Nelson Mandela: the first call to arms
Fifty years ago South Africa was at boiling point, its black population brutally oppressed by the apartheid regime. Into this maelstrom stepped Brian Widlake, a young reporter for ITN, who here tells of how he got the ultimate scoop – an explosive interview with Nelson Mandela, the last before his imprisonment on Robben Island
Published: 11:30PM BST 28 May 2010
Nelson Mandela in the early 1960s Photo: AFP/GETTY
When Eugene Terreblanche was murdered in South Africa last month the remaining vestige of the Herstigte Party’s desperate ambition to maintain white rule in the country died with him. The great white supremacist threatened civil war in the 1980s if President FW de Klerk handed power to Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. A compelling orator on his day, he was a militant Boer to the end.
But 50 years ago, when South Africa celebrated its first Republic Day, the boot was on the other foot – and firmly on the throats of black Africans. Hendrik Verwoerd and his National Government had institutionalised apartheid, or ‘separate development’ as the prime minister liked to call it. And he did it by the gun, torture and beatings. In 1960 the police shot dead 67 black Africans at Sharpeville. Paranoia led to bans on political parties, among them the ANC, whose de facto leader was Nelson Mandela. He was already working underground, the most wanted man in South Africa, but a series of unlikely events led me to conduct the first and last television interview with him before his imprisonment (for 27 years) on Robben Island.
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The overwhelming emotion in South Africa at that time was fear. However beautiful the land, its politics ran on tramlines and their implementation was brutal. There was generally a treason trial on the go (treason, and therefore communism, topped the list of crimes against the state in Dr Verwoerd’s government). There were endless shootings, torture, beatings and bannings by the security forces, many for unspecified reasons, though ‘suspicion’ was generally good enough.
As new laws became ever more aggressively anti-black, so human rights became a rapidly receding dream. To Nelson Mandela, the announcement of a Republic Day was a call to action. Political protest by the ANC had always been strictly limited to non-violent or ‘peaceful’ demonstration. Mandela was now proposing something more ambitious and dangerous: a three-day national strike of all black workers to culminate on the date of the first Republic Day itself, May 31. It was a tall order. The government’s immediate response was to mobilise the army, the police and tanks in huge numbers and to arm civilians. In effect, the country was in a state of national emergency.
By this time Mandela was a well-known figure. Tall, well built and a good amateur boxer, he had a light, wispy beard and an unashamed vanity paraded by immaculate tailoring. He was a charismatic man who commanded attention, and fugitive status added to his glamour. Banned from political work and unable to pursue the legal profession for which he was qualified, he flitted from safe house to safe house too often, giving the impression he was indifferent to risk. Random visits to political leaders and organisations in other African countries were criticised by his own national executive, who wanted Mandela and other key figures to work exclusively out of sight and mind.
Mandela’s favourite undercover base was a small hut among the outbuildings at Lilliesleaf Farm in the Rivonia suburb of Johannesburg. The farm had been bought by the Communist Party and welcomed political refugees and activists into the bosom of a white, Jewish middle-class family who used it as their home. Mandela recalled later that Lilliesleaf ‘reminded me of the happiest days of my life, my days of childhood’. (The farm eventually fell to ruin but not before a tip-off that led to a police raid of immense political importance. The police netted three of the ANC’s biggest fish: Walter Sisulu, a key mentor of Mandela’s; Ahmed Kathrada, an Indian communist; and Govan Mbeki, a weighty, theoretical Marxist and father to Thabo. All were arrested and, after the famous Rivonia Trial, during which police produced incriminating papers that Mandela had left in the hut, were convicted of treason for their plot to overthrow the government.)
Much of that period of black resistance took place in cities and townships. But Mandela was a country boy – he did not come to Johannesburg until he was 22 – and deeply conscious and proud of his tribal heritage and of the ‘royal’ blood in his veins. He learnt the rudiments of leadership by sitting at the feet of the tribal elders. Tribal life and customs were subject to rules and behaviour derived from social cohesion and unity. They became embedded in his psyche.
But by the early 1960s the country boy was in his Johannesburg bunker urging all black African workers to down tools for three days. The government, though, had introduced zero-tolerance laws against strikes, and the penalties were severe. Moreover, nothing, not even a mass walkout, would prevent the National Party’s celebration of Republic Day.
This is where my story begins. I was with Independent Television News at the time. Formed in 1955, ITN was the news arm of Independent Television. News was kept on a very tight rein and with absurdly low budgets, a problem exacerbated by the unions, which insisted that film crews and reporters flew first class and slept five-star.
But South Africa’s first Republic Day and the rumours of a Mandela- instigated national strike which was bound to bring blood to the streets were obviously newsworthy and demanded an ITN presence on the ground, so money was found to send me and Len Dudley (my ‘silent’ cameraman, as they were known in the days before audio and vision were synchronised). With a cheap freelance sound and lighting crew from Rhodesia and precious little to go on – no interviews secured, no locations scouted, no telephone numbers to work with, no permits – we were dispatched to the airport.
Len and I arrived in Johannesburg in time for a late dinner and a quick chat with the Rhodesian crew led by Klaus Krieger, an unflappable German. He had bad news: a permit to film anywhere in South Africa was mandatory and granted only by magistrates. It was midnight, so a permit was out of the question. As I was expected to lead ITN’s main news bulletin with a report on the opening day of the strike, this was a serious problem. I had planned to open with a piece to camera followed by vox pops with striking African workers. I decided to go for it and risk the consequences. In the lobby I ran into Ernie Christie, a cameraman working for the BBC, who lived in Johannesburg. ‘What are you going to do?’ he asked. ‘Vox-pop the Africans,’ I said, ‘without a permit to do so.’
The vox pop was the standard for taking the temperature of people in the street – a sort of crude opinion poll favoured by reporters and editors working against a deadline. ‘Be careful, Brian, they’ll get you under the Suppression of Communism Act,’ Ernie warned. ‘It’s a catch-all law.’ The country was at fever pitch and so too the police, who sensed danger in every foreign face. I didn’t sleep that night.
At seven the following morning we set up the camera in a quiet square, well away from the prying eyes of passers-by and motorists. The sound camera was on a tripod with a 10-minute magazine of film and a spare. The sound recordist was plugged in. Len Dudley cruised around searching for action. Eventually an African emerged from an alleyway and stopped some 30 yards away to examine us. He was very curious. That’s a crucial element in filming, whether you are shooting lions or humans – get them interested. As he edged towards us, there were signs of more activity. A dozen more Africans emerged showing equal interest. They were not at work; indeed they were on strike – just the people I wanted.
We reckoned we had 15 minutes to do the vox pops and then drive like hell for the airport. The questions had to be neutral, not leading: why are you on strike? How long are you prepared to stay away from work? What do you think of the government? And so on. Let the people speak for themselves. I noticed that I was beginning to collect an audience and more participants. There were white South Africans there, too, and not necessarily whites on the side of the government. A genial debate evolved so I dived in. Suddenly these were no ordinary vox pops, not the usual fillers at all. They were dynamite.
Len tugged at my sleeve. ‘We’d better be going. We’ve got a plane to catch.’
A white man standing a few feet away looked at me with venom. ‘I’m denouncing you,’ he shouted, pushing through the crowd.
‘What for?’ I was not as calm as I sounded.
‘For putting words into the mouths of Africans. I have called the police.’
The police wagons arrived with such speed that I was convinced that they had been concealed down a side street. Khaki uniforms, polished Sam Brownes, peaked caps and batons discreetly aligned to their lower arms, almost invisible. One of them took me by the elbow; Len was only a couple of feet away. ‘Take the two of us,’ I told the officer. ‘Leave the film crew alone. They’re hired hands.’ To my surprise he did as I suggested, but not before he had instructed two of his staff to seize the camera, the film and the tape recorder.
We were taken to a grey, anonymous building of some 10 floors. A lift took us to an upper floor where we were ushered into a large office. At the far end, behind an enormous desk, stood Colonel Spengler, the head of the Witwatersrand district of the Special Branch. He had form: he had been present at the Sharpeville massacre, one of the bloodiest episodes in apartheid history.
It appeared that he had already worked himself into a fury. He had severely short hair and floppy grey jowls, which shook with his anger. He found it hard to keep still: standing, then sitting, then standing again as he stared us down. Len and I were consumed by a mixture of amusement and disbelief. The more he ranted, the more absurd he became. ‘Where are they?’ he shouted obsessively. ‘Where are the tapes?’
There was a knock at Spengler’s office door. Two detectives came in and had a whispered conversation with him. The two men had listened to the confiscated tapes and there was no case to answer. My caution had paid off.
‘Well, what do we do now?’ Spengler shouted at me. ‘It was your idea to arrest me in the first place,’ I answered with surprising assurance. ‘Answer the question,’ he shouted back. ‘What do we do now?’
Had we been arrested for not having a film permit, Spengler would have been able to invoke the law. But no one had asked for a permit. They simply assumed that by interviewing black Africans I was now a proven enemy of the state – a different and, I imagined, much more serious offence.
If Spengler was in a spot, so was I. Without a permit I would not be able to film the first Republic Day in Pretoria. My vox pops had been destroyed by Spengler’s detectives and because of my arrest I had missed the plane to London and therefore the news bulletin.
As it happened, the world’s media – most of whom were staying at my hotel – had already filed stories about my arrest. ITN led the bulletin with it. Spengler must have known that the story had landed on newsdesks in London. Soon reporters would be asking him on what grounds he had made the arrest. That was the last thing he wanted, and it showed. So I took a punt and told him that I didn’t have a permit and, I assured him, I would tell reporters that there was a technical misunderstanding over my arrest. In return, I needed him to fix a magistrate to sign a film permit first thing in the morning. ‘Of course, of course,’ he said in an extraordinary volte face. ‘I will tell him to arrange it immediately.’ Then we parted company.
The magistrate did nothing of the kind. He put me to the back of the queue in his office the next morning and I got my permit four hours later. When I returned to my hotel I ordered a large whisky and soda and sulked. Patrick O’Donovan, the Observer’s brilliant correspondent, who was at the bar with me, noted my mood. The vox-pops film had been destroyed by Spengler’s men and his spooks were on my case. I had nothing.
O’Donovan was a decent, sympathetic man.
He lived by the notebook and I by the camera. ‘Would you like to interview the Admiral?’ he asked. I guessed that he was referring to Nelson Mandela. ‘You’d better meet Ruth First, she can fix it.’
Ruth First had an immense Jewish drive which had landed her with four first-class degrees at Witwatersrand University where she knew Mandela well and had edited a volume of his speeches and articles. She was a committed Marxist who wrote incendiary stuff for left-wing papers. Her political activities meant she was always on the Special Branch’s radar.
Several years after I met her, when she was living in England, she was killed by a letter bomb almost certainly sent by Spengler’s men. But the day that she walked into my Johannesburg hotel she was vibrant and enthusiastic. I was halfway through my proposal for a clandestine interview with Mandela when she interrupted me, her dark eyes sparkling with an engaging complicity. ‘It can be arranged; we can do it within 24 hours,’ she said, sweeping away any doubts about security arrangements.
This was to be the first – and it transpired last – television interview with the man known to Africans as the Black Pimpernel. When Mandela spoke, South Africa listened. He was the public face of government opposition, and right at this moment a global audience was an unforeseen godsend to him and the movement.
Among Ruth’s vast circle of contacts was Julius Lewin, a professor at Wits. His passport had been confiscated on the grounds that he was a liberal and by implication a communist. He had a modest bungalow outside the city centre, near Zoo Lake, with a neat garden and high hedges. The house had various exits – ideal for quick getaways. He was sanguine about his own risk, which was immense, and said little before shaking the hands of the crew and disappearing into the night.
The small living-room was furnished liberally with packed bookshelves and had one plain brick wall that made an ideal, anonymous background for the interview. The crew went to work with blackout material and soft lighting – we would have to make it impossible to identify the location. I had been driven to Lewin’s house by one of Mandela’s colleagues – Ahmed ‘Kathy’ Kathrada. He drove like a man being tailed, from which I drew crumbs of comfort. It took for ever, both of us silent and sweating while dusk turned to dark. (He later told me that the spooks were nothing to do with it. He had completely lost his way and was in genuine fear of missing Mandela’s arrival altogether.)
I was staking a lot on Mandela, the most wanted man in Africa and the ultimate scoop for a young television journalist. I had not told ITN in case the story fell flat, and I made sure only a handful of trusted South Africans knew the plan. Mandela was due at 2am. We had allowed 20 minutes for the sequence, which meant one change of film and no retakes. We had to nail it first time.
Mandela arrived dead on time. For a big man he moved very quietly and was in the middle of the room before we realised it. He wore a black leather jacket and I immediately recognised the trademark beard. There was no sign of the flamboyant sharp suits. He was round in the face, almost podgy, with a near centre parting of his hair. He looked tired, listless even, and spoke without his usual flair. The ready smile for the camera was absent. He was cross-legged and his strong frame sagged back into his chair. The showman – never far from the surface – had crept into the wings. He had had a terrible day. Predictably, the strike had been a failure and he had called it off. He was depressed by the media’s ‘shameful role’ in denouncing the strike and Spengler’s gloating. There had been a military and police presence at every pressure point.
He began answering my questions in a weary, strained voice. (The five-minute interview was shown on ITN News and is played to this day at the Apartheid Museum and at Lilliesleaf, which has been imaginatively restored with brilliant audio and visual technology.)
‘What do the Africans really want?’ I began.
‘Africans require, want, the franchise on the basis of one man one vote. They want political independence.’
‘Could that happen without the Europeans being pushed out?’
‘We have made it very clear in our policy that South Africa is a country of many races; there is room for all the various races.’
‘Are there many educated Africans in South Africa?’ I continued.
He appeared irritated by this question, as if it were an accusation and that the lack of educated Africans was a justification for keeping them disfranchised. ‘Yes, we have a large number of educated Africans but it has nothing to do with the question of the vote. Numerous occasions in history tell us that people can vote without education. You want certain fundamental rights and you have aspirations and claims; it has nothing to do with education whatsoever.’
‘Are you planning any more campaigns of non-cooperation?’ I could feel the tension as I asked this.
‘Yes, the Pietermaritzburg resolution makes provision for a campaign of non-cooperation with the government and we are presently starting plans to implement this aspect of the resolution,’ he replied in a monotonous, almost robotic tone. (The Pietermaritzburg conference was the biggest political meeting ever held in Africa; it called for a new constitution and, failing that, a strike.)
‘If Verwoerd’s government doesn’t give you the kind of concession that you want, is there any likelihood of violence?’
Then he dropped his bombshell. ‘There are many people who feel that the reaction of the government to our strike – a general mobilisation, arming the white community, arresting tens of thousands of Africans, the show of force throughout the country, notwithstanding our clear declaration that our campaign is being run on peaceful and non-violent lines – closes a chapter on our method of political struggle. There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile to continue talking about peace and non-violence against a government whose only reply is savage attacks on an unarmed and defenceless people.’
Nothing could have been plainer. The controlled aggression was back. Mandela’s words were delivered robustly and with some impatience – as if, knowing his moment, he had aroused himself from the earlier lethargy. He had got his headline, I had got my story. It was the first call to arms, and it took place in an unpretentious white middle-class house half a mile from Spengler’s office.
He left as quickly and quietly as he came. He was with us for not more than 20 minutes. We stood rooted to the spot, shaking. Klaus Krieger lit a cigarette, we all followed suit and wished there had been drink on hand. Len said we had to move fast so we de-rigged in a hurry, throwing various technical things into a bag and the tapes into a leather satchel. Len went straight to the airport with the satchel and a note from me that it was not to be transmitted until I was safely on a plane myself.
I went back to the hotel for a large whisky.
The interview made headlines, but not nearly as many as it should have. Somehow, nobody grasped the immediate significance of Mandela’s words. It is worth remembering that this was an astonishing reversal of ANC policy. Although a tactic of violence and guerrilla warfare had been discussed by the ANC before, it had always been shelved. But the savagery with which the government had met Mandela’s strikers could not be ignored.
Initially, Mandela was admonished by the ANC executive for his off-the-cuff, unapproved statement, but not for long. Within a few months he was commander of MK, ‘Spear of the Nation’, formed to attack public utilities and any other targets valued by the government. But killing people was never on MK’s agenda. By no stretch of the imagination was MK truly a threat to national security. It did not have training, structure or enough personnel. I could not believe that Mandela would not be captured soon, and a year later he was, while on the road to Durban, though who tipped off the police remains a mystery.
I have left out one other question from the interview. Before he left Lewin’s house, I asked him about the Afrikaners’ nightmare – that if a black majority won power it would suppress the whites in revenge for apartheid, and that South Africa would become a black republic. He looked genuinely surprised that the question should be asked, and quoted the opening words of the Freedom Charter: ‘We, the people of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.’
At the Rivonia Trial, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment and served 27 years. With him on Robben Island, among many others, were Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kath rada. This period of his life helped shape the great conciliatory politician and ambassador that we have watched so closely during the past 20 years. He placed unity almost above all else, winning the trust of President FW de Klerk and then of a whole, once-divided nation. His achievements are nothing short of a miracle.