Reflections in Prison

Essays show thinking of Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki before the 1976 Soweto uprising
Maharaj, Mac
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Reflections in Prison

Editor: Mac Maharaj
Zebra Press
Cape Town, 2001
ISBN: 1868723542
Soft cover, 18x24 cm, 268 pages, several photos

Publisher’s note:

In the first three months of 1976, during his imprisonment on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela wrote the bulk of his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. This was an illegal act, and the manuscript had to be smuggled out by fellow prisoner Mac Maharaj on his release that year. Maharaj used the opportunity to ask Mandela and other political prisoners to write essays about South Africa's political future. These were smuggled out with Mandela's autobiography, and are published, 25 years later, in this book. These essays provide a "snapshot" of the thinking of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and other prominent Robben Island prisoners before the 1976 Soweto uprising changed the face of politics in South Africa. As such they provide an insight into our history. Each essay is preceded by a biographical introduction and a sketch of the author specially commissioned for this volume.

Mac Maharaj was a prominent ANC member who was imprisoned on Robben Island for 12 years. Upon his release he was immediately placed under a five-year banning and house arrest order. Maharaj escaped the arrest and went into exile, in Zambia, where he remained actively involved in the ANC. Following the ANC's electoral victory in the 1994 general election, Maharaj was appointed Minister of Transport, a position that he held from 1994 to 1999. He is a member of the Board of Directors of FirstRand Holding Group, FirstRand Bank, Discovery Health and Softline Ltd.

Foreword by Desmond Tutu:

As I read these fascinating essays, I was struck so forcibly about the importance of memory, of history, for both the individual and the community.

A loss of memory is sometimes no more than a slight annoyance - such as when we have forgotten where we parked the car. But it can be more serious. What would happen if a renowned neurosurgeon who had perfected a particular surgical procedure and could carry it out almost in his sleep were to forget what the next step happened to be? Normally he would remember what to do, but now his mind has become blank. And what happens if I forget who I am or those to whom I am related? My identity is linked very intimately to my memory, and relationships would be impossible if memory went - that is why Alzheimer's disease is such a horribly distressing ailment. To what extent is the patient still the same person as she was before the disease assailed her if she cannot recall significant individuals and events of her past?

Without memory it would be virtually impossible to learn: we could not learn from experience, because experience is something remembered. I would forever have to start at the beginning, not realising that a hot stove invariably burns the hand placed upon it. What I know is what I remember, and that helps to make me who I am.

Nations are built through sharing experiences, memories, a history. That is why people have often tried to destroy their enemies by destroying their histories, their memories, that which gives them an identity. That is why new immigrants who want to become naturalised citizens of a new motherland are asked to appropriate significant portions of its history, its collective memory.

I pray that our people and especially our children will, by reading this collection of essays, remember the very high price that has been paid to achieve our freedom. It is so easy today to romanticise Robben Island as a tourist attraction and to forget the harsh conditions that many of our leaders experienced there. Who can forget the images in that photograph of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others sitting in long rows carrying out a thoroughly pointless and soul-destroying task - breaking rocks into small pieces? The system was intent on breaking their spirits in this and other ways.

If we do forget, we will place a very low premium on our new and hard-won freedom. We might then fail to cherish it, nurture it and guard it as something utterly precious, bought at very great cost - not to be frittered away wantonly.

Many feared that those incarcerated on Robben Island might have gained reputations of greatness whilst in prison that set us all up for huge disillusionment when we later discovered that our heroes had feet of clay. Mercifully, that has not happened, and we have evidence in these essays demonstrating that these were quite extraordinary persons, who in those very dark and sombre days, even before the Soweto Uprising of 1976, revealed indomitable spirits, holding on to shreds of hope and optimism when there was little objective evidence to justify it all. The essays invoke so many intriguing questions, both large and small. How, for example, did the writers obtain so much detailed information about surveys and statistics?

These essays are worth reading too for those suffering from amnesia about how apartheid benefited some and caused untold and unnecessary suffering to the vast majority in our beautiful land. Did George Santayana not declaim, 'Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it'? We need to know our past, to acknowledge it, to atone for it where appropriate, and so to resolve never to let the awful parts of it happen again.


Tempered steel. By 1976 Mandela had developed an immense capacity for self-control. This did not come naturally to him; his self-control was consciously cultivated and nurtured. He explained it in this way: 'When one is faced with [provocative] situations you want to think clearly, and obviously you think more clearly if you are cool, you are steady, you are not rattled. Once you become rattled you can make serious mistakes.'1

There was a period in prison when I became 'ratty'. Any provocation by a warder would incite me to backchat. I began to accumulate prison charges for cutting remarks and intemperate language. Mandela called me aside. My reactions, he explained, were correct and we ought to challenge the warders. The warders were at fault and were being provocative. The problem was that an injudicious word by me was picked on by the authorities to charge me. Prison rules and regulations were stacked against the prisoner. Patiently he advised me to maintain my stance; but instead of erupting spontaneously, I should pause, count to ten, measure my response, and choose my words. That way, he said, the anger would still charge my response, but I would be in control; my anger would not control me. Rather simulate the anger needed to give effect to the response, he counselled. That way your response would cut to the quick while keeping your defences intact.

From that time, it was the warder who squirmed with frustration. Never again did a warder succeed in pinning a charge against me. The advice stuck. My problem now is that I am often not sure when I am simulating anger!

How did Mandela achieve such extraordinary self-control? The secret, I believe, lies in his ability for introspection in the privacy of his self. The exercise of 'thinking clearly' involves many elements. The first element involves analysing the issues and getting a firm grip of the critical elements, such that one has a clear guide to one's positions and line of march. Mandela's greatest achievements stem from engaging with others by proceeding from their assumptions and carefully marshalling arguments to move them to his conclusions. His line of advance is developed on the other party's line of attack. In private, he never stops trying to understand the other side, be it the enemy, an adversary, an opponent or his own colleague. The second element of his introspection is his critical look at himself. It is never easy to hold up a mirror to oneself. In the courtroom of one's conscience there are usually witnesses for the defence only.

Self-control is not self-denial. What it achieves is an unparalleled focus. Iron is iron but there is a world of difference between a blade shaped out of wrought iron and a stiletto blade fashioned from tempered steel.
Mandela's personality is steeped in a passion for life and concern for the people. He is above all a servant of the people.

Clear the obstacle and confront the enemy – Nelson Mandela:

In writing an essay of this nature one may be tempted to take us back to Van Riebeeck's days2 and give a catalogue of all the injustices done to us with hardly anything to say on the burning questions that plague us today. We need to spell out the stumbling blocks on the way forward and offer suggestions for overcoming them. My main effort will lie in this direction.

The most urgent problem facing us is that of unity. To see the problem in perspective, we must first of all draw a clear line between the enemy and the oppressed people and at all times carefully compare the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. Failure to make this distinction has brought its own chain of problems and made some elements in the movement concentrate their fire on those who have always borne the brunt of the attacks from the enemy. Polemics are inevitable in a movement that is active. The more complicated the situation, the more bitter the controversies are likely to become. But there is a wide difference between constructive criticism that will pave the way to a consensus and mere invective that tends to harden the differences. The dividing line between the activities of plain government stooges and those elements in the liberation movement that delight in vilifying their fellow freedom fighters may be quite thin. In both cases the effect is to discredit the movement in the eyes of the people and to blur the demarcation lines between the enemy and us.

The immediate programme before us is to defeat the Nat regime and its apartheid policy.3 In this regard we can count on our side a wide range of forces who are hostile to all forms of colour discrimination, who would give us their moral support and who are ready to harass the enemy if only through taunts and jeers from a distance. Others are prepared to fight oppression to the bitter end, even though they differ with us on the means to be used in fighting against it. All these are valuable allies and even potential freedom fighters. We should reason with them constantly and patiently, and invite them to advance as far as they can go. This is an important aspect of our work. But the force that will shatter the enemy and on which we should concentrate all our resources is the political organisations we ourselves have built and which have led the people in the struggle for a free South Africa for more than 80 years. Our main task is to link up and to confront the enemy with a mighty force that enjoys the undivided loyalty of the oppressed people as a whole.

Unity is not easily achieved when dealing with several organisations, some of which have a large membership and have dominated the political scene throughout their history, while others are comparatively small and fear to be swallowed up by the big ones. In this connection, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) will play a key role, and a firm declaration committing these two organisations to a joint programme will represent a major breakthrough that will cut down more than 50 per cent of our problems. Unity between the ANC and the PAC has been blocked by differences over the Freedom Charter4 the role of communists and other national groups and allegations of extreme nationalism. It may well be that the Sino-Soviet dispute has crept in5 making it even more difficult to bridge the gap. The relations between the ANC and the non-racial Liberal Party were warm on the national level and lukewarm in some provinces. Again the main bone of contention was the reluctance of the Liberal Party to work with communists. But even in areas where relations were not zealous, contact was always maintained and ideas regularly exchanged.

At the same time the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM), a small but vocal organisation concentrated mainly in the Cape, makes venomous attacks on the Congress Alliance (that is, the ANC, the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), the Coloured People's Congress (CPC), the white Congress of Democrats (COD) and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU)) and labels all these as bourgeois nationalist reformist organisations that collaborate with the enemy. There is no other group that is as bitter in its condemnation of the Congress movement as the NEUM. Trotskyites are active in its ranks and the Congress movement seems to be discredited in their eyes by the mere fact that it admits communists as members. The NEUM has never been able to answer the widespread charge that there is no other organisation in the liberation movement in South Africa that has created so much disunity and confusion among the oppressed people as the NEUM. For this reason any suggested programme of unity which includes the NEUM immediately rouses strong opposition from all sides.

An examination of the policy documents of the NEUM, the utterances of its membership and the whole record of the organisation bear out this charge, and the general hostility towards them is understandable. Speaking for myself, my thoughts and actions are influenced by the knowledge that the ANC is in the forefront of the struggle, that its Freedom Charter is the most radical policy document ever adopted by a political organisation in South Africa, and that it is the organisation that will deliver the final blow against the enemy. But I also believe that a united liberation movement will ensure us speedy victory. In this connection there is no danger in making the unity programme broad enough to include anyone in the liberation movement. If any particular organisation does not want to join us we will fight without it. If it does join us it will be bound by the conditions laid down as a basis for unity.

With the exception of the white members of the COD and the SACP who are kept in Pretoria jail and women prisoners who are kept in the Barberton and Kroonstad prisons, all the organisations mentioned above are represented on Robben Island.6 In addition we have as our intimate comrades members of the South West Africa Peoples Organisation (SWAPO), iron men who remain undaunted and whose hostility towards and struggle against apartheid in this prison have never flagged. We have also recently been joined by a few members of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) and the Black People's Convention (BPC), all of whom are fine and dedicated people.


Foreword by Desmond Tutu
Where Thought Remained Unprisoned by Mac Maharaj
Clear the Obstacles and Confront the Enemy
Whither the Black Consciousness Movement? An Assessment
We Shall Overcome!
Indian South Africans - A Future Bound with the Cause of the
African Majority
The Anatomy of the Problems of the National Liberation Struggle in South Africa
Through the Eyes of the Workers
Towards Freedom
Let Us Work Together for Unity
Swapo leads Namibia
About the editor
About the artists