LONG WALK TO FREEDOM
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela *
TALKING WITH THE ENEMY
POLLSMOOR MAXIMUM SECURITY PRISON is located on the edge of a prosperous white suburb of green lawns and tidy houses called Tokai, a few miles southeast of Cape Town. The prison itself is set amidst the strikingly beautiful scenery of the Cape, between the mountains of Constantiaberge to the north and hundreds of acres of vineyards to the south. But this natural beauty was invisible to us behind Pollsmoor's high concrete walls. At Pollsmoor I first understood the truth of Oscar Wilde's haunting line about the tent of blue that prisoners call the sky.
Pollsmoor had a modern face but a primitive heart. The buildings, particularly the ones for the prison staff, were clean and contemporary; but the housing for the prisoners was archaic and dirty. With the exception of ourselves, all men at Pollsmoor were common-law prisoners, and their treatment was backward. We were kept separately from them and treated differently.
It was not until the next morning that we got a proper sense of our surroundings. The four of us had been given what was in effect the prison's penthouse: a spacious room on the third and topmost floor of the prison. We were the only prisoners on the entire floor. The main room was clean, modern, and rectangular, about fifty feet by thirty, and had a separate section with a toilet, urinal, two sinks, and two showers. There were four proper beds, with sheets, and towels, a great luxury for men who had spent much of the last eighteen years sleeping on thin mats on a stone floor. Compared to Robben Island, we were in a five-star hotel.
We also had our own L-shaped terrace, an open, outdoor section that was as long as half a soccer field, where we were allowed out during the day. It had white concrete walls about twelve feet high, so that we could see only the sky, except in one corner where we could make out the ridges of the Constantiaberge mountains, in particular a section known as the Elephant's Eye. I sometimes thought of this bit of mountain as the tip of the iceberg of the rest of the world.
It was greatly disorienting to be uprooted so suddenly and without explanation. One must be prepared for precipitate movements in prison, but one does not ever get used to them. Though we were now on the mainland, we felt more isolated. For us, the island had become the locus of the struggle. We took solace in each other's company, and spent those early weeks speculating on why we had been transferred. We knew the authorities had long resented and feared the influence we had on younger prisoners. But the reason seemed to be more strategic: we believed the authorities were at-tempting to cut off the head of the ANC on the island by removing its leadership. Robben Island itself was becoming a sustaining myth in the struggle, and they wanted to rob it of some of its symbolic import by removing us. Walter, Raymond, and I were members of the High Organ, but the one piece that did not fit was the presence of Mlangeni. Andrew was not a member of the High Organ and had not been in the forefront of the island leadership, although we considered the possibility that the authorities did not know this. Their intelligence about the organization was often inexact.
One of our hypotheses seemed to be confirmed a few months later when we were joined by Kathy, who had indeed been a member of the High Organ. More important, Kathy had been our chief of communications, and it was because of his work that we were able to communicate with new young prisoners.
A few weeks after Kathy arrived, we were also joined by a man we did not know who had not even come from Robben Island. Patrick Maqubela was a young lawyer and ANC member from the eastern Cape. He had been articled to Griffiths Mxenge, a highly respected attorney who had appeared for many detained ANC men and who had been assassinated near Durban the year before. Maqubela was serving a twenty-year sentence for treason and had been transferred to Pollsmoor from Diepkloof in Johannesburg, where he had made waves by organizing prisoners.
At first, we were skeptical of this new arrival, and wondered if he could perhaps be a security plant by the authorities. But we soon saw that this was not the case. Patrick was a bright, amiable, undaunted fellow with whom we got along very well. It could not have been easy for him bunking in with a group of old men set in their ways who had been together for the previous two decades.
We were now in a world of concrete. I missed the natural splendor of Robben Island. But our new home had many consolations. For one thing, the food at Pollsmoor was far superior; after years of eating pap three meals a day, Pollsmoor's dinners of proper meat and vegetables were like a feast. We were permitted a fairly wide range of newspapers and magazines, and could receive such previously contraband publications as Time magazine and The Guardian weekly from London. This gave us a window on the wider world. We also had a radio, but one that received only local stations, not what we really wanted: the BBC World Service. We were allowed out on our terrace all day long, except between twelve and two when the warders had their lunch. There was not even a pretense that we had to work. I had a small cell near our large one that functioned as a study, with a chair, desk, and bookshelves, where I could read and write during the day.
On Robben Island I would do my exercises in my own cramped cell, but now I had room to stretch out. At Pollsmoor, I would wake up at five and do an hour and a half of exercise in our communal cell. I did my usual regimen of stationary running, skipping rope, sit-ups, and fingertip press-ups. My comrades were not early risers and my program soon made me a very unpopular fellow in our cell.
I was visited by Winnie shortly after arriving at Pollsmoor and was pleased to find that the visiting area was far better and more modern than the one on Robben Island. We had a large glass barrier through which one could see the visitor from the waist up and far more sophisticated microphones so that we did not have to strain to hear. The window gave at least the illusion of greater intimacy, and in prison, illusions can offer comfort.
It was far easier for my wife and family to get to Pollsmoor than Robben Island, and this made a tremendous difference. The super-vision of visits also became more humane. Often, Winnie's visits were overseen by Warrant Officer James Gregory, who had been a censor on Robben Island. I had not known him terribly well, but he knew us, because he had been responsible for reviewing our incoming and outgoing mail.
At Pollsmoor I got to know Gregory better and found him a welcome contrast to the typical warder. He was polished and soft-spoken, and treated Winnie with courtesy and deference. Instead of harking, “Time up!” he would say, “Mrs. Mandela, you have five more minutes.”
The Bible tells us that gardens preceded gardeners, but that was not the case at Pollsmoor, where I cultivated a garden that became one of my happiest diversions. It was my way of escaping from the monolithic concrete world that surrounded us. Within a few weeks of surveying all the empty space we had on the building's roof and how it was bathed in sun the whole day, I decided to start a garden and received permission to do so from the commanding officer. I requested that the prison service supply me with sixteen 44-gallon oil drums that I had them slice in half. The authorities then filled each half with rich, moist soil, creating in effect thirty-two giant flowerpots.
I grew onions, eggplant, cabbage, cauliflower, beans, spinach, carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, beetroot, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, and much more. At its height, I had a small farm with nearly nine hundred plants; a garden far grander than the one I had on Robben Island.
Some of the seeds I purchased and some — for example, broccoli and carrots — were given to me by the commanding officer, Brigadier Munro, who was particularly fond of these vegetables. Warders also gave me seeds of vegetables they liked, and I was supplied with excellent manure to use as fertilizer.
Each morning, I put on a straw hat and rough gloves and worked in the garden for two hours. Every Sunday, I would supply vegetables to the kitchen so that they could cook a special meal for the common-law prisoners. I also gave quite a lot of my harvest to the warders, who used to bring satchels to take away their fresh vegetables.
At Pollsmoor, our problems tended to be less consequential than those we experienced on Robben Island. Brigadier Munro was a decent, helpful man, who took extra pains to make sure we had what we wanted. Nevertheless, small problems sometimes got blown out of proportion. In 1983, during a visit with Winnie and Zindzi, I mentioned to my wife that I had been given shoes that were a size too small and were pinching my toe. Winnie was concerned, and I soon learned that there were press reports that I was having a toe amputated. Because of the difficulty of communication, information from prison often becomes exaggerated in the outside world. If I had simply been able to telephone my wife and tell her that my foot was fine, such confusion would not have happened. A short while later, Helen Suzman was permitted to visit, and she inquired about my toe. I thought the best answer was a demonstration: I took off my socks, held my bare foot up to the glass, and wiggled my toes.
We complained about the dampness in our cell, which was causing us to catch colds. Later, I heard reports that South African newspapers were writing that our cell was flooded. We asked for contact with other prisoners, and in general made the same basic complaint that we always had: to he treated as political prisoners.
In May of 1984, I found some consolation that seemed to make up for all the discomforts. At a scheduled visit from Winnie, Zeni, and her youngest daughter, I was escorted down to the visiting area by Sergeant Gregory, who instead of taking me to the normal visiting area, ushered me into a separate room where there was only a small table, and no dividers of any kind. He very softly said to me that the authorities had made a change. That day was the beginning of what were known as “contact” visits.
He then went outside to see my wife and daughter and asked to speak to Winnie privately. Winnie actually got a fright when Gregory took her aside, thinking that I was perhaps ill. But Gregory escorted her around the door and before either of us knew it, we were in the same room and in each other's arms. I kissed and held my wife for the first time in all these many years. It was a moment I had dreamed about a thousand times. It was as if I were still dreaming. I held her to me for what seemed like an eternity. We were still and silent except for the sound of our hearts. I did not want to let go of her at all, but I broke free and embraced my daughter and then took her child into my lap. It had been twenty-one years since I had even touched my wife's hand.
AT POLLSMOOR, we were more connected to outside events. We were aware that the struggle was intensifying, and that the efforts of the enemy were similarly increasing. In 1981, the South African Defense Force launched a raid on ANC offices in Maputo, Mozambique, killing thirteen of our people, including women and children. In December 1982, MK set off explosions at the unfinished Koeberg nuclear power plant outside Cape Town and placed bombs at many other military and apartheid targets around the country. That same month, the South African military again attacked an ANC outpost in Maseru, Lesotho, killing forty-two people, including a dozen women and children.
In August of 1982, activist Ruth First was opening her mail in Maputo, where she was living in exile, when she was murdered by a letter bomb. Ruth, the wife of Joe Slovo, was a brave anti-apartheid activist who had spent a number of months in prison. She was a forceful, engaging woman whom I first met when I was studying at Wits, and her death revealed the extent of the states cruelty in combating our struggle.
MK's first car bomb attack took place in May of 1983, and was aimed at an air force and military intelligence office in the heart of Pretoria. This was an effort to retaliate for the unprovoked attacks the military had launched on the ANC in Maseru and elsewhere and was a clear escalation of the armed struggle. Nineteen people were killed and more than two hundred injured.
The killing of civilians was a tragic accident, and I felt a profound horror at the death toll. But as disturbed as I was by these casualties, I knew that such accidents were the inevitable consequence of the decision to embark on a military struggle. Human fallibility is always a part of war, and the price for it is always high. It was precisely because we knew that such incidents would occur that our decision to take up arms had been so grave and reluctant. But as Oliver said at the time of the bombing, the armed struggle was imposed upon us by the violence of the apartheid regime.
Both the government and the ANC were working on two tracks: military and political. On the political front, the government was pursuing its standard divide-and-rule strategy in attempting to separate Africans from Coloureds and Indians. In a referendum of November 1983, the white electorate endorsed P. W. Botha's plan to create a so-called tricameral Parliament, with Indian and Coloured chambers in addition to the white Parliament. This was an effort to lure Indians and Coloureds into the system, and divide them from Africans. But the offer was merely a “toy telephone,” as all parliamentary action by Indians and Coloureds was subject to a white veto. It was also a way of fooling the outside world into thinking that the government was reforming apartheid. Botha's ruse did not fool the people, as more than 80 percent of eligible Indian and Coloured voters boycotted the election to the new houses of Parliament in 1984.
Powerful grassroots political movements were being formed in-side the country that had firm links to the ANC, the principal one being the United Democratic Front, of which I was named a patron. The UDF had been created to coordinate protest against the new apartheid constitution in 1983, and the first elections to the segregated tricameral Parliament in 1984. The UDF soon blossomed into a powerful organization that united over six hundred anti-apartheid organizations — trade unions, community groups, church groups, student associations.
The ANC was experiencing a new birth of popularity. Opinion polls showed that the Congress was far and away the most popular political organization among Africans even though it had been banned for a quarter of a century. The anti-apartheid struggle as a whole had captured the attention of the world; in 1984, Bishop Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (The authorities refused to send Bishop Tutu my letter of congratulations.) The South African government was under growing international pressure, as nations all across the globe began to impose economic sanctions on Pretoria.
The government had sent “feelers” to me over the years, beginning with Minister Kruger's efforts to persuade me to move to the Transkei. These were not efforts to negotiate, but attempts to isolate me from my organization. On several other occasions, Kruger said to me: “Mandela, we can work with you, but not your colleagues. Be reasonable.” Although I did not respond to these overtures, the mere fact that they were talking rather than attacking could be seen as a prelude to genuine negotiations.
The government was testing the waters. In late 1984 and early 1985, I had visits from two prominent Western statesmen, Lord Nicholas Bethell, a member of the British House of Lords and the European Parliament, and Samuel Dash, a professor of law at Georgetown University and a former counsel to the U.S. Senate Watergate Committee. Both visits were authorized by the new minister of justice, Kobie Coetsee, who appeared to be a new sort o Afrikaner leader.
I met Lord Bethell in the prison commander's office, which was dominated by a large photograph of a glowering President Botha Bethell was a jovial, rotund man and when I first met him, I tease him about his stoutness. “You look like you are related to Winston Churchill,” I said as we shook hands, and he laughed.
Lord Bethell wanted to know about our conditions at Pollsmoor and I told him. We discussed the armed struggle and I explained to him it was not up to us to renounce violence, but the government I reaffirmed that we aimed for hard military targets, not people. “Would not want our men to assassinate, for instance, the major here”, I said, pointing to Major Fritz van Sittert, who was monitoring the talks. Van Sittert was a good-natured fellow who did not say much but he started at my remark.
In my visit with Professor Dash, which quickly followed that o Lord Bethell, I laid out what I saw as the minimum for a future nonracial South Africa: a unitary state without homelands; nonracial elections for the central Parliament; and one-person-one-vote. Professor Dash asked me whether I took any encouragement from the government's stated intention of repealing the mixed-marriage law. and certain other apartheid statutes. “This is a pinprick,” I said. “I is not my ambition to marry a white woman or swim in a whit, pool. It is political equality that we want.” I told Dash quite candidly that at the moment we could not defeat the government on the battlefield, but could make governing difficult for them.
I had one not-so-pleasant visit from two Americans, editors o the conservative newspaper the Washington Times. They seemed les intent on finding out my views than on proving that I was a Communist and a terrorist. All of their questions were slanted in that direction, and when I reiterated that I was neither a Communist nor a terrorist, they attempted to show that I was not a Christian either by asserting that the Reverend Martin Luther King neve resorted to violence. I told them that the conditions in which Martin Luther King struggled were totally different from my own: the United States was a democracy with constitutional guarantees o equal rights that protected nonviolent protest (though there was still prejudice against blacks); South Africa was a police state with a constitution that enshrined inequality and an army that responded to nonviolence with force. I told them that I was a Christian and had always been a Christian. Even Christ, I said, when he was left with no alternative, used force to expel the moneylenders from the temple. He was not a man of violence, but had no choice but to use force against evil. I do not think I persuaded them.
Faced with trouble at home and pressure from abroad, P. W. Botha offered a tepid, halfway measure. On January 31, 1985, in a debate in Parliament, the state president publicly offered me my freedom if I “unconditionally rejected violence as a political instrument.” This offer was extended to all political prisoners. Then, as if he were staking me to a public challenge, he added, “It is therefore not the South Africa government which now stands in the way of Mr. Mandela's freedom. It is he himself.”
I had been warned by the authorities that the government was going to make a proposal involving my freedom, but I had not been prepared for the fact that it would be made in Parliament by the state president. By my reckoning, it was the sixth conditional offer the government had made for my release in the past ten years. After I listened to the speech on radio, I made a request to the commander of the prison for an urgent visit by my wife and my lawyer, Ismail Ayob, so that I could dictate my response to the state president's offer.
Winnie and Ismail were not given permission to visit for a week, and in the meantime I wrote a letter to the foreign minister, Pik Botha, rejecting the conditions for my release, while also preparing a public response. I was keen to do a number of things in this response, because Botha's offer was an attempt to drive a wedge between me and my colleagues by tempting me to accept a policy the ANC rejected. I wanted to reassure the ANC in general and Oliver in particular that my loyalty to the organization was beyond question. I also wished to send a message to the government that while I rejected its offer because of the conditions attached to it, I nevertheless thought negotiation, not war, was the path to a solution.
Botha wanted the onus of violence to rest on my shoulders and I wanted to reaffirm to the world that we were only responding to the violence done to us. I intended to make it clear that if I emerged from prison into the same circumstances in which I was arrested, I would be forced to resume the same activities for which I was arrested.
I met with Winnie and Ismail on a Friday; on Sunday, a UDF rally was to be held in Soweto's Jabulani Stadium, where my response would be made public. Some guards with whom I was not familiar supervised the visit, and as we began discussing my response to the state president, one of the warders, a relatively young fellow, interrupted to say that only family matters were permitted to be discussed. I ignored him, and he returned minutes later with a senior warder whom I barely knew. This warder said that I must cease discussing politics, and I told him that I was dealing with a matter of national importance involving an offer from the state president. I warned him that if he wanted to halt the discussion he must get direct orders from the state president himself “If you are not willing to telephone the state president to get those orders,” I said coldly, “then kindly do not interrupt us again.” He did not.
I gave Ismail and Winnie the speech I had prepared. In addition to responding to the government, I wanted to thank publicly the UDF for its tine work and to congratulate Bishop Tutu on his prize, adding that his award belonged to all the people. On Sunday, February 10, 1985, my daughter Zindzi read my response to a cheering crowd of people who had not been able to hear my words legally anywhere in South Africa for more than twenty years.
Zindzi was a dynamic speaker like her mother, and said that her father should be at the stadium to speak the words himself. I was proud to know that it was she who spoke my words.
I am a member of the African National Congress. I have always been a member of the African National Congress and I will remain a member of the African National Congress until the day I die. Oliver Tambo is more than a brother to me. He is my greatest friend and comrade for nearly fifty years. If there is any one amongst you who cherishes my freedom, Oliver Tambo cherishes it more, and I know that he would give his life to see me free....
I am surprised at the conditions that the government wants to impose on me. I am not a violent man.... It was only then, when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us, that we turned to armed struggle. Let Botha show that he is diffèrent to Malan, Strijdom and Verwoerd. Let him renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. Let him unban the people's organization, the African National Congress. Let him free all who have been imprisoned, banished or exiled for their opposition to apartheid. Let him guarantee free political activity so that people may decide who will govern them.
I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom. Too many have died since I went to prison. Too many have suffered for the love of freedom. I owe it to their widows, to their orphans, to their mothers, and to their fathers who have grieved and wept for them. Not only I have suffered during these long, lonely, wasted years. I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birth-right, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free....
What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered when I may be arrested on a pass offense? What freedom am I being offered to live my life as a family with my dear wife who remains in banishment in Brand-fort? What freedom am I being offered when I must ask for permission to live in an urban area? ... What freedom am I being offered when my very South African citizenship is not respected?
Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.... I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot he separated. I will return.
IN 1985 after a routine medical examination with the prison doctor, I was referred to a urologist, who diagnosed an enlarged prostate gland and recommended surgery. He said the procedure was routine. I consulted with my family and decided to go ahead with the operation.
I was taken to Volks Hospital in Cape Town, under heavy security. Winnie flew down and was able to see me prior to the surgery. But I had another visitor, a surprising and unexpected one: Kobie Coetsee, the minister of justice. Not long before, I had written to Coetsee pressing him for a meeting to discuss talks between the ANC and the government. He did not respond. But that morning, the minister dropped by the hospital unannounced as if he were visiting an old friend who was laid up for a few days. He was altogether gracious and cordial, and for the most part we simply made pleasantries. Though I acted as though this was the most normal thing in the world, I was amazed. The government, in its slow and tentative way, was reckoning that they had to come to some accommodation with the ANC. Coetsee's visit was an olive branch.
Although we did not discuss politics, I did bring up one sensitive issue, and that was the status of my wife. In August, shortly before I entered the hospital, Winnie had gone to Johannesburg to receive medical treatment. The only trips she was permitted from Brandfort were to visit either me or her doctor. While in Johannesburg, her house in Brandfort and the clinic behind it were firebombed and destroyed. Winnie had no place in which to reside, and she decided to remain in Johannesburg despite the fact that the city was off-limits to her. Nothing happened for a few weeks, and then the security police wrote to inform her that the house in Brandfort had been repaired and she must return. But she refused to do so. I asked Coetsee to allow Winnie to remain in Johannesburg and not force her to return to Brandfort. He said he could promise nothing, but he would indeed look into it. I thanked him.
I spent several days in hospital recuperating from the surgery. When I was discharged, I was fetched at the hospital by Brigadier Munro. Commanding officers do not usually pick up prisoners at the hospital, so my suspicions were immediately aroused.
On the ride back, Brigadier Munro said to me in a casual way, as though he were simply making conversation, “Mandela, we are not taking you back to your friends now.” I asked him what he meant. “From now on, you are going to be alone.” I asked him why. He shook his head. “I don't know. I've just been given these instructions from headquarters.” Once again, there was no warning and no explanation.
Upon my return to Pollsmoor I was taken to a new cell on the ground floor of the prison, three floors below and in an entirely different wing. I was given three rooms, and a separate toilet, with one room to be used for sleeping, one across the hall for studying, and another for exercise. By prison standards, this was palatial, but the rooms were damp and musty and received very little natural light. I said nothing to the brigadier, for I knew the decision had not been his. I wanted time to consider the ramifications of the move. Why had the state taken this step?
It would be too strong to call it a revelation, but over the next few days and weeks I came to a realization about my new circumstances. The change, I decided, was not a liability but an opportunity. I was not happy to be separated from my colleagues and I missed my garden and the sunny terrace on the third floor. But my solitude gave me a certain liberty, and I resolved to use it to do something I had been pondering for a long while: begin discussions with the government. I had concluded that the time had come when the struggle could best be pushed forward through negotiations. If we did not start a dialogue soon, both sides would be plunged into a dark night of oppression, violence, and war. My solitude would give me an opportunity to take the first steps in that direction, without the kind of scrutiny that might destroy such efforts.
We had been fighting against white minority rule for three-quarters of a century. We had been engaged in the armed struggle for more than two decades. Many people on both sides had already died. The enemy was strong and resolute. Yet even with all their bombers and tanks, they must have sensed they were on the wrong side of history. We had right on our side, but not yet might. It was clear to me that a military victory was a distant if not impossible dream. It simply did not make sense for both sides to lose thousands if not millions of lives in a conflict that was unnecessary. They must have known this as well. It was time to talk.
This would be extremely sensitive. Both sides regarded discussions as a sign of weakness and betrayal. Neither would come to the table until the other made significant concessions. The government asserted over and over that we were a terrorist organization of Communists, and that they would never talk to terrorists or Communists. This was National Party dogma. The ANC asserted over and over that the government was fascistic and racist and that there was nothing to talk about until they unbanned the ANC, unconditionally released all political prisoners, and removed the troops from the townships.
A decision to talk to the government was of such import that it should only have been made in Lusaka. But I felt that the process needed to begin, and that I had neither the time nor the means to communicate fully with Oliver. Someone from our side needed to take the first step, and my new isolation gave me both the freedom to do so and the assurance, at least for a while, of the confidentiality of my efforts.
I was now in a kind of splendid isolation. Though my colleagues were only three floors above me, they might as well have been in Johannesburg. In order to see them, I had to put in a formal request for a visit, which had to be approved by the Head Office in Pretoria. It often took weeks to receive a response. If it was approved, I would then meet them in the visiting area. This was a novel experience: my comrades and fellow prisoners were now official visitors. For years, we had been able to talk for hours a day; now we had to make official requests and appointments, and our conversations were monitored.
After I had been in my new cell for a few days, I asked the commanding officer to arrange such a meeting. He did so, and the four of us discussed the issue of my transfer. Walter, Kathy, and Ray were angry that we had been separated. They wanted to lodge a strong protest, and demand that we be reunited. My response was not what they expected. “Look, chaps,” I said, “I don't think we should oppose this thing.” I mentioned that my new accommodations were superior, and maybe this would set a precedent for all political prisoners. I then added somewhat ambiguously, “Perhaps something good will come of this. I'm now in a position where the government can make an approach to us.” They did not care too much for this latter explanation, as I knew they would not.
I chose to tell no one of what I was about to do. Not my col-leagues upstairs or those in Lusaka. The ANC is a collective, but the government had made collectivity in this case impossible. I did not have the security or the time to discuss these issues with my organization. I knew that my colleagues upstairs would condemn my proposal, and that would kill my initiative even before it was born. There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way. Finally, my isolation furnished my organization with an excuse in case matters went awry: the old man was alone and completely cut off, and his actions were taken by him as an individual, not a representative of the ANC.
WITHIN A FEW WEEKS of my move, I wrote to Kobie Coetsee to propose talks about talks. As before, I received no response. I wrote once more, and again there was no response. I found this peculiar and demoralizing, and I realized I had to look for another opportunity to be heard. That came in early 1986.
At a meeting of the British Commonwealth in Nassau in October 1985, the leaders could not reach agreement on whether to participate in international sanctions against South Africa. This was mainly because British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was adamantly opposed. To resolve the deadlock, the assembled nations agreed that a delegation of “eminent persons” would visit South Africa and report back on whether sanctions were the appropriate tool to help bring about the end of apartheid. In early 1986, the seven-member Eminent Persons Group, led by General Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military leader of Nigeria, and former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, arrived in South Africa on their fact-finding mission.
In February, I was visited by General Obasanjo to discuss the nature of the delegation's brief. He was eager to facilitate a meeting between me and the full group. With the government's permission, such a meeting was scheduled for May. The group would be talking with the cabinet after they saw me, and I viewed this as a chance to raise the subject of negotiations.
The government regarded my session with the group as some-thing extraordinary. Two days before the meeting I was visited by Brigadier Munro, who had brought along a tailor. “Mandela,” the commander said, “we want you to see these people on an equal footing. We don't want you to wear those old prison clothes, so this tailor will take your measurements and outfit you with a proper suit.” The tailor must have been some kind of wizard, for the very next day I tried on a pinstriped suit that fit me like a glove. I was also given a shirt, tie, shoes, socks, and underwear. The commander admired my new attire. “Mandela, you look like a prime minister now, not a prisoner,” he said and smiled.
At the meeting between myself and the Eminent Persons Group, we were joined by two significant observers: Kobie Coetsee and Lieutenant General W. I L Willemse, the commissioner of prisons. Like the tailor, these two men were there to take my measure. But, curiously, they left shortly after the session started. I pressed them to remain, saying I had nothing to hide, but they left anyway. Before they took their leave, I told them the time had come for negotiations, not fighting, and that the government and the ANC should sit down and talk.
The Eminent Persons Group had come with many questions involving the issues of violence, negotiations, and international sanctions. At the outset, I set the ground rules for our discussions. “I am not the head of the movement,” I told them. “The head of the movement is Oliver Tambo in Lusaka. You must go and see him. You can tell him what my views are, but they are my personal views alone. They don't even represent the views of my colleagues here in prison. All that being said, I favor the ANC beginning discussions with the government.”
Various members of the group had concerns about my political ideology and what a South Africa under ANC leadership might look like. I told them I was a South African nationalist, not a Communist, that nationalists came in every hue and color, and that I was firmly committed to a nonracial society. I told them I believed in the Freedom Charter, that the charter embodied principles of democracy and human rights, and that it was not a blueprint for socialism. I spoke of my concern that the white minority feel a sense of security in any new South Africa. I told them I thought many of our problems were a result of lack of communication between the government and the ANC and that some of these could be resolved through actual talks.
They questioned me extensively on the issue of violence, and while I was not yet willing to renounce violence, I affirmed in the strongest possible terms that violence could never be the ultimate solution to the situation in South Africa and that men and women by, their very nature required some kind of negotiated understanding. While I once again reiterated that these were my views and not those of the ANC, I suggested that if the government withdrew the army and the police from the townships, the ANC might agree to a suspension of the armed struggle as a prelude to talks. I told them that my release alone would not stem the violence in the country or stimulate negotiations.
After the group finished with me, they planned to see both Oliver in Lusaka and government officials in Pretoria. In my remarks, I had sent messages to both places. I wanted the government to see that under the right circumstances we would talk and I wanted Oliver to know that my position and his were the same.
In May, the Eminent Persons Group was scheduled to see me one last time. I was optimistic as they had been to both Lusaka and Pretoria, and I hoped that the seed of negotiations had been planted. But the day before we were to meet, the South African government took a step that sabotaged whatever goodwill had been engendered by the Commonwealth visitors. On the day the Eminent Persons Group was scheduled to meet with cabinet ministers, the South African Defense Force, under the orders of President Botha, launched air raids and commando attacks on ANC bases in Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. This utterly poisoned the talks, and the Eminent Persons Group immediately left South Africa. Once again, I felt my efforts to move negotiations forward had stalled.
Oliver Tambo and the ANC had called for the people of South Africa to render the country ungovernable, and the people were obliging. The state of unrest and political violence was reaching new heights. The anger of the masses was unrestrained; the townships were in upheaval. International pressure was growing stronger every day. On June 12, 1986, the government imposed a State of Emergency in an attempt to keep a lid on protest. In every outward way, the time seemed inauspicious for negotiations. But often, the most discouraging moments are precisely the time to launch an initiative. At such times people are searching for a way out of their dilemma. That month I wrote a very simple letter to General Willemse, the commissioner of prisons. In it, I merely said, “I wish to see you on a matter of national importance.” I handed the letter to Brigadier Munro on a Wednesday.
That weekend, I was told by the commanding officer to be prepared to see General Willemse, who was coming down from Pretoria. This meeting was not treated in the usual fashion. Instead of conferring with the general in the visiting area, I was taken to his residence on the grounds of Pollsmoor itself.
Willemse is a direct fellow and we got down to business immediately. I told him I wanted to see Kobie Coetsee, the minister of justice. He asked me why. I hesitated for a moment, reluctant to discuss political matters with a prison official. But I responded with frankness: “I want to see the minister in order to raise the question of talks between the government and the ANC.”
He pondered this for a moment, and then said, “Mandela, as you know, I am not a politician. I cannot discuss such issues myself, for they are beyond my authority.” He then paused, as if something had just occurred to him. “It just so happens,” he said, “that the minister of justice is in Cape Town. Perhaps you can see him. I will find out.”
The general then telephoned the minister and the two spoke for a few moments. After putting down the phone, the general turned to me and said, “The minister said, `Bring him round.'“ Minutes later, we left the general's residence in his car bound for the minister's house in Cape Town. Security was light; only one other car accompanied the general's vehicle. The ease and rapidity with which this meeting was set up made me suspect that the government might have planned this rendezvous ahead of time. Whether they had or not was immaterial; it was an opportunity to take the first step toward negotiations.
At his official residence in the city, Coetsee greeted me warmly and we settled down on comfortable chairs in his lounge. He apologized that I had not had a chance to change out of my prison clothes. I spent three hours in conversation with him and was struck by his sophistication and willingness to listen. He asked knowledgeable and relevant questions — questions that reflected a familiarity with the issues that divided the government and the ANC. He asked me under what circumstances would we suspend the armed struggle; whether or not I spoke for the ANC as a whole; whether I envisioned any constitutional guarantees for minorities in a new South Africa. His questions went to the heart of the issues dividing the government and the ANC.
After responding in much the same way as I did to the Eminent Persons Group, I sensed that Coetsee wanted some resolution. What is the next step? he asked. I told him I wanted to see the state president and the foreign minister, Pik Botha. Coetsee noted this on a small pad he had kept beside him, and said he would send my request through the proper channels. We then shook hands, and I was driven back to my solitary cell on the ground floor of Pollsmoor Prison.
I was greatly encouraged. I sensed the government was anxious to overcome the impasse in the country, that they were now convinced they had to depart from their old positions. In ghostly out-line, I saw the beginnings of a compromise.
I told no one of my encounter. I wanted the process to be under way before I informed anyone. Sometimes it is necessary to present one's colleagues with a policy that is already a fait accompli. I knew that once they examined the situation carefully, my colleagues at Pollsmoor and in Lusaka would support me. But again, after this promising start, nothing happened. Weeks and then months passed without a word from Coetsee. In some frustration, I wrote him another letter.
ALTHOUGH I DID NOT GET a direct response from Kobie Coetsee, there were other signs that the government was preparing me for a different kind of existence. On the day before Christmas, Lieutenant Colonel Gawie Marx, the deputy commander of Pollsmoor, wandered by my cell after breakfast and said quite casually, “Mandela, would you like to see the city?” I was not exactly certain what he had in mind, but I thought there was no harm in saying yes. Good, he said, come along. I walked with the colonel through the fifteen locked metal doors between my cell and the entrance, and when we emerged, I found his car waiting for us.
We drove into Cape Town along the lovely road that runs parallel to the coast. He had no destination in mind and simply meandered around the city in a leisurely fashion. It was absolutely riveting to watch the simple activities of people out in the world: old men sitting in the sun, women doing their shopping, people walking their dogs. It is precisely those mundane activities of daily life that one misses most in prison. I felt like a curious tourist in a strange and remarkable land.
After an hour or so, Colonel Marx stopped the car in front of a small shop on a quiet street. “Would you like a cold drink?” he asked me. I nodded, and he disappeared inside the shop. I sat there alone. For the first few moments, I did not think about my situation, but as the seconds ticked away, I became more and more agitated. For the first time in twenty-two years, I was out in the world and unguarded. I had a vision of opening the door, jumping out, and then running and running until I was out of sight. Something inside was urging me to do just that. I noticed a wooded area near the road where I could hide. I was extremely tense and began to perspire. Where was the colonel? But then I took control of myself; such an action would be unwise and irresponsible, not to mention dangerous. It was possible that the whole situation was contrived to try to get me to escape, though I do not think that was the case. I was greatly relieved a few moments later when I saw the colonel walking back to the car with two cans of Coca-Cola.
As it turned out, that day in Cape Town was the first of many excursions. Over the next few months, I went out again with the colonel not only to Cape Town but to some of the sights around the city, its beautiful beaches and lovely cool mountains. Soon, more junior officers were permitted to take me around. One of the places I regularly visited with these junior officers was known as the “gardens,” a series of smallholdings on the edge of the prison grounds where crops were grown for the prison's kitchen. I enjoyed being out in nature, being able to see the horizon and feel the sun on my shoulders.
One day I went to the gardens with a captain, and after walking in the fields we strolled over to the stables. There were two young white men in overalls working with the horses. I walked over to them, praised one of the animals, and said to the fellow, “Now, what is this horse's name?” The young man seemed quite nervous and did not look at me. He then mumbled the name of the horse, but to the captain, not me. I then asked the other fellow in turn what the name of his horse was, and he had precisely the same reaction.
As I was walking back to the prison with the captain, I commented on what I thought was the curious behavior of the two young men. The captain laughed. “Mandela, don't you know what those two chaps were?” I said I did not. “They were white prisoners. They had never been questioned by a native prisoner in the presence of a white officer before.”
Some of the younger warders took me quite far afield, and we would walk on the beach and even stop at a café and have tea. At such places, I often tried to see if people recognized me, but no one ever did; the last published picture of me had been taken in 1962.
These trips were instructive on a number of levels. I saw how life had changed in the time I had been away, and because we mainly went to white areas, I saw the extraordinary wealth and ease that whites enjoyed. Though the country was in upheaval and the town-ships were on the brink of open warfare, white life went on placidly and undisturbed. Their lives were unaffected. Once, one of the warders, a very pleasant young man named Warrant Officer Brand, actually took me to his family's flat and introduced me to his wife and children. From then on, I sent his children Christmas cards every year.
As much as I enjoyed these little adventures, I well knew that the authorities had a motive other than keeping me diverted. I sensed that they wanted to acclimatize me to life in South Africa and perhaps at the same time, get me so used to the pleasures of small freedoms that I might be willing to compromise in order to have complete freedom.
IN 1987, I RESUMED CONTACT with Kobie Coetsee. I had several private meetings with him at his residence, and later that year the government made its first concrete proposal. Coetsee said the government would like to appoint a committee of senior officials to conduct private discussions with me. This would be done with the full knowledge of the state president, Coetsee said. Coetsee himself would be head of the committee, and it would include General Willemse, the commissioner of prisons; Fanie van der Merwe, the director general of the Prisons Department; and Dr. Niel Barnard, a former academic who was then head of the National Intelligence Service. The first three individuals were associated with the prison system, so if talks foundered or were leaked to the press, both sides would be able to cover up and say we were discussing prison conditions and nothing more.
The presence of Dr. Barnard, however, disturbed me. He was the head of South Africa's equivalent of the CIA, and was also involved with military intelligence. I could justify to my organization discussions with the other officials, but not Barnard. His presence made the talks more problematic and suggested a larger agenda. I told Coetsee that I would like to think about the proposal overnight.
That night I considered all the ramifications. I knew that P. W. Botha had created something called the State Security Council, a shadowy secretariat of security experts and intelligence officials. He had done this, according to the press, to circumvent the authority of the cabinet and increase his own power. Dr. Barnard was a key player in this inner council and was said to be a protégé of the president. I thought that my refusing Barnard would alienate Botha, and I decided that such a tack was too risky. If the state president was not brought on board, nothing would happen. In the morning, I sent word to Coetsee that I accepted his offer.
I knew that I had three crucial matters that I needed to address: first, I wanted to sound out my colleagues on the third floor before I proceeded any further; second, it was essential to communicate with Oliver in Lusaka about what was occurring; and finally, I intended to draft a memorandum to P. W. Botha laying out my views and those of the ANC on the vital issues before the country. This memorandum would create talking points for any future discussion.
I requested a meeting with my colleagues, and to my surprise, the authorities summarily refused. This was remarkable, and I assumed it reflected a great deal of nervousness about the prospect of secret talks between myself and the government. I took my complaints to more senior officials. Finally, the request was approved, with the proviso that I could see my colleagues one by one, not together.
I met them in the visiting area. I had resolved to leave out a few details; I would seek their counsel about the idea of having talks with the government without mentioning that an actual committee had been formed. Walter was first. I told him about my letter to the commissioner of prisons and my meeting with Coetsee. I said that I had discussed with Coetsee the idea of beginning talks with the government and that the government seemed interested. What were his views on the matter?
I have been through thick and thin with Walter. He was a man of reason and wisdom, and no man knew me better than he did. There was no one whose opinion I trusted or valued more. Walter considered what I told him. I could see he was uncomfortable, and at best, lukewarm. “In principle,” he said, “I am not against negotiations. But I would have wished that the government initiated talks with us rather than us initiating talks with them.”
I replied that if he was not against negotiations in principle, what did it matter who initiated them? What mattered was what they achieved, not how they started. I told Walter that I thought we should move forward with negotiations and not worry about who knocked on the door first. Walter saw that my mind was made up and he said he would not stop me, but that he hoped I knew what I was doing.
Next was Raymond Mhlaba. I explained the entire situation to him as I had to Walter. Ray was always a man of few words, and for several moments he digested what I had said. He then looked at me and said, “Madiba, what have you been waiting for? We should have started this years ago.” Andrew Mlangeni's reaction was virtually the same as Ray's. The last man was Kathy. His response was negative; he was as resolutely against what I was suggesting as Raymond and Andrew were in favor. Even more strongly than Walter, he felt that by initiating talks it would appear that we were capitulating. Like Walter, he said he was not in principle against negotiations, and I responded exactly as I had with Walter. But Kathy was adamant; he felt I was going down the wrong path. But, despite his misgivings, he said he would not stand in my way.
Not long after this I received a note from Oliver Tambo that was smuggled in to me by one of my lawyers. He had heard reports that I was having secret discussions with the government and he was concerned. He said he knew I had been alone for some time and separated from my colleagues. He must have been wondering: What is going on with Mandela? Oliver's note was brief and to the point: What, he wanted to know, was I discussing with the government?
Oliver could not have believed that I was selling out, but he might have thought I was making an error in judgment. In fact, the tenor of his note suggested that.
I replied to Oliver in a very terse letter saying that I was talking to the government about one thing and one thing only: a meeting between the National Executive Committee of the ANC and the South African government. I would not spell out the details, for I could not trust the confidentiality of the communication. I simply said the time had come for such talks and that I would not compromise the organization in any way.
Although the ANC had called for talks with the government for decades, we had never been confronted with the actual prospect of such talks. It is one thing to consider them in theory, and quite another to engage in them. As I was writing my response to Oliver, I was also beginning to draft my memorandum to P. W. Botha. I would make sure that Oliver saw this as well. I knew that when Oliver and the National Executive read my memo, their fears that I had gone off the road would be allayed.
THE FIRST FORMAL MEETING of the secret working group took place in May 1988, at a posh officers' club within the precincts of Pollsmoor. While I knew both Coetsee and Willemse, I had never before met van der Merwe and Dr. Barnard. Van der Merwe was a quiet, levelheaded man who spoke only when he had something important to say. Dr. Barnard was in his mid-thirties and was exceedingly bright, a man of controlled intelligence and self-discipline.
The initial meeting was quite stiff, but in subsequent sessions we were able to talk more freely and directly. I met with them almost every week for a few months, and then the meetings occurred at irregular intervals, sometimes not for a month, and then suddenly every week. The meetings were usually scheduled by the government, but sometimes I would request a session.
During our early meetings, I discovered that my new colleagues, with the exception of Dr. Barnard, knew little about the ANC. They were all sophisticated Afrikaners, and far more open-minded than nearly all of their brethren. But they were the victims of so much propaganda that it was necessary to straighten them out about certain facts. Even Dr. Barnard, who had made a study of the ANC, had received most of his information from police and intelligence files, which were in the main inaccurate and sullied by the prejudices of the men who had gathered them. He could not help but be infected by the same biases.
I spent some time in the beginning sketching out the history of the ANC and then explaining our positions on the primary issues that divided the organization from the government. After these preliminaries, we focused on the critical issues: the armed struggle, the ANC's alliance with the Communist Party, the goal of majority rule, and the idea of racial reconciliation.
The first issue to arise was in many ways the most crucial, and that was the armed struggle. We spent a number of months discussing it. They insisted that the ANC must renounce violence and give up the armed struggle before the government would agree to negotiations — and before I could meet President Botha. Their contention was that violence was nothing more than criminal behavior that could not be tolerated by the state.
I responded that the state was responsible for the violence and that it is always the oppressor, not the oppressed, who dictates the form of the struggle. If the oppressor uses violence, the oppressed have no alternative but to respond violently. In our case it was simply a legitimate form of self-defense. I ventured that if the state decided to use peaceful methods, the ANC would also use peaceful means. “It is up to you,” I said, “not us, to renounce violence.”
I think I advanced their understanding on this point, but the issue soon moved from a philosophical question to a practical one. As Minister Coetsee and Dr. Barnard pointed out, the National Party had repeatedly stated that it would not negotiate with any organization that advocated violence: therefore, how could it suddenly announce talks with the ANC without losing its credibility? In order for us to begin talks, they said, the ANC must make some compromise so that the government would not lose face with its own people.
It was a fair point and one that I could well understand, but I would not offer them a way out. “Gentlemen,” I said, “it is not my job to resolve your dilemma for you.” I simply told them that they must tell their people that there can be no peace and no solution to the situation in South Africa without sitting down with the ANC. People will understand, I said.
The ANC's alliance with the Communist Party seemed to trouble them almost as much as the armed struggle. The National Party accepted the most hidebound of 1950S cold war ideology and regarded the Soviet Union as the evil empire and communism as the work of the devil. There was nothing that one could do to disabuse them of this notion. They maintained that the Communist Party dominated and controlled the ANC and that in order for negotiations to begin we must break with the party.
First of all, I said, no self-respecting freedom fighter would take orders from the government he is fighting against or jettison a longtime ally in the interest of pleasing an antagonist. I then explained at great length that the party and the ANC were separate and distinct organizations that shared the same short-term objectives, the overthrow of racial oppression and the birth of a nonracial South Africa, but that our long-term interests were not the same.
This discussion went on for months. Like most Afrikaners, they thought that because many of the Communists in the ANC were white or Indian, they were controlling the blacks in the ANC. I cited many occasions when the ANC and the CP had differed on policy and the ANC had prevailed, but this did not seem to impress them. Finally, in exasperation, I said to them, “You gentlemen consider yourselves intelligent, do you not? You consider yourselves forceful and persuasive, do you not? Well, there are four of you and only one of me, and you cannot control me or get me to change my mind. What makes you think the Communists can succeed where you have failed?”
They were also concerned about the idea of nationalization, insisting that the ANC and the Freedom Charter supported blanket nationalization for the South African economy. I explained that we were for a more even distribution of the rewards of certain industries, industries that were already monopolies, and that nationalization might occur in some of those areas. But I referred them to an article I wrote in 1956 for Liberation in which I said that the Freedom Charter was not a blueprint for socialism but for African-style capitalism. I told them I had not changed my mind since then.
The other main area of discussion was the issue of majority rule. They felt that if there was majority rule, the rights of minorities would be trampled. How would the ANC protect the rights of the white minority? they wanted to know. I said that there was no organization in the history of South Africa to compare with the ANC in terms of trying to unite all the people and races of South Africa. I referred them to the preamble of the Freedom Charter: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.” I told them that whites were Africans as well, and that in any future dispensation the majority would need the minority. We do not want to drive you into the sea, I said.
THE MEETINGS had a positive effect: I was told in the winter of 1988 that President Botha was planning to see me before the end of August. The country was still in turmoil. The government had reimposed a State of Emergency in both 1987 and 1988. International pressure mounted. More companies left South Africa. The American Congress had passed a sweeping sanctions bill.
In 1987, the ANC celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary and held a conference at the end of the year in Tanzania attended by delegates from more than fifty nations. Oliver declared that the armed struggle would intensify until the government was prepared to negotiate the abolition of apartheid. Two years before, at the ANC's Kabwe conference in Zambia marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Freedom Charter, members of other races were elected to the National Executive Committee for the first time, and the NEC pledged that no discussions with the government could be held until all ANC leaders were released from prison.
Although violence was still pervasive, the National Party had never been stronger. In the white general election of May 1987, the Nationalists won an overwhelming majority. Worse still, the liberal Progressive Federal Party had been replaced as the official opposition by the Conservative Party, which was to the right of the Nationalists and campaigned on the theme that the government was too lenient with the black opposition.
Despite my optimism about the secret talks, it was a difficult time. I had recently had a visit from Winnie and I learned that 8115 Orlando West, the house in which we had been married and which I considered home, had been burned down by arsonists. We had lost invaluable family records, photographs, and keepsakes — even the slice of wedding cake Winnie was saving for my release. I had always thought that someday when I left prison I would be able to recapture the past when looking over those pictures and letters, and now they were gone. Prison had robbed me of my freedom but not my memories, and now I felt some enemies of the struggle had tried to rob me of even those.
I was also suffering from a bad cough that I could not seem to shake, and I often felt too weak to exercise. I had continued to complain about the dampness of my cell, but nothing had been done about it. One day, during a meeting in the visiting area with my attorney, Ismail Ayob, I felt ill and vomited. I was taken back to my cell, examined by a doctor, and I soon recovered. A few days later, however, I was in my cell after dinner when a number of warders and a doctor arrived. The physician gave me a cursory examination, and then one of the warders told me to get dressed. “We are taking you to hospital in Cape Town,” I was told. Security was tight; I went in a convoy of cars and military vehicles accompanied by at least a dozen warders.
I was taken to Tygerberg Hospital, on the campus of the University of Stellenbosch, in a rich and verdant area of the Cape. As I later discovered, they had nearly chosen a different facility because the authorities feared I might attract sympathetic attention at a university hospital. The warders went in first and cleared everyone out of the entrance area. I was then escorted up to a floor that had been entirely emptied. The hall of the floor was lined with more than a dozen armed guards.
While sitting on a table in the examining room, I was looked at by a young and amiable doctor who was also a professor at the university medical school. He inspected my throat, tapped my chest, took some cultures, and in no time pronounced me fit: “There is nothing wrong with you,” he said with a smile. “We should be able to release you tomorrow.” I was anxious not to be diverted from my talks with the government, so I was pleased with his diagnosis.
After the examination, the doctor asked me if I would like some tea. I said I would and a few minutes later, a tall young Coloured nurse came in with a tray. The presence of all the armed guards and warders so frightened her that she dropped the tray on my bed, spilling the tea, before rushing out.
I spent the night in the empty ward under heavy guard. The first thing the next morning, even before I had breakfast, I was visited by an older doctor who was head of internal medicine at the hospital. He was a no-nonsense fellow and had far less of a bedside manner than the cordial young physician of the night before. Without any preliminaries, he tapped me roughly on my chest and then said gruffly, “There is water in your lung.” I told him that the previous doctor had done tests and said I was fine. With a hint of annoyance, he said, “Mandela, take a look at your chest.” He pointed out that one side of my chest was actually larger than the other, and said that it was probably filled with water.
He asked a nurse to bring him a syringe, and without further ado he poked it into my chest and drew out some brownish liquid. “Have you had breakfast?” he said. No, I replied. “Good,” he said, “we are taking you to the operating theater immediately.” He told me I had a great deal of water on my lung and he wanted to draw it out right away.
In the operating room I was given anesthesia, and the next thing I recalled was waking up in a room with the doctor present. I was groggy, but I concentrated on what he said: he had removed two liters of water from my chest and when the liquid was analyzed, a tuberculosis germ had been discovered. He said it was in the very early stages of the illness, and that the germ had done no damage to the lung. While full-blown tuberculosis normally took six months to cure, he said, I should be better in two months. The doctor agreed that it was probably the damp cell that had helped cause my illness.
I spent the next six weeks at Tygerberg recuperating and receiving treatment. In December, I was moved to the Constantiaberge Clinic, a luxurious facility near Pollsmoor that had never had a black patient before. My first morning there, I had an early visit from Kobie Coetsee, who was accompanied by Major Marais, a deputy commander responsible for looking after me. We had barely exchanged greetings when the orderly brought in my breakfast.
Because of my recent illness and my history of high blood pressure, I had been put on a strict low-cholesterol diet. That order had apparently not yet been conveyed to the clinic's kitchen, for the breakfast tray contained scrambled eggs, three rashers of bacon, and several pieces of buttered toast. I could not remember the last time I had tasted bacon and eggs, and I was ravenous. Just as I was about to take a delicious forkful of egg, Major Marais said, “No, Mandela, that is against the orders of your physician,” and he reached over to take the tray. I held it tightly, and said, “Major, I am sorry. If this breakfast will kill me, then today I am prepared to die.”
Once I was ensconced at Constantiaberge, I again began to meet with Kobie Coetsee and the secret committee. While I was still at the clinic Coetsee said he wanted to put me in a situation that was halfway between confinement and freedom. While he did not spell out what this meant, I had a notion of what he was talking about, and I merely nodded. I would not be so naïve as to consider his proposal to be freedom, but I knew that it was a step in that direction.
In the meantime, the clinic was extremely comfortable and for the first time I actually enjoyed a hospital convalescence. The nurses — who were white or Coloured, no black nurses were permitted — spoiled me; they brought extra desserts and pillows and were constantly visiting, even during their time off.
One day, one of the nurses came to me and said, “Mr. Mandela, we are having a party tonight and we would like you to come.” I said I'd be honored to attend, but that the authorities would undoubtedly have something to say about it. The prison authorities refused permission for me to go, which nettled the nurses, and as a result, they decided to hold their party in my room, insisting they could not have their party without me.
That night, a dozen or so of these young ladies in party frocks descended on my room with cake and punch and gifts. The guards seemed befuddled, but they could hardly consider these vivacious young girls a security risk. In fact, when one of the guards attempted to prevent some of the nurses from entering my room, I jestingly accused him of being jealous of an old man receiving so much attention from such beautiful young ladies.
IN EARLY DECEMBER 1988, security on my ward was tightened and the officers on duty were more alert than usual. Some change was imminent. On the evening of December 9, Major Marais came into my room, and told me to prepare myself to leave. Where to? I asked him. He could not say. I packed my things and looked around for some of my loyal nurses; I was disappointed at not being able to thank them and bid them farewell.
We left in a rush, and after about an hour on the road we entered a prison whose name I recognized: Victor Verster. Located in the lovely old Cape Dutch town of Paarl, Victor Verster is thirty-five miles northeast of Cape Town in the province's wine-growing region. The prison had the reputation of being a model facility. We drove through the entire length of the prison, and then along a winding dirt road through a rather wild, wooded area at the rear of the property. At the end of the road we came to an isolated, whitewashed one-story cottage set behind a concrete wall and shaded by tall fir trees.
I was ushered into the house by Major Marais and found a spacious lounge, next to a large kitchen, with an even larger bedroom at the back of the house. The place was sparsely but comfortably furnished. It had not been cleaned or swept before my arrival, and the bedroom and living room were teeming with all kinds of exotic insects, centipedes, monkey spiders, and the like, some of which I had never seen before. That night, I swept the insects off my bed and windowsill and slept extremely well in what was to be my new home.
The next morning I surveyed my new abode and discovered a swimming pool in the backyard, and two smaller bedrooms. I walked outside and admired the trees that shaded the house and kept it cool. The entire place felt removed, isolated. The only thing spoiling the idyllic picture was that the walls were topped with razor wire, and there were guards at the entrance to the house. Even so, it was a lovely place and situation; a halfway house between prison and freedom.
That afternoon I was visited by Kobie Coetsee, who brought case of Cape wine as a housewarming gift. The irony of a jailer bringing his prisoner such a gift was not lost on either of us. He was extremely solicitous and wanted to make sure that I liked my new home. He surveyed the house himself, and the only thing he recommended was that the walls outside the house be raised — for my privacy, he said. He told me that the cottage at Victor Verster would be my last home before becoming a free man. The reason behind this move, he said, was that I should have a place where l could hold discussions in privacy and comfort.
The cottage did in fact give one the illusion of freedom. I could go to sleep and wake up as I pleased, swim whenever I wanted, eat when I was hungry — all were delicious sensations. Simply to be able to go outside during the day and take a walk when I desired was a moment of private glory. There were no bars on the windows, no jangling keys, no doors to lock or unlock. It was altogether pleasant, but I never forgot that it was a gilded cage.
The prison service provided me with a cook, Warrant Officer Swart. a tall, quiet Afrikaner who had once been a warder on Robben Island. I did not remember him, but he said he sometimes drove us to the quarry and purposely steered the truck over bumps to give us a rocky ride. “I did that to you,” he said sheepishly, and I laughed. He was a decent, sweet-tempered fellow without any prejudice and he became like a younger brother to me.
He arrived at seven in the morning and left at four, and would make my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I had a diet outlined by my physician and he would follow it in his preparations. He was a lovely cook, and when he went home at four, he would leave me supper to heat up in the microwave oven, a device that was new to me.
Warrant Officer Swart baked bread, made home-brewed ginger beer and assorted other delicacies. When I had visitors, which was increasingly often, he would prepare gourmet meals. They always praised the food and I daresay my chef was the envy of all my visitors. When the authorities began to permit some of my ANC comrades and members of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) to visit me, I accused them of coming only for the food.
One day, after a delicious meal prepared by Mr. Swart, I went into the kitchen to wash the dishes. “No,” he said, “that is my duty. You must return to the sitting room.” I insisted that I had to do something, and that if he cooked, it was only fair for me to do the dishes. Mr. Swart protested, but finally gave in. He also objected to the fact that I would make my bed in the morning, saying it was his responsibility to do so. But I had been making my own bed for so long it had become a reflex.
We also traded off in another respect. Like many Afrikaans-speaking warders, he was keen to improve his English. I was always looking for ways to improve my Afrikaans. We made an agreement: he would speak to me in English and I would answer in Afrikaans, and in that way we both practiced the language at which we were weakest.
I would occasionally ask him to make certain dishes for me. I sometimes requested samp and beans, which I used to eat as a boy. One day, I said to him, “You know, I would like you to cook me some brown rice.” To my astonishment, he said, “What is brown rice?” Swart was a young man, and I explained to him that brown rice was the unrefined rice kernel, and we used to eat it during the war when white rice was unavailable. I said it was far healthier than white rice. He was skeptical, but managed to find me some. He cooked it and I enjoyed it very much. But Mr. Swart could not abide the taste and vowed that if I ever wanted it again, I would have to cook it myself.
Even though I was not a drinker, I wanted to be a proper host and serve wine to my guests. I would occasionally take a sip of wine in order to make my guests feel comfortable, but the only wine I can stomach is a South African semisweet wine, which is actually very sweet.
Before my guests came I would ask Mr. Swart to get a certain type of Nederburg wine, which I had tasted before and knew was a semisweet. One day, I was expecting my friends and lawyers for lunch, Dullah Omar, George Bizos, and Ismail Ayob, and asked Mr. Swart to purchase some Nederburg wine should George Bizos, not a Muslim, want some with his meal. I noticed that he grimaced when I said this, and asked him what was wrong.
“Mr. Mandela,” he said. “I always buy that wine for you because you ask me to, but it is cheap stuff and not very nice.” I reminded him that I did not like dry wines and I was sure George could not tell the difference anyway. Mr. Swart smiled at this and proposed a compromise: he would go out and buy two bottles, a dry wine and my Nederburg, and then he would ask my guest which wine he preferred. “Fine,” I said, “let us try your experiment.”
When all four of us were seated for lunch, Swart came out holding the two bottles and turned to the guests and said, “Gentlemen, which wine would you like?” Without even looking at me, George pointed to the bottle of dry white. Warrant Officer Swart just smiled.
THE MEETINGS with the committee continued, and we stalled on the same issues that had always prevented us from moving for-ward: the armed struggle, the Communist Party, and majority rule. I was still pressing Coetsee for a meeting with P. W. Botha. By this time, the authorities permitted me to have rudimentary communications with my comrades at Pollsmoor and Robben Island and also the ANC in Lusaka. Although I knew I was going out ahead of my colleagues, I did not want to go too far ahead and find that I was all alone.
In January 1989, I was visited by my four comrades from Pollsmoor and we discussed the memorandum I was planning to send to the state president. The memorandum reiterated most of the points I had made in our secret committee meetings, but I wanted to make sure the state president heard them directly from me. He would see that we were not wild-eyed terrorists, but reasonable men.
“I am disturbed,” I wrote to Mr. Botha in the memorandum, sent to him in March, “as many other South Africans no doubt are, by the specter of a South Africa split into two hostile camps — blacks on one side... and whites on the other, slaughtering one another.” To avert this and prepare the groundwork for negotiations, I proposed to deal with the three demands made of the ANC by the government as a precondition to negotiations: renouncing violence; breaking with the SACP; and abandoning the call for majority rule.
On the question of violence I wrote that the refusal of the ANC to renounce violence was not the problem: “The truth is that the government is not yet ready... for the sharing of political power with blacks.” I explained our unwillingness to cast aside the SACP, and reiterated that we were not under its control. “Which man of honour,” I wrote, “will desert a lifelong friend at the insistence of a common opponent and still retain a measure of credibility with his people?” I said the rejection of majority rule by the government was a poorly disguised attempt to preserve power. I suggested he must face reality. “Majority rule and internal peace are like the two sides of a single coin, and white South Africa simply has to accept that there will never be peace and stability in this country until the principle is fully applied.”
At the end of the letter, I offered a very rough framework for negotiations.
Two political issues will have to be addressed; firstly, the demand for majority rule in a unitary state, secondly, the concern of white South Africa over this demand, as well as the insistence of whites on structural guarantees that majority rule will not mean domination of the white minority by blacks. The most crucial tasks which will face the government and the ANC will be to reconcile these two positions.
I proposed that this be done in two stages, the first being a discussion to create the proper conditions for negotiations, the second being the actual negotiations themselves. “I must point out that the move I have taken provides you with the opportunity to over-come the current deadlock, and to normalize the country's political situation. I hope you will seize it without delay.”
But delay there was. In January, P. W. Botha suffered a stroke. While it did not incapacitate the president, it did weaken him and, according to his cabinet, made him even more irascible. In February, Botha unexpectedly resigned as head of the National Party, but kept his position as state president. This was an unparalleled situation in the country's history: in the South African parliamentary system, the leader of the majority party becomes the head of state. President Botha was now head of state but not of his own party. Some saw this as a positive development: that Botha wanted to be “above party politics” in order to bring about true change in South Africa.
Political violence and international pressure continued to intensify. Political detainees all across the country had held a successful hunger strike, persuading the minister of law and order to release over nine hundred of them. In 1989, the UDF formed an alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) to form the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM), which then began organizing a countrywide “defiance campaign” of civil disobedience to challenge apartheid institutions. On the international front, Oliver held talks with the governments of Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and in January 1987 met with the U.S. Secretary of State, George Shultz, in Washington. The Americans recognized the ANC as an indispensable element of any solution in South Africa. Sanctions against South Africa remained in force and even increased.
Political violence also had its tragic side. As the violence in Soweto intensified, my wife permitted a group of young men to act as her bodyguards as she moved around the township. These young men were untrained and undisciplined and became involved in activities that were unbecoming to a liberation struggle. Winnie subsequently became legally entangled in the trial of one of her bodyguards who was convicted of murdering a young comrade. This situation was deeply disconcerting to me, for such a scandal only served to divide the movement at a time when unity was essential. I wholly supported my wife and maintained that while she had shown poor judgment, she was innocent of any serious charges.
That July, for my seventy-first birthday, I was visited at the cottage at Victor Verster by nearly my entire family. It was the first time I had ever had my wife and children and grandchildren all in one place, and it was a grand and happy occasion. Warrant Officer Swart outdid himself in preparing a feast, and he did not even get upset when I permitted some of the grandchildren to eat their sweets before their main course. After the meal, the grandchildren went into my bedroom to watch a video of a horror movie while the adults stayed outside gossiping in the lounge. It was a deep, deep pleasure to have my whole family around me, and the only pain was the knowledge that I had missed such occasions for so many years.
ON JULY 4, I was visited by General Willemse, who informed me that I was being taken to see President Botha the following day. He described the visit as a “courtesy call,” and I was told to be ready to leave at 5:30 a.m. I told the general that while I was looking forward to the meeting, I thought it appropriate that I have a suit and tie in which to see Mr. Botha. (The suit from the visit of the Eminent Persons Group had long since vanished.) The general agreed, and a short while later, a tailor appeared to take my measurements. That afternoon I was delivered a new suit, tie, shirt, and shoes. Before leaving, the general also asked me my blood type, just in case anything untoward should happen the following day.
I prepared as best I could for the meeting. I reviewed my memo and the extensive notes I had made for it. I looked at as many newspapers and publications as I could to make sure I was up to date. After President Botha's resignation as head of the National Party, F. W. de Klerk had been elected in his place, and there was said to be considerable jockeying between the two men. Some might interpret Botha's willingness to meet me as his way of stealing thunder from his rival, but that did not concern me. I rehearsed the arguments that the state president might make and the ones I would put in return. In every meeting with an adversary, one must make sure one has conveyed precisely the impression one in-tends to.
I was tense about seeing Mr. Botha. He was known as die Groot Krokodil — the Great Crocodile — and I had heard many accounts of his ferocious temper. He seemed to me to be the very model of the old-fashioned, stiff-necked, stubborn Afrikaner who did not so much discuss matters with black leaders as dictate to them. His recent stroke had apparently only exacerbated this tendency. I re-solved that if he acted in that finger-wagging fashion with me I would have to inform him that I found such behavior unacceptable, and I would then stand up and adjourn the meeting.
At precisely 5:30 in the morning, Major Marais, the commander of Victor Verster, arrived at my cottage. He came into the lounge where I stood in front of him in my new suit for inspection. He walked around me, and then shook his head from side to side.
“No, Mandela, your tie,” he said. One did not have much use for ties in prison, and I realized that morning when I was putting it on that I had forgotten how to tie it properly. I made a knot as best I could and hoped no one would notice. Major Marais unbuttoned my collar, loosened and then removed my tie, and then, standing behind me, tied it in a double Windsor knot. He then stood back to admire his handiwork. “Much better,” he said.
We drove from Victor Verster to Pollsmoor, to the residence of General Willemse, where we were served breakfast by the general's wife. After breakfast, in a small convoy, we drove to Tuynhuys, the official presidential office, and parked in an underground garage where we would not be seen. Tuynhuys is a graceful, nineteenth-century Cape Dutch-style building, but I did not get a proper look at it that day. I was essentially smuggled into the presidential suite.
We took an elevator to the ground floor and emerged in a grand, wood-paneled lobby in front of the president's office. There we were met by Kobie Coetsee and Niel Barnard, and a retinue of prison officials. I had spoken extensively with both Coetsee and Dr. Barnard about this meeting, and they had always advised me to avoid controversial issues with the president. While we were waiting, Dr. Barnard looked down and noticed that my shoelaces were not properly tied and he quickly kneeled down to tie them for me. I realized just how nervous they were, and that did not make me any calmer. The door then opened and I walked in expecting the worst.
From the opposite side of his grand office, P. W. Botha walked toward me. He had planned his march perfectly, for we met exactly halfway. He had his hand out and was smiling broadly, and in fact, from that very first moment, he completely disarmed me. He was unfailingly courteous, deferential, and friendly.
We very quickly posed for a photograph of the two of us shaking hands, and then were joined at a long table by Kobie Coetsee, General Willemse, and Dr. Barnard. Tea was served and we began to talk. From the first, it was not as though we were engaged in tense political arguments but a lively and interesting tutorial. We did not discuss substantive issues, so much as history and South African culture. I mentioned that I had recently read an article in an Afrikaans magazine about the 1914 Afrikaner Rebellion, and I mentioned how they had occupied towns in the Free State. I said I saw our struggle as parallel to this famous rebellion, and we discussed this historical episode for quite a while. South African history, of course, looks very different to the black man than to the white man. Their view was that the rebellion had been a quarrel between brothers, whereas my struggle was a revolutionary one. I said that it could also be seen as a struggle between brothers who happen to be different colors.
The meeting was not even half an hour, and was friendly and breezy until the end. It was then that I raised a serious issue. I asked Mr. Botha to release unconditionally all political prisoners, including myself. That was the only tense moment in the meeting, and Mr. Botha said that he was afraid that he could not do that.
There was then a brief discussion as to what we should say if news of the meeting leaked out. We very quickly drafted a bland statement saying that we had met for tea in an effort to promote peace in the country. When this was agreed upon, Mr. Botha rose and shook my hand, saying what a pleasure it had been. Indeed, it had been. I thanked him, and left the way we had come.
While the meeting was not a breakthrough in terms of negotiations, it was one in another sense. Mr. Botha had long talked about the need to cross the Rubicon, but he never did it himself until that morning at Tuynhuys. Now, I felt, there was no turning back.
A little more than a month later, in August 1989, P. W. Botha went on national television to announce his resignation as state president. In a curiously rambling farewell address, he accused cabinet members of a breach of trust, of ignoring him and of playing into the hands of the African National Congress. The following day, F. W. de Klerk was sworn in as acting president and affirmed his commitment to change and reform.
To us, Mr. de Klerk was a cipher. When he became head of the National Party, he seemed to be the quintessential party man, nothing more and nothing less. Nothing in his past seemed to hint at a spirit of reform. As education minister, he had attempted to keep black students out of white universities. But as soon as he took over the National Party, I began to follow him closely. I read all of his speeches, listened to what he said, and began to see that he represented a genuine departure from his predecessor. He was not an ideologue, but a pragmatist, a man who saw change as necessary and inevitable. On the day he was sworn in, I wrote him a letter requesting a meeting.
In his inaugural address, Mr. de Klerk said his government was committed to peace and that it would negotiate with any other group committed to peace. But his commitment to a new order was demonstrated only after his inauguration when a march was planned in Cape Town to protest police brutality. It was to be led by Arch-bishop Tutu and the Reverend Allan Boesak. Under President Botha, the march would have been banned, marchers would have defied that ban, and violence would have resulted. The new president lived up to his promise to ease restrictions on political gatherings and permitted the march to take place, only asking that the demonstrators remain peaceful. A new and different hand was on the tiller.
EVEN AS DE KLERK became president, I continued to meet with the secret negotiating committee. We were joined by Gerrit Viljoen, the minister of constitutional development, a brilliant man with a doctorate in classics, whose role was to bring our discussions into a constitutional framework. I pressed the government to display evidence of its good intentions, urging the state to show its bona fides by releasing my fellow political prisoners at Pollsmoor and Robben Island. While I told the committee that my colleagues had to be released unconditionally, I said the government could expect disciplined behavior from them after their release. That was demonstrated by the conduct of Govan Mbeki, who had been unconditionally released at the end of 1987.
On October 10, 1989, President de Klerk announced that Walter Sisulu and seven of my former Robben Island comrades, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Jeff Masemola, Wilton Mkwayi, and Oscar Mpetha, were to be released. That morning, I had been visited by Walter, Kathy, Ray, and Andrew, who were still at Pollsmoor, and I was able to say good-bye. It was an emotional moment, but I knew I would not be too far behind. The men were released five days later from Johannesburg Prison. It was an action that rightly evoked praise here and abroad, and I conveyed my appreciation to Mr. de Klerk.
But my gratitude paled compared to my unalloyed joy that Walter and the others were free. It was a day we had yearned for and fought for over so many years. De Klerk had lived up to his promise, and the men were released under no bans; they could speak in the name of the ANC. It was clear that the ban on the organization had effectively expired, a vindication of our long struggle and our resolute adherence to principle.
De Klerk began a systematic dismantling of many of the building blocks of apartheid. He opened South African beaches to people of all colors, and stated that the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act would soon be repealed. Since 1953 this act had enforced what was known as “petty apartheid,” segregating parks, theaters, restaurants, buses, libraries, toilets, and other public facilities, according to race. In November, he announced that the National Security Management System, a secret structure set up under P. W. Botha to combat anti-apartheid forces, would be dissolved.
In early December, I was informed that a meeting with de Klerk was set for the twelfth of that month. By this time I was able to consult with my colleagues new and old, and I had meetings at the cottage with my old colleagues, and the leaders of the Mass Democratic Movement and the UDF. I received ANC people from all of the regions, as well as delegates from the UDF and COSATU. One of these young men was Cyril Ramaphosa, the general secretary of the National Union of Mine Workers and one of the ablest of the new generation of leadership. I also had visits from colleagues of mine from Robben Island, including Terror Lekota and Tokyo Sexwale, who stayed to lunch. They are both men with large appetites, and the only complaint I heard about them was from War-rant Officer Swart, who said, “Those fellows will eat us out of house and home!”
With guidance from a number of colleagues, I then drafted a letter to de Klerk not unlike the one I had sent to P. W. Botha. The subject was talks between the government and the ANC. I told the president that the current conflict was draining South Africa's lifeblood and talks were the only solution. I said the ANC would accept no preconditions to talks, especially not the precondition that the government wanted: the suspension of the armed struggle. The government asked for an “honest commitment to peace” and I pointed out that our readiness to negotiate was exactly that.
I told Mr. de Klerk how impressed I was by his emphasis on reconciliation, enunciated in his inaugural address. His words had imbued millions of South Africans and people around the world with the hope that a new South Africa was about to be born. The very first step on the road to reconciliation, I said, was the complete dismantling of apartheid and all the measures used to enforce it.
But I said that the spirit of that speech had not been much in evidence of late. The government's policies were perceived by many as a continuation of apartheid by other means. The government, I said, had spent too much time talking with black homeland leaders and others coopted by the system; these men, I asserted, were the agents of an oppressive past that the mass of black South Africans rejected.
I reiterated my proposal that talks take place in two stages. I told him I fully supported the guidelines the ANC had adopted in the Harare Declaration of 1989, which put the onus on the government to eliminate the obstacles to negotiations that the state itself had created. Those demands included the release of all political prisoners, the lifting of all bans on restricted organizations and persons, the end to the State of Emergency, and the removal of all troops from the townships. I stressed that a mutually agreed-upon cease-fire to end hostilities ought to be the first order of business, for without that, no business could be conducted. The day before our meeting the letter was delivered to Mr. de Klerk.
On the morning of December 13, I was again taken to Tuynhuys. I met de Klerk in the same room where I had had tea with his predecessor. Mr. de Klerk was accompanied by Kobie Coetsee, General Willemse, Dr. Barnard, and his colleague Mike Louw. I congratulated Mr. de Klerk on becoming president and expressed the hope that we would be able to work together. He was extremely cordial and reciprocated these sentiments.
From the first I noticed that Mr. de Klerk listened to what I had to say. This was a novel experience. National Party leaders generally heard what they wanted to hear in discussions with black leaders, but Mr. de Klerk seemed to be making an attempt to truly understand.
One of the issues I emphasized that day was the National Party's recently introduced five-year plan, which contained the concept of “group rights.” The idea of “group rights” was that no racial or ethnic group could take precedence over any other. Although they defined “group rights” as a way of protecting the freedom of minorities in a new South Africa, in fact their proposal was a means of preserving white domination. I told Mr. de Klerk that this was unacceptable to the ANC.
I added that it was not in his interest to retain this concept, for it gave the impression that he wanted to modernize apartheid with-out abandoning it; this was damaging his image and that of the National Party in the eyes of the progressive forces in this country and around the world. An oppressive system cannot be reformed, I said, it must be entirely cast aside. I mentioned an editorial that I had recently read in Die Burger, the mouthpiece of the National Party in the Cape, implying that the group rights concept was conceived as an attempt to bring back apartheid through the back door. I told Mr. de Klerk that if that was how his party's paper perceived group rights, how did he think we regarded it? I added that the ANC had not struggled against apartheid for seventy-five years only to yield to a disguised form of it and that if it was his true intention to preserve apartheid through the Trojan horse of group rights, then he did not truly believe in ending apartheid.
Mr. de Klerk, I saw that day, does not react quickly to things. It was a mark of the man that he listened to what I had to say and did not argue with me. “You know,” he said, “my aim is no different than yours. Your memo to P. W. Botha said the ANC and the government should work together to deal with white fears of black domination, and the idea of `group rights' is how we propose to deal with it.” I was impressed with this response, but said that the idea of “group rights” did more to increase black fears than allay white ones. De Klerk then said, “We will have to change it, then.”
I then brought up the question of my freedom and said that if he expected me to go out to pasture upon my release he was greatly mistaken. I reaffirmed that if I was released into the same conditions under which I had been arrested I would go back to doing precisely those things for which I had been imprisoned. I made the case to him that the best way to move forward was to unban the ANC and all other political organizations, to lift the State of Emergency, to release political prisoners, and to allow the exiles to return. If the government did not unban the ANC, as soon as I was out of prison I would be working for an illegal organization. “Then,” I said, “you must simply rearrest me after I walk through those gates.”
Again, he listened carefully to what I had to say. My suggestions certainly came as no surprise to him. He said he would take all that I said under consideration, but that he would make no promises. The meeting was an exploratory one and I understood that nothing was going to be resolved that day. But it was extremely useful, for I had taken the measure of Mr. de Klerk just as I did with new prison commanders when I was on Robben Island. I was able to write to our people in Lusaka that Mr. de Klerk seemed to represent a true departure from the National Party politicians of the past. Mr. de Klerk, I said, echoing Mrs. Thatcher's famous description of Mr. Gorbachev, was a man we could do business with.
ON FEBRUARY 2, 1990, F. W. de Klerk stood before Parliament to make the traditional opening speech and did something no other South African head of state had ever done: he truly began to dismantle the apartheid system and lay the groundwork for a democratic South Africa. In dramatic fashion, Mr. de Klerk announced the lifting of the bans on the ANC, the PAC, the South African Communist Party, and thirty-one other illegal organizations; the freeing of political prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent activities; the suspension of capital punishment; and the lifting of various restrictions imposed by the State of Emergency. “The time for negotiation has arrived,” he said.
It was a breathtaking moment, for in one sweeping action he had virtually normalized the situation in South Africa. Our world had changed overnight. After forty years of persecution and banishment, the ANC was now a legal organization. I and all my comrades could no longer be arrested for being a member of the ANC, for carrying its green, yellow, and black banner, for speaking its name. For the first time in almost thirty years, my picture and my words, and those of all my banned comrades, could freely appear in South African newspapers. The international community applauded de Klerk's bold actions. Amidst all the good news, however, the ANC objected to the fact that Mr. de Klerk had not completely lifted the State of Emergency or ordered the troops out of the townships.
On February 9, seven days after Mr. de Klerk's speech opening Parliament, I was informed that I was again going to Tuynhuys. I arrived at six o'clock in the evening. I met a smiling Mr. de Klerk in his office and as we shook hands, he informed me that he was going to release me from prison the following day. Although the press in South Africa and around the world had been speculating for weeks that my release was imminent, Mr. de Klerk's announcement nevertheless came as a surprise to me. I had not been told that the reason Mr. de Klerk wanted to see me was to tell me that he was making me a free man.
I felt a conflict between my blood and my brain. I deeply wanted to leave prison as soon as I could, but to do so on such short notice would not be wise. I thanked Mr. de Klerk, and then said that at the risk of appearing ungrateful I would prefer to have a week's notice in order that my family and my organization could be pre-pared for my release. Simply to walk out tomorrow, I said, would cause chaos. I asked Mr. de Klerk to release me a week from that day. After waiting twenty-seven years, I could certainly wait another seven days.
De Klerk was taken aback by my response. Instead of replying, he continued to relate the plan for my release. He said that the government would fly me to Johannesburg and officially release me there. Before he went any further, I told him that I strongly objected to that. I wanted to walk out of the gates of Victor Verster and be able to thank those who looked after me and greet the people of Cape Town. Though I was from Johannesburg, Cape Town had been my home for nearly three decades. I would make my way back to Johannesburg, but when I chose to, not when the government wanted me to. “Once I am free,” I said, “I will look after myself.”
De Klerk was again nonplused. But this time my objections caused a reaction. He excused himself and left his office to consult with others. After ten minutes he returned with a rather long face and said, “Mr. Mandela, it is too late to change the plan now.” I replied that the plan was unacceptable and that I wanted to be released a week hence and at Victor Verster, not Johannesburg. It was a tense moment and, at the time, neither of us saw any irony in a prisoner asking not to be released and his jailer attempting to release him.
De Klerk again excused himself and left the room. After ten minutes he returned with a compromise: yes, I could be released at Victor Verster, but, no, the release could not be postponed. The government had already informed the foreign press that I was to be set free tomorrow and felt they could not renege on that statement. I felt I could not argue with that. In the end, we agreed on the compromise, and Mr. de Klerk poured a tumbler of whisky for each of us to drink in celebration. I raised the glass in a toast, but only pretended to drink; such spirits are too strong for me.
I did not get back to my cottage
until shortly before midnight, whereupon I immediately sent
word to my colleagues in Cape Town that I was to be released
the following day. I managed to get a message to Winnie and I
telephoned Walter in Johannesburg. They would all fly in on a
chartered plane the next day. That evening, a number of ANC
people on what was known as the National Reception Committee
came to the cottage to draft a statement that I would make the
following day. They left in the early hours of the morning,
and despite my excitement, I had no trouble falling asleep.
Doctor en Ciencia Política y Relaciones Internacionales (Universidad Nacional de Rosario, Argentina). Profesor y Evaluador en Cursos de Grado, Postgrado y Doctorado en el país y en el exterior. Director del Centro de Estudios Internacionales Argentinos (CEINAR) y de la Revista Argentina de Relaciones Internacionales, 1977-1981. Miembro Observador Internacional del Comité Internacional de Apoyo y Verificación CIAV-OEA en la "desmovilización" de la guerrilla "contra" en Nicaragua, 1990. Director de Doctorado en Relaciones Internacionales, Universidad Nacional de Rosario, Rosario, Argentina, 2002-2005. Investigador Científico del "Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas" (CONICET).