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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

24 Oct 2002: Ayob, Ismail

POM     Maybe we can pick up today at you as a lawyer, your first entry point into politics?

IA     Are you speaking of a time when I was a young boy or are you speaking - ?

POM     When you're an attorney, you mentioned somebody who had been arrested for their pass.

IA     I think I have touched on how I became a lawyer and I came back to SA. This was at the end of 1969 and my cousin, Ismail Mohammed, arranged for me to get articles and clerkship with a law firm which still exists called Cachalia & Leonard in Ferreirastown in Johannesburg city centre. It was a very small office, the two partners, one secretary. They were set in their ways. I remember when I went off and bought a dictaphone and a transcriber they did not speak to me for weeks because it meant that they had to pay for it and there was a tradition that when we needed a photostat the secretary would take a walk for six blocks into the city centre to make a photostat at the commercial copy centre and I ordered a 660 Xerox which cost in those days about R20 a month and they were horrified and they had to pay for it but they got accustomed to it.

     They also, or the one, that's Cachalia, bore a very famous name, a very famous surname, because he had two uncles both called Cachalia, one was called Yusuf Cachalia and the other was Maulvi Ismail Cachalia. These two brothers were at the forefront of radical, initially Indian, politics and then radical resistance politics from the beginning of the century. Yusuf Cachalia was a very close companion of Dr Dadoo and Maulvi Cachalia generally did good work amongst poor people and was always available to find a lawyer for anyone who got into any kind of political trouble. The third Cachalia did not share that courage but he was proud of the name.

     During the 1960s which was a particularly oppressive time for resistance politics, Jewish lawyers who normally did the defence in political trials, were either imprisoned or went into exile and those who remained were wise enough and clever enough not to get involved in political trials. Indian lawyers just simply refused to touch any of these matters.

POM     Because?

IA     It was stupid. You got the police to worry you, the Security Branch came to question you, you might get detained, you were harassed, a whole range of terrible things happened to you. It was far more comfortable to carry on with a small practice doing divorces, third party ambulance chasing claims in accidents and petty criminal work, which was the normal practice of small practitioners at that time.

     I had been away for most of the sixties and having got articles at this firm, there were two offices and there was a general area in front, it was a converted shop. I was placed right in front next to the plate glass window so I saw whoever came to the office and then passed on that client to one of the two partners.

     Yusuf Cachalia had by then become a businessman who sold school uniforms to children in black schools and he was very successful in this. Later it became a bone of contention between himself and other political activists that he was supposed to be exploiting black children. But Yusuf Cachalia knew every political figure including Winnie Mandela. Winnie Mandela was formerly represented by Joel Carlson who had one day found himself at the receiving end of gunshots being fired at his flat and he fled the country and reappeared in New York and said that his life was in danger. I was told afterwards his life was in danger from the husband of his girlfriend but he then spent the rest of his life in New York practising as the night prosecutor and he died some years ago. But Winnie Mandela then had no lawyer to act for her.

POM     She was being tried on?

IA     She was always in trouble in various things. She had a banning order at that time. So Yusuf Cachalia referred her to his nephew Sayed Cachalia who was my principal. Whenever Sayed Cachalia saw Winnie Mandela crossing the street he would flee into the back yard and remain in the toilet until he felt it was safe for him to emerge. I ended up seeing her each time she came and her work was fairly routine, I think, for her, it did not cause me any discomfort and I was not harassed by the police, I was an articled clerk. I did her work and reported to my principal who ensured that he was never around.

     I also built up a criminal practice of sorts and became quite an expert on reckless and negligent driving charges. There were two things that made me successful, when I received instructions I would go along and examine the scene which would put me at a huge advantage over the prosecutor that I knew exactly the site of the accident and the circumstances. The other favourite thing that I used is that the state almost never remembered to prove that the traffic lights were in working order. So my track record was phenomenal. Very few people were convicted. This stood me in good stead.

     During the article days I received a call from a cousin who said that there was an Indian man in Pretoria in a terrible state. He said that his son was dying in a hospital and because he had been taken into detention and was found in this hospital and a nurse had called him earlier that day to say that his son, whom she recognised, was dying in a ward under police guard. He went to the hospital, looked through the skylight and recognised the blood-soaked body of his son in that hospital bed. He then tried to find a lawyer in Pretoria, nobody would talk to him until he arrived at the cousin's shop. I asked him to come over to Johannesburg. I then tried to find Ismail Mohammed and found he was out of town. I went to George Bizos who then called Issy Maisels and when the father came it was quite clear that something needed to be done. I then prepared the affidavits under the guidance of Bizos and Maisels and we managed to get access to this young man but over a period of some weeks. That established my political reputation.

POM     Was he still in hospital or had he been removed?

IA     He had been removed immediately the papers were served but there was enough publicity around this young man that gave the lawyers and family some comfort that the state was not going to kill him while he was in detention. His name was Jassat, he was the younger brother of Dr Jassat who is now in parliament.

     Subsequently, a man called Achmed Timol was flung from a 9th floor window at John Vorster Square police station and died on the parapet below. I was involved in that inquest and again the same Issy Maisels and George Bizos acted in the matter. Another matter, and they were very few and far between because I was kept reasonably busy with my reckless and negligent driving charges and my fame had spread quite extensively so I travelled to other towns, Ermelo, Middelburg, Rustenburg, most small towns where there was this lawyer, because I did not readily identify myself as being an articled clerk who had this brilliant record of getting anybody off any kind of dangerous driving charge, and all amongst the Indian community and it paid well and my principal was quite proud of the kind of money that was brought in. I must just digress for a moment, I was not paid a salary but I shared against all Law Society regulations, 50% of whatever fees that I generated for the firm.

     The next time a man came in and he said that he had broken his banning order, could I defend him? And I put on my gown and off to court I went, which was about half a block away, and promptly got him convicted. That was my political track record, that I had put more people into jail than getting them out of jail, unlike my criminal law practice. The laws were dead against defence lawyers. The onus was shifted, there was very little one could do and in mitigation I was prohibited by clients generally to plead or to grovel for lenient sentences. They all served proudly. As Willie Nhlopo descended down the stairs into the cells I whispered to him, "What about my fees?" And he said, "I'll see you in six months." With a start like that it didn't take long to corner the market or to have 100% of market share because nobody else was prepared to defend those charges, political offences and then not charge for them.

     My articles expired. By then I was earning about R500 a month which was enough for me to start a practice. My guess was that if I simply continued along with that kind of criminal practice I would survive and I started there with that kind of confidence. Political work continued to come. Winnie Mandela followed me to my new firm. I continued to defend her and then she sent me to Robben Island to see Nelson Mandela. That would have been in about 1972 when I first met with him. I have a clear recollection of seeing him for the first time. There was a visitor's room right at the entrance of the harbour. One went in there and then through the window one could not see the prison but I saw him striding down the gentle hill with two young white warders trying to traipse as best as they could behind his fast walk. I consulted with him and then saw him from time to time at Robben Island.

POM     Would the nature of your meetings on Robben Island be family matters?

IA     Not always. By and large these were family matters. He had been charged on more than one occasion with breaking prison regulations. I would then prepare for these trials but not a single trial proceeded. In each case the charges would be withdrawn just before trial. I spent a fair amount of time with him attending to matters of other prisoners, particularly raising money for scholarships and what one sees now at last count about 120 schools have been built by the private sector from the time he came out of prison by his persuasion. His modus operandi is very simple and straightforward but quite brutal. He would invite a wealthy individual, businessman, chairman or managing director preferably, for breakfast and after breakfast he would say let's go in your aeroplane and they'd end up either in a remote part of the Eastern Cape or KwaZulu/Natal or the Northern Province and when you land there and there's this ululating crowd which welcomes Madiba and the businessman and then the announcement is made by Madiba that here's this very rich man, he's very generous and he's offered to build a school for them. The businessman invariably is so overwhelmed he says of course he's building the school and he's down by about R2 million and nine months later they both go back there and there it is.

POM     He was starting this even when he was in prison?

IA     In prison. It was at a time when his own studies had been interrupted because of the attempt to write his autobiography, which was really I think in outline form rather than the meaty stuff that one sees in the published work.

POM     They were being interrupted because he was writing it?

IA     He was writing it and it was being transcribed and checked by his colleagues.

POM     And Mac was reducing it to miniature writing.

IA     Miniature size and then it was hidden behind or under a wall and one day the wall was about to be demolished and it was found, the bottle was found or the jar was found in which it was contained and his own studies and the studies of others were interrupted. But it also had repercussions for myself that I was then prohibited from seeing him for long periods of time, up to 18 months at a time and no-one could do anything about it.

POM     So he was denied access to any lawyer?

IA     Any lawyer, yes. I went to the Law Society, I wrote letters to the minister. Nothing helped. Then one day just inexplicably I was allowed to go back again. Again, I didn't know but I received a message from the prison that Madiba wanted to see me and off I went. We discussed it. He said that he needed to see me urgently for one or other matter and it resumed again and a few years later again I was not allowed to see him so he was without legal access for a long time.

POM     Then he was moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor.

IA     I'm trying to recall now. There were tentative discussions and these started when I went to Robben Island with Winnie Mandela and on the plane Kobie Coetsee was on that plane. I sent Winnie Mandela to go and talk to Kobie Coetsee. She did and spent the entire journey with him. We were sitting in economy and he was in first; there was no business class at that time. Then the Eminent Persons' Group were here. They, and in particular Obasanjo, was given permission to meet with Nelson Mandela initially. He then persuaded PW Botha to start a dialogue with Nelson Mandela and that dialogue did commence then. This was in the mid-eighties. It wasn't done with any senior figure in government. There was one occasion when the Eminent Person's Group came back, I was present, Kobie Coetsee was there in the prison and refused to meet with Nelson Mandela. He left before the EPG met with Nelson Mandela but already one could sense that there were people within the highest echelons of government who were trying to establish some kind of contact with Nelson Mandela. Later it appeared to the ANC, and that impression did not leave them until possibly 1989, that the government was succeeding in alienating Nelson Mandela from the ANC and despite many efforts on Nelson Mandela's part, through me, to persuade Oliver Tambo and the ANC that he remained consistent in his beliefs but he disagreed on the one aspect that the armed struggle on its own would not topple the government. He needed to get to the point where there was dialogue and he persisted in that. When the need came to give a strong response he gave that. When PW said he's keeping himself in prison, he must renounce violence, Nelson Mandela's response was a sharp one. I changed the language, cosmetic, but the response was that prisoners cannot make contracts and PW Botha himself must renounce violence and he was not going to go into exile into the Transkei.

POM     At this point he had been moved?

IA     He had been isolated from his colleagues.

POM     So he was in Pollsmoor.

IA     He was in Pollsmoor Prison.

POM     But he wasn't in Victor Verster?

IA     Not yet. In Pollsmoor he was kept in a damp cell and again –

POM     A damp cell?

IA     Damp. Again it was I who noticed it because I went to see him and he was not well. The meeting ended. Within a few days when I went back it was quite clear that he had advanced TB, he was coughing blood. Then the prison authorities, I think, and government got a fright. They gave him good treatment. I tried to push it as much as possible, found the doctors. Private doctors did in fact attend to him with the prison doctors and then he never went back to Pollsmoor. He was then moved to this house in Victor Verster. The house that he built in Qunu is based on what the Victor Verster house looked like. It now has been extended so it's not quite the same but he was comfortable in that house.

     He did not have his colleagues there but over a period of months he saw a constant stream of visitors two, three times a week and that, I think, prepared him for his eventual release and balance that he had because of his exposure to a very wide spectrum of people both from inside and outside SA. A visit to him at Victor Verster was not arrival at one o'clock and departure at two o'clock. It would start at ten in the morning and continue until four o'clock in the afternoon. Everyone knew that those conversations were being recorded but it did give him a sense of what the world was like. It didn't stop him from reading the speech that was presented to him in Cape Town immediately after his release, that the Freedom Charter was paramount and everything in sight would be nationalised. He read that speech but it was not a lengthy period of time for him to find his balance and to exercise that balance that moved the country that fast forward without bloodshed. It needed Nelson Mandela. But I don't know whether the ANC quite appreciated that as well. It's historical record that he found himself ousted from leadership position when he went to Argentina on a visit, suddenly he found that Walter Sisulu and a number of other persons were in charge of the ANC. He came back and within a few weeks he was back in control. But that happened and it was widely reported that his role was almost to be the PR officer of the ANC.

POM     Who was to run it in the absence of Oliver?

IA     Walter Sisulu. Oliver Tambo had already suffered the stroke, he was in Sweden and he was in no condition to run the ANC. He was here, they were close, but that insecurity in the ANC, certainly in the upper echelons, had not left them. Perhaps Mac might have something to say about that.

POM     Now Walter was out a year before.

IA     Yes, but more an establishment figure whereas Madiba had been isolated in Pollsmoor and in Victor Verster and while he did everything possible to ensure that his colleagues were released from prison before he was he remained behind out of choice. But the government also had its own agenda and it was quite clear that F W de Klerk when he made the announcement of the releases or the unbannings, there is a book – Patti Waldmeir has picked up that point that the NP had assumed that with Gatsha Buthelezi they will rule the country for a long, long time. It just unravelled very badly. They had no idea what was going to happen. In fact I chaired the Matla Trust then and when we did the first private survey of voters' choices I got a shock and when I went to the leadership of the ANC and I said that the Matla Trust survey indicates that the ANC will win the election by a two thirds majority nobody believed me.

POM     This was in nineteen - ?

IA     1992/93. Nobody believed the extent of the ANC victory and it was pretty close to that. That was the first survey. The NP had never done a survey. They had simply assumed that by doing what they planned to do they would continue to rule.

POM     How could they live in such a world of delusion?

IA     I have no idea but it was quite clear that Patti Waldmeir picked it up and I believe Patti Waldmeir is the only journalist who picked that up, that the assumption was that ANC would never take power. Everybody knew that the ANC would be a very important component, that it represented the majority, 51%, but nobody realised that the extent of the support was beyond two thirds and effectively that meant that if you excluded whites who were not going to vote for the ANC and if you subsequently excluded Indians and coloureds, African support for the ANC then and possibly even now is probably in the region of 80% - 90%. That's how overwhelming that support was.

POM     It's fascinating. But to back up to where you got involved with Mac or Mac got involved with you or Mac contacted you – when he first entered the scene.

IA     My very first meeting with Mac was during one of my visits to Lusaka. What had happened is that Nelson Mandela, and at that time the relationship with Winnie Mandela was quite good, it had soured already in prison, but Winnie Mandela arranged for me to go to Lusaka to report to them because she had her own communication with Lusaka through Chris Hani and she was a bit concerned that Nelson Mandela was being isolated.

POM     In Victor Verster?

IA     Yes, and she was concerned that someone who saw him regularly as I did should be able to communicate to the ANC leadership that he remained a solid and committed ANC member. She then arranged it, I found my way to Lusaka by a circuitous route. I was met there and I met with the leadership, Oliver Tambo downwards, spoke there for a day.

POM     That would be Oliver Tambo and?

IA     The entire leadership was there, there were about twenty of them. There were always between ten and twenty people there in these meetings in Thabo Mbeki's house in Lusaka.

     Again I digress for a second. One day Oliver Tambo asked me whether I wanted to meet with the President, meaning Kenneth Kaunda. I said I would be very honoured to meet with him. My flight was then going on to Paris, it was an Air France flight. We went off, met with Kenneth Kaunda and at a certain point I showed some discomfort and said that my flight time was fairly close and Kaunda picked up the telephone and said to somebody that the President's guest, he's with the President, he will be arriving for the flight and the plane must please wait. Two hours later Oliver Tambo and I were seated in the back seat of a car in the middle of a very large convoy with sirens headed for the airport. I was taken and put on the steps of the Air France plane. My economy seat was ignored, I was dumped into a first class seat. I looked around me with some embarrassment and all I saw were a large number of bewildered passengers and two minutes later the plane took off.

POM     Now of course all the passengers would descend on you and –

IA     No, I landed in Paris and presented my passport and I embarked as a normal passenger. Nobody realised what had happened. I suspect I'm the only person who remembers that incident now. But I saw the ANC leadership on a regular basis and then there came a time –

POM     Would you be briefing them?

IA     I would be briefing them. Then it became fairly routine that I would meet with Nelson Mandela in prison, he would tell me what was happening. I would then go to Lusaka, I would report to them. They would brief me, I would go back to Victor Verster and report to Nelson Mandela.

POM     Did you have privacy when you would meet with him?

IA     We used a mixture of odd words and brief notes so it was possible to communicate without making it obvious what I was saying and nobody ever searched me.

POM     Nobody ever searched you?

IA     No-one ever searched me. Most of what I had was in my head anyway and sometimes he kept the notes and sometimes I took the notes with me but they were meaningless notes, scribbles on pieces of paper.

POM     You would scribble stuff there in front of him and the guards wouldn't say, can I see what you've written down? Or he would scribble something down and give it to you?

IA     No between the two of us, you forget that we would have enjoyed this extended lunch so we were at a table. It was very easy. He sat at the head of the table and I sat on the side so there was always a notebook between us and it wasn't difficult to communicate.

     I went to England on one of my visits and met Mac. No, sorry, I saw him in Lusaka.

POM     Just an aside, when you met with the leadership in Lusaka who stood out for you as being - ?

IA     A person in authority? Two people. Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo. I remember all the others but those who communicated, who spoke most often were these two in that meeting and the meetings were fairly large, there were between ten and twenty people at each meeting and these were regular meetings, at its peak about every two weeks. I think government here allowed me to go, I couldn't believe that they didn't realise that I was travelling –

POM     That you were leaving the country every two weeks after you saw Mandela.

IA     And it was very interesting because the impact of it was felt immediately, the comment that Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo thought as one person. That if the one made a statement in Cape Town the other one would make a similar statement in Lusaka and say almost the identical thing. There was an assumption that after being apart for nearly 30 years they were so alike in character and in political views.

     Now Mac was very kind to me because I smoked in those day and to buy cigarettes in Lusaka you needed kwatcha and I never was allowed to leave the hotel or anywhere except in the company of some very poor people, my hosts, and I ran out of cigarettes one day and only Mac could buy me a packet of cigarettes. He had taken me back to the airport and I asked him whether he was married and he said yes, and then I said, "Here's a bottle of perfume", because my wife always gave me little things to take through, perfume, tobacco, little things that she knew that exiles struggled for, soap, simple things like that. The next morning Mac returned with his wife, Zarina, and in the discussion over breakfast I said, "I have a feeling that you may be related to my wife." Zarina couldn't remember but she gave me enough of her background to tell me that she was related. It turned out when I came back here that my wife is Zarina's second cousin.

     Then Anglo-American decided to visit the ANC with a group of business people.

POM     This is the Dakar meeting?

IA     Yes. One of those persons was the Chief Economist of Standard Bank André Hamersma was his name. Sorry, I've got the order all wrong. I went to London, met Mac, spent a bit of time there in Brighton with him and he said he needed a pass book, the kind of identity book that Africans carried. I wasn't sure where I would find one. He said he needed one very badly. So I said, "Which one is it?" "Any one, I just need a pass book." So I said I would do what I can. I came back here. Then came this Dakar visit and André Hamersma, whom I knew because of my law practice, gave me a ring and we went out for a coffee and he said, "You know we had this wonderful experience in Dakar and I met a friend of yours." I said, "Who is my friend?" "Your friend is Mac Maharaj and he says you owe him something." And I said, "Mac's got a bloody nerve." He sends me a message through the Chief Economist of Standard Bank, he's got the cheek that I'm supposed to steal a pass book that's carried by Africans so that he can forge them somewhere. So when I saw him next - now I'm not sure whether I actually did find that pass book for him, I may have, I can't recall. He may remember it.

     Then much later my receptionist in Johannesburg said that there's a gentleman who wants to see you in reception and I said, "Who is it? I don't have any appointments this morning", and the next thing I heard Mac from the voice. He says, "Cha-cha." I got the fright of my life, I went rushing off to reception, brought him into my private office, closed the door and I said, "What are you doing here? Do you want money?" I wanted him to go away. I was not going to be seen with Mac Maharaj in SA. He said he is not going anywhere, he doesn't want money, he's got a problem, he's lost his jacket, he lost his diary, he has no money, he doesn't know where to start, would I tell him what we should do together.

POM     What year is this now? This is 1987?

IA     1989. And he said that we had to find somebody to meet with him. So I said, "Let me think about it, let's meet a little later." My daughter was about to get a blood transfusion that afternoon at a clinic called The Florence in Hillbrow. I said I would be there all day. He said he would be back at that clinic at four o'clock. He then walked into the ward while my daughter was receiving her blood transfusion, he then talked and I said to him that these were the people that I could put him in touch with, Ismail Momoniat, Valli (now Minister of the Environment) and there were a couple of other people. I mentioned those names and he said, "No, no", he was very particular about who he was prepared to meet. I then got in touch with these people and arranged for them to be at the Constantia Centre, the coffee shop there. I got back to Mac and I said to him, "They will be there at this time of the evening, you can meet them." He said, "No, I'm not leaving this place, you're going with me, you're taking me there." So I took him. I must say that I was a conscript, I wasn't doing this voluntarily. He never took any money from me, he just wanted to have the contacts. I knew he was in the country.

     He then would appear from time to time at the most inopportune moments. He then once asked me for the keys to my office. He was not prepared to tell me why so I gave him a spare key. He needed access to my computer system which was fairly sophisticated and I use very specialised programmes. This was a time when the internet was in its infancy. He also had a few people who worked with him very closely and they used my computer system and my telephone system to communicate with London. There was a sequel to this in that after Mac was detained again at the end of 1989 or 1990 one of the persons he worked with came to see me and said, "You may have a problem, the computer we used has your programme on it and it's just been confiscated by the Security Police." As it happened I spent some very bad months thinking about that computer but nothing materialised and life carried on as before.

     Mac in his detention was ignored by the ANC. When his sister died I was the only outsider at that funeral. The police were there.

POM     Is that right?

IA     Yes. It took him a long time to come out of prison.

POM     No member of the ANC turned up?

IA     No. He was not very happy to join government, he was upset.

POM     He had resigned from - ?

IA     Why did he resign?

POM     He won't say.

IA     Because nobody cared. He says, and he may have told you, that when Oliver Tambo called for volunteers for Vula he was the only volunteer. He came here, put his life in danger, he got detained, nobody did anything and when his sister died nobody was present, only I was there. When he came out he was angry, maybe bitter, he wanted to have nothing to do with the ANC.

POM     That would explain a lot.

IA     Some of these things are buried very deeply.

POM     What about where he talks about you taking a tape recorder into Mandela?

IA     Nelson Mandela. He tried to make a spy out of me. He then taught me many wondrous things. I thought spying and spies had gone out of fashion but apparently they had not. I communicated with Nelson Mandela in the traditional fashion, the odd word and the odd letter written in a notepad. Mac taught me how to hide notes in hard cover books, taught me how to write with invisible ink. Some wild and wondrous old fashioned things. I then practised this and became quite an expert at it, then I tried to make Nelson Mandela a spy but it didn't work. The first time he was quite polite and he looked at it and I indicated to him how he could open up the hard cover book and read the note inside it, how he could reply and here was the glue and all sorts of wonderful things. He took me outside on the second or the third occasion. He said, "You're doing all these things, for what? What more can they do to me? I've got life. You think they're going to hang me if I give you a message?" That was the end of my spying career. We went back to the traditional route. I would put things into my head and then make furious notes on the plane not to forget anything. So that was the end of my super spy episode.

POM     And the tape recorder?

IA     Tape recorder I had taken but never used it for the same reason that Nelson Mandela was not prepared to be a spy. That was it. I think they wanted to hear him speaking personally rather than getting a narration from a third party. Perhaps they wanted to test the accuracy of my narration. It might have been that or it might have been something quite innocent but they never heard the voice of Nelson Mandela. Certainly the internal opposition, internal political black leaders, most of them if they were reasonably respectable, and I'm talking about Cyril Ramaphosa, Dullah Omar who also went there as a lawyer, Eric Molobe, a very large number of the black leadership did in fact meet with him over those lunches, so the ANC had an independent source of information of the ideas that Nelson Mandela had.

POM     So he was using your equipment to use the telecommunications systems they had developed to contact London?

IA     Yes. I assume that they were communicating with London.

POM     Then London would communicate with –

IA     Back to my computer system. What is available now is very sophisticated but those were the early years of communication. How they did it I have no idea, I wasn't party to that but they needed my system to communicate with London and they did it regularly. I would see evidence of their presence in the office the night before when I came in in the morning.

POM     You were the conduit between Lusaka and Mandela?

IA     Oh yes, I was the only one who was. Most of it was in my head.

POM     Most of it was keeping it in your head. I suppose that was sufficient to convince Lusaka that he was not deviating.

IA     There was also a two way communication because I would go back and report to Nelson Mandela what the views of the ANC leadership were in Lusaka so he was aware of their views as well and they had access to other sources of information, not only inside the country but what would have been happening outside. In retrospect when I think about it there was an initiative by the Swiss to establish communication between the ANC and the government. There were other initiatives with other governments so I am sure that they had the benefit of all that and they needed to get it across to Nelson Mandela that there were initiatives. I can't recall too much of what happened both ways because there were no notes, or the notes that I had were very brief.

POM     So your meetings here with Mac would have been sporadic?

IA     No, once Mac arrived here then the instruction was that I should stop travelling to Lusaka. I would go down to Victor Verster Prison, come back to Johannesburg and invariably there would be a messenger sitting in my lounge and she would collect my notes and off she would go. Then a day before I would go back to Pollsmoor I would receive another note which I would either take to Nelson Mandela or memorise and take it and communicate it to him. Certainly in the last while, it could be a year, I did not travel to Lusaka at all. In fact I've never been back to Lusaka. Once Mac arrived here and established this communication that meant that my role was then limited to travelling between Cape Town and Johannesburg and back. I never left Johannesburg to go to Lusaka. Mac was the person to whom I handed over information and who I received information from.

POM     Now would you meet with him or he would just send - ?

IA     I would meet him on occasion but he was in hiding and busy with the Vula operation so there were others that I would meet.

POM     And you'd just pass the information and then they would pass it on to him, or you don't know?

IA     I assume that in every case it went back to him and he would ensure that it reached Lusaka or London.

POM     I'll tell you what your friend is jealous of, just that you have a place in history.

IA     I have a place in history as a failed spy.

POM     Well a failed spy who managed to get the message across. There are very successful spies who never got the message across. Did Madiba become adept at conveying messages? Did you gather ever that there was this ongoing tension between his view that the armed struggle in itself was not sufficient but would have to be accompanied by a political initiative and the view in Lusaka, at least while you were doing direct back and forth, that they were more committed to the belief that an armed struggle would in itself be sufficient?

IA     No, I did not understand it. I assumed so but it became clear with hindsight that they were in communication with government through the Swiss and their own business initiatives but I think their insecurity was around Nelson Mandela acting alone and I think there might have been a fear that he may do something which would undermine their own efforts because he kept on saying that we're a collection and we speak with one voice but nobody had access to him to say that we must speak with one voice. They were totally dependent on him to say the right thing and to do the right thing and I think that was the insecurity but it was quite clear that they were talking.

POM     But to the ANC and that government was also talking to Mandela.

IA     Yes, to Nelson Mandela alone.

POM     Niel Barnard and Kobie Coetsee and Fanie van der Merwe.

IA     Absolutely. And they didn't know whether the government was trying to cause a split between Nelson Mandela on the one side, who was a major, major figure worldwide, and the ANC which was very much in the shadows. The only confidence that they have had was that there was this communication every two weeks, that I could say to them what Lusaka was thinking and I could say to Lusaka what he was thinking and they would be able to match up their approach to government. But again I'm in two minds whether government was clever enough to realise, certainly in the later period when I stopped going to Lusaka, that I was still getting the messages to and from Victor Verster to Lusaka and back and I think that was Mac's great contribution because it might have given government the impression that Lusaka simply didn't know what they were saying to Nelson Mandela and Nelson Mandela didn't know what was being done in Lusaka. My telephones had listening devices and one just worked around them. They were available and I think I even took some, no, I think I did take some photographs of these listening devices, funny little things which fitted on all of the telephones in the office.

POM     The Security Police would just come in and put them on? In front of you?

IA     No, not at all. They came here at night, they had the co-operation of the Night Supervisor of the building and again it took a political activist to come in and show me the device which was one half of the story and then she told me exactly who enabled the device to be installed. I then went to the Chairman of – my landlord, Anglo American, the Chairman was Dr Zac de Beer, and I said to him, "Your supervisor has enabled listening devices to be installed on all of my telephones." He was quite intrigued by this and he came down, he was on the 30th floor of the building, that's where his office was, and I showed him very proudly and the Superintendent of the building lost his job immediately, that very afternoon. So the listening devices I left there, I didn't want to remove them. It was a lot easier to leave them where they were and work around them than to remove them and alert the police that the dismissal of their contact had anything to do with it.

POM     Now when you were working around them, you mean?

IA     You work around the listening devices, you didn't use office telephones. You went down the corridor and used someone else's telephone or you went down three floors and just used somebody else's telephone. That little I knew that for each telephone they needed to have a tape recorder or a machine on the other end and they couldn't have every telephone in that office block of 30 floors with listening devices. Then they would have had thousands of tape recorders.

POM     Intriguing. So in Lusaka who impressed you? You did the most speaking with Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo, but who else stood out for you, who else stood out among the group that were there?

IA     Oliver Tambo. There would be discussions but these were the two persons who spoke authoritatively, that gave me the clear impression that I would report and thereafter they would have private discussions and then there would be a second meeting usually and then we would have further discussions which would be fairly relaxed. They would obtain clarity and then either one of these two would give me an indication of what their views were. But Oliver Tambo was a superb diplomat, he never said do this, he always thought that this might be a good idea and you knew that that was a command from God so you simply communicated it.

POM     I always feel in a way, and public history will rectify this, that he's been lost in the post-apartheid era, that his role in sustaining that organisation –

IA     Oliver Tambo?

POM     Yes.

IA     No, absolutely, not only sustained it but he kept it united. There are very few precedents I am aware of, that of a leader who went into exile, kept his organisation united and came back to take power. Fate would have it that he couldn't do it himself because of illness but I've often wondered how the Mandela/Tambo combination would have worked because as partners in the law firm Mandela was the flamboyant, sharp dresser, as you see from the photographs, and there is a photograph of Oliver Tambo who was always the discreet diplomat who just got on with the job. Physically they were also very different people because Oliver Tambo was a much smaller person in size whereas Mandela is a six footer.

POM     But if, and these are all the ifs and buts but I love them because they mean nothing anyway, but it's interesting that if Tambo had lived he would have been President of the ANC.

IA     No doubt at all.

POM     And he would have been the first President of the country.

IA     Absolutely and the ANC would not have had this unusual relationship that they had, and I suspect still have, with Nelson Mandela where he's not quite part of the team. I'm not sure whether he's above or on the side but he's not quite part of what they call the collective. He says, "I'm part of the collective", but they know he's not part of the collective. Tambo was always part of the collective.

POM     So those two stood out, did Thabo stand out?

IA     He was there, it was his house and he made a contribution. He spoke, Nzo spoke, Nkobi spoke, I'm just trying to remember the names. There were a number of people all of whom I would recognise today. A lot of them have died already but they were all there. You know I think part of my claim to fame is that I was coming along and presenting to them the thoughts and the words of a man that nobody had seen for a quarter of a century. Behind us is this sketch, and I told you about this sketch – have I told you about this sketch?

POM     No.

IA     Let me tell you about this sketch but I need to do something with that alarm system.

     In about 1986 or 1987 Britain's ITN TV network, their reporter came to talk to me. He said to me then that no-one had seen Nelson Mandela for almost a quarter of a century, the only photographs anyone had were of a young man, well built. Could I describe what Nelson Mandela looked like to an artist? And if it was worth anything at all it would be the first current image of Nelson Mandela. At that time SA had a law that prisoners could not be photographed at all but it said nothing about sketches. They then arrived with a young lady, whose name I've forgotten, and she spent a week with me and with my wife. There was one other person who saw Nelson Mandela almost as regularly but not as often as we did, and we described what he looked like. She was good, even on the colour shading she would make suggestions, like if he's in a cell he must have lost some of his dark shading, he must be a lighter figure. So this was the product. ITN were delighted and immediately put it on their main evening news. They then came back and said, "What will you charge for the time you spent?" And I said, "Nothing." So they went off, framed this lithograph and gave it to me as a present, that's an original. What happened subsequently is that everyone started using this particular image and this is the image of Nelson Mandela in the last, I would imagine, three years of his imprisonment. I think it's pretty good but it was based just on memory of what we thought he looked like.

POM     I thought the juxtaposition of that and himself and Mohammed Ali over there kind of fit each other.

IA     No, that picture was part of an invitation a few months ago for the movie Ali, so the producer had a preview and as public relations do so well to spend your money they sent me that frame and said please attend the preview and it looked quite nice so I stuck it here because I didn't know what else to do with it. But that's just by the way, but that's special.

POM     But I thought it looked – this is the way that Ali would look into the eyes of his opponent before round one, psychological intimidation. That's incredible.

IA     That tells you a little bit about the aura that he commands. I see old people suddenly becoming weak in their knees and want to find a seat because he's in the vicinity. It's an incredible presence that he has. I've lost it, to my regret, that I can get into his presence and find a human being there but I am not amazed any longer when I see people for the first time meeting him or for the tenth time and I am totally overwhelmed by his presence. It's there all the time. It's a kind of presence that I think no other human being at this time has. He picks up the phone and he says, "I want to speak to George Bush", and if George Bush won't speak to him, like he refused to about two weeks ago, he phoned his father and he said, "What's wrong with your son? Is he mad that he wants to go and bomb Iraq?" I told him that I think Putin is about to support the American resolution in the UN. He says, "I'll phone him now, he can't do that."

     Nobody including Prince Philip, can get over the fact that he says to the English Queen, "I think, Elizabeth, we need to get a few things done." I don't think anyone apart from her parents ever called her Elizabeth and now Nelson Mandela does it. And he thinks it's very funny, he says, "Well, what must I call her?" Because he's been told you can't address her that way and his response is a simple one, "That's her name, why shouldn't I call her that?"

     Tony Blair takes his call every time and he gets a dressing down and he takes it and it's all over Iraq.

POM     How have you seen him change from that first time you went to Robben Island, saw this figure walking down, striding down towards the grille to sit opposite you?

IA     I've changed. The Law Society took a very dim view of my representing Nelson Mandela because even then he was a major figure and because he could not speak it was on occasion necessary for me to say what he had said and the Law Society says that you cannot quote your client. I went to see them, the President of the Law Society, and I said, "The reason we are not allowed to say that these are our clients is that other people, other members of the public will be so impressed that you act for the following important person or for the following major institution, you must be a good lawyer and therefore I would have an unfair advantage over my colleagues because other clients would come to me." I said, "This client has damaged my practice." It wasn't true.

POM     This is what the Law Society said to you?

IA     I said to them, I said, "He's damaged my practice. By being known as Nelson Mandela's lawyer people tend to keep away from me rather than rushing towards me and saying oh what a good lawyer you must be, you act for Nelson Mandela." And that's how I got away with it. Otherwise I would have faced a disciplinary hearing. But that aura, that powerful presence, I've known of no other person in history, yes, and I've mentioned it to him that I've seen this kind of power being exercised by one other person and that was Earl (nuclear disarmament – English, in the sixties) Lord Russell, Bertrand Russell. Lord Russell could pick up the telephone to anyone at any time in any place and they would take his call. I've only known one other person. And I also laughed the other day, I said he also had a problem with his wives.

POM     With his wives?

IA     Yes. But Lord Russell could pick up the telephone and call anyone and they would all take his call. I know of no other person who commands such universal respect that they take his call. They can call anyone in the world and they respond. They take his call immediately, every political leader that I know takes his call immediately, but his sensitivity – normally comes Christmas everybody sends a Christmas card. He does too. When it's Eid for Muslims he will send an Eid card. Not a single Muslim that I know – I'm going to just show you something but I show it to you again in confidence because I want to illustrate his humanity and perhaps explain … He's a non-Muslim who remembers that Ramadan is about to arrive and he's busy sending out letters to very important people, to his friends, to strangers, to obscure people wishing them well for Ramadan.

POM     "In the name of God and most gracious and most merciful, I greet you. Peace be upon you at a time when the dark clouds of war continue to cover the sky despite great efforts by eminent persons of goodwill, the climate of helplessness is widespread. The imminent arrival of Ramadan, the month of observance and as a guidance for mankind, the clear teachings showing the right way, the ninth month, the month in which the Holy Koran was revealed to Prophet Mohammed. Peace be upon you. In which occurs the night of Qadar gives one great hope the clouds will clear and I extend to you and to your family and to all Muslims around the world my fervent prayers for peace, good health and well-being over the holy month."

IA     That's the sensitivity of the man. There isn't another world leader, Muslim or non-Muslim who has sent off good wishes for Ramadan. He does it without fail.

POM     So there still is –

IA     He will meet a proud mother holding a child by the hand to say we're in the presence of a great man, he will bend down to the child, shake his hand, ask his name, ask him what his future career is going to be and then says, "Can I tell my friends that I met you?" The mother is usually about to pass out at this stage.

POM     I'll just turn this off.

IA     Because of this great presence and the fear, I think, people have around him because he's also a remote figure. One doesn't see a large number of people around him at any time, he's with people yet he stands apart. When he goes home, he goes home alone. It isn't that there's a big crowd of people, you don't have the clubby, the pub kind of atmosphere we're all friends. I think that might have been part of the difficulty of the ANC. What is he doing on his own? He should be here with us. And then when he came out of prison and headed the country then too I think he was apart, it wasn't just one great collective that everybody could say we're all together.

POM     It took time.

IA     What he did also standing down at the end of the first term for Africa is very unusual and it's being heralded as his greatness. I don't know why he did it. Many people have said, not to me but just generally, that the country needed him for another term and yet when he stepped down there was no disruption because he made it clear long before he stepped down that here's my anointed heir, that's Thabo Mbeki, he will take over. I got the impression that he might have chosen Cyril Ramaphosa but once the decision was made that it was Thabo Mbeki he was comfortable with that.

POM     It was my understanding, or has been my understanding, that his choice was Cyril but that the NEC chose Thabo.

IA     And Thabo is a good President, an economist. I think we needed a solid economist who is pretty certain of where he's going to.

POM     I saw Cyril yesterday, I said, "When are you running?" Cyril said, "Who wants that lousy job?" If we could leave it at that for today. I'll come back and we'll pick up.

IA     Are you interested in what I'm saying?

POM     Oh yes.

IA     You know I'm also the only person left in this country who can still write a best seller.

POM     Who can still write a best seller?

IA     I can still – I am the last person in this country who can write a best seller and the best seller would be called Nelson Mandela – The Prison Years. I'm the only person who has notes for 30 years.

POM     That's good to have for your retirement.

IA     There's an assumption that I will retire. If I belonged to, say, Hofmeyer I would have come into the firm as a young man and on day one they would have put me on a salary and immediately I would have had medical aid and a providence fund and a retirement annuity and a pension plan and I would have been encouraged to buy a house with a mortgage bond and to take a large, preferably German, car on a lease and ensure that my children went to public schools, wore expensive French or Italian suits and then after a career of 30 years I would retire at the age of 60 my life all planned and set out and then I could write that great novel, or the great biography. Fate decreed otherwise. I started my own practice, I still practice on my own. I have not made provision for retirement annuity, a pension plan. Medical Aid I do have. What else do they have? I bought my cars for cash, I paid for my house in cash. Yes, I don't think I can afford to retire so at some stage somebody else will write from the notes. It's a forlorn hope that I will do it in my retirement.

POM     I might start getting really interested in you!

IA     What I have not talked about is what I call the wasted years, the tens of thousands of people that I've defended, some very interesting people and I have all those notes but nobody wants to read it except if I have ten pages of saying I defended the following people and then the next one is 90 pages with a long list of names. I would imagine everyone who can remember that they had some kind of political activity would want to go and buy that book in the hope of seeing their name in it. It could still become a best seller. That thought has occurred to me as well.

POM     You've got the plans.

IA     It will be a lot easier to do that book, to do the first ten pages and then just have a long list of names at the back. I would imagine column 1 would be the name, column 2 would be the charge and column 3 would be the guilt or innocence and I would imagine most of them would be all guilty.

POM     Those who are found innocent would be disappointed.

IA     Maybe I can remove that.

POM     Just have them all.

IA     Maybe just say: Charge – sabotage, and then that's it, don't even put in anything beyond that. That's a thought.

POM     I like it. Somebody is going down a page and saw 35 convictions in a row, then suddenly they come to one name that says not guilty kind of feels that he didn't do something right.

IA     I could also have another book of the 30 impostors who claimed to be Nelson Mandela's lawyer. There would be at least 30 actions for defamation. That could keep me fairly busy. So there are three books that I write.

POM     Let's continue this if you want to. I really enjoy it. It's history and, as you say, it's putting something together for you, for your family and as I said at the beginning, in the last couple of days I've talked to a couple of people who were related to various Vula operations and they began by saying, "Well I've really nothing to say." I said, "Well just start and say when you were born, who your parents were, where you went to school", and suddenly -

IA     I think it's difficult for people who have never been asked to speak. You know in my profession we get paid by word, that's why you're finding it so easy to talk to me. I'm just assuming that at some stage I will be rewarded financially for every word that I pronounce!

POM     I see. You and Albie Sachs, you two are the only two that speak in paragraphs.

IA     I hope it makes sense.

POM     It fills in important gaps and gives more substance to the picture because I'm very adamant with Mac, I say that every statement you make where you say something I have to check that out and that's what I'm doing. But as I'm doing it I'm collecting every other person's story too so there's a dual thing. I have a publisher saying forget about those other stories, we want number one, but this work is endless, it's memories. In fact I have been doing taping people in Ireland since 1975 and some of them are very important conferences that were held. When the conferences were held of course the idea was that I would never use the material during that – if it had any adverse effect on somebody, but I have tens of hundreds of them at home so now I'm going to start to go back to Atlantic Philanthropy and say, listen, I have all this stuff on Ireland which covers everybody who was anybody from 1974 through 1999.

IA     These analogue tapes fade away after a while, don't they?

POM     That I will have to find out.

IA     You need to transfer them to a CD because that's permanent. That's my understanding.

POM     That's what they're doing in Robben Island.

     I have one last point, because it's important to me, it's that when Mac came on the scene, up to that point you had been going to Lusaka perhaps once every two weeks or so to brief the ANC leadership but after he came in Vula you would –

IA     My visits to the ANC, they started fairly early on.

POM     That would be about?

IA     I would say in the mid eighties, perhaps 1985/86. It was immediately after the EPG had visited so one can fix a date. It was irregular these visits but certainly in the last year or eighteen months they were very frequent until Mac arrived here to head up Vula and then it stopped. I never went back to Lusaka.

POM     You never went back to Lusaka but you'd go to visit Madiba.

IA     I was seeing him every two weeks, certainly in the later years.

POM     Every two weeks, so you would take whatever notes you had or whatever –

IA     And pass it on to whichever messenger or the courier who would be waiting for me as soon as I arrived from the airport.

POM     Might they leave a message for you?

IA     The day before I would be going back to Victor Verster I would have a note or perhaps a message to take back.

POM     OK. That's just what I wanted to clarify. And you say it was Obasanjo who was the key figure in –

IA     I think he had a very important role to play with PW Botha because Obasanjo, the EPG came here on more than one occasion, there are two distinct occasions. The first time they came none of them were allowed to see Nelson Mandela except for Obasanjo. Then on the second visit the entire group was allowed to see him but it also coincided with the bombing of Gaborone, the same day. Nothing happens by chance, my guess is that PW Botha decided that that was the day the bombing will take place and that was the day he was going to give the EPG the message that he was in control.

POM     It would be your belief that Obasanjo, subsequent to the first visit, had talked with, or whatever, with PW?

IA     I think he certainly met with PW Botha before he met with Nelson Mandela and he met with PW Botha after he met with Nelson Mandela and the message was very clear, and this is something that Madiba had always communicated, that there had to be dialogue.

     The EPG is important for another reason, to me at a personal level. It was immediately after they left that Winnie made the first of her very many mistakes which led to her downfall. She made her matches speech just after that visit and next to her was a man called Aubrey Mokoena who is now a parliamentarian. But that was a very important time and it may not be important but it was the first public statement that she made which damaged her reputation. Some time in the future – ah! There's another best-seller! Me and Winnie. That must wait.

POM     I'll get to that.

IA     That must wait for some time in the future.

POM     I nearly had Winnie three times, I got through to her, we spoke on the phone and she agreed. I was staying at a Hillbrow Hotel, the Protea Gardens Hotel in Hillbrow, she said, "I'll have somebody come by and pick you up at three o'clock." I sat outside till five o'clock. No. Rang back. Oh, she had an exam that day that she was doing but she made another appointment, waited another two hours. Three occasions I waited two hours and then a male came on the phone and said, this was coming up to the time I think of the trial of Stompie, she had been advised don't talk to anybody.

IA     That led to my final … I defended her in the Stompie trial but not on her instructions, on his instructions. I was asked by various people and I was the only person who could walk in and out of her home to go and fetch Stompie but I had not realised that Stompie had died already. I believe her when she said she didn't know where he was. But there were three other boys there and she agreed to let me take them away and I was stopped by two other people. One was the man who was ultimately convicted of Stompie's murder, Jerry Richardson, and there was a woman there who I see still around on TV screens at various demonstrations, I've forgotten her name, they would not let me take these three boys away. No-one else could go near that house, I was the only one. It caused terrible strains. There comes a time when you can say I'm a lawyer no more when other lawyers come to you and find themselves helpless, but I did go back to defend her in the Stompie trial but on Nelson Mandela's instructions and I did the best I could, saw it through to the end. I still see her occasionally. We have a cordial relationship. I still believe that she's a great humanitarian and each time she stumbled there's been somebody with her. I say that first meeting it was Aubrey Mokoena. Every time that she has got herself into difficulty there's always been somebody around to cause that. I'm sorry, I think she chooses friends badly. She never got into trouble while I was around until that speech of the matches and that morning I tried desperately to stop her. She wouldn't listen.

POM     You knew she was going to give the speech?

IA     I knew that there was going to be trouble because if you look at the TV pictures about these, normally described by a doctor who was taking a blood sample to say her eyes were glazed. I didn't stop her, tried everything.

POM     A good place to end. This is like a serial. Serials always end on a note where you have to come back for the next episode.

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.