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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

04 Nov 2002: Kathrada, Ahmed

AK     I knew Vella also from the forties, from the early forties. He was in the Communist Party together with Ismail Meer. But in exile Mac had a lot of contact with Vella. Mac can talk more on that, I don't know much. All I know is that they are still very close. Vella had this break with the party on the Sino-Soviet dispute.

POM     On the Sino-Soviet dispute?

AK     Vella remained with the Chinese and the Communist Party officially went over to the Soviet side. Whether he left the party I don't know. There was that dispute.

POM     That would go quite a bit back, that would go back to the fifties. No that was in the sixties.

AK     Well it all started with Krushchev's speech in the 1956, that's when the differences started. But you're right in the sixties was the break.

POM     But (what I want to talk about) is the Indian community. I have a half developed theory – and when I say half developed I mean just that – that you had Gandhi founding the Natal and the Transvaal Indian Congresses so they preceded the ANC.

AK     Well the Natal did.

POM     Natal did? That was 1894 and then you had the ANC in 1912 and then you had the Passive Resistance Campaign organised by the NIC in 1946 and that sparked the Defiance Campaign of 1952. So in a way I see, this is the half developed part, as the Indian Congress becoming more radical before the ANC and pushing the ANC in a more radical direction.

AK     Yes, I mean that's the whole period I'm covering because I've been involved in that whole period and I've written some of that already. The ANC until the late forties didn't even have a real, what you could call, a functioning office. I mean that's not to say that they didn't exist, naturally they existed, it was only catapulted into a real mass organisation in the Defiance Campaign when its membership grew to over 100,000 from just a few thousand. But you take the mineworkers' strike of 1946 which was the first major strike of African mineworkers.

POM     That's the mineworkers' strike in 1946. OK. There had been a strike in 1932.

AK     Oh yes there had been strikes, the anti-pass campaign in 1913 in which a communist, John Nkosi was killed. So there had been sporadic activities but it was after the 1949 programme of action in the ANC when the Youth League candidates took over the leadership.

POM     That's Mandela and Sisulu.

AK     Sisulu became Secretary General and Dr Xuma was removed from the presidentship and replaced by Dr Moroka. That's when it started taking a radical line, so that was 1949 already. But 1946 Passive Resistance, 1946 there was the mineworkers' strike. I remember, I was already working in the Passive Resistance office at the time, the work for the strike, we had those roneo machines, was done in the Indian Congress office and in the Communist Party office. The ANC did not have the machinery to do that type of work.

     So 1946, Mandela acknowledges in his biography the impact that made on him but that was a campaign run by the Indian Congress. A handful of Africans did join, a very small number, some of them may even have been ANC members, but it was just a small handful. Out of the 2000 volunteers that went to prison I'd say 99.95 were Indians.

POM     Were Indians, and a lot of them would have been members of the SACP too?

AK     Some of them would be, Dr Dadoo for instance who was the senior leader of both the Communist Party and the Indian Congress, he was the leading chap. It was him and Dr Naicker in Natal, both of them were medical students in Edinburgh.

POM     In Edinburgh?

AK     Yes, they both qualified in Edinburgh as doctors. You see the trouble was in those years the universities here had no facilities to train non-white medical people. They didn't train them. I don't know who the first Indian doctor was who was trained in SA, I can't remember. I suspect it was a chap called Dr Tavaria(?).

POM     But they could train as lawyers?

AK     In those years, again, I haven't researched it –

POM     Mandela went to?

AK     You're now talking of the fifties. These chaps came back from Edinburgh in 1938.

POM     OK, yes.

AK     So they trained in Edinburgh all at the same time, they returned to SA more or less at the same time, Dr Naicker in Natal, Dr Dadoo in the Transvaal, and both of these chaps – of course until that time the Indian Congress here was not the Indian Congress that Gandhi left behind. Gandhi left behind a militant Indian Congress that embarked on civil disobedience, passive resistance, but after Gandhi's departure conservatives took over. They ran the Indian Congress from their business premises, it was a group of business people, and they were not interested in non-European unity, they were not interested in any radical activity. Theirs was the politics of deputations, resolutions and so forth. They didn't have elections so that in 1945, rather before that, a grouping in the Transvaal in Natal, smaller grouping under these two doctors started working within the Indian Congress demanding elections. So the first public election takes place in 1945 in Natal and the conservative leadership is thrown out. 1946 the conservative leadership is thrown out in the Transvaal, so Dadoo becomes President of the Transvaal Indian Congress, Dr Naicker had already become President of the Natal Indian Congress. So the radicals take over, they conduct the passive resistance in 1946 and 2000 people go to prison in that campaign.

POM     So at the same time the ANC Youth League with Mandela and Sisulu coming to the fore are looking at you guys and saying this is the kind of thing we've got to be doing.

AK     Well, Mandela is at university with Ismail Meer and J N Singh, law students, so they are friends. But the Youth League policy is a policy of not working with other race groupings, with the other congresses and they were very anti-Communist. While Mandela would acknowledge and others would acknowledge the Passive Resistance, I mean nobody condemned it, some of the ANC leaders of the time went to black homes and spoke of the passive resistance, hailed the passive resistance. 1947, for instance, we had the famous 'Doctors' Pact', Dr Xuma, President General of the ANC, Dr Naicker, President of the Natal Indian Congress, Dr Dadoo, President of the Transvaal Indian Congress. The Doctors' Pact was the first formal move for co-operation between the two congresses, but the Youth League did not believe in that. Come 1950 and in the Transvaal there was a strike against the pending Suppression of Communism Act and the banning of the Communist Party and the banning of some of the leaders. That was the strike, opposed by the Youth League but called by the Transvaal ANC, the Transvaal Indian Congress and the Communist Party. The Youth League opposed it, Mandela and them opposed it quite vehemently, so much so that there is one occasion – they had taken a decision to disrupt any pro-strike activities, so much so that, I don't know I think Mandela's book mentions it, they had taken that decision as a Youth League, Mandela physically pulled down Yusuf Cachalia from the platform because Yusuf Cachalia was at a meeting, a pro-strike meeting.

     What had happened, I'm just telling you briefly, 18 people got killed, it was a very successful strike. If you read his book, that was my first clash with him, I'm a youngster of 21, he's already by senior but I challenged him on this very issue with all the arrogance of a young chap but in the end I was right and he was wrong. My challenge was that your people, the African people, are going to follow the strike, they won't listen to you, and that's what happened. The strike was very successful, the police killed 18 people. That led to the joint meeting at national level of the Indian Congress, the African Congress, the Communist Party and there you see as the beginning of change in the policy of the Youth League because the next big step is the Defiance Campaign, 1952, we had contact with the ANC and the Indian Congress jointly and Mandela was the National Volunteer in Chief, his deputy is the leader of the Indian Congress, so that is where the co-operation starts, it starts about 1950.

POM     But again, in a sense the Indian Congresses were the spark that lit the fires under the smouldering radicals in the ANC.

AK     When I write that I'll write it very diplomatically because people can make a controversy out of that. The accusation was, I mean in the newspaper by the government, that is the Indians were inciting the Africans, the Africans are very law-abiding people. That is on record if you go through the newspapers, if you go through parliamentary records you will see that. The Indian Congress was being blamed as being communist agitators, inciting the loyal Africans to do these things. Money for the Defiance Campaign came from the Indians, came from India – all those accusations were made. It was partly true, partly true. I mean the Indians collected quite a bit of money towards the running of the Defiance Campaign. I suppose economically they were better off than the African people.

POM     If you had to judge or assess the influence of Gandhi on Indian thinking?

AH     The influence of Gandhi. You see in the Indian Congress you had individuals, here I'm talking of now those who were Gandhi-ite, but the organisation never accepted the creed of Gandhi, the philosophy of non-violence, of turning the other cheek sort of thing. But as far as the Gandhian method of civil disobedience you can say that to that extent they did follow the Gandhian civil disobedience. In the Indian Congress you had some Gandhians. In the African Congress I can't even point to any, not even Chief Luthuli for that matter. I mean there were people who believed in non-violence but I wouldn't call them Gandhi-ites.

POM     So the Passive Resistance Campaign in 1946 wouldn't have been driven by - ?

AK     Well the method you can say was Gandhian. In other words you are now volunteering to go to prison, 1946, 1952. You are actually defying and saying arrest us, imprison us. That was Gandhian but it was never openly said that we are now embarking on a Gandhian struggle but at the back of the minds of people who proposed this action must be the Gandhian precedent that was set in SA.

POM     This is referring to all this controversy, or may not be, about whether Chief Luthuli gave his imprimatur to the formation of MK. Now Mac recounts a meeting, he wasn't present, but he recounts a meeting that took place where the Indian Congresses were present and the ANC were present.

AK     Yes, there was a National Executive meeting, joint meeting of the Indian Congress and the African Congress.

POM     Presided over by Chief Luthuli.

AK     Presided over by Chief Luthuli.

POM     And he says this was debated throughout the night and he in fact, as Mac tells the story, he says J N Singh at one point swung the debate in a different direction when he said it's not whether violence has failed us but whether we have failed non-violence.

AK     Well I tell you the only first hand account of that you'll get would be from Mandela. You won't get it from any of us. I wasn't present at that meeting. Of course I was one of the accused in the defiance trial as well. It's a long time ago. The Indian Congress delegates who were there, there would be the Gandhians there as well but the majority view would be that you have not dealt sufficiently with the political, non-violent struggle. Some people went to the extent of saying that this is an escapist way because you have abandoned the political struggle and this is the easier way out. So there was a debate in the end, in the end they didn't part as enemies or anything. Just as the ANC itself took a decision but said we are not embarking on this thing, you form MK as a separate organisation but politically you are responsible to us, you are answerable to us. If you're going to have a major switch in your policy you can only do it with the permission of the NEC. That was the understanding within the organisation, not publicly. Publicly MK was supposed to be an independent organisation but already from the start that division was blurred and within no time, especially when people went into exile, it just became one.

     But those are things that neither Mac nor I can give you first hand information. What we can tell you is what we've heard from people. Mac was still a young student at that time also. He would have heard from people there, he would have heard much more later on. Similarly with me. Of course I was very active but I was not at that level present at those meetings. But I am also in my own thing I am dealing with that but again from second-hand information.

POM     So your first meeting Mac is in Durban. He is in university in the fifties.

AK     No. My recollection is Mac and his friend Seedat, Mohammed Seedat, my first meeting as far as I can remember, and Mac of course has got a better memory, my first meeting is in Johannesburg I think 1958 when these two young chaps were on their way abroad to study. It wasn't a political thing, they really went out to study. That was my first meeting with Mac. In London itself as a student he gets – he must have met people like Vella Pillay and others. Again, of course, his version would be the more accurate one.

POM     No, he talks about Vella being the person he saw.

AK     That's where he now, to my mind, formally gets involved in political activity, joins the Communist Party. I don't think he was a member of the Communist Party when he went.

POM     He wasn't, no.

AK     He joined the Communist Party in England. On the verge of completing his LLB he gets instructed by the CP to go for training to the GDR. So he gets training, I don't know what amount of military training he got but he got training in communications. He then comes back to SA so he interrupts his studies. He comes back to SA. I don't think there could have been more than half a dozen people in the country who knew that he is back. I was given the task by the CP to be the contact between the CP and him because he comes back as a CP cadre. So I was the contact. I established contact with him in the East Rand, Nigel I think it was, where his sister was living.

POM     He says that you went to Newcastle and met him.

AK     No, no, that was later. Springs.

POM     When he comes back you first meet him in Springs, OK.

AK     I then have to arrange accommodation for him in Johannesburg. I have to also see to it that there is some social mixing without people knowing who he is. So I go and arrange accommodation for him at the home of the Naidoos. Now some people would say that was the most foolish thing to do. I took it this way, the Naidoo home was where students were boarding and lodging for years and years, university students, not political, so while the police knew of the Naidoo home, the Naidoo father before he died (he died in 1953), they knew that there was some sort of political activity but they didn't know what so I put Mac to stay there. They didn't know, the Naidoos didn't know, I just said there's a chap – I don't know what I said, but the man needed some friends so I put him in touch with friends of mine who were playing bridge regularly and Mac used to play with them. They didn't know either and they quarrelled, bridge is a game you quarrel over and Mac doesn't need much convincing to quarrel. So these chaps came to me one day, very angry, some of these guys who were playing bridge and they wanted to assault him, they said, "This damn chap that you've put us in touch with, he's so argumentative, we feel like assaulting him." But they don't know. Eventually Mac is placed in a small CP cell in Johannesburg.

POM     You're head of that cell?

AK     No, no, I may have been the contact or I may have been in that cell, I can't remember now, but I was the close contact between that cell and – maybe I was in that cell, I can't remember. One thing I know is that I was the contact between the cell and the leadership.

     Where Mac and I get involved closely is to set up an underground press in Johannesburg. Now Mac is trained in that and those are the years when we had those things called linotype machines, so through our contacts we acquired a machine, we acquired premises and that's where Mac was working. Until our arrest, Mac is not involved in MK, we preserved him for political work, not MK work. After our arrest he gets recruited into MK activities.

POM     With Wilton Mkwayi?

AK     Chiba, Laloo Chiba, Wilton and them. Amien Cajee. Dr Jassat will tell us that one day he gets called to a place in Jeppe, these guys – I think Mac was there as well – they tried to heat up gunpowder in a frying pan and the thing went off.

POM     That was Doha.

AK     Doha got burned. The doctor was called. Dr Jassat went to attend to them and he says that he found this black face trying to –

POM     That was Doha.

AK     Yes.

POM     And Doha looked after your apartment for 27 years?

AK     That's now my story, we want to get into Mac's. What had happened is I was given – first of all I was given the option of going into exile and I said no.

POM     This was in?

AK     1962 when I was placed under house arrest. I was the second person in the country to be placed under house arrest. Helen Joseph was the first and a week thereafter I was the second person. Then of course others followed and then the tendency developed of house arrestees, in fact the Rand Daily Mail at the time ran a little box on the front page, so-and-so house arrestee number three flees, number four flees, number five flees.

POM     That meant you were confined to your house from?

AK     When I was now placed under house arrest, that was before the 90 day law came into existence, you know those laws that allowed for detention. And as that was nearing and I was given the option of – one of the options was to open the ANC office in Indonesia. I said no.

POM     In Indonesia?

AK     Yes, that was before they dealt with the communists there. You know they killed 100,000 people.

POM     Suharto.

AK     The whole Central Committee leadership were all killed, but that was before then. I said no. Eventually they said, well go to Swaziland or disguise and you can come back. I said, "No, once I'm out of the country I won't come back I know. I want to stay here." So then I get an order one day which gave me four hours to abandon the flat and everything and go underground. I go underground. I can't tell the people who are there. Doha was there. I called him aside, I said, "Look I'm disappearing, I'll write to you from wherever I am so that you are safe, I'll write to you because you don't know that I'm going. I'll write to you and tell you. You keep this flat." So he then moved in after I disappeared and I wrote a formal letter to him posted somewhere in SA. So then I was underground. The house arrest period didn't last too long because I then went underground. It must have lasted say for almost six months. I then go underground.

     I think even from the underground I do meet Mac from time to time. Oh yes, I was in the same cell with him. You're quite right. He will tell you of this. He's very fond of telling of our meeting at the Zoo Lake and the empty brandy bottles that were lying around because after that meeting, you see we used to meet in a car.

POM     Sorry, you used to meet?

AK     The underground cell with Mac, we used to meet in a motor car and after the meeting we used to have some drinks. Mac exaggerates a bit of course to make the story livelier, that on a Sunday morning if you go there you'll find bottles there. It's not true. But after the meeting we take a drink and if there's an empty bottle we just throw it away. But our meetings took place in a car, sometimes in a car at Zoo Lake and sometimes elsewhere. Zoo Lake was convenient because a lot of people used to park there and the police would not think anything of it.

POM     So the underground work was concerned with?

AK     With the CP activities and generally ANC/Indian Congress work. In other words there was political work but I was also in MK at the beginning, I was in Divisional Command but I didn't stay long because I soon discovered - one of my reasons was I quickly found out that I haven't got the aptitude for this type of work, I would be much more useful doing political work. There were other reasons as well and I asked the organisation to relieve me from MK work. It was not that I was in principle against it because I had taken part in some activities. But it's in the - as I say until our arrest, Mac was not involved in MK, it was CP. It was only after we got locked up that sometime later we find out that he's involved in MK as well and he gets arrested.

POM     So you meet him again, he comes to Robben Island.

AK     I then meet him again in prison. We get to Robben Island in June and he and his group get there in December I think, of the same year, 1964.

POM     And you were in the single cells.

AK     We were all in the single cells.

POM     So you spent 12 years –

AK     He spent 12 years there. I spent 18 years there but then I was moved with Madiba and them to Pollsmoor.

POM     So do you have recollections, anecdotes of Mac on the Island?

AK     Oh plenty. When you talk of 12 years!

POM     Just the ones that come to your mind.

AK     What comes to my mind there, that is where I really came to know the man. Absolutely brilliant, photographic memory, very courageous. That's where I learnt, I don't know if he told you, how he tried to commit suicide under detention.

POM     Did he talk about that? He talked to me about it.

AK     Oh he has told you, good.

POM     Did he talk to you?

AK     Well on Robben Island we learnt that this had happened so he's got tremendous courage, but also controversial, very argumentative. He's argued with just about all of us at different times, but photographic memory. For instance, he'd be called to the office or something and the officer is sitting on that side of the desk and he may be reading a newspaper, like this, say you're the officer and you're sitting there and you've got the newspaper facing you, Mac with his one eye is able to read whatever there is and come and tell us that this is the news. Even with that one eye he could absorb things and remember. Whenever we got hold of newspapers, illegally, our best bet was to give it to him because he can read it and remember much more than we can. So he could then convey because our policy was to destroy. As soon as you read a thing you destroy it. It was dangerous to keep, to be caught with those papers.

     He was also in the Communications Committee, we had a Communications Committee on the Island, ANC, which I headed and its job was first of all to maintain contact because we were isolated from the rest of the prison community so we had to keep contact with our colleagues in the other sections of the prison and we had to formulate different methods of keeping contact. Now Mac was very good there too. Then the second job of the committee was to keep ourselves informed, keep smuggling news, newspapers, whichever way we go to. The third thing was to try to keep contact with our people abroad by using coded letters and all that. So that was the task of the committee. The main task it managed to fulfil was the contact between the one side and the other. So that was the Communications Committee.

POM     How was that managed?

AK     Well that was the task of our committee. Now we used all sorts of methods, very innovative methods to keep ourselves informed. I remember Mac one day came with a method from the prison hospital, some liquid called Eusol, and he discovered that if you write with this it's got no colour, it's a colourless liquid, so if you write with this and the other side has to put an electric iron over it, it's invisible writing you see. I know Mac came with that method. So we tried all sorts of methods. Some we succeeded, others we didn't succeed in our committee but by and large what we fulfilled is the contact. We did get caught from time to time and were caught writing and so forth but we did manage to keep this contact with our colleagues on the other side. That was the main achievement of that committee. Because of our situation in those single cells we didn't have all that contact to be able to get news.

     I remember one instance where, you see there were warders on duty all the time, day and night, one night warder – you see the warders were also not allowed to bring anything to read. Their duty was to walk up and down the passage to see that we are sleeping and not reading after hours although the lights were on. So they were also bored, so this particular warder, elderly chap, nearing retirement, came with some sort of a competition to me, an Afrikaans thing. Now the other thing about Mac, having grown up in Natal, the Natal people didn't speak Afrikaans, at school there was no Afrikaans in those years. Mac grew up under that so he didn't know Afrikaans, he learnt that bit of Afrikaans in prison with the aim of reading the newspaper, Die Burger, and he picked it up quite well. Anyway, this warder came to me and he wanted me to help him do this competition. It struck me immediately that this requires Mac. I could do the thing but my mind went much further that Mac will think of something as only Mac can do. Mac did the thing for him. He succeeded. He must have come two or three times after that. Then one day Mac tells me, this is where only Mac can do it, I couldn't, Mac says, "Now Mister, just take this letter to Sisulu and bring it back." So this old man innocently takes the letter and brings it back with Sisulu's reply on it. Mac says, "Now I've got your fingerprints on this thing. If you don't play ball you know what's going to happen." The old man is terrified. So Mac reports to our committee that he has done this. Now we would have never brought him into trouble but the threat was enough. The old man said, "Now what can I do?" Mac says, "Bring us newspapers." So whenever that old man was on duty he brought us the Rand Daily Mail. Now we didn't have money, our money was all tied up in the office there so what we used as currency was packets of cigarettes, cartons of cigarettes. Each of us had to buy cartons of cigarettes and that was the currency. Now that was another achievement of Mac. That lasted quite a while. The old man used to be on duty, he'd be on duty for ten days then he'll be off night duty and then he'd come back for another ten days, so the time that he was on duty we'd get the daily newspaper and that was a great help.

POM     Now did he deliver any more letters between himself and Walter?

AK     No, no, that was just a one-off trick.

POM     To get his fingerprints.

AK     Yes, because we could have talked to Walter the next day at work, so Mac just used this as a blackmail.

POM     There's a reference in Shubin's book, I don't know whether you've read it, A View from Moscow where he quotes, there used to be the High Organ –

AK     Yes, the four people.

POM     That was yourself?

AK     No. You see the four original members of the High Organ are the four people who were members of the NEC of the ANC outside already, Mandela, Sisulu, Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki. These chaps were the four members so they immediately constituted the High Organ. I was co-opted onto it for a period but they extended my tenure on the High Organ for some time, but that was supposed to be a rotating thing. The fifth member was a rotating thing. I must have been co-opted for a longer time than the others.

POM     This talks about, in fact I'll read it to you if I can. This is a letter that Mandela wrote out of the prison, wrote a letter smuggled from Robben Island in 1976.

AK     That must have gone with Mac.

POM     It says: - "Mandela was worried about the absence of regular contact between the prisoners and the leadership outside Africa and urged that Oliver should see that people, respectable English MPs or journalists still come to Robben Island Prison. He was clearly happy that a person he trusted was leaving the Island. 'Mac Maharaj is one of the most reliable boys who has gone out from here. He is bringing a lot of messages for Oliver'."

     Then he says: - "Nelson Mandela's message was especially important in light of a report that was smuggled out from Robben Island about the political and personal differences which existed over a long period from 1969 in the top leadership in the prison. The original High Organ of the Congress Movement, in particular between Madiba on the one hand and Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba on the other. The findings of the new High Organ (whatever that was) held 'that the four original High Organ men were primarily responsible for disunity through maladministration and incorrect attitudes towards one another while an immediate cause of misunderstanding was the proposal for discussion on separate development institutions (I suppose that's the Bantu homelands), personal relationships, a clash of personality between Madiba and Govan contributed to the discord. Power struggle in jail was a factor in the dispute and questions of tactic were elevated to questions of principles in discussions." Were there these differences?

AK     Look, there were political differences. Naturally in political differences in a confined atmosphere you can't say the person will remain unaffected. They are but it's been greatly exaggerated. One Robben Islander, at Robben Island, not an ANC chap, has gone on TV to say that Mandela and Mbeki for a whole year didn't even greet one another. It's been greatly exaggerated. The fact that there were differences, the fact that those differences did affect personal relationships one can't deny but it didn't go to the extent where they refused to discuss or debate. They remained on the High Organ. At one stage it was decided that a new High Organ must be appointed while discussions and debates go on but that didn't last very long and then the original High Organ came back.

POM     Who was on the new High Organ, can you remember?

AK     Mac will know better there.

POM     Now Mandela's autobiography, as I understand the process Mandela would write 15 pages of foolscap every night. It must have been difficult with the guard walking up and down. Then that this would go to Walter and to you.

AK     Actually it would come to me for my comments. I always say light-heartedly but it's true, Mandela's writing is very beautiful, it's very symmetrical, it's illegible, so I had to read it to Sisulu and I had to write Sisulu's, mostly his comments also in addition to my own comments, I had to write Sisulu's comments because Mandela's writing being illegible, Sisulu's writing is worse. So this is my recollection, I don't think the document that has been found – you know part of that document has been found, it's only my writing and Mandela's writing and in my writing are Sisulu's comments. That's where the three of us got punished for it.

POM     Because that was found? So how would you be able to read it to Walter? Where would you get the time?

AK     People have got this wrong impression that things just became impossible. As the years went by there was relaxation, there was more and more time, people would be sitting in a cell when you don't go out to work, they'd be sitting playing games or reading or studying. That wasn't very difficult. Now it's possible that Walter did try to read on his own but I do know that he had a lot of trouble so that our comments, Walter and my comments would go back to Madiba. He would then do the final version. The final version would be given to Chiba and Mac. They reduced Mandela's, I don't know how many hundred pages –

POM     600.

AK     - to less than 50 pages, tiny handwriting. Chiba then constructed from nothing – because what we used to do when we ordered stationery when we were studying we ordered all kinds of things with no idea of what we were going to do with it eventually. For instance, we'd order parchment. Now why would we order parchment when we ordered it? Because of some day we'll get some use for it. We'd order glue, we'd order all kinds of things like that you see.

POM     And the warders wouldn't ask you why you were ordering these things?

AK     Well we were students.

POM     Yes, OK.

AK     We kept them. When Chiba had to construct the album all these things became useful because the cover of the album was covered with parchment, like an ordinary album is. But this wasn't a photograph album, this was an album that he constructed with big maps and the album covers are thick so that in that was concealed Long Walk to Freedom, Mac's book Reflections in Prison, those eight essays, and whatever else, Madiba's letters or whatever, they were all concealed in that. That was all Chiba's work, the album, but the writing was their joint work, Mac and Chiba. They did the transcription. The arrangement was, Mac is being released in 1976, the biography is supposed to be published on Mandela's 60th birthday. Yes it was supposed to be published in 1978 on his 60th birthday. That was the idea. We made an arrangement with Mac. First of all Madiba's originals with my writing will be buried in the garden in plastic containers. The arrangement was that as soon as Mac signals to me in a postcard with innocuous wording I would understand through wording that was worked out that this has reached England or failed and the idea was that as soon as I get word that it has reached England we would then destroy the originals. So Mac sent me this innocuous card and in it it was clear that it has reached England safely. This album was so beautifully constructed that Mac walked out of prison without the guards having the faintest idea that this has got all these things in it. And Mac will tell you what happened in England, it was lying in Rusty Bernstein's place, he didn't know what it was and he was wondering what the hell is this album doing here. He didn't know what was concealed in the covers.

     We were also secure, or we thought we were secure. Everything was buried there in the garden, we will destroy it one day, until they started building the wall. That wall went through the garden so the following morning we tried to rescue as much as possible. We rescued two or three things which we destroyed, the rest was caught and that's how the three of us got punished, Mandela, Sisulu and myself. We had abused our study privilege by using pen and paper, writing, that is abusing study privilege by writing this biography and they took away our studies. They never tell you beforehand for how long. As far as they are concerned you have lost your studies for life but on that occasion we lost it for four years.

POM     Four years? Wow!

AK     Not for the first time. We lost our studies several times.

POM     So the authorities now had the original manuscript with the comments.

AK     With the comments. That we found in the prison files.

POM     You did?

AK     It remained there, yes.

POM     You found those in 1994?

AK     Yes, after 1994. I mean all those files are now available.

POM     They're at Mayibuye?

AK     No, no, they can't be at Mayibuye. I don't know exactly where they are now but they are still in the possession of the Prison's Department with the idea of getting them to the National Archives. I don't know if they have moved to the National Archives yet or not, but those are of course only accessible to people who have got the permission of those particular individuals otherwise they are not accessible to anybody.

POM     So you'd have to know what – you'd almost have to know what was in the files, who they had a file on.

AK     Oh no, they had files of every prisoner. I've got mine here, 26 boxes of it.

POM     How many?

AK     26. Mandela's was 114. In fact that's one of the jobs I've got to do is to go through those things.

POM     That will take some time.

AK     It will take some time. Well, not really. It will be easy. A lot of it is just letters.

POM     So after Mac leaves does your contact with him cease?

AK     We tried to keep in touch with the organisation there. For instance we had established an agreed code. Now that would go in my letters, that agreed code, to one of the Pahad boys who would have the code on the other side and they'd reply. They didn't have to reply themselves. For instance a letter I got with the coded stuff from Sonia Bunting it was very interesting, I've still got that letter, they cut out literally with a scissors pieces they thought were objectionable. What they left in were the coded parts because they coded parts talked of Shakespeare and Milton and Volkswagen motor cars. That made sense to us but not to the censor.

     But to Mac now, for instance we had to convey a message to Mac but we hadn't worked out a coded name for Mac and I remember we had to convey some message to him in England so we thought a bit, in prison you've got a lot of time to think. Mac has got one eye and in prison while we were not studying formally we also read a bit of Greek mythology, anything, and I remember that Mac was called Cyclops with the one eye. So in one of my letters I talked about Cyclops and the people overseas immediately knew this was for Mac. So that type of thing we had to invent from time to time. But we shouldn't exaggerate this thing, it's not as if this was a very highly successful thing that went on for years and years back and forth. It was used to a limited extent in that context, always a code.

POM     When you were released from prison with Walter, you were both released at the same time, how were you re-integrated into the structures?

AK     We were released while the ANC was still banned in October of 1989 but at that time already the media carried government policy. The government policy was there are two ANCs, the ANC of Mandela which is the reasonable ANC and the ANC of Tambo which are the terrorists. When we came out right from the first public meeting we said there is only one ANC and that is the ANC of Tambo, we are carrying a message from Mandela to the people of SA and the world that it's one ANC to which we owe our allegiance and that is the ANC under the presidentship of Tambo. So that government propaganda did not work at all.

POM     The government had been working on this, Madiba had had talks –

AK     Because of the negotiations.

POM     He had been talking to Niel Barnard and Fanie van der Merwe.

AK     Well it started with that but it went on to other cabinet ministers, Kobie Coetsee, then he met De Klerk.

POM     He met De Klerk when he was in prison?

AK     Yes. He met Botha first while he was in prison.

POM     He met Botha when he was taken to Tuynhuys.

AK     He met Botha at Tuynhuys, yes.

POM     But De Klerk?

AK     You see Botha was replaced by De Klerk while we were still in prison.

POM     Yes, OK, yes.

AK     So he met De Klerk too.

POM     While he was in prison, OK. And the feeling was that he was conducting – but hadn't he already gotten word to OR, didn't he get word to you that he was talking to these people?

AK     What had happened was – look, we got transferred, five of the seven Rivonia people, two were left behind on Robben Island, Motsoledi and Mbeki, the five of us were transferred in 1982 to Pollsmoor Prison. 1983, 1984, 1985, at the end of 1985 beginning of 1986, 1985 when Mandela went to hospital, he then is not returned to us, he is separated from us at Pollsmoor but in a different cell altogether. In fact he was given two or three cells which looked like a little flat with different type of furniture and all that. So that's when the negotiations really starts from that. He kept it away from us because as he says in his book, eventually when he was allowed to see us and they allowed him to see people one by one, Mhlaba and Mlangeni said, "Why were you waiting so long? You should have started this thing earlier." Walter said, "Look in principle there's nothing wrong with negotiations, that's our policy', but he thinks (that's Walter) that the initiative should have come from the other side. And last was me and I just said, he couldn't convince me, I was against negotiations altogether.

     At that time he had started consulting with us to the extent that he was allowed. We met with him on several occasions at Pollsmoor and then when he got sick with TB he was taken to hospital again. In August of 1988 he is now transferred to Victor Verster, 30 miles from Cape Town. We are taken there also from time to time to meet with him because by now we are consulting because it's gone very far now. Now he's convinced that he has taken this initiative and none of us are going to be able to torpedo that, so we are now working together on this thing.

POM     But OR also knows.

AK     From abroad they got very worried because the rumour has spread that Mandela is selling out. Now this is a thing on which Mac can speak much better than I can but I know that there were these rumours, so much so that among the internal leadership here, the underground leadership in SA, some of the leaders sent out word that if Mandela calls you to Victor Verster Prison don't go, he is selling out. It became as serious as that. From abroad came an enquiry, "What are you doing?" He says he replied in one sentence, "I am trying to get this government to talk to you." But by that time he also managed to smuggle out a letter through his lawyer, I think through Bizos.

POM     Ismail Ayob, I've talked to him.

AK     Who has clarified what he was doing. Then we were at one, the overseas people and Mandela. They had a common understanding of what was happening and that's when people from abroad started – (break in recording)

     The focus will be different from mine except for the Robben Island part of it, so it's not a clash. In fact I'm one of these days going down specially to see Mac, Mac and a few others, precisely because of his memory, because our memories differ but his memory is better than mine. What we are trying to arrange in Johannesburg is a group of them, Chiba, Mac and two or three other chaps so that we can sit together and recall. My book is not going to be that exhaustive. I'm covering a long period of my own experiences. Robben Island will form two or three chapters but it won't be the only thing. I'll have to see Mac and them about Robben Island.

POM     Why did Mac quit the SACP after he was released? When you got out first, when you were out and he was in the country in Vula did he make any contact with you and Walter during that period?

AK     I was sent by Madiba and them while he was underground to meet with him. He had at that stage already got out of the Communist Party but not from the ANC.

POM     That would have been in?

AK     This would have been 1990. I was sent to talk to him. I failed. Walter was sent to talk to him because he was threatening now to resign from the ANC National Executive. Walter failed. Now you see, again, if Madiba hadn't reminded us I would have forgotten this thing. I knew I had met him. Madiba reminded us when Mac's book was launched, this Reflections, Madiba was speaking there and he said one of the mistakes we made, that is Walter and I, in trying to convince Mac is to try to convince him on his grounds and Madiba says if you try to convince Mac on his grounds you're going to fail. Mac is too powerful on his grounds. You must go to him on our grounds, not on his grounds. So Madiba went and ignored Mac's grounds and he persuaded Mac not to resign.

POM     Why after devoting his life to the whole - ?

AK     That is a thing he must answer really, that he must answer.

POM     Did he provide you with any reasons?

AK     Look, it will be only fair if he talks about that.

POM     Well he does but he doesn't.

AK     Well to me also, I mean he has talked to me but it will be fair if he tells you these things because I don't want to give a second-hand account of that and then find that it's very distorted. That thing I'd rather avoid talking about.

POM     Put it this way, it's not for publication it's for clarification and I will raise it with Mac. I will tell him that I have spoken with you. We have a relationship where, for example, I told him that I'm going to talk to Tim, his first wife. I said I have to do it, I wouldn't be honest if I didn't do it. She played an important part, she was his wife for 20 years and I want to hear what she has to say about your relationship and he picked up his telephone directory and said, "Here's the number and here's her address." So all I'm collecting is what he says, which varies, what other people say which varies and then I'll go back and say, "Mac, other people say this and they say that, so one way or another I'm going to clarify this because we have to get beyond this particular point."

AK     I see your point but all I would be able to say is I won't be able to go into the political things. I'd say it's really Mac's personality, he's very strong willed, believes he is right always, but he's so strong willed that sometimes in a controversial situation you can't persuade him once he's taken a decision. That's his personality, right or wrong, and often he's wrong but you can't convince him that he's wrong. So to me it's more of a personality thing. We've had differences over the years but we don't do what he's done. It's really a personality thing. No personality is perfect and Mac has got a lot of positives but there is a bit of negative too and I would say this was one of the negatives.

POM     So he had quit the SACP when you met him?

AK     He had already quit the SACP.

POM     That would have been in?

AK     That must have 1990, must have been about that time.

POM     It was before Madiba was released?

AK     Again, I can't put the dates really because Madiba was only released in 1990.

POM     February 1990.

AK     It's about that time that time that he decided to quit from the NEC also but then he came back.

POM     That's OK, I've got about four versions already.

AK     That's a thing you can only get from him.

POM     I told him I'll get it. In fact I wrote him a long letter.

AK     Now you are writing a biography of Mac?

POM     No, what I'm doing is – I'm doing it in terms of the way I did all my interviews. I ask the questions, he gives me answers and I ask follow-up questions and he gives me answers. Then it's like question, answer, it covers his childhood, his days at the University of Durban, his days getting out of the country and going to London.

AK     How he lost his eye.

POM     How he lost his eye.

AK     It's in a quarrel.

POM     People always say, Oh my God! He must have lost it when he was tortured! So it's all in a dialogue and then I introduce each section and then at the end of each chapter give my own commentary on what he said.

AK     So this is going to be a separate book?

POM     Separate from?

AK     Aren't you writing a book about your interviews as a whole?

POM     That's right.

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.