Nelson Mandela life story: An unconquerable spirit
For those who shared his struggle and his captivity, Nelson Mandela's moral strength was a source of constant inspiration - and occasional amusement
Friday 06 December 2013
"Mdala" - "old man", as Nelson Mandela and I used to call each other on informal occasions - was, like all human beings, not free of weaknesses and failings. He was an uncommon amalgam of the peasant and the aristocrat; the democrat par excellence, but not without a touch of the autocrat; at once proud and simple; soft and tenacious; determinedly obstinate and flexible; vain and shy; cool and impatient. He was, however, always a people's person.
Prison life is tailor-made to bring to the fore the best and the worst in human beings. Mdala - during our years together on Robben Island and, later, at Pollsmoor - stood with the rest of us in every aspect of prison life, through the bad and through the good. He was offered better clothing and better food by the authorities; he refused. Some colleagues suggested that, as our leader, he should not be participating in work such as polishing floors, cleaning the toilets, and so on; he refused, adding that in carrying out prison tasks there were no leaders: all were equal. Thus, on our weekly cleaning days, he was with the rest of us taking part fully in the chores.
In 1974, almost the entire prison population of Robben Island went down with flu. Of the 25-odd prisoners in our section only Mdala and three new arrivals did not succumb and were still on their feet. Every morning he and the three colleagues went from cell to cell, collected, emptied and washed the toilet buckets and put them out in the sun. He also helped take food and water to each cell. A number of times we resorted to hunger-strike action - the ultimate weapon of prisoners. ANC policy was to exempt the elderly and the sickly. Mdala refused to be exempted; he was with us in the "trenches", which he considered his rightful place.
&main=However, his eagerness to be with the "masses" did not always find favour with his fellow prisoners. The established practice with regard to smuggled newspapers was that the section that obtained a newspaper had to get relevant items transcribed, to be sent to other sections. It was a laborious task, especially in our section, which had so few prisoners and hence few transcribers. Mdala, of course, not wanting to shirk any responsibilities, transcribed the few articles he was given in his neat symmetrical and attractive writing. (It should be remembered that this involved a risk; if intercepted, the minimum punishment would be loss of study privileges for an indefinite period. The crime: abusing study material - namely, using ballpoint pen and paper for purposes other than study.) No sooner had our package safely reached the general section than the pages in Mdala's writing were returned to us with the plea, "Comrades, this writing is almost impossible to read; could you please rewrite it in legible writing and send it back to us." This sentence, blissfully, put paid to Mdala's career as a transcriber.
I first met him in the Forties, when he, Ismail Meer and J N Singh were fellow law students at Wits [University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg] and I, 11 years his junior, was still at high school. It was a time when a black university student, or a doctor or a lawyer - because they were so few - automatically won widespread admiration, and was looked upon as a leader. But it was during the Rivonia Trial, 20 years later, that I came to know best his formidable courage and determination. At our first legal consultation our lawyers made clear to us the very real prospect of the death sentence. In subsequent discussions among ourselves Mdala set the tone. He said we should conduct it as a political trial and carry ourselves with dignity and pride. The eyes of our people and the world were upon us, and we dare not show weakness. We could not rely on the Appeal Court to upset a death sentence. Only the struggle and the international solidarity could save us from the gallows. Therefore, in the event of a death sentence we should not lodge an appeal.
He spoke so powerfully and convincingly that it left little need for debate; we accepted his lead and prepared ourselves for the worst.
This stance was consistent with a characteristic that ran like a thread through all facets of Mdala's personality: once convinced of the correctness of a certain position he would internalise it and adopt it with passion. At times this would manifest itself in what I and some of our colleagues have called his stubborn streak. For example, one of the things that we valued very much as prisoners on Robben Island was a relaxed atmosphere, free of tension and confrontation.
The longer it lasted the better. During one such period of relative calm, in the mid-1970s, out of the blue Mdala came up with a proposal for a defiance campaign against the prison authorities. His "action" proposals were discussed and debated by ANC members in our section of the prison and unanimously rejected. They were sent to our members in the general cells and rejected there too. But Mdala would not give up. Then (I think without consulting us) he sought the backing of other political organisations.
Predictably, the only support he got was from Eddie Daniels, a die-hard Mandela loyalist, and from Swapo leader Toivo Ja Toivo, who was always ready for a fight with the authorities. As pressure against the proposals continued to mount, Toivo was eventually persuaded to withdraw his support, and after weeks of feverish debate Mdala gave in to the majority.
Mdala's aristocratic background left a streak of autocracy, but he was amenable to criticism. It must, however, have been uncomfortable to admit defeat, with a strong personality such as his. He was a proud man, and not without a touch of vanity. For example: by the time he went underground, in 1961, his most recognisable feature was his beard. Photographs of the bearded Mandela had appeared in newspapers and leaflets. I was among the small group who had been charged with organising every aspect of his underground life. We found safe houses and premises for secret meetings; arranged for regular contact with his family; provided transport within or away from Johannesburg; organised meetings with selected media people, and so on. To facilitate this, an essential requirement was that he be disguised and transformed into a "new man". Among other things he had to forsake his stylish and expensive clothing. But above all he had to shave his beard. He agreed to most suggestions but simply refused to shave. He must have known how the beard enhanced his looks and personality.
We regarded this de-bearding as absolutely essential but couldn't persuade him. It must be remembered that the security forces had launched a countrywide hunt for him, setting up roadblocks, stopping vehicles at random, searching houses, questioning people. Not for nothing was he dubbed the "Black Pimpernel". There were close shaves, and a couple of occasions when we were convinced he had been recognised by members of the public. But the beard remained. It was there when photos taken in an Algerian army camp appeared in the press. And it was still there when he was eventually arrested in Howick on 5 August 1962.
We were to come across other examples of this streak in his personality. His insistence at Pollsmoor prison that he had to have a certain brand of hair oil, and no substitute, became an issue of considerable importance to him. We dubbed it "the Pantene crisis". The prison warders searched for it high and low but Mdala would not accept that it was not available. I think he even complained to Mrs Helen Suzman, and this led to a renewed search. At last Chief Warder Brand managed to locate the last remaining stock of Pantene at some pharmacy. We were saved from another call to "action".
He was an unusually thorough man, at times too thorough for our liking. Whenever he set out on any project he tried to perfect his knowledge. This applied to everything from guerrilla warfare and Marxism to the study of Afrikaans.
Thus, when we were permitted to have a little garden, he felt it incumbent on him to improve on the experience he had had while growing up in rural Transkei. He ordered books on gardening and consulted warders and prisoners alike on the subject. For immediate implementation he chose the application of compost for healthy crops. Bones are said to make very good compost, so on "meat days" he collected them from all of us. But there was a major hurdle to overcome: compost from bones could be used effectively only in powder form and in the absence of mechanical grinders the only option was to hammer them down. For this there was a dearth of volunteers. So Mdala organised a stone-block, and day after day, for a few hours, he would patiently toil away, hammering big bones into small bones and small bones into powder.
Now, I had had some experience of this activity during my first imprisonment in Durban in 1946. However hard you laboured, at the end of the day you would produce only a few measly ounces of powder. And all it needed was a gust of wind to blow every particle away. I don't know why this labour of love had a short lifespan; it is possible that Mdala was diverted by another form of compost: one that was more readily available, and in greater quantities. This was natural compost, in the form of human waste. The first step was to dig a large hole in our courtyard. This done, we now had to make a radical change in our morning routine: instead of emptying our toilet buckets in the lavatories, we had to empty them in the hole. The inconvenience of moving away from established routines, the reduction of space in our already small courtyard, and above all the stench, did not endear this scheme to any of us. Luckily this initiative too had a short life, and before long we were back to normal. We sailed through the two compost periods unscathed, and continued to enjoy the produce of Mdala and his team of enthusiastic gardeners.
There were other incidents in prison, some relatively minor, which may add another and perhaps contradictory dimension to our understanding of Mdala's personality. In 1982, when five of us were transferred to Pollsmoor, it was the first time since our arrest that we had been put together in a communal cell. We were able to observe one another's habits and, where necessary, adjust to the novel situation. We were generally early risers but Mdala was earlier than us and started with his exercises. We had no problem with this, and not even with his running-on-the-spot; but we did object when he extended this to running around the cell.
At Pollsmoor, our observation was again reinforced that Mdala's care and concern for life was not restricted to human beings alone: he respected all living things. Once, on a coldish night, all five of us were snugly under our blankets in varying degrees of somnolence when we were disturbed by the loud chirping of a solitary cricket. The first instinct was to crush it to death, but each of us waited for one of the others to get out of bed to do it. At last we spied Mdala slowly getting up. Taking a towel in his hand he threw it over the offender and captured it. However, our admiration and appreciation for his initiative, and our relief, were short-lived. He went into the bathroom and instead of flushing it down the toilet he opened the window and let it out. Needless to say, either in gratitude to its saviours or in defiance, the insect continued merrily with its chirping until it was wake-up time.
This shouldn't have surprised us if we had remembered that on Robben Island Mdala refused to kill the ants that invaded his and many of our cells, or the bees that hovered around us with threatening gestures. Yet he did kill plenty of flies to feed the hungry chameleon that somehow strayed into our garden. And how did he reconcile saving the troublesome cricket with his active participation in putting to death a seal that beached itself while we were working at the seaside to skin it with glass from broken bottles and getting it ready for our cooks? This may be considered but a minor contradiction in his complex personality. While he generally had an enlightened approach to the practices, demands and problems of modern society he was careful not to stray too far from many of the requirements of traditional life. There was a controversy on Robben Island when an ANC prisoner who had been working in the hospital took it upon himself to run an illegal circumcision school. He had had no medical training, yet he had plenty of "patients" from across the political spectrum. We had been aware of the school's existence for a long time, but seldom discussed it. It was a non-issue; that is until the arrival of the mainly urbanised MK [Umkhonto we Sizwe] cadres of the post-Soweto period, some of whom condemned the practice: not on grounds of hygiene or safety but because it was a reversion to tribalism. In the ensuing debate Mdala defended the tradition.
Mdala did not fit comfortably into the category of the ordinary man. He was charming and charismatic. He had a magnetic personality and a commanding presence - qualities that set him apart from one's next-door neighbour. Yet there are questions that still loom large. Saint-like qualities were there in abundance; but can he be described as a saint? Do we have a well-rounded picture of the man?
One of his strongest qualities was his concern for those around him. In the mid-Seventies, I collapsed with a severe back problem and the doctor ordered that I be placed in traction.
This meant strapping me on a bed with a heavy cloth bag hanging from my feet to stretch my back. A bed had to be brought to an empty cell in our section - at the time we were sleeping on sisal mats on the floor, as all of us did for about 14 of the 18 year I spent with Mdala on Robben Island. And as there were not enough weights available, the bag was made heavier with half a brick and some gravel. I was duly strapped down and immobilised for more that a week. Each day Mdala would come and spend some hours with me. He also volunteered to attend to chores such as taking out the bedpan, but this was already being done by my friends Eddie Daniels and Laloo Chiba.
Mdala had a well-deserved reputation for being level-headed, cool and unflappable. It was virtually impossible to gauge his inner emotions; by and large they remained inscrutable. He felt deep hurt and sorrow at the deaths of his mother (in 1968) and his son (in 1969), and must have been greatly affected and angered by the harassment that his family experienced at the hands of the police. But he never showed it. Not for a single day did he allow his feelings to interfere with or overshadow his responsibilities towards his fellow prisoners.
Essentially, he had a cool temperament, one seldom given to excitement.
Another prison incident illustrates this - and is an indication of how exasperating it can be sometimes. We always looked forward to visits. Apart from their primary value as a means of keeping close to families and friends, they offered possibilities for picking up snippets of information, especially about the ANC. Mdala's visits were particularly valuable in this regard.
One day in January 1985 he was called to the office, and as usual we eagerly awaited his return. After a while he came back, greeted us, then went straight to his desk and busied himself. After a while, he called us together and informed us that he had been told that President Botha had offered to release him and all political prisoners if we undertook not to indulge in violence. They wanted our reply within a specified time. We did not have to debate the offer; the condition attached was completely unacceptable. We drafted our reply rejecting it.
Mdala was slow to anger. But on the rare occasions that I witnessed his cold anger, it verged on being uncontrollable and dangerous. Once, in reaction to some highly offensive remarks by a prison officer, Mdala admitted that he came close to physically assaulting him. We did not witness the argument, but Eddie Daniels and I happened to be outside the office and we saw him storming out, cursing and mumbling to himself. He did not even notice us.
On another occasion, the whole of South Africa and much of the world witnessed on television the public ventilation of his anger against the then president, FW de Klerk, at the opening of the Kempton Park talks. But this was a different kind of anger, an anger caused by what Mdala believed to have been an act of deception by Mr De Klerk, who had specifically asked to be the last speaker in order to launch an attack on the ANC. Mdala, who had already spoken, was so angered by this that he asked for an opportunity to respond to the attack. What was seen on television brought thousands of people in the townships into the streets, dancing and singing in celebration. This speech put paid to any doubts that people may have harboured about the wisdom of the ANC's entry into the negotiation process. Mdala made it forcefully clear that the ANC had come to Kempton Park not as a defeated party but as a proud participant.
Mdala's intense loyalty and sense of gratitude sometimes bordered on naivete. He didn't easily forget a good turn done to him or to his family, no matter how small. His attitude started from the premise that all people are good until the contrary is proven. If cautioned about a dubious or questionable character, the lawyer in him would immediately come to the fore. "Where is your evidence?" he would ask. Yet he was not beyond invoking unorthodox tactics to achieve his aims.
An example of this occurred at one of the end-of-year sports tournaments on Robben Island. He had been chosen by his team to play chess against Salim, a young man who had been a medical student at Wits. As in politics, Mdala's every move in chess would be carefully thought out, slow and deliberate. At the end of the first day the game had not finished, and the warder was asked to lock up the board in an empty cell overnight. As lock-up time was approaching on the second (or possibly the third) day, the game had still not finished. By that time, Salim was utterly worn out. He had neither the energy, the will, nor the desire to carry on for yet another day and he resorted to the only option open to him: abandon the unfinished game by conceding defeat. It was not so much a matter of the giant and the dwarf, nor the expert and the amateur. It was simply the combination of ability, an inexhaustible fount of energy, patience and determination against sheer fatigue and frustration. It was Mdala's war of attrition.
During our long years of enforced isolation, our thirst for news, especially about the struggle, remained insatiable. While we never lost confidence in the ultimate victory of our cause, we constantly had to assess and balance the reports and rumours that trickled through to us. We could not afford to allow ourselves to build high hopes based on exaggerated, unrealistic or grossly inaccurate news, as this could easily have led to disappointment and even a breakdown of morale.
At times we received wild reports about the armed struggle and about infiltration of the army by MK cadres leading to an imminent mutiny. The slogan "seizure of power" was increasingly used, especially by the post-1976 arrivals.
Some over-enthusiastic MK cadres came to prison with assertions that during our long years of isolation we had lost touch with developments in ANC policy; we were told that the ANC goal was now the achievement of "People's Democracy and Socialism". It was at times such as these that the wisdom, cool head, realism and foresight of leaders like Mdala were indispensable. He invariably brought the endless polemics down to earth. He reminded us that from day one it had never been envisaged that MK could achieve a military victory over the South African army; that MK's primary aim was to engage in armed activity alongside the political struggle and mass mobilisation; that the two together would force the enemy to the negotiating table.
With hindsight, it seems this line of thinking might have had a direct bearing on developments in Pollsmoor prison in the Eighties. After his hospitalisation at the end of 1985, the prison authorities did not bring Mdala back to the communal cell the five of us had been occupying since our transfer to Pollsmoor in 1982. Instead they isolated him in a cell away from us.
Our first reaction was to protest against his isolation and take some sort of action against what we regarded as punishment. But Mdala prevailed upon us not to do anything, adding that it might all turn out for the good. I have since come to believe that he must have made up his mind then to use his isolation to kick-start the negotiation process. But at the time he kept his cards close to his chest. He chose to act independently, possibly because he did not want to be hampered by long, drawn-out polemics, and opposition. As it turned out, when he was eventually allowed to consult us individually, he got lukewarm support from Walter Sisulu and firm opposition from me.
Only after he unilaterally took the first tentative step in that direction did he begin to consult us and keep us informed of developments. He also made contact with ANC headquarters in Lusaka. At the time I was the only one of the four at Pollsmoor to express my firm opposition to the initiative, although in retrospect I have been able to see it in the positive light of a Chinese saying: "Every journey starts with the first step."
I have said all I can, for now. There can be no claim to objectivity in this article, written as it is by one who had a profound respect, admiration and fondness for Mdala. It will have to be left to historians and scholars to provide for posterity a more complete and dispassionate analysis. Yet I hope that these memories will make some slight contribution towards a fuller picture of a man with whom I walked the same path for 60 years and more, and who was, I believe, one of the great figures of the past 100 years.
Ahmed Kathrada was a prisoner from 1964 to 1989. He was President Mandela's Parliamentary Counsellor from 1994 to 1999.
In The Independent on Saturday:
A special supplement celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela
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