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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
30 Jan 2003: Gordhan, Pravin
POM Pravin, I'll start with 1975/6 or 7 when Harry Gwala and others were tried. What impact did that have on underground structures in the Durban/Natal region and how did you at that time manage to avoid arrest or detention?
PG The group of people were largely university students at UWD who had now in 1973/4 started working and then were looking for sites of political activity were largely involved in my context in the Natal Indian Congress on the one hand and on the other hand, I was an executive member from 1974, on the other hand as people began to come off Robben Island and this would be Jacob Zuma, Jackson(?) Kuzwayo, Sonny Singh and a number of others around 1974 we began to connect with them, discuss politics and get a better appreciation of the ANC and informally I suppose we began to play a support role in this context. I didn't in that period have any direct contact with Harry Gwala. I know that one of the people that I associated with at that time was Roy Padiachee.
POM That was whom?
PG Roy Padiachee. There were one or two others as well who would transport Jacob Zuma to Pietermaritzburg to visit Harry Gwala during that trial period or slightly before. In that period the role was largely a support one.
POM When you say support you mean transportation - ?
PG Transportation, facilitating meetings, interacting with people, quietly building not formal underground structures but relationships and focusing certainly from 1975 1977 on developing a conception of mass community organisations. It was around that time that some of us [were involved with] activities in relation to building civic organisations and during that time also wherever it was possible public activities with the Natal Indian Congress, the issuing of pamphlets and having a mass meeting which would raise the profile of the Freedom Charter of the Congress Alliance, the Congress Movement as we called it in those days.
POM Now the Frelimo in 1975, that seems to have been a spark that lit a fuse for people like Ivan, for example, and other people in Durban who always refer to it as some kind of a starting point. What did it serve as?
PG It's something that always remains in one's memory. I was there, I have never been a good athlete, and had to really find all the resources I could muster for the climb up the hill or a short incline and run over the soccer field chased by Police dogs. That's my recollection of the Frelimo rally. In some ways it heightened the tensions, if you like, between the Police and ourselves. I remained sceptical even at that time about those sorts of activities because they turned out as flashes in the pan, important in symbolic terms but not one which ultimately leads to organisation. My orientation over that time was around building organisation, around recruiting cadres, around political education, around creating networks which would themselves then build up organisations in geographic areas that one might not have access to.
POM So you were in fact building a political underground?
PG It wasn't an underground in the formal sense, that came later. This was so-called legal activity through civic, youth and political structures like the Natal Indian Congress to work with students at UDW and other campuses that we had access to all of which were designed to increase the cadreship of Congress orientated individuals who understood the politics of the Congress Movement, who were 'left' leaning and who would be willing to make a practical contribution to whatever activity was available and possible at that time to advance political and organisational work.
POM You met Mac first in 1977 after he was released from Robben Island, I think you and Chest met him at
PG No, no, I met him on my own, Ketso was a youngster.
POM You had heard of him before?
PG Yes, people who were on Robben Island were legends in those days.
POM What was your first impression of him?
PG We had an understanding that he was someone with a sharp intellect and a good strategic approach and someone who had a long history in the movement which we could benefit from because we were young people who grew up politically in a situation where there weren't any direct mentors accessible to oneself, I refer to myself. And so he was an individual that one (a) had to take cognisance of because of his history and (b) through interaction begin to understand where he was coming from and (c) clearly individuals like that work at several levels, as we used to call it in those days. Being a Robben Islander he would have had some continued access at that level, being a senior person he would have access to what we used to call outside, the ANC in exile, and thirdly he would have connections with people who were more in his age group who were around at that time. This was a situation with generations from different backgrounds, even mine, who were meeting to explore what was happening in the country at that time. I had some very definite ideas about how mobilising and organising could happen in that context and I was looking for senior people who could (a) guide one in that situation but also in a sense verify that the kind of thought processes that were current at the time had validity. So there were some very useful discussions.
POM When you say you had some very definite ideas could you be more explicit?
PG Yes, it's what I've described already, my experience
POM Were you looking at that time saying to him that if we want to establish a political underground, a viable political underground in the country we must get senior people from outside?
PG No, that didn't figure, that didn't figure at all. That might have come a little later. What was crucial at that time is answering the question, what quasi-political activity is viable within the legal platform. So even if the legal space is tight, the repression is heavy, not withstanding that what is possible. Secondly, what is possible in terms of mobilising people and it is around that that the whole concept of community mobilisation was a thesis, if you like, that people like myself and others were developing and essentially it arose from an understanding that any activists or cadres (a) can't be isolated from the masses but (b) needs to find ways of relating to them and (c) more importantly needs to find activities that will engage people in some form of mobilisation which itself, if there are enough people around, generate activists on the one hand, additional numbers and (b) generate forms of organisation which themselves could begin to be instilled of a new awareness of what was going on, of how do you analyse the current situation, how do we understand the politics. It's a process of politicisation that actually happened and that in turn strengthens the hand of the ANC broadly speaking. That's a process that has worked.
POM Now after your conversation with him, again I'm going back to what was your impression, how did he strike you as a person?
PG Clearly a person who understood the history of the ANC, a person who had a good grasp of that strategic moment, a person who had an understanding of how organising could happen, a person who was willing to listen to an alternate set of views because we didn't come through the same projectory, and enter into a debate on what is the connection between underground military work on the one hand and open and legal and community orientated work on the other hand. Similar work was already beginning to happen on the trade union side as well post 1973 so the connection between these two was the crucial issue of the time in my view.
POM Would it have been your impression at that time that the ANC and even the people coming off Robben Island were still more inclined to view the military option as the way forward, that the primary emphasis should be put on the military struggle and development?
PG That was the dominant theme of the time, not only amongst themselves. There was no doubt that we were faced with a tough regime which had narrowed the space in which one could operate within the legal terrain, that the military underground processes needed to be at the forefront of the overall political strategy. I think by that time, I can't recollect now, the concept of the four pillars
POM That would have been before that, I think the four pillars came in a bit later.
PG Came a little later? OK. But I think the embryonic form of their thinking, because it was beginning to take root. So, yes, they would have that bias but the important thing is whether there was an ability to embrace new things that were happening at the time and new things were beginning to happen.
POM OK Mac leaves and goes to London, transcribes the biography of Mandela, comes back to Lusaka, is appointed Secretary of the Internal Political & Reconstruction Development department which has the task of developing a political underground within SA and in connection with that he took trips to all the forward areas and made an assessment and the assessment was that nothing is really happening in SA to suggest there is any kind of a viable political underground being set up that would be able to sustain an MK cadre on any kind of long term basis. What connection with him did you have during those years, 1978 through, say, the mid eighties? Were you in touch?
PG No, not with him only, it was with the ANC generally and then with him more particularly because I can't say who on the other side was involved in looking at what we were doing. Again, I have a very poor recollection of the detail but post-1977 would have been the time when a few of us would have formalised ourselves into a political underground structure. Secondly, we set up communication lines with people that would have been designated by him. Thirdly, in 1979 there was this debate internally in the country about, again, the theme of mobilising people and what were the strategies and tactics that were available for internal mobilisation and the issue of participating in the SA Indian Council elections came up which is the debate that some of us introduced.
POM The SA Indian Council?
PG Yes, the government was going to make it an elected body and the question was whether it was reactionary or indeed strategic to use that particular avenue and platform to mobilise various sections of the community. We were basing our approach on theoretical stuff that we had read about, Lenin and the Duma and similar experiences. Part of that debate was about saying let's draw a distinction between principles, in principle we need to destroy apartheid and replace it with a democracy and introduce the Freedom Charter as a programme, and the question of tactics which could be using an avenue like this. But in the course of that debate he suggested that I make myself available in London and so a meeting took place in London between myself on the one hand and Thumba Pillay, who is now a Judge in KZN, who was there to voice the views of others like M J Naidoo and so on on the Natal Indian Congress executive with whom this debate was occurring internally. We met with him, Aziz Pahad and Yusuf Dadoo I met, the others might have met others, and Ismail Meer who happened to be in London was part of the discussion on the one occasion and the individual I mentioned earlier, Roy Padiachee, who was a colleague and was studying overseas at the time, he was also part of some of those discussions. So that was another contact point with the ANC broadly and him in particular.
For that period that you've actually indicated and beyond that period there were communications coming in and going out through the kind of channels that we had set up.
POM That's going to Lusaka and out of Lusaka to you?
PG No, no, sometimes it went via London but often it went via Swaziland. So we would have couriers who would go to Swaziland, drop stuff off. There were dead letter boxes in SA where we would have stuff dropped off and that would be either reports about activities that we were involved in that were going out or feedback on questions that we might have raised and suggestions about propaganda that needed to be distributed locally. And so we were what you might call a mass mobilisation and propaganda outfit.
POM The formation of the UDF, did that come about as something rather spontaneous or was that the result of, again, consultation with the outside and outside input?
PG It's one of those difficult ones because everybody involved in these processes will believe that it was a spontaneous event from a particular source.
POM Was that the Allan Boesak speech?
PG There was Boesak and I remember Trevor Manuel and I, we were sitting in my house at the time, that was at the beginning either late 1982 or early 1983. I was banned so I couldn't move around too much at the time. We heard the radio report, Boesak was talking about some kind of united front against apartheid, and we had some discussions about what that might mean. Later that debate went into some of the structures in Natal at the time. The concept of a united front began to take root and I suspect that there were discussions like that elsewhere in the country and outside the country because remember that the period 1980 1983 was a period in which there was a very intense rise in mass activity within the country. There were student boycotts, there were labour strikes, there were community boycotts, there was the concept of a consumer boycott in the form of the Wilson Rowntree strike and the support around Fattis & Monis. There were a number of things that were happening in the country at that time, all of which lent to the intensification of internal, so-called legal, mass activity and clearly anybody watching that from within or outside the country would be asking the question: well what does that mean and how do you strategically take that forward?
I can't again remember the details but certainly we discussed that in the context of the NIC and, was it late January 1983, there was a conference of what was then called the Transvaal Anti SAIC Committee (SA Indian Council). It was at that conference that some of my colleagues, like Jerry Coovadia, Zac Jacob, Yunus Mahommed who had gone over to that meeting, began to share that idea. I think there was a resolution adopted there which said let's explore this with other people and I think that started a process and I am sure there were various external connections to different people which would have resulted in consultations and ideas being generated from different quarters. I haven't checked all of those projectories.
POM Sometimes people make this it's like this distinction between the internals and the externals or inxiles and exiles or whatever, where really there was in this case what you would say would have been a synergy. There would have been input from both sides and out of that arose the UDF.
PG There would certainly have been but remember that there's always great difficulty in operating from afar when there's intense mass activities happening and even if that afar is just in another province. So there's a strike in one place or a student boycott in one place or a community boycott or action taking place, it's those who are closest who often have to make quick decisions about tactical choices that they have to make or initiatives that they actually have to take. They can take into account strategic perspectives which guide one broadly and I think that's where you had an interesting synergy between strategic perspectives that were emerging from the ANC outside, perspectives that were emerging from people inside and a kind of new chemistry beginning to evolve itself about how you engage with tactical initiatives within a particular context in which to build in that particular process.
POM At this point you still didn't have any role in creating political underground?
PG No, we were a unit and some members of that unit started recruiting people. So there was a political underground beginning to emerge and we had our own logistics system and had the capability to print material, I think, and distribute material as well. Some of my colleagues had gone out by that time to Eastern Europe and had some training as well in how to create, what do you call those things, pamphlet bombs and set off a few during that time as well. So whilst the formal mass mobilisation was happening
POM So you were working at two levels, the mass mobilisation, legal, and then the underground.
PG That's right.
POM Did that at any point reach a self-sustaining capacity where if outside had said we are sending in an MK unit and you are to house them and feed them and whatever, sustain them, but that the political, that is the underground there inside will ultimately be the authoritative unit, that in fact the MK, whoever comes in, will be subordinate to you, not the other way round.
PG I don't think that arose as a scenario at that point in time. Had the logistic request been made to say accommodate them, make the logistical arrangements, yes that would have been possible. I think we had enough resources by that time to be able to do that internally. In any event by that time people like Ivan Pillay had come in and gone out of the country, twice I think or more. I had gone out with another comrade, Vish to Swaziland and on that occasion met with Ivan, with Jacob Zuma, with John Nkadimeng over a weekend and then came back into the country. But we went out illegally.
POM On any occasion that you went out can you recall a specific meeting with Mac?
PG Mac couldn't make it at that time and Jacob Zuma made it into Swaziland. That was the only time I went out illegally and had those discussions.
POM But you had the capacity to accommodate, you are saying?
PG Looking back now, yes.
POM But they never asked you?
PG Yes, I think our role was seen more as a mass mobilisation unit. Our focus was to generate mass activity and to advance that work and remember that in the 1978 1980 we had some very innovative successes in the Phoenix township in Durban which created, I think, interesting benchmarks in terms of community mobilisation, community protests and creating new forms of engagement between progressive community/political organisations and authorities. Those authorities at that time were Indian Education Dept., the Indian Council itself but more often than not the municipality that we actually dealt with. I imagine that that's where, if you like, our competitive edge was identified. Remember also in 1980 we were using the NIC as a platform but having built now relationships with comrades like Archie Gumede we were able to, with him and Griffiths Mxenge, launch the Release Mandela campaign, or committee. So what you had by the early eighties on the mass front was well it's very interesting, it was activity not only in the Indian area but through the Durban Housing Action Committee we were able to combine Coloured areas and by linking up with comrades like Jabu Sithole and others we were able to connect to African areas and there was a committee called JORAC, Joint Rent Action Committee, that covered Lamontville, Chesterville and one or two other areas that became our co-collaborators.
By 1983 you had a twin campaign, a campaign against the Koornhof Bills which were going to transform or rather introduce new forms of dummy structures in African areas on the one hand and the tricameral parliament on the other hand which did introduce three separate chambers of parliament for Indians, Coloureds and whites.
POM So the Release Mandela campaign began in Durban?
PG Yes. It began, again I look at it from a subjective point of view because there were similar activities going on in the then Transvaal and people like Aubrey Mokoena, he's an MP, he was at the centre of a process that began to emerge from the Transvaal.
POM Now how successful were the Release Mandela campaigns? What I want to say is where did this emanate from? Why Mandela? Why not Release the Prisoners?
PG That's a question that's easy to answer. Mandela by that time became the epitome of prisoners. He was the focus internationally as well and he was probably the most well known person internally. That was easy to resolve and there was a similar focus, I think, from anti-apartheid movements as well at that time. But for us and for African comrades the Release Mandela campaign became a vehicle through which African leadership could publicly emerge once again. It happened on the trade union front, it happened to some extent on the community front and the campaign gave an opportunity for mass meetings and mass media to go out and have an African leadership begin to emerge.
POM I sometimes think that how celebrities race around the world trying to be seen all over the place in order to get famous, their name to be known, and that the way Mandela became the world's best known figure was by being never seen. It's the reverse of what other people were doing.
In fact your direct contact with Mac over that period would have been slight?
PG Yes, one would have references to him through messages that would come through. On the odd occasion we might get a message directly from him but we operated through the structures.
POM And your structures led through Swaziland.
PG Largely Swaziland. And when comrades went outside they would meet him, sometimes in Swaziland, I can't remember where else. I think possibly in London on one or two occasions. I was by then only operating within the country and didn't travel at all post 1979.
POM Was that because you were banned or were you banned just for a period?
PG For a period and then after that you wouldn't get a passport anyway.
POM You couldn't get a passport.
PG I didn't even try.
POM Coming to Vula. When did you first become aware of it, how were you drawn into it and how did you come to meet Mac and ?
PG How much time are we going to require for this?
POM Well these are the main questions.
PG I know, I've actually got an appointment.
POM I won't keep you more than another half an hour at most.
PG Can I just change something quickly.
POM Do you remember the question?
PG Yes. Part of that communication process continued through the eighties between outside and the inside and at this stage my recollection is that I got a message, through that channel a message came through that I should send somebody to Mauritius, if I'm not mistaken, and that was Yusuf Vawda. He was part of our underground unit. He and his then girl friend, who is now his wife, went to Mauritius as a result of that request and he came back with a message to say, well, get a safe house, get a car, undertake these changes to that car and have this prepared. What we also had around that time was a comrade who had left the country who was linked to one of the people in this unit and was sent back into the country. His name was Tees Mistry and he had been trained externally, had come back and helped us now to set up a house, a car and the necessary. The next step was that there was both written and telephonic contact with Ivan in particular.
POM He was in Lusaka, right?
PG Well I don't know where I was speaking to him, and myself on the one
POM You said you were in telephonic contact, wouldn't you know - ?
PG He would phone to a particular number so I'm not sure where the phone call came from, and with some of the people from our unit trying to arrange some logistics for somebody to come into the country. Some misunderstanding took place as a result of which our attempts to set up a machinery to actually pick up this individual didn't work out, the people went there but the timing didn't happen. I am sure Mac has given you the whole story about how he came into Jo'burg and then came down to Durban and I was at my own secret house at that time and he came there and that was the first occasion on which we met. We obviously met on many separate occasions thereafter and he then
POM Were you surprised to see him?
PG Mildly but not spectacularly because I know somebody was coming and it was a surprise in the sense that somebody that senior was coming into the country. Then it became clear that a new approach had developed and we then met Siphiwe Nyanda because a day or two later he came down from Johannesburg as well and he occupied the one place that we had and Mac had other arrangements which enabled him to live to both in Durban some of the time and in Johannesburg.
POM Now what was your understanding of Vula? When he briefed you, he met you, he must have obviously told you why he was here, what the programme was, what it hoped to achieve.
PG Not really. Remember we were still living under underground conditions, we were still living under the apartheid regime.
POM When you say underground - ?
PG By June 1986 a whole lot of us that were operating at a mass level had in fact started operating underground so we were not living at our homes and all of those sorts of things. So this happens only
POM So the Police, security people wouldn't be able to pick you up?
PG A whole lot of detentions had occurred in that period so we evaded
POM You evaded the emergency detentions.
PG That's right. There were people all over the country who were doing similar things as well. Yes, this was only 1988. Now remember the whole of I can't remember in 1985 you had the Eminent Persons' Group, so there were some interesting signals beginning to emerge that there might be negotiations and so on and then that died with the state of emergency. Again I'm not too good on dates but it probably was in that period of 1987/88 that you had the first signals coming from Lusaka about the constitutional principles, about how negotiations could occur, about the fact that Mandela could be released any time and 1988 1990 there were any number of times when messages would come and in fact by late 1988, early 1989 I know we were involved in setting up reception committees and so on in the event that Mandela and others might be released.
The point I'm making is, in response to your question, did he tell you what the programme plan, etc., was? No, some of those things we only discovered much later. We knew that we had to accommodate two senior people that had come in. Secondly he and Siphiwe then began to reorganise things. Thirdly, a committee was set up, I was secretary with Mpho Scott of that committee. We then met on many occasions.
POM This committee had the task of?
PG It was both political and military so in that sense there was now an interesting shift that you had a single ANC underground structure both responsible for so-called political activity and military activity and then the process of recruiting, the process of setting up supplementary structures in different parts of the greater Durban area, the process of training people in military stuff which this Siphiwe Nyanda and others were responsible for. So all of that then began to emerge during that period 1988/89.
POM Did you still have any, if somebody say if you'd been hung from your toes upside down and electroids applied to your entire body and you had no option but to speak and they said what is Vula about?
PG No it was about creating a new political military ANC set of structures. But again I can't say I understood the full scheme. It was about preparing the conditions for more senior people to come into the country, creating internal capability to steer the struggle with very senior people, being on the spot so to speak. It was also clear that people like Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo and others were involved at some stage in this process as well. But today it's very hard for me to tell you what I learned when about how all of these things work.
POM Were the military structures being set up in your view to facilitate an armed rebellion?
PG Yes, there was a clear debate going on and discussion about what insurrection means, about what needs to be prepared for that. But again given the nature of underground work not all of us knew everything and a lot of that resided I think in Mac's head and in Siphiwe's head and those that they were accounting to.
POM Now at the same time you were dealing with the war in KZN between the IFP backed by the security forces on some occasions and the ANC. Now did members of the military part take an active role in that war? When people were being trained were they being trained not only to fight the state but also to fight the IFP?
PG Again, I wouldn't have detailed knowledge of that and, remember, it wasn't so much at the open level. It was the IFP and the UDF that were at war. The sub-text was the ANC. Secondly, therefore, a lot of those engagements took place between mass activists on the UDF side and people from the IFP side. Thirdly, clearly the ANC outside the country and inside the country was intimately connected to this particular process both in terms of trying to combat the IFP in what it was attempting to do, to defend our own people on the ground as well and to find political solutions if those were available. Then lastly I was not directly involved in determining whether and which of the underground units that were set up on our side would be directly connected. I think there was clearly a connection, people coming in from the outside or people residing inside the country who would be connected to activities that would either help to defend people on the one hand or attack the IFP on the other hand. How much of that fell under the umbrella of the Vula project is hard to say now because I think there were a whole range of units within KZN or maybe even beyond that might have been involved in some kind of activity or the other.
POM Now Vula was also involved in the importation of arms, the training of some people by Nyanda's operation, the training in political organisation and underground activities which would fall more on your side? Then there was this communications system that had been set up between - Did you use that system?
PG No, that was Mac and Siphiwe and they trained one or two other people to use that system so I didn't directly use that system.
POM What would you have seen as your major role?
PG Organisation. Organising units on the ground, organising propaganda. A print shop had again been established, and keeping my connection to above the ground organisations alive and creating additional facilities within the country. But by that time remember three or four months down the line a lot more people had also come in to join Mac and Nyanda inside the country. There was Raymond Lala, there was Dipuo Mbelase and one or two others who were involved in this process as well.
POM But you still didn't know exactly where Vula was going?
PG Everything is contaminated by what you know subsequently so it's hard to know what did you know then. Remember that for
POM You were busy enough not to
PG The direction was becoming clear. Remember that this was a period of very intense battle between internal ANC structures and mass structures and quasi underground structures and the state at all sorts of levels. Community organising in that period in African areas really took off the ground, street committees emerged, street battles emerged, people's power was being written and spoken about. There was compactive combat taking place between communities and the armed forces in many different parts of SA. There was no doubt that there was a particular climate that had been created both through the activities of the ANC underground and military forces and by mass activity, notwithstanding all the detentions that had actually happened. And the UDF itself ran all sorts of boycott campaigns, national stayaway campaigns, COSATU was active in that process as well so you had a very intense state of hyper activity, if you like, during that time. The question was, the central question all the time was how do you seize power? So what are the organisation forms that needed to be evolved, what kind of capability needed to be created, what kind of political and military training needed to be offered and what strategies and tactics needed to evolve in order to seize political power? So it was quite clear that that's the direction all of this activity fed into. By then the four pillars were fairly clear as well as a broad strategy that we were pursuing. So you kept the mass activity alive, you kept the underground alive, you kept the military activity alive and you kept the external mobilisation alive.
POM Then you had the arrival of Ronnie Kasrils, the second NEC member. Now Mac is very hard on him. I mean just hard, and I am saying that because it might just focus your response. What did he contribute to Vula?
PG As you say he was the third senior person to come in if you take Mac and Siphiwe Nyanda as the first two. Secondly he participated in our committee meetings like Mac did and Siphiwe did. Thirdly he was involved in some of the military training as I remember it. Fourthly I was the major person responsible for arranging for people to go to Botswana and bring arms in and I imagine he was partly involved in what happened to the arms once they came into the country. I saw no major difficulties in my interactions with him. Whatever happened, happened between them and, again, we were, if you like, the youngsters in the operation, not necessarily privy to battles or engagements that might have happened at another level.
POM Then Mandela is released. Sorry, I'll talk about the 1989 Mandela memorandum. Did that ever come your way?
PG I had some inkling that there was a process of, if you like, the situation loosening up was beginning to intensify but was unpredictable. So remember I think it was around September 1989 that Walter Sisulu and company were released. In the month leading up to that there was once again the need to revive these Mandela reception committees and ensure that things were ready in the event that his release and that of the political prisoners happened. That was a kind of peak and trough situation depending on which month and which week you spoke to whom.
POM But you didn't have any floating in to you that Mandela was selling out?
POM That the Release Mandela campaign should be toned down?
PG No, I wasn't subject to all of that. It was more a kind of strategic involvement. Here was mass activity increasing. Externally by this time remember that the Harare Declaration became known, the work with the OAU, the work of the UN was beginning to intensify. The constitutional principles of the ANC had become known as well so clearly there was something in the air at that time. Whether it materialised or not was still difficult to say. The second trend line would have been the release of political prisoners and of Mandela in particular. So that was an on and off signal that you would be picking up. Then of course the release of Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada and others takes place, so that then was qualitative change. It means that the first step has been taken in some ways.
POM Did you meet with them when they were released or were you underground enough not to - ?
PG No I didn't have any direct contact until 1990.
POM Mandela is released. You are still to remain underground?
PG That's right.
POM There is the meeting at the place I can never pronounce Groote Schuur.
PG That's April 1990.
POM Yes, you're still on the ground. What at that point did you understand the purpose of being underground to be? What was your instruction?
PG Well to be underground and as you would have with aircraft, be on hold whilst there is clarity on what was going to happen. Remember that was also the time that Mac and Ronnie and others had to disappear from within the country and reappear 'legally'.
POM Yes. But you were still importing arms, you were still training people?
PG All that had stopped by then.
POM Everything had stopped, so you were just on hold, you were doing nothing.
POM And then the bubble bursts.
PG In July 1990.
POM Nyanda is picked up.
PG Well we were all picked up on the same day.
POM Oh you're all picked up on the same day.
POM I thought he got there first?
PG He might have. I'm not sure. It all happened on the same day.
POM You're in jail and you're in isolation. Did you get to see a lawyer?
PG I'm detained on 12th July 1990 together with Anesh Sankar who was working with me, I was supposed to meet him at the secret flat which Charles Ndaba, who was one of the people who was killed by the Police, had access to. I think I had an arrangement to meet him around midday or thereabouts and when I get there I have a gun at my head, there's a policeman waiting. So effectively that was the beginning of the detention. I was then removed to Newcastle on the Friday and then on Sunday evening to Bethlehem in the Free State.
POM To where in the Free State?
POM Were you interrogated?
PG Yes for 3½ months.
POM Were you interrogated before you were moved or were you moved - ?
PG No, it was quite clear they were beginning to pick up as many people as possible.
POM When you were in Newcastle did you run across a guy called Christo Davidson?
POM OK. So your interrogation began in - ?
PG In Bethlehem.
POM Funny name too. And they interrogated you for 3½ months?
PG This was how long I stayed there, yes.
POM You didn't see a lawyer, did you have any connection with the outside at all during those 3½ months?
PG No lawyer but there was a courier system that worked for a while between comrades in Durban and myself, so there was contact in that sense.
POM How did that work if you were seeing nobody?
PG There was a comrade who was detained there a couple of months before I got there and he had recruited one of the policemen and that then enabled us to set up a communications system.
POM Were you tortured during that period?
POM How badly?
PG Not too badly. I was suffocated for about 45 minutes or an hour by a chap called Hentie Botha.
POM What would they do? Put the
PG Balaclava over your head and then rubber tubing over your mouth and nose but your body would be wrapped so you can't move.
POM Your body would be wrapped in?
PG In a blanket and rope of some kind.
POM In Northern Ireland they used that slightly differently. They would put the hood over your head and make you stand with your legs out with a heater underneath so the heat would come up and come in and begin to suffocate you. Were you able to get word back from Durban as to what was going on in the country?
PG No, the Police were the uniformed Police would every now and again give me a glimpse of a newspaper and then sometimes messages which would indicate that Mac was picked up and so on and when I was tortured I managed to get a message out that I was and so there was a court application in Durban. My wife actually one Sunday just came with some members of our family and marched into the Police Station so I got a glimpse of her in the yard outside and we exchanged two words but then the Security Police came so she disappeared.
POM Besides the suffocating were there beatings?
PG No, there was a bit of harassment about sleeping and so on. You must remember I think what you had is a situation where the Police knew a hell of a lot.
POM Did it surprise you how much they knew?
POM Well let me ask you, do you think somebody talked?
PG No, I mean they killed two people so clearly something happened there and secondly in raiding everybody it appears subsequently anyway, I didn't know at that time, that they had a fair amount of information. I was spinning a yarn, so to speak, trying to explain my involvement and clearly they knew much more than I was telling them. And then subsequently I believe they picked up a note from me to my comrades in Durban in which I was explaining how I am actually weaving this yarn. I think Mac had it in his pocket when he was picked up.
POM Mac had it in his pocket?
POM That's a kind of detail he'd remember. I'm interested in this from the point of view of interrogation and torture and who breaks, who doesn't break. Sometimes it's the little guy who never says a word anywhere in any meeting, he's too timid to put up his hand and he never breaks, and the guy at a meeting who is kind of pounding the table and always taking over, one small slap across the face and he says, 'Ah! I'll tell you everything!' There's no predicting who will and who won't. But did you ever feel, well because they know so much they know everything and there's no point in me going on weaving this yarn?
PG No I didn't. This was my third detention so I had a fair amount of experience in how to deal with them. It was very disempowering that they knew so much although they didn't give too much of an indication of it but I found out over time. In the end I had been very fortunate, I've held my head together adequately and I can say with some pride that in none of the three detentions did I ever give them anything they didn't know.
POM When were the other two?
PG 1981/82 for 5½ months.
POM In solitary?
PG In solitary.
POM And torture too?
PG Yes, slight, not the worst that one can imagine but there was some. And then 1985 for a month but no torture.
POM So then you were brought to trial with the others. Any exchange of information among you when you were all in the holding cells?
PG No not on what each of us did or said or whatever the case might be, interestingly. Not reflecting on what happened. There might have been the odd exchange but the greater focus was on getting bail and getting out of jail and taking on the charges and that sort of stuff.
POM Did you ever get the feeling from any of those that you were with there or that you met with subsequently in a social situation or whatever that someone may have talked, provided information because the Police knew so much?
PG I think it was clear that the two comrades who were first detained, I know I had an appointment with one of them and he didn't keep it, that was Charles Ndaba, that clearly they went through a bad time in being killed and there was only one that actually knew this flat that I was finally captured at so it was clear that he had told them. They were not told voluntarily I am sure. In terms of the rest it then became clear that some of the documents that were on disk were not encrypted and so the Police had easy access. So it was not so much telling as that the material was available. But I must be quite honest, I haven't interrogated this area, it doesn't really bug me.
POM Looking back what contribution do you think Vula made?
PG I don't think it was around long enough to make a significant contribution. I think it was a brilliant initiative from people like Oliver Tambo to sanction such an initiative. It would have resulted in a lot more cohesive underground and the connection between senior leadership and activists on the ground would have been (a) closer and (b) a lot more meaningful in terms of devising strategies and tactics of engagement at that time. It was a marvellous experience in terms of building a scientific and rigorous organisation underground and demonstrating that we could have developed the capacity to extend that and grow it and get a lot more people involved. Clearly the connection that was provided between Robben Island and Lusaka must have been very useful for those that were in that line of communication and in preparing people internally for what both people on the Island or Mandela in particular and what people outside were thinking in terms of the late 1989 period when the negotiations were beginning to come in. I don't think there were many operational outputs, if you like, from Vula. The period we're talking about was largely a preparatory period where you were beginning to build up steam as opposed to driving a locomotive.
POM Just finally, given your contact with Mac during Vula and your subsequent contact with him during negotiations, I ask you the question: who is Mac?
PG Mac is a very experienced ANC cadre and leader who has at various stages, as you've pointed out, made a significant contribution to both combating apartheid and building democracy. He's one of those remarkable ANC leaders who is vastly talented and skilled who would make a very able and illustrious contribution as far the collective leadership.
POM But who is he as a person? What comes to your mind?
PG A man of commitment, a man who is committed, a man who is brave, a man who is creative and has got a vast range of leadership talents. And he's got an underbelly as well I imagine, like all human beings would.
POM What do you think that is?
PG I don't want to comment on that.
POM You don't? When it came to his underbelly you said nothing. Well thank you ever so much.
PG I wish you well. You seem to have a massive project at hand.
POM Yes. Do the people in Vula ever get together for a get together or is everybody so busy - ?
PG No, everybody is caught up in their own world. Life has moved on.
POM OK, thank you.