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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

17 May 2004: Nair, Billy

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POM     Judy tells me that you have an operation coming up.

BN     Not yet. You see I will be going for treatment. I've got a problem with my leg and hips then I've got to report to some doctors. They have to undergo a check and since coming out of the Island I've had five operations altogether.

POM     Oh my.

BN     Yes, so they don't want to risk it at my age. That's the problem but we'll sort it out.

POM     They'll miss you in parliament.

BN     Well I was re-elected when the election was held, then I stood down. It took some doing. I was running in six or seven directions all over the place. Ultimately I had to also tell the IEC that I'm going to stand down because of illness, etc. You see the political structures knew, ANC and the others, they knew already last year but I was put on the list. Anyway that's it. You see what happens now, I've served 53 years full time in the organisation.

POM     Time for a little break.

BN     Yes. It's not a break actually, I have to still handle the office until somebody takes over. I still go there daily but today I didn't go at all because I'm not feeling too grand. I had a good nap, I was in bed.

POM     And are you feeling a bit better now?

BN     Yes, you see I got up pretty early as I always do in the morning and even in Cape Town going to parliament I used to get up in the morning at four thirty and then in order to be ready by half past six, so it takes me half an hour from Pelican Park to Cape Town, to parliament. But otherwise you're stuck in the traffic.

POM     Sure. So what time would you go to bed at?

BN     Well about ten or eleven, because I do all my reading at seven in the morning there. In the Public Accounts in the Portfolio Committee you have to look at all audits there, a whole stack of it that comes almost daily. Then you don't allow it to pile up. Then you get stuck into it every morning from seven up to nine, thereafter you prepare for the committees and afternoon parliament. I got used to the routine in parliament and it was not a problem but then I neglected my health altogether, my wife also. She too requires treatment for arthritis and so on. Now she was with me throughout for the first ten years, coming there, doing all the cooking and what have you, and I thought I've been robbing her also of her treatment. From December when the X-rays and scans and doctors' reports came through I didn't have a break at all to go for treatment.

POM     Oh dear.

BN     Yes. So anyway, now hopefully.

POM     You get the treatments done. Now talking of which, when I went through our last interview I realised I never even got to what I had originally wanted to talk to you about and that was about Vula and your participation in Vula. Can you remember when you first met Mac and was introduced to Vula?

BN     Yes. Well Mac was abroad at that time but Siphiwe Nyanda was here already in South Africa, he was here in Durban. Later Mac Maharaj he then came into the country so we operated together. Mac and Siphiwe Nyanda and others, people like Mo Shaik and so on, they were also part of not necessarily the main structure but they were part of the team. There were others in the different parts of the country.

POM     Now this is a question that has flashed across my mind because I've been talking to Mo Shaik last week and, of course, I've talked to Mac extensively all the time since this book is around him, really around his life, but one of the things I went back to was at the time they had done the investigation of Bulelani Ngcuba and when Mo's unit came up with the information that he was probably a spy and sent that information on to Lusaka, would you have been among the people at that time who would have been informed by Mo or by Mac that Bulelani was probably a spy?

BN     Yes, yes. I was privy to that information, yes.

POM     Mo says, and I will talk to these people, the information went to Lusaka and further investigations were carried out and that the word came back that you were to operate on the assumption that the original conclusion was correct.

BN     Yes, you see insofar as Bulelani Ngcuka was concerned, well this is purely hindsight.

POM     Sure, I'm talking about then because you guys it would seem to me, Mr Nair, that in the atmosphere and conditions you lived in that if you had the slightest suspicion that somebody might be part of the enemy, you said, 'He's the enemy.' You didn't have the luxury of you know.

BN     Yes, but of course information at that time, yes, there was that mention which was of course submitted to the people outside. Then it didn't affect the operations of Vula at all because this was extraneous to Vula. But of course, I agree with you, a number of people whose background and so on and of course their cooperation with the authorities and their having been sent out of the country as MK operatives and so on, that information came through from time to time and these were then immediately transmitted to the people outside and they acted on that information and found invariably that the information was correct and they took action. There were a number who went to Angola and the training camps and so on from South Africa.      We were unable to take any action at the time, there were a whole string of characters that the authorities used to undermine the ANC, MK and so on.

POM     What you guys would do is just get the information, send it on to Lusaka and leave it up to Lusaka to take whatever action they could?

BN     Yes.

POM     That if you had taken any action it might have compromised your own operations?

BN     Well in any case all we could do is send them out because the people who were placed in they were sent out for training by the various operatives. Some of them, of course, were not sent out from the country necessarily by us, they merely escaped through the borders and so on. Then of course they were probably aided and abetted by the authorities, then they became part of MK, part of the training camp and so on. They were picked up by the chaps there and of course this was done on a fairly regular basis.

POM     Now I want to take you to 1989 and this would be July or August of 1989, probably some time in July at the time when Madiba sent a memorandum to PW Botha. According to Mac a copy of that letter got circulated and was being misinterpreted by people. This is what he said, I'll read you what he says and then you can tell me whether it fits in with your memory or whether it doesn't. He said the word had come from PE and from Durban that Harry Gwala is saying that Madiba is selling out because this letter is in circulation and people are misinterpreting or whatever. He says : -

     "I left for Durban in the early hours of Monday. When I got there I saw Billy Nair and went through the letter with him." (That's the letter that Madiba had sent to PW Botha.) "He too had heard the rumour but before I left for Durban I transmitted the text to OR and sent him a commentary saying what was happening and told him what steps I was taking to defuse them. When I got to Durban another problem emerged. Harry Gwala was saying that Madiba was selling out." (He had sent the letter to Govan and to the UDF head office and to Western Cape.) "I sent Billy to see Harry Gwala in Pietermaritzburg to correct the wrong impression."

     Do you recall that whole issue and what was going on around it at that time?

BN     Yes. I did give you an account of that. We did travel out to Pietermaritzburg. I myself was underground at that time and so was Mac and Nyanda. What had happened is we then got a safe location in the first place in Pietermaritzburg in order to meet Harry. What had happened is Harry did not pitch at that venue at all, we waited. Mac was also there. It was, if I recall correctly, it was a library and one of the safe offices in that particular library was where we were supposed to have met Harry. I'm not too sure whether Siphiwe Nyanda was with us, but indeed it did happen but Harry did not pitch to this meeting at all.

POM     He did not pitch?

BN     He didn't come to the meeting.

POM     He didn't come to the meeting?

BN     And thereafter what we did, if I recall it correctly, we relocated from that library to another spot because we did not remain long there at that one particular spot in case we were spotted by others. Then, if I recall correctly, Harry did pitch, if my memory serves me right, he did pitch and we actually said it's speculation that he was spreading, the speculation that Madiba was a sell-out etc., was wholly mistaken. As a matter of fact he was, through our channels, actually updating us from time to time and Mac played a very important role there in ensuring that all the messages that came through from Madiba and Madiba was not prepared to take any action until it was clear that the movement itself, from Oliver Tambo down to the entire ANC executive approved of what was going on.

POM     Do you recall Mac going through the letter with you?

BN     Yes.

POM     You do, yes. Did he go through the letter with Harry?

BN     Not the letter itself but, you know Mac has got a fantastic memory. Now the details of that we conveyed to Harry to ensure that, look, this was all above board and it was not being done without the sanction of the movement. This was the transmitted stuff from Madiba which came to us, this was internally conveyed. The moment such important messages come these were immediately transmitted abroad. So this was conveyed to Harry and, if I recall correctly, also to Govan.

POM     Because he was also spreading, or had spread rumours?

BN     Yes, exactly. You see there's a background to this. Mac will recall it, we had quite a scrap about both Harry and Govan on the Island itself on the issue of interpreting the charter, etc., etc., a number of policy issues and there were always the clashes that took place because Govan was with us in the B section of Robben Island, Harry was in the general section. Harry, of course, was in close contact with Govan and the others and of course from time to time explosions did take place on the Island itself; explosions in the sense of very sharp differences. Then you could say this was really a hangover of that, the issue of selling out, etc., etc., it was subsequent when Harry was out before he was arrested himself and served another term, he got life imprisonment on the Island.

POM     So was it on the Island like you would have Madiba and Walter on one side and Govan and Raymond Mhlaba and Harry on the other?

BN     You see what had happened, I gave you the background, we had what is called structure of the leadership corps on the Island.

POM     That was the High Organ, right?

BN     The High Organ located in the B section, in the isolation block. Then you had also the ANC leadership in the general section and this is where quite a number of things happened because of those fairly effective communications from the general section to ourselves in B section but there was interpreting, for instance, a number of policy issues including that of the charter, etc., etc.

POM     The Bantustans was another issue.

BN     The Bantustans, they used the Bantustans as a lever and the Chiefs, the headmen and others. So these were issues that were discussed from time to time and, of course, differences occurred. So it was not out of character, I'm looking at it in that sense, because of the carryover of Govan and

POM     I'm sorry, you were saying Harry and Govan were taking an ultra-left position.

BN     Yes, ultra-left in a sense, I firmly believe, as communists. Madiba himself or Walter and so on have got that left background, they both were members of the party at some stage or other, Walter more so, and it did not necessarily follow that discussions would be with the powers that be, PW Botha and his cabinet, Kobie Coetsee and others. Kobie Coetsee was actually sent out as an emissary by the Botha cabinet to actually have discussions with Madiba.

POM     Now can you remember a time when Walter and Madiba were party members?

BN     Yes, you see what had happened, Walter was definitely a party member, that is the underground, that is the Communist Party underground when in 1953; in 1950 it disbanded, thereafter it organised itself as an underground organisation. So in truth Madiba was also very close, not an open member, he didn't attend Central Committee meetings, etc., etc., but always identified himself with the left and also read Marxist literature, he could argue from the point of view of a Marxist interpreting Marxism, not in a narrow dogmatic sense, in the broader sense. He studied also, read, and he had views that sometimes didn't coincide with that of the, shall we say, the 

POM     The word is just coming into my head.

BN     And who adhered very strictly to certain Marxist principles and they felt that they were custodians of it and therefore they interpreted it like, for instance, the charter. Yes, the charter came in for massive discussion with certain positions being taken by the Marxists and of course others whom they regarded as nationalists and so on. So this branding was inevitable and especially given the fact of not everyone was a strict adherent of looking at Marxism in practical terms and especially under the conditions of the Island when you are detained and in separate compartments, general section and here where you could not have discussions but otherwise written documents from both sides were discussed.

POM     Was the High Organ in charge of prisoners both in the like the authorities were people in the isolation section and in the communal section? So it was the authority, the final authority over all prisoners on the Island?

BN     That's right. Not all but the ANC component.

POM     The ANC, sorry, yes. And that was Madiba, Walter, Raymond and Govan. Now at some point there was an argument and they stepped down, a new High Organ came into place for a while? Andrew Masondo and there was a fifth person on it.

BN     Andrew Masondo was not in our section at all. I don't know, I don't think they stepped down, no they remained. There was confidence shown in the High Organ notwithstanding the sharp differences that arose. Madiba, no question about it, Madiba was outstanding in his approach to things. Everyone who came visiting the Island, irrespective of the west or the east or whoever, they wanted to actually discuss issues with Madiba and he stood out as an outstanding leader, never narrow in his approach.

     But linking this with the issue of discussion with the authorities, the crucial issue, the crucial issue that turns on this is that Madiba in short, that whatever discussions took place between him, PW Botha and other members of the government was conveyed abroad and he constantly asked for directions.

POM     Because you had the communication system that could get things going from him outside to OR back and in again.

BN     That's right, yes, and the system was refined thanks to Mac. That system worked magnificently in Vula.

POM     Now do you recall, do you recall Mac going through the letter with you?

BN     Yes.

POM     You do, OK.

BN     As a matter of fact the details, rather the actual letter was transmitted in its entirety abroad and the irony of it all, irrespective of the sharp differences that arose here and the line of sell-out coming on the part of Madiba, etc., was wholly endorsed by the leadership abroad because they themselves abroad were thinking along the lines of Madiba. Yes, Oliver Tambo, the Slovos, the lot, they actually gave the go-ahead and, again, at every step, for instance the issue of when Botha then proffered to Madiba that, look, if he's released will he number one, renounce violence, number two, he has to locate not in Johannesburg, he will be sent to the Transkei because it was an independent homeland. Then he responded, and this is again conveyed out, we did not know a thing until he sent this out to us; he made it quite clear never is he going to renounce violence, not even conditionally or anything of the sort. Secondly, he will never accept the idea of going over to the Transkei, he will be in Johannesburg the very next morning after he is released. He gives no such assurance. This is conveyed to us, his actual response, and of course this is sent out as well.

POM     Now did anyone ever get to Govan to straighten him out or was he more or less his own man? Govan Mbeki? You said he was into believing that Madiba was selling out too, did you guys ever make contact with him to say, no, no, you've got it wrong, this is not what's happening?

BN     You see Govan was also conveyed that message. I'm not too sure whether it was here or in Johannesburg when that was conveyed to Govan as well. Govan also was sometimes, he also took strong left positions and did things on his own at times without even consulting anyone. In the case of Madiba this is crucial. Madiba, no, he would like to consult, he never takes action on his own. That is why he constantly submitted this out so that it could be conveyed to our people abroad. Not so with Govan, to be honest he was secretive. He sometimes does things on his own irrespective of the consequences and, of course, you take for instance the spread of this rumour and so on, for heaven's sake let's discuss this as a collective. Now these were some problem areas that arose at that time but the important thing was that the movement abroad, the ANC leadership fully endorsed Madiba's position.

POM     Well listen, I think I will leave you alone for today but when I come to Durban I will come to see you and talk to you again. The more I do this the more I understand the need to do it because unless people's memories are collected before they die there is no history. Youngsters will have no history and historians will have no record of the actual recollections of the participants in events. It ultimately must be the basis of good historical research.

BN     Indeed. I agree with you. I am also thinking of doing some writing now.

POM     Good for you, yes.

BN     Well of course I'll have to get the help of an expert like you.

POM     That's fine, I'm available, OK. I'll help you, OK? Any time you want to start to do so, and one way you could do so is I could just talk to you and record it and have it transcribed and then get it back to you and you could go through it and start working it that way.

BN     Yes. Especially, well it's going to be biographical you see and hopefully I'd be able to get I want to first undergo a little bit of treatment, I haven't started it yet, I'm just trying to get myself organised here, my home is in a shambles with all sorts of papers, documents all over.

POM     I can imagine.

BN     Is there any other thing that you actually wanted?

POM     I think right now that is fine, I wanted to have a look at the problems. The one thing I wanted to make sure of was that when Mac talks of that period of the letter coming out and there being misinterpretations and rumours of Madiba selling out that he went to you and contacted you and you and he went and saw Harry and Govan was straightened out as well. That's really what I wanted to verify because when Mac says something to me what I do is I go and talk to all the people he mentions to see if their memory of the events is the same as his. I have to get verifications, at least two verifications before I can accept it as being the right version of what happened. Do you know what I mean?

BN     Yes. The other thing, because of possible sensitivities and repercussions, any complicity in this, to look at it very carefully. But I think facts are facts, many on the Island will know this too, the clashes that took place between the so-called left and the so-called nationalists, etc., etc., and you can call them by any label but one group against the other, whatever and especially the characters involved, the possible repercussions of this and the sensitivities of the people who are still alive, all the relatives where they will feel now they're bringing up muck. Those are some of the political repercussions. But in any case the truth is the truth. We will have to expose the truth.

POM     That's right, but if you don't do that there is no history.

BN     Exactly, and of course it is known, it's a known fact of the groupings that existed at the time even outside.

POM     The main people on the left would have been Govan, Raymond.

BN     Well you see Raymond was also he was a great friend coming as he did from the Eastern Cape.

POM     Sure, from Port Elizabeth.

BN     Port Elizabeth, so they were colleagues, but I would say that Raymond was, if the thing is reasoned out with him, he accepted the position. Now he didn't take a dogmatic view, no, he was always practical. Well of course you can't compare him to Walter Sisulu. For instance even on the Island Madiba, assuming that he wants to take some action or the other, write a letter out or so something, he'd consult. The first person he'd go to was never Govan or Raymond Mhlaba, he'd go to Walter. Walter used to think this out and often he comes out with solutions. He was like Moses Kotane, Moses also played that role. Moses was the confidant of Chief Luthuli and the Chief would not do a thing without consulting first Moses. That's how it was. Or you take a Joe Slovo and Madiba, close, even in the negotiations. That demonstrates where on the one hand you take a narrow dogmatic position, on the other hand a communist, the Secretary of the party, Central Committee member who has done his years, taking a practical position and coming up with solutions. A good example is the sunset clause, now it was Joe and the others were completely bowled over. These are some of the practicalities that once leftists sometimes forget. Otherwise freedom fighters yes.

POM     Well that's in the history, in the history of the struggle there are individuals involved, individuals always have differences particularly where there are a number of strong personalities involved. It's inevitable. I don't think there's been a struggle in history that didn't have those kind of tensions at their core. They're natural.

BN     Now if you look at it from a Marxist point of view, those contradictions are healthy. We then refine ultimately the policy positions through that contradiction. There's a bit of irony in that. There will be a clash of opposites, even if you crack each other's heads literally, but they will come with a refined solution.

POM     Or you come up with a refined head.

BN     Yes, after being hospitalised!

POM     Listen, good luck with your treatments and I will stay in touch with you and check in and make sure that you're getting down to doing some writing. God bless now.

BN     Keep well.

POM     Bye-bye now.

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.