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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

09 May 2002: Maharaj, Mac

POM     So let's get back to the question that you raised on what were the debates and the pros and cons and you said, and I know we've talked about this slightly before about Luthuli being perceived as a pacifist and for you to get into that debate is, again, one of those things that are not being addressed in other books, have not been addressed at all.

MM     You put the question and I'll answer it as honestly as possible. Which question are you going to put?

POM     I was going to do something else.

MM     I put the issue on the table inadvertently.

POM     That's right and now I'm asking you to talk about the issue.

MM     No, the issues were very simple.

POM     Mac, you must be simple, you must be slipping up if you do something inadvertently. You must be losing it!

MM     The issues were very clear I think in the debates that took place. The reality in the country as at 1960/61 was that the overt and covert actions of the state were closing down all avenues of orthodox political activity. On the part of the people there were incipient revolts going on, Sekhukhuneland, Pondoland, the women opposing the dipping tents in Natal beginning to hit back at the police with sticks and stones and there was the Sharpeville massacre. But the one side of the debate, the Madiba side, was saying if we don't take action and move towards organised forms of violent struggle we're going to be left behind and we are going to be unable to give leadership to the people to channel their energy. On the other side of the debate there were people who were saying, have you exhausted, yes, extra constitutional right, non-violent forms of struggle, have you exhausted that? Are you wanting to turn to the armed struggle as an easy way out of the difficult problem of finding non-violent forms of struggle? Secondly, they were concerned that, and one speaker at the joint meeting put the matter very tersely, he said, "Non violence has not failed us, we have failed non violence."

     The next factor that was on that side of the debate was that the ANC was banned, the Communist Party was banned, the Congress of Democrats was banned, but the Indian Congresses were not banned, the trade union confederation, SACTU, was not banned, the Coloured People's Congress was not banned. Now these three organisations still remained as legal entities therefore had space, some legal space, to mobilise and if you went to the armed struggle would you not be surrendering that space to the state?

     The third issue was a fear that the turn to violence would actually give the apartheid state the opening to go further in its repression. These were the issues in the debate. They were not issues of pacifism. Yes there were some members of the Joint Congresses, particularly in the Indian Congress, who were Gandhi followers, but they too went into the debate to defend their positions but they were unable in that debate to justify and put forward a viable path to change along the lines of non violence except to say we have failed non-violence. The answer to 'we have failed non violence' was to say, it worked in India against a government, an imperial government sitting in London which was susceptible to pressure not just from the Indian action but to pressure within British society based on the morality of the struggle and that that was an absent factor in SA. Verwoerd had walked away from the Commonwealth and the British government had consistently defended and permitted the apartheid state to come into being.

     So those were the issues in the debate. One of the Joint Congress executive members accused Chief Luthuli of being a pacifist in the context of these issues being debated and Chief Luthuli's retort was very simple, he said, "You come and steal the chicken in my back yard and then you'll see whether I'm a pacifist." So in short those were the debates, those were the issues in the debate at that time and I don't think that when we are reading history and recording we need to add other factors, expose it.

     Theoretically there was a debate also in, and particularly within and a little beyond the ranks of the Communist Party, and that was the Lenin model of the conditions under which you have a revolutionary overthrow of the state. But Cuba had taken place, the Cuban revolution and Ché Guevara in his writing, I think it was book called Guerrilla Warfare had argued that the objective conditions that Lenin said must prevail for a revolutionary overthrow, those objective conditions need not exist at the time that you go for the overthrow. You can take action that would allow the objective conditions to surface and mature. Guevara was justifying what happened in the expedition that Castro led by boat from Mexico into Cuba to say they had gone there and fomented the conditions by launching the armed struggle.

     So that was a separate theoretical debate taking place and I recall, I think I've said it to you that while I was training in the GDR in my first stint as a printer, that's what I had gone there for, and one of the first requests that I received from home, which I then used as an exercise while I was studying print, was to take the Guevara book and reduce it to a pocket size clandestine edition and print it and smuggle it back to SA for distribution here. And it was done then before the formal decision was taken on the armed struggle but that booklet was printed for distribution clandestinely in SA so that people involved in the debate had access to the literature. But that's a theoretical part of the debate on the left side.

     I think I have accurately summarised the issues that were at stake in the ANC debate and in the debate in the Congress movement. There you are, I haven't told any lies. I've not said who said what. That's the part that I have withheld.

POM     Eventually we will have to do that.

MM     You can try. There are no indiscreet questions, there are only indiscreet answers.

POM     If that's the way our conversations are going to proceed.

MM     OK, let's go on today's, your questions. What are your questions today?

POM     Well I was going through the beginning of that long thing you have about The Chess Players. When I sent back the new proposal to New York I included, with my point I included your entire extract about your upbringing and your going to Natal, involved, getting out, going to London, Tim following you there, getting married, you then being called upon to go abroad, went abroad. Two things stand out in my memory right now. One was when you talked about when you met her again in London she came down to you and said, "Mac, we have been married for 20 years and I put down on the debit side 20 years and I put down on the credit side how much time have we put together."

MM     A total of 18 months.

POM     "18 months and 20 years, I can't stand it any more." And the other powerful statement that stuck in my mind was when you talked about your Mum, how she ran the store, your father would bawl out the orders. And you said, "My mother was the most important influence in my life." I would like you to elaborate on that. Eight boys right? Seven, eight?

MM     Eight children altogether, three girls and five boys.

POM     What was it in her that so influenced you that you became the person you were, because the last time we talked about that you were the only member of your family whoever became actively involved in the struggle but you said, "She was the major and most important influence in my life." Why?

MM     A short answer to that one at the moment because I've been approached to write this story and with a very close time frame I will be writing it, I'll send you the copy of that, where I'm going to explore this question of this relationship.

POM     Can we just talk about it? Just as it comes off the top of your head.

MM     My thinking at the moment is cluttered, it's cluttered because the SA as we exist today has got very legitimate reasons to look at its past in order to see what is there prevailing today as a legacy of that bad past and I am at the same time deeply concerned that people should not invoke the past to reinforce any sense of victimhood. Now in that framework as the issue of my family and my mother comes up I need to find a way to say it and not allow any space for the interpretation to use that past to allow me a space for that sense of victimhood. In that framework I may be somewhat careless in my formulations.

POM     We'll go back to the formulations later.

MM     The issue is that my father had been unemployed from 1929. His first wife died in 1932 having left him with five children. Then he remarried in 1933, still unemployed, and three more children are born of my mother, the last is born in 1938. By 1939 my Dad is in an accident and he's now crippled so we were living in quite harsh poverty and if you look back, and when I look back the family had no source of income except my eldest brother who was by 1939 working as a petrol pump attendant and then the other two followed.

POM     I know this almost by heart.

MM     The only rules of survival then was the fact that my father had inherited the property on which we were living so there was no rent and the rest of it was my mother tilling the land so that what we produced there provided the food. Tilling the land, planting vegetables, planting mealies, raising chicken, and that was the source of the food of the family. The clothes that we were wearing as kids were clothes that were the cheapest cloth that was available.

POM     You told me you didn't wear long pants until you were –

MM     And she would make our trousers, our shirts and everything. So she was the lynchpin of the survival of the family.

POM     In the sense of that she worked the land, she ran the store?

MM     Well at that stage she ran the house and later on when we repossessed the shop she ran the shop also. Now in that environment there was really no space for visible affection so the relationship with my mother is a very complex one. If you ask why do I admire her I can't show a continuing close relationship where the affection was visibly demonstrated. She hardly had even time to sit down and tell you stories of where we came from and the background of our people and legends that people grow up with in any culture. She herself came from a background where the memory of the past was blotted because her parents grew up in the Free State and both her mother and her father belonged to two separate families working for a farmer in the Free State and both families, except for her father and her mother, both families were obliterated in a fire and the only survivors were these two little kids, a boy in the one family and the girl in another family. The farmer brought up these two, an Afrikaner farmer, so here were these two little kids who had no memory of their past because their families were gone, who were brought up by an Afrikaner farmer and therefore their ability to imbibe the Indian culture and the Indian history was cut off because there were no other Indians in the Free State, and they were married by this farmer and now they had the children including my mother. So what they transmitted to the children was blocked out by a point which said they could not even say where they came from in India. Any stories that you were told were cut off by that radical fire.

     The life that they were leading, my parents, gave very little time for her to be sitting around all these fireside chats, but at the same time I grew up in an environment where you could not avoid imbibing how she was the central pillar of the family because of course she would draw you in as her children to help her in all the work whether it was cleaning the house or the cooking or in the gardening or in selling coal or in running the shop. In all those areas she would be bringing the children into the activity.

     The remarkable thing is that she nonetheless believed that giving the children to study, to go to school, was an important bequest that she could give to the children. My father felt as strongly about that but it was my mother who was the enabler of that. I can't recall my mother sitting and just resting. She was always on the move and the only leisure activity that I can recall is if she had to go to a death in the community or a funeral in the community. I can't recall anything that she indulged herself in but what I can recall is that where my father as a cripple, and a very well built person, obviously was extremely frustrated by his disability.

POM     You said, as I recall, that he would shout out the orders to her when customers came in, right?

MM     Yes.

POM     Just two questions on that. Was he abusive to her?

MM     I don't think he was abusive but I think it was a patriarchal family where the rules, what was permissible, what was not permissible, were supposed to emanate from him and yet the power was my mother. My mother never confronted him openly. My mother would say to me when I disagreed or did not like what he was asking me to do, my mother would say to me, "This is your father, you have no right to show him disrespect." And I would say, "But I don't agree, it's just absolutely wrong what he's asking me to do." Her answer would be, "You sit quietly, let him say what he is saying and if you really disagree don't tell him you disagree, you can go ahead and do what you want to do." And that was modelled on her experience because she was the power, she never confronted his authority but she ran the house as she saw fit. At the same time she made sure that she dutifully did those things that he wanted for himself or some of the things where he dug his heels in should happen for the family. She visibly paid obeisance to his authority but she did what she thought was right.

POM     When you say she was a most powerful influence on your life, that means that you learned things from her that are part and parcel of your own personality and the way you developed?

MM     Yes, I think that even now deep down, even in my family, my wife and children will say that when they get caught up in an argument, just a verbal argument, I am highly disturbed. When they raise their voices and shout at each other I become agitated. I can't handle it, I can't stand it, and I say to them individually, I say, "But why this abuse?" And they would say, "But we are talking our minds, we are telling each other what we think. Yes we love each other but stay out of this thing." I said, "But there's an abusiveness in this, the way you're talking to each other and the wounds of this abuse will remain." Just to hear in my home a loud voice, a loud angry voice, causes problems inside myself, I become disquieted by it.

POM     Did your father have sometimes, because of his frustration and his being crippled and –

MM     Yes my father was loud voiced, partly authoritarian, and I recall clashes between my father and my elder brothers because the only, if you can call it that, entertainment in that village life for a young man was to end up drinking. Of course my brothers also as they grew older objected to this joint family system where they had to come and give their salary to my father and then be given a tiny fraction of that for their pocket money. I can recall times when those clashes became physical clashes between my father and my one brother. Inside the family it's something that I could never reconcile myself with.

     There's nothing between your brother and your father, there is a line that is wrong whatever the issue and the line that is wrong is that even if your father is verbally abusive it is wrong that your brother is reacting with equal verbal abuse or resorting to physical force. That line is wrong. Then when I would say, "But on the substantive issue my brother is right", she would say, "No, no, no, put that aside. That issue is a separate one that can only be dealt with later. The first thing is the rules are being violated by the abuse and you cannot transgress that borderline and simultaneously expect to deal with the substantive issue."

POM     Where did she get this tremendous insight from? It was like innate?

MM     I can only assume that in the farm where they grew up in the Free State my grandparents as the only survivors in that family only had each other and then they had a very large family, thirteen children, and the key to managing those relationships with no community to call on, compelled them, my grandparents, to establish a code within the family. As I grow older I think that that code of respect is a very important code. It's not to say that I have not in my life conducted myself without that friction with people, without debating in a way that humiliated my opponents. Yes I've done all that but I think as I've grown older and as I reflect on my life I've also had to come back to admiring what I had seen and what I had grown up with with my mother.

     We also had a code in that patriarchal system as an Indian family that the head of the household was fed first. My father being a cripple could not always join us in a meal so often his meal had to be taken to him but the choicest part of the meal had to be first served to him. Then my mother would serve the whole troop of us children and often we used to joke and say, "Mum, when do you eat?" And when I look back in a very unobtrusive way, without referring to the poverty, she had her own rules which said - I feed my husband first, then with what's left I'll feed the children. I don't recall when we said, "I want a second helping", that she would say there is none. She would make sure that what was there was served out in such a way that when you asked for a second helping there was something to give you, but she sat back and she ate last.

     Now the funny thing in the community in Newcastle is that other children could come home and eat and never did you say no. If they were there at mealtime then they ate with us but similarly we could as kids walk over to people in the neighbourhood and if we happened to be there at mealtime and they would say sit down and eat with their children.

     So the community was knit together by the joint family system, by the broader community, but when you look back you see that that was a survival mechanism but in that survival mechanism my mother effaced herself in the sense that she never presented herself as a person with needs, with wants that had to be satisfied. She always presented herself as if operating from the assumption that her family had needs and those needs had to be fulfilled but she never said - I am fulfilling it at the expense of my needs. That borderline she never crossed. She never said there is no more food because there must be some left for myself. She never said you have torn your trousers, you can't have another trousers because I need the cloth to clothe myself. Somehow or other you were never aware of her needs. As a child I'm talking about and when I look back I say to myself, was I ever aware – I was never aware, but I never aware because she never allowed the issues of that poverty to be presented as a way that she needed somebody, nor did she in the psychology of the relationship ever put her emotional needs as an issue on the table. But I think it goes back to her childhood and of course I think it goes back to some extent to Indian culture.

     I had at different points in my youth while I was at home, there were a number of critical moments that arose. One of them was the path that I would follow in my desire to study.

POM     This was the teacher?

MM     Teacher. But the striking thing is my mother who at that last argument we had when they called me from Durban, it's my mother who came to the room while I was now in anger re-packing my bag and defiantly leaving home –

POM     Packing your bag in Newcastle and leaving and saying you were going to Durban.

MM     In defiance of my Dad and my brothers. She came to me and she said, "Look, I don't understand it, I don't understand what you want to do except that I hear you want to study and you don't want to be a teacher, you want to be a lawyer. But secondly, I don't understand why you're quarrelling with your father. You don't agree with him. OK. Don't say anything, don't say you're not going to listen to him. The train leaves at midnight, go to sleep, when everybody is asleep get up and quietly go away and here's £20 that I have saved, your father is now aware of it, and secondly here's a ring that I would have hoped as a mother to be party to selecting the woman you marry. But here is the ring because I don't know when I will ever see you and if I'll ever see you but you must know that whoever you choose to settle down with and marry here is the ring that you should give because it has my approval. So, stop quarrelling, go to bed, when everybody is asleep just quietly leave and go."

     Now that's the extent to which she had divined for herself the rules of conduct in a family where you had to accord your elders their respect and it's something that I have never forgotten.

POM     Did you after you left, did you ever see your mother again?

MM     Yes, I used to. While I was in Durban –

POM     This was after you were on Robben Island?

MM     No before. While I was in Durban working and studying at Natal University I got involved in the political struggle and therefore I used to often have to travel up to Johannesburg and I used to hitchhike because I was working for New Age as a reporter and I ended up managing the New Age office. But there was no money to travel and I would hitchhike to Johannesburg and Newcastle was on the route. There wasn't the new road, it was the halfway station and often I would stop in Newcastle because I knew I had a place to sleep and I had a place to get a meal and lifts in those days, to see a black person, young man coming for a lift, it was unheard of. I think I have walked in different stints every metre of the road from Durban to Johannesburg. So I would get home, if it was late at night I knew how to open the window of my room and I would jump through the window and go to sleep and my Mum had a habit that although these visits were rare, my room, which I shared with my brother, was next to the kitchen and every morning at five she would come and light the stove in the kitchen to start the daily routine but the first thing that she would do would be to open my room and look at my bed. If I was there, because I would often end up in an argument with my Dad, when I met my Dad we would meet for five minutes, very happy to see each other and after five minutes it would be an argument. It would be an argument because I was now politically involved, it made no sense to him. Looking back I think from my Dad's side was: when do you start earning a living and contributing to the house? And my side: I'm politically involved. My Dad would accuse me of being a communist. So after five minutes it would be a quarrel and my Mum would have to try and pacify him. So she would wake me up in the morning if I am there, if she opens the room and she finds I'm there, she would wake me up, she would be happy, we would greet each other and she would say, "Have breakfast, what are you doing?" I said I'm on way to Johannesburg or to Durban. She would say, "Have breakfast now before your father gets up. I don't want to see you two quarrelling."

     Now that was the habit that she had so we used to see each other and there was almost a sixth sense in our relationship. In 1963, I had got back into the country in 1962, in 1963 the Rivonia arrests took place. 1964 June, after we did the illegal broadcast on June 26th, I went off by car to pick up my then wife, Tim, in Durban where she was doing a nursing refresher course to get her registration. We were travelling back to Johannesburg and I decided, let's stop in Newcastle. I stopped in Newcastle and spent a few days at home. The underground circumstances were getting rough. I said to myself and my wife, I said, "I don't know when we're going to see Mum and Dad", (No Dad was dead by then – no in 1963 he was still alive.)"I don't know when we will see them."

POM     Did you ever reconcile with him?

MM     Yes we did, we did. It's also a story in itself. So we stopped in Newcastle. My parents were very happy to see us. We slept, we got up on Sunday morning, I think it was 4 July, got up on Sunday morning, went and bought the Sunday papers and began to read them and there I read of these huge arrests in Johannesburg, Bram Fischer, everybody arrested and reading that I realise, oh, my links are cut. But we had anticipated the arrests, detentions of Bram and company and it was my job as living clandestinely in Johannesburg, I was one of the people who would have to reconnect with people who were surviving and get word going. So I show this to Tim and I say, "Tim, we've got to leave, we've got to get back to Jo'burg immediately. There's a lot of work to do." So she says, "Fine." So at about ten in the morning I say to my Mum and Dad, "Sorry, we have to leave." Now for my Mum this was a change because the night before when we arrived she said, "How long are you going to stay here?" I'd said we'll stay for a few days and suddenly for me, she's noticed that I've read the newspapers and suddenly I'm saying, "We're off." We're getting ready to go. So she says, "Why are you going? Why not stay?" I said, "No, no, no, we just have to get back to Jo'burg, I've got some work to do there." We got into the car in the backyard and she came up to the car and she said to me, "You know, son, whatever you are saying I have a feeling that you are (i) still involved in the political struggle and (ii) I have a feeling that you're going to get arrested." I said, "No, Mum, it's nothing like that. I have nothing to do with politics." She said, "I don't believe you. I don't believe you, I just have this feeling."So I turned to Tim who was sitting in the car already, I said, "Tim, you answer Mum." So Tim says to my Mum, "Mum, your son is not involved in politics." And she says to Tim, "Tim, because you are saying it I believe you but him I don't believe. I think he's still involved but you are saying he is not involved, I believe you."

     We left, that was a Sunday. Monday we were both detained. Now I am saying there was almost like a sixth sense in the relationship.

POM     Monday you were both detained when you got back?

MM     Both of us, yes. We were back in Jo'burg on Sunday afternoon. I was mopping up and reconnecting Sunday evening, Monday, and I had said to Tim, "Let's go together today, don't stay alone because I don't know what's going to happen and I suspect there's danger." And my hope was that if I smelt danger around me I would go deeper into the underground but I would make sure that Tim was also safe, so I didn't want her to be separated from me. When we drove to our servant's quarters that evening at about six and just stopped the car there the police emerged from all over, they had been waiting for me.

     So I am saying that that's the type of relationship. You asked about my Dad, did we ever repair our relationship, yes we did.

POM     Did you see your Mum after that?

MM     Yes, she came to my trial from time to time.

POM     Did she see you in Robben Island?

MM     She visited me on Robben Island. Always in the middle of all this I can remember my Mum and I sharing so many jokes and so much humour between us. She had this hair, she was about four foot six or seven in height, very short. My Dad was tall, six foot two but my Mum had hair that trailed right to touch the ground and of course combing it was a job, it was a ritual. The same thing, she would be busy combing her hair and the children would jump in and comb. It was a painstaking job and I used to enjoy it, sit down and say, "Mum, I'll comb your hair", and I'll comb it and I'll plait it and then she'll twist it into a bun but it used to be a single plait that she would wear and she would turn it into a bun and pin it up. I would comb. And she knew what was happening, when I look back. She knew that when it came to plaiting I would be plaiting two strands of plait. She wouldn't say anything, she would do like she's innocent, unaware. At the end of the two strands of plait I would tie the two at the end, like the rein of a horse, and I would say, "Here is a horse, come on, stand up and move", and we would be bantering with each other. She would be saying, "Stop it, don't do this", and as soon as her voice raised and went up to a higher pitch saying stop it and all that and she was so tiny that I could just hold her from the back, hold her two arms and she would be struggling powerless to do anything and she'd be saying, "Let me go, you stop it", and Dad would hear it. Then his voice would boom, "What's happening?" And it didn't require me, my Mum would say, "Nothing, no there's no problem, nothing is happening."It was like a joke we shared all the time.

     Even when she visited me in Robben Island it was always joking, we were always joking. I remember her coming and saying, "Son, how are they treating you?" I think I told you the incident about Madiba and myself and my thumbnail. All our visits were very special to us and when you heard about it you actually went to bed on a Friday night saying, "Oh, tomorrow is visiting day", we don't know who's going to visit but whenever you knew your six months are nearing up there's going to be a visit so we used to even go down to take our trousers, put it under our floor mat on which we slept so that when we got up in the morning it was pressed and had seams. You wanted to go smart, and Madiba would joke. Then when the visit is over and you come back everybody wants news. Madiba used to call me and he used to reflect on my Mum as his girlfriend. So when I walk in, "How's my girlfriend?" But this day I had gone with an injury at work. Madiba's pick has slipped onto my thumb and the thumbnail was blue. I said to myself I'll go to this visit, you talk with your hands so don't, this visit you must keep your hands down. She mustn't this spot this thumbnail. The warder behind me, the cubicle, partition, my Mom and the other people in the opposite cubicle and a warder behind her to listen to the discussion. We're not supposed to discuss prison conditions.

POM     So you were having visits, you were on one side?

MM     Of the cubicle, she's on the other side. There are two panes separating you, two transparent panes.

POM     So you can't touch each other.

MM     You can't touch each other and a little window pane, you could just see the face.

POM     So you were never able to reach out.

MM     Never, no touching, and then it just had perforations at the top of the pane and then a space and then another pane on her side with also perforations so your voice had to go through these perforations, through the space between the two transparent panes and then she's on the other side, and you sat in this cubicle to talk. So I said, don't let her see my hands, and you're not supposed to discuss prison conditions, you don't discuss politics, you're only supposed to discuss family affairs. I still remember the warder behind me, Jordaan, who was a bit of an alcoholic, he used to speak Xhosa well. So my Mum arrives, we greet each other, she asks me how are things and of course what food do they give you and I'm not allowed to say. I turn to the warder, "Mr Jordaan, can I tell her?" He says, "No, you can't." At some point suddenly she spots my thumbnail and she says, "What's that?" "No, it's nothing." "Let me see your hand." And she looks, "Show me your thumb." She sees it. "What happened?" She doesn't know, she can't read or write. Mandela, who is Mandela? It doesn't even feature in her vocabulary. So she says, "What happened?" And I become mischievous because I know in terms of the censorship what can you say, but I see an opening to be just jocular and I know that the warder will not take offence. So I said, "No, Mandela's pick slipped and injured me." Now she can't speak English properly so when I say Mandela's pick hit me, she straight away in her mind thinks it's a warder that has hit me with a pick. "Which warder is that?" So I say, "Mandela." She turns to Jordaan behind my back, points her finger at him, "You warders, you stop tackling my son." She says, "Did he hit you?" I said, "The pick handle slipped." "You mean he hit you with a pick handle?" Then she went on, "What food are they giving you? What work was this?" Of course I'm joking and the warder is not stopping me because he sees me joking against Madiba. I say, "We do quarry work, pick and shovel." "What! And what food do they give you?" She turns past my head and she says to Warder Jordaan, "You know, look at me, you think I'm small." And she says to me, "You, you're supposed to be a freedom fighter and you're allowing them to treat you like that. What sort of freedom fighter are you?" So I say, "What are you suggesting?" She says to the warder, "You look at me, you think I'm small, you wait till the day I decide to fight and I'll mess all of you up." So we laughed and we're going ahead, "No, don't worry Mum." And she says, "You, my son, what sort of freedom fighter are you? Why don't you fight back and stop this nonsense of their treating you so badly." So I said, "Ma, what must I do?" She says, "God damn it, what sort of freedom fighter are you?" She says, "I'll attend to the matter." I said, "What are you going to do?" She says, "Well, when I get back to Cape Town I'm calling a press conference." My former wife Tim was working at Somerset Hospital and she had sacrificed her visit for my Mum. So she says, "I'm getting back to Cape Town and I'm seeing Tim, I'm asking her to call the newspapers and I'm telling them." So I said, "It's a good idea, do it." She said, "What's the name of that warder?" I said, "Mandela." She says, "Mandela! I'm going to name him." So I said, "That's a hell of a good idea Mum." Obviously she got back to Cape Town and she tells my wife Tim, "Mac has been beaten up with a pick and I want to tell the newspapers." Tim said, "Who's the warder?" She says, "Mandela." Tim says, "Look Mandela is their leader." But we would have that sort of relationship and we'd laugh about it.

     So it's in that context about the reconciliation with my Dad because at one of her early visits I said to her, "How's Dad?" And she said, "He's fine." I said, "Are you sure?" And I said, "How is he taking my arrest?" because I knew the newspapers had projected, headlines said communist, a communist plot. Now my Dad just opposed my communism, disagreed with that. Anyway she said, "No, no, no." I said, "What about my arrest?" She says, "No, no problem, he's very proud of you." I said, "Oh-oh, proud of me, how come?" She said, "The day you guys got sentenced, in this little town of Newcastle the whole large number of people in the community just kept trooping in the house", visiting my parents, my Dad, telling them what a wonderful chap I am and apologising that they thought I was a loafer and a no-gooder and bumming around for jobs, supposed to have studied and still doing nothing for a living, working as a so-called motor mechanic now and then to repair a car. What sort of life was he leading? They said no they are very sorry, now they understand he was in the underground, he's fantastic, he's a hero. My Dad is shocked. "You say my son's a good guy?" They say, "Yes he's a hero." And the next thing is she says anybody walks into the shop or the house, it doesn't matter a white man, a black man, he will say – and they're talking about anything else that they've come for – but within two minutes she says he would say, out of context, "You know I have a son who's in Robben Island and he's a communist." And it didn't matter what their reaction was. Through correspondence he and I, I really believe, in prison reached a point where for the first time I was looking forward to meeting him and it never happened because he passed away while I was in prison. But we did write a few letters to each other and I know that he was deeply puzzled by possibly my second or third last letter I wrote to him.

     My second eldest brother had come to me to say here were these two properties that my Dad had got from his father and the sons were saying can't I persuade Dad to apportion their inheritances and give it now while he's living so that they could use it to make their own living. I then wrote and appealed to my Dad from prison, then transgressing the code of that culture in the Hindu community, I said that I cannot envisage a life where I would ever be able to support my Mum, so I am urging him (a) to give portions of the property to all his children while he is still alive and that in allocating the properties he should partition it and include his daughters because I said that the daughters were each married and living in fairly difficult circumstances and I thought it would be useful that he give something to the girls rather than just the boys. And as for myself I said that it was enough that somehow or other the family had enabled me to matriculate and I didn't need anything. But I knew that my father would find this very unacceptable in the Indian culture so I then accompanied that letter with a Deed of Renunciation which I sent to my Dad and to my brother saying that if he allocated anything to me that allocation, I was renouncing it in favour of my mother so that she should have a double portion.

     I am told that when he received that letter he could not understand it and he called his cronies in the community, as usual they would gather and chat over a cup of tea, and he called his trusted friends to discuss this problem, to say that he finds this (a) very offensive to his way of thinking but secondly he can't understand my renunciation. And they read my letter over and over and debated it and finally some of the other elders in the community said to him, "You know, your son is talking sense. He is really saying that he is never going to be able to look after his mother and he is saying give a double portion to your wife to give her a little bit of a chance to have a reasonable life." He accepted my recommendation after sounding out the community. Had he not got the community approval I don't know how he was going to bypass my Deed of Renunciation because I had sent a copy to my brother to say I think Dad might suppress this thing but here is my renunciation, anything that comes through his will for me is not for me, it's renounced in favour of my mother.

     So here was my Dad doing something that went against all his norms of conduct and the fact that he respected my wishes meant that our relationship had reached a point where at last we could have sat down and discussed issues and even if we differed it would not have ended in an acrimonious argument.

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.