SET MY PEOPLE FREE
MANDELA TO DE KLERK:
Aslew of newly discovered letters, written by Nelson Mandela while in prison, show how he dictated the pace of South Africa’s transition from behind bars.
The letters, which researchers at the Nelson Mandela Foundation came across just last week, show it was Mandela who forced then president FW de Klerk’s hand to free his fellow Rivonia Trialists in 1989, a dramatic act that speeded up the unbanning of political parties and the commencement of negotiations.
The letters, in which Mandela sticks to the release of political prisoners as a precondition for negotiations, contradict popular belief that his transfer to Victor Verster isolated him from his comrades and weakened his position.
If anything, it strengthened him. It was while he was there that he tested government’s commitment to negotiations by insisting on being given access to a number of people who later became power brokers in South Africa. These ranged from Pius Langa – then a human rights lawyer – to Progressive Federal Party stalwart Helen Suzman.
Verne Harris, director of research and archive at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said the letters also illustrated his commitment to his fellow prisoners, whose unconditional release he used as a bargaining chip.
“In the late eighties, we were all fearful of Madiba selling out because of his isolation … This is evidence that he did not. Yes, he was talking to the regime, about talking about talks. Yes, he was isolated, but that shows you the extent to which he still regarded himself as part of a collective.”
In a letter dated September 11 1989, which researchers at the foundation recently stumbled upon when recataloguing his letters, he calls on the Commissioner of Prisons to release Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Walter Sisulu.
“All of them were sentenced in June 1964, and all of them are now more than 60 years of age, Mr Sisulu having turned 77 last May and Mr Mhlaba 70 last February,” he wrote in the letter originally housed with the National Archive.
Also in the letter, he urged for the release of Wilton Mkwayi, Matthew Meyiwa and Elphas Mdlalose.
And Mandela pleaded the case of Jeff Masemola, who was not a member of the ANC but of the rival PAC.
“Mr Jeff Masemola, presently held in Diepkloof, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1963. All his coaccused have been released, some of them as far back as four years ago. But the Department of Prisons continued to hold him in spite of his health and age. I should add that the release of one or a couple of these men only will no longer have any significance.”
In a tone brimming with confidence and selfassuredness, Mandela asked that, once released, the men were brought to Victor Verster to see him.
The government complied. On October 15, Kathrada, Mhlaba, Mlangeni, Motsoaledi, Mkwayi and Sisulu were released. Once free, they proceeded to openly revive structures of the banned ANC inside South Africa.
Now showing the growing power of Prisoner 46664, Mandela wrote another letter on November 6 with a list of prominent people he wanted to visit him at the prison.
Some were still imprisoned, some were in detention and others were leading defiance campaigns on the streets of cities and towns. Most would later become part of democratic South Africa’s establishment.
They included Pius Langa, Helen Suzman, Popo Molefe, Mosioua Lekota, Tokyo Sexwale, Patrick Maqubela, Ben Martins, Mewa Ramgobin, Billy Nair, Lewis Skweyiya, Trevor Manuel, Cheryl Carolus, Mkhuseli Jack, Ihron Rensburg, Murphy Morobe, Cyril Ramaphosa, Sydney Mufamadi, Peter Mokaba and Dali Mpofu.
While Mandela thanked the newly appointed president FW de Klerk for facilitating the release of Robben Island prisoners, he was unhappy that not all of the men on his list had been released.
So, in December, he wrote a lengthy document in which he set out the ANC’s preconditions for negotiations with the government. It was a tough, uncompromising document which demonstrated that he felt he was negotiating from a position of strength.
“The conflict which is presently draining South Africa’s lifeblood, either in the form of peaceful demonstrations, acts of violence or external pressure will never be settled until there is an agreement with the ANC.
“To this end I have spent more than three years urging the government to negotiate with the ANC. I hope I will not leave this place with empty hands. The government insists on the ANC making an honest commitment to peace before it will talk to the organisation. This is the precondition we are required to meet before the government will negotiate with us.
“It must be made clear that the ANC will never make such a commitment at the instance of the government, or any other source for that matter. We would have thought that the history of this country’s liberation movement, especially during the last 41 years, would have made that point perfectly clear.”
He further amplified the ANC’s preconditions by reiterating that they included the release of his comrades who were still in prison: “I must now refer to a different but related matter which I hope will receive your urgent attention, that is the release of four fellow prisoners who were sentenced to life imprisonment by a Natal court in 1978 and who are presently held on Robben Island. They are: Matthew Meyiwa (66 years), Elphas Mdlalose (66 years), Anthony Xaba (56) and John Nene (56) …
“For reasons which were carefully explained to ministers Gerrit Viljoen and Kobie Coetsee on 10 October 1989, and to the government team on 16 November 1989, I had expected Messrs Mdlalose and Meyiwa to be freed together with the eight fellow prisoners … I was indeed extremely distressed when the two were not included.”
When there was silence from the government on the latter, Mandela wrote again to the Commissioner of Prisons, General WH Willemse, on January 22 1990 – less than a month before his own release.
This time he was terse and diplomatic, merely referring the recipient of his letter to an attachment, an article from isiZulu newspaper UmAfrika.
In the article, reporter Fred Khumalo had written a report on the unease that had gathered in violence-torn Natal in the wake of government’s failure to release Meyiwa, Mdlalose, Xaba and Nene.
“The article fully confirms the concerns expressed to Ministers Kobie Coetsee and Dr Gerrit Viljoen on 10 October 1989. It is to be hoped that everything will be done to ensure the release of the four fellow prisoners at the earliest possible convenience.
“As in previous cases, it would be appreciated if all arrangements are made for them to visit these premises [Victor Verster] before they are released.” His demand was duly met. On February 2 1990, De Klerk unbanned the ANC. A week later, Mandela was released.
In May, negotiations between the ANC and the government began.
UNITED WE STAND Anti-apartheid ANC struggle stalwarts Raymond Mhlaba, Oscar Mpetha, Andrew Mlangeni, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi and Wilton Mkwayi after their release in 1989 in Soweto