass democratic movement.

BN     Absolutely. We had no fears whatsoever. In fact the movement was certain that Madiba was not going to negotiate secretly. He meticulously replicated the letter he wrote to Botha and it was sent out to the movement. It came to us and this was then sent out to the ANC abroad. Comrade Tambo and the entire leadership knew of the discussions and all the details. So he was very careful, Mandela was always meticulous – not only because of his legal brain but he ensured that everything that he did was above board. The leadership abroad knew exactly what was going on. Methods were evolved of communicating with Mandela and he responded within a matter of days.

POM     In fact you got the Harare Declaration in to him to look over and add his comments to it before it –

BN     Now the discussions by Madiba had the blessing of the ANC. They were well aware of all the developments taking place. Of course this was also helped along by the pressures that were being applied within the country by the mass democratic movement, the isolation of SA, etc., etc. All these pressures even prompted Margaret Thatcher, Bush and Reagan to put the screws on SA because they knew that the dice was now loaded against the regime.

     Just as a background to the pressures building up, millions throughout the country both in the urban and rural areas marched with banners of the Communist Party, the ANC, COSATU and the UDF throughout SA. We had a mass funeral in PE of Matthew Goniwe and others who were killed by the police. The clergy joined in full force. The party banners flew high all over the place. The ANC which was banned at the time had its banners also flying. The clergy threw its weight behind the strugglers. The masses of the people were in  turmoil and the country was gripped with the biggest crisis ever and this was the reason why the powers backing SA, especially the British, the American and to some extent the French and German and other European powers, were having second thoughts. They began putting pressure on SA. So it was in that context that negotiations took place between the Botha regime and Mandela.

POM     Do you recall Ronnie Kasrils, did he play a role in Vula too?

BN     Yes. Ronnie came down later. When I slipped out of the country I met Ronnie in Cuba and in London. I impressed on him and others that they should come into the country. Ronnie, yes, was part of the Vula team. He again was very lucky, as happened during the MK days when Ronnie escaped detention. We were all detained and Ronnie again, as in 1963, managed to evade arrest.

POM     Managed to do this.

BN     He was part of the Vula team.

POM     I want to take you back to - because this is almost historical, the meeting at Tongaat in 1961 where MK, when the Chief came down, Chief Luthuli.

BN     No.

POM     No? What meeting is this now? There was a meeting in Tongaat in 1961.

BN     Yes. Now the meeting in Tongaat, you see it was actually a meeting of the Communist Party and then of course the alliance itself, some of the members of the alliance were there but otherwise it was essentially a Communist Party meeting. What had happened was, it was a two-day conference also held frequently and Mac, Siphiwe Nyanda and others were all present.

POM     I'm talking before – this is going back to 1961.

     (Note by Mr Nair. Yes, there was some confusion here about the dates.)

BN     Yes I think Mac was there actually.

POM     No he would have been only a kid, he was abroad then.

BN     Now let's see, Tongaat, I beg your pardon, this was before the formation of uMkhonto.

POM     Yes, the one that was where MK was formed, when the Chief came down. Do you remember that?

BN     Yes. What had happened there, oh I see, very good, I'm actually –

POM     There was one later, there was one in 1991, that's the one where Joe Slovo kind of – they got into trouble over that.

BN     Joe was not there.

POM     But the one in 1961 is the one I'm interested in.

BN     Now what had happened, the ANC was, as you know, banned in 1960. What followed was Nelson Mandela at the Pietermaritzburg conference declared in March/May 1961, it was a fairly big conference called not by the ANC, because it was already banned in 1960, but a broad front of organisations. He declared at that conference that there was a parting of ways in the light of the government's oppressive and violent policies there was no alternative but to go in a new direction without spelling out the details. This was a public declaration. So following on that there was a great deal of discussion in the Communist Party, the ANC, SACTU (that is the SA Congress of Trade Unions), and in all circles as to the way forward. As a matter of fact what stimulated the discussion towards violence as a way out was that the Pondoland revolt in the latter part of the fifties –

POM     1960 yes.

BN     Leading that up to 1960, massive revolts took place. It actually started in 1958 in Natal, including the rural areas which were in the grip of the most violent revolts ever. The people actually attacked the states' land resettlement, they smashed the dipping tanks, the culling of cattle and all other atrocities in the rural areas. The state brought out its full might, the Saracens and other weaponry but the people hit back. All the rural areas were in the grip of the most violent activities. Following on this the ANC called a conference urging on the people to seek a peaceful way out. Chief Luthuli as President of the ANC felt that the state was going to use violence and massacre our people. They should therefore use non-violent methods.

     Violence also broke out in Sekhukhuneland in the Transvaal. A pattern was clearly developing, the people were no longer prepared to tolerate the conditions that they were living under and it is in this milieu that discussions took place on the formation of MK.

     Leading this was the ANC and the Indian Congress, the Congress of Trade Unions, the Coloured People's Organisation and the Congress of Democrats and, of course, in all these organisations the Communist Party also played a vital role. The Indian Congress first met in Tongaat. Thereafter we located in a sugar farm in Stanger. This was where the conference actually took place among all the five congresses. It was a two-day affair and it was decided that MK be established. The ANC was underground and so was the Communist Party. The others still worked openly and unbanned, although their leaders were banned. It was decided that a separate organisation called uMkhonto weSizwe be established made up of all activists of the congresses but independent and adhering to the broad policies of the congresses. We had to be independent and that the congress formations provide the recruiting ground for MK.

POM     That was a very historical occasion.

BN     That's right, yes. As a matter of fact there were differences but these were all ironed out. Chief Luthuli chaired the meeting. There was Dr GM Naicker of the Indian Congress SACTU, the Congress of Democrats, and the SA Coloured People's Organisation. We hammered out differences and MK emerged.

     What should interest everyone is that MK launched its activities when Chief Luthuli had received the Nobel Peace Prize and had returned to SA on 16 December 1961.

POM     That was the night of the first activities of MK.

BN     Were launched countrywide.

POM     In Durban.

BN     No, no, throughout SA.

POM     Throughout SA?

BN     Yes. Well in Durban we hit at the three apartheid institutions, Indian Affairs, Coloured Affairs and what was called Native Affairs. We hit the three of those offices in Durban as they were all symbols of apartheid, symbols of racial oppression. Chief Luthuli, incidentally arrived in Johannesburg and then flew down to Durban. As he was banned and restricted he was taken from Durban to Groutville in Stanger where he lived so he was safe at home. We ensured that at about nine o'clock that evening MK operations would start. Chief Luthuli knew every detail of it even before he left for Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

     The leadership of the Congresses did not know who was who in MK. It was a completely secret operation detached from the Congress. We, however, reported to the highest level of the leadership, to Chief Luthuli, Dr Naicker and others, not on the day to day activities but on the broad thrust of MK activities and objectives.

POM     I'm saying this because this came out of a conversation that Mac was having with Kathy and they were trying to recall that meeting. You must be one of the few people who are still alive who were at that meeting.

BN     Let's see if there are others. I know Walter Sisulu was there. Mandela was not there but Chief Luthuli was there. Mandela was arrested in 1962.

POM     1962. He would have been there, right?

BN     No he was abroad I think. There were others, let's see, there were quite a number of Communist Party members George Peake was there from the Coloured People's Congress, Roly Arenstein from the Congress of Democrats. I don't recall all the people who were there but the entire leadership of different congresses were present.

POM     Now there was something called the Indian – in the late seventies early eighties, the Indian Cabal. What was that all about?

BN     OK. Now you know this is a misnomer.

BN     The Communist Party was underground, banned from 1950, so was MK which was also underground. Then you had the ANC component. All three were not exposed necessarily to each other, each had its separate structures. Leading members like Pravin Gordhan or others who worked in the Indian Congress, Civics, etc., at the same time operated in the ANC, SACP and MK. When I came out of prison in 1984, (I was in prison from 1964 to 1984) I was Deputy Chairman of the UDF in Natal and also a National Executive member of the UDF, I operated very quietly on the Communist Party, MK and ANC fronts.

     We were subject to a certain discipline, codes of conduct, etc. If we took a line, for instance, at a UDF or an Indian Congress meeting consistent with the policy position of the ANC or SACP, a group that stood opposed alleged that a cabal existed and that it was playing a leadership role in the UDF and its various affiliates. Some people not conversant with the dynamics of the movement felt that there was a secret organisation, a cabal operating within the Indian Congress or the UDF because it took a particular position on issues. If I offered a solution or if Pravin Gordhan made a suggestion this may be supported by the like-minded. When the battles were fought in the seventies I was in prison and it was pointed out to comrades that what must be looked at is the substance of the matter under discussion and not a secret question and whether an honest viewpoint is proffered, whether it was a way out of the difficulties that we are faced with. They should look at the substance, not to now attach labels of a cabal or a Communist Party line or that of the underground.

     Pravin Gordhan was accused of being a leader of the cabal. We said, "OK, what did he say, what did he do? If you talk about a leader of the cabal let's look at the substance and tease that out." These were immature elements within the organisation who nit-picked because they lacked the capacity for leadership. Pravin Gordhan was a first class leader but to suggest that he was misleading –

POM     Were they suggesting that the Indian Cabal was that all Indians would stick together on a particular issue?

BN     The so-called Indian Cabal on the other hand also derives from this, that if Indians expressed a certain viewpoint it became an 'Indian Cabal', again this is a false, absolute junk. However it began to take root and you will find this in certain books that were written subsequently on an Indian cabal or a cabal operating within the UDF. It is not Indian or African but sometimes is stamped as a secret group that is out to stamp its leadership. You could put this as petty jealousy because where there is a lack of capacity for leadership you pass this off as an Indian cabal. When we dealt with this issue we exposed it as a cheap trick to divide the organisation and to make up for the lack of political maturity.

POM     Billy, just to wrap up and I know that you're very, very busy, is to go back for a bit to your days on Robben Island. Now you were in the single cell section where Madiba was and Walter Sisulu was and Mac was and Govan Mbeki was and whatever. Now you in fact were on the Island by the time – were you there before the Rivonia trialists arrived?

BN     Yes. We arrived there on 12 March 1964 and the Rivonia trialists arrived in June 1964.

POM     So who came along with you?

BN     There were 18 of us who were sentenced in the Pietermaritzburg Supreme Court. We were then transported to Leeukop Prison and we were beaten up there. All 18 of us were given a thrashing. After we had our bath we were told there were no towels so we were stark naked and we were made to run round a small track in the prison yard. They said, "This is how you dry yourself." They would beat us up with batons. That was our baptism in fire to initiate us and attune us to prison conditions. We were there for about a week and thereafter transported to Robben Island, altogether 61 of us, some PAC members including Stanley Magoba, who is now the leader of the PAC.  There was Dennis Brutus who was, you recall, shot before his arrest. He served a term of 18 months. So there were 61 of us who were transported from Leeukop Prison in Pretoria to Robben Island.

     Immediately on our arrival on Robben Island all 61 of us were beaten again, with batons, they really kicked us and booted us around. They asked us to remove some rocks and stones from one place to another on the very next day after our arrival on 12 March, this was on the 13 March.

POM     Now were you in communal cells at that point?

BN     At that point we were in a communal cell. I was in the communal cells.

POM     Were criminals there too?

BN     Yes there were criminals but these criminals were in smaller numbers but largely to spy on us. There were about seven or eight of them in each of those cells. I was with my colleagues at that time up to about June or July when I met our lawyers.

BN     I exposed to the lawyers the beatings that we got at Leeukop Prison and on Robben Island. We were beaten up on three occasions. There were a series of discussions, meetings with the lawyers. After the first meeting with the lawyers I was removed from the communal cells into isolation. Mandela and Co arrived more or less at the same time in the B section. Dennis Brutus and I were transferred from the general section to the B section.

POM     So you spent 20 years in that section?

BN     Yes.

POM     Wow!

BN     Yes. And worked in the quarry, went through quite a bit. I think the first exposures of Robben Island, which was called the Devil's Island, came from me. I gave the whole story to the lawyers.

POM     Did they get that published or did it get out to the media at the time?

BN     It was published abroad somewhere in July/August 1964. I think the local papers took the lead from the British newspapers and published it here as well.

POM     Now there was something called the High Organ. That was the structure that was set up to be the head body of all the prisoners?

BN     Yes. It was actually an ANC structure within prison and the High Organ constituted the top leadership, Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others. It was located in the B section. Harry Gwala and the others would have been have been brought on board but they were in the general section. There was recognition on the part of everyone concerned that this constituted the leadership. Of course the general sections had their own structures similar to that in the B section. We were a small group, just about twenty altogether. There was the PAC and even a few Black Consciousness leaders in the B Section.

POM     Did the High Organ represent just ANC prisoners?

BN     Yes ANC. Then we had liaison with the other political prisoners at the leadership level. Assuming we intended to go on a hunger strike or to tackle any other problem this was discussed and then taken up with the leadership of the other political organisations.

POM     But the party never set up its own structure?

BN     Who?

POM     The SACP never set up its own structure?

BN     Yes, you see –

POM     Did it?

BN     There was in existence an SACP underground. There were committed communists but some of them felt very strongly that the party should continue to exist on the Island as a separate entity. They were disabused from doing so largely because it would  divide the ANC as such. There were people who took radical positions in order to mitigate that the ANC entertained discussions at the widest possible level. An example of this are the discussions on dialectical materialism, historical materialism, the origin of humankind right from its roots and in fact these discussions took years. It was done systematically, written lectures were distributed throughout the prison to all the ANC cadres. Systematic discussions took place. Then you had the history of the ANC, the history of the Indian Congress and the history of the trade union movement among others. Some of these essays were reproduced in a book.

POM     You have a lovely essay on trade unions, I love it. Trade unions, Billy, would never do that today.

BN     In fact we pulled out all stops to educate and to improve the capacity of our members so that when they get out of prison they will have a well trained background. A number of people who came into prison did not know the history of the movement and this helped. We had a three year discussion on the origin of man and its evolution.

POM     Wow!

BN     A scientific analysis was done into history leading up to a study of dialectic materialism, historical materialism, then communism as well as capitalism, feudalism, socialism. All this was done under the aegis of the ANC. Not only were the cadres trained academically, some went through UNISA but great emphasis was placed on political education. In the process we trained others in, for example, the Black Consciousness Movement. Terror Lekota, Popo Molefe and others looked at the ANC as dirt when they first landed in prison but we won all of them over. Quite a number of these people are leading members of the government and in the movement today.

POM     When you came in in 1964 you were part of, I would assume, MK but you weren't connected to - Indians at that time weren't - ?

BN     I was an executive member of the Natal Indian Congress. At the time of my arrest I was one of the deputy vice-presidents. I was a National Executive member and also Natal secretary of SACTU. I was a District Committee member of the Communist Party. Then I also served on the joint committees of the Indian Congress, ANC and SACTU. We met daily to discuss our day-to-day programmes and to work out strategies. There was Mr Naicker, Roly Arenstein, Moses Mabida, George Mbele, Kay Moonsamy, Steve Dhlamini. These are all the cadres who were virtually full time in the various congresses, meeting and working out strategies in the fifties and sixties. We also served on the national structures.

POM     How did Vula fall apart?

BN     Two people who were due to meet the leadership of Vula were detained. This happened in Albert Street in Durban. One of the cadres was from abroad, the other was a teacher by the name of Tshabalala.  Both disappeared altogether after their detention. I believe they were tortured to death and their bodies were dumped in the Tugela River, put in sandbags. That has not been verified. They've tried to excavate the river to locate the bodies but nothing was found. It would appear that they were tortured and there is a likelihood that they gave the police some information. So this is what led to our arrests subsequently. This, incidentally, took place during the negotiations.

POM     That's right, yes, yes.

BN     We were involved in the negotiations. Mac was one of the leaders of the team. I was also there but didn't take a leading part.

POM     They found all this unencrypted data from the Tongaat meeting and - ?

BN     Yes, yes. The Tongaat meeting, yes. Now the Tongaat meeting you see –

POM     That was in June of 1990.

BN     During the negotiations between Mandela, Joe Slovo and De Klerk and his cabinet, De Klerk alleged that Joe Slovo was at that meeting but Siphiwe Nyanda was also called Joe, that was his code name. There is constant reference in those minutes that were found referring to Joe. De Klerk alleged, "There's Joe Slovo, he is privy to overthrowing the government by force and he was there at the meeting." It was proven that Joe Slovo was in Lusaka at that time.

POM     But they found all that data unencrypted.

BN     Yes. It was all on disk. You see when they raided –

POM     But it was supposed to be coded, right?

BN     Yes, it was all coded. They were able to decipher it. When I was in detention they brought whole sheaves of paper, "You guys were in a plot to overthrow the government." They came boasting. Soon after the detention of the two comrades whom I referred to and who were subsequently killed we took precautions and insured that all the material including those disks were relocated but it would appear that the computers failed to work at the new premises. Nyanda came back with the stuff just to locate one of the disks which from London wanted details because they did not get them clearly earlier. He did not know exactly which particular disk it was, so he had to go through all of them. It was at the stage the police raided and they got him like a sitting duck.

POM     So he was going through the tapes trying to see which one and say, "Zap that one, it's this one. No it's not that one", and he was going on and on so he had left them open.

BN     What you should do is you should get that from Siphiwe. I don't want to actually –

POM     Yes. I've talked to him.

BN     You did chat with him?

POM     I have, I have done that.

BN     Yes. That's what happened and it led to a massive crisis. You put the question: what led to the 'collapse'? De Klerk wanted to grant us amnesty on condition that we return all the weapons. There were quite a lot of weapons which were all tagged and handed over to the new government not to the old.

POM     I can remember people said to me, Ronnie Kasrils among them, that the underground continued right through the whole negotiating process and it was still armed and it was still ready and could have moved at any time if given the orders.

BN     Yes, indeed. It was only after the negotiations succeeded and the democratic government was established that all those weapons were handed over. Until then they were our property and ready for use.

POM     And was the underground – well it was kept alive, the structures were still kept alive.

BN     All the structures remained intact until the unbanning and the success of the negotiations. They were up to a lot of tricks as you know, the Bop incident took place. Violence, bombings, mass killings and other atrocities took place. Anything could have been expected because they were embarking on a double agenda. They accused us of a double agenda but they were actually pursuing it. Although De Klerk was President after ousting Botha there was an uncertainty as to what exactly was their agenda. The right wing was encouraged to continue. They knew exactly who the right wingers were and yet they didn't lift a finger to check them. They were bombing the airports and committing mass atrocities. Then you had the fascist element among the blacks who were murdering our people on a large scale.

POM     So did Vula then turn into kind of an insurance policy that if the government got out of hand that you could - ?

BN     Well you see, you mean the old regime? They were fully armed to the teeth, they had a very powerful force which was ready for action right up to the last days of the negotiations. It was through the brilliance of some of our people, Madiba, Joe Slovo and the others, that the sunset clauses in the final agreement guaranteeing security of tenure of the civil service which numbered 1.2 million - the public service was threatening action if they were left out in limbo.  They said they were going to bring the government to a standstill, even that of the old regime. Allegations were made against the old regime of De Klerk that they were selling out. We had to be at alert stations.

POM     Just to wrap up. I've got the Mac bit – it's important for me to establish, and this is one of the key things that I want to do, is that when Madiba's letter to PW got circulated that there was a lot of misunderstanding that Mandela was selling out and confusion and that Mac was running around the country and he ran down to you, went through the letter with you and you and he went to Harry Gwala and explained it to him. You can confirm that?

BN     Yes. But let me disabuse you, it was not widespread, really. There were elements in the movement, Harry among others, who misconstrued this entirely.  As a matter of fact in the movement itself, things were so hectic and moving at such a rapid pace there was no room for this rumour to spread or for fears that Mandela was selling out. The media and others did use this at the time, they used this to sow seeds of dissension within the movement. Now what we did was to try to sort this out with our own cadres and with people like Harry and also that those in leadership positions should not lend themselves to this irrespective of their political differences. Mandela was solid throughout. He knew exactly what he was doing. The key point was that the ANC abroad, Tambo and others, knew the A to Z of what was going on and they backed Madiba to the hilt.

POM     What did Mandela used to call you in prison? Thumbi?

BN     Thumbi means younger brother in Tamil.

POM     Mac says he recalls the day that you and Madiba had a quarrel.

BN     Yes, it wasn't a day, I think it lasted over six months or a year.

POM     Well I suppose if you're in jail for 20 years you may as well extend your arguments, you had the time.

BN     No it was a long drawn out battle. We met almost daily. Walter Sisulu used to jibe at this. Oh he used to roar with laughter at the battles that we were having.

     Just before my release from prison, Harry Gwala was brought into our section, I was with him for three months. I knew him very well, we were trade unionists together in the old days. We had lengthy discussions and hammered the question of ultra-leftism and the mass democratic struggle. We had a three-month go. It was tense, heated but always comradely.

POM     He was a hard man.

BN     A hard-liner but absolutely sincere. He felt very strongly, like any other radical communist, that capitalism was not the solution. I also believe this but how exactly do you go about solving issues? We differed on the tactics to be employed. You just cannot elevate tactics to fine principles, this will end in crisis.

POM     What Mac says you said to Madiba is, "I'm telling you, you are nothing but a feudal aristocrat masquerading as a socialist."

BN     The damn rascal, he's causing trouble. I don't want to fight with Madiba. He is a saint you know.

POM     OK, so you get points through the nose.

BN     Padraig, do me a favour, I will be very happy if you can give the transcripts as a whole, not only mine but the others as well.

POM     Oh, all the – every time we've talked?

BN     No, no, what I mean is the Mac component as well.

POM     I'll tell you where they all are, what I've done, what has happened to all my materials. I've been doing this since 1989 and I have nearly 1600 hours of taped material that is now at Robben Island and they are digitalising them all and putting them on CD-ROMs. I'll get one for you so you can listen to all these people. You can listen to Trevor Manuel saying in 1990 that everything will be nationalised, and you can hear him saying in 1996, "Everything will be privatised."

BN     OK.

POM     Let me ask you one last question, a simple one, not a hard one: who is Mac?  Who is he?

BN     Mac Maharaj?

POM     Yes. Not he was this, that and the other, but who as a person is he?

BN     One of the things is, I think I did tell you about the young man?

POM     No. You worked with him on New Age.

BN     Yes, besides that, even before when he was at university, very sharp intellect even as a young man at the university, very keen and hot-headed at times. A good political analyst. One of the people who did a great deal in the negotiations who was able to take on Meyer and quite a number of them. There were Valli Moosa and others but Mac was superb. Throughout he was one of the people who with Cyril Ramaphosa and others constituted the hub of the negotiating team. A guy who would be able to effect compromises and on the other hand challenge positions of the other side. A very quick, sharp intellect.

POM     Did you know Tim, the young woman he married who was at University of Natal when he was there? I think she was MD Naidoo's sister.

BN     That's right, MD's sister. Tim. He married Tim, he divorced her.

POM     Just between you and me, were they a compatible couple? Was she similar to him? I've talked to her, I'm going to go down and see her, I've talked to her on the phone a couple of times.

BN     Mac will be the best guy to tell you about their compatibility. I wouldn't want to venture into that. I did know her well, then they moved shortly after their marriage. Mac was, of course, released when I was still in prison. He spent 12 years on the Island.

POM     Listen, thank you ever so much for the time that you've taken, as always.

BN     It's a pleasure.

POM     You're part of a historical record. It's important to capture it now. The idea of putting all these interviews together is that youngsters will be able to listen in years to come about the people who were the founding fathers of the nation.

BN     We made a small contribution.

POM     Oh I think more than a small one. OK. Take care of yourself Billy.

BN     Look, don't forget, if you can give the transcript of the tapes or whatever.

POM     I will have everything given to you Billy. You have Judy Drew's number, right?

BN     Yes, OK, I've got her number.

POM     I might just drop by parliament one day and see you just to shake your hand.

BN     You can phone me – we are going into recess next weekend. I'll be in Durban then.

POM     Well I'll be going down to Durban because I'm going to go down to see Tim and Shanti and all of Mac's relatives.

BN     Then you can tinkle me there at home. You've got my number at home?

POM     I don't think I have. Why don't you give it to me again? OK. Well take care today. See you in Durban. God bless. Bye bye.

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.