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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

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