Interview with Sahm Venter

<p>Sahm Venter<br /><span>© Debbie Yazbeck</span></p>

Sahm Venter
© Debbie Yazbeck

You’ve worked on numerous books about Nelson Mandela and have interviewed him on a couple of occasions.. Did you discover information you didn’t know previously whilst working on the book?

Madiba’s letters are each, on their own, so rich and each one adds to the existing body of knowledge about his life in prison and at times, before he went in. Here and there they provide new detail which fills in gaps, broadens areas and emphasises others so it is hard to pin-point specific letters that provide new information. Every piece of writing by Madiba adds a new thread to the existing body of knowledge we have of him and his life and times.

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela is a selection of the hundreds of letters Mandela wrote throughout his time in prison rather than a complete collection. How did you go about making your selection? Do the letters come from several collections?

In 2009 Verne Harris, Director: Archive & Dialogue at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, assigned me the task of recording and copying all of Madiba’s personal letters at the National Archive and Records Service of South Africa in Pretoria. While going through the fifty-nine boxes containing letters – of the total of seventy-two boxes in the prison file – I found some compelling official letters and arranged for them to also be copied. I amassed a huge collection of mainly personal letters. In addition, there are several collections of original letters or hand-written copies housed in the archive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. These include the Himan Bernadt Collection donated to us by one of his former lawyers, and the Donald Card collection named for the former security policemen who, in 2004, returned to Mandela the hardcover notebooks in which he copied his letters before he handed them in for posting. The notebooks had disappeared from his belongings in prison in 1971. There are also original letters in Madiba’s personal papers he donated to us in 2004. Over the years I have also collected copies of letters from other private collections.
I wanted the book to tell as complete a story as possible about Madiba’s twenty-seven-and-a-half years in custody so it was important to select letters that helped to narrate the various aspects of this large chunk of his life. While he was forbidden from writing to family, and later friends, about prison conditions or to mention other prisoners, he could do this in letters to the authorities so those letters helped tremendously. I also selected the letters to family that best illustrated what was happening in their lives and the impact on him: the absent father, uncle, sibling and husband in different periods. It was important too for me to allow the letters create a picture of his changing circumstances over the years until finally, in the late 1980s when his force of character and deep resolve prevailed and coupled with the internal and external pressures on the apartheid regime, resulted in the release of other prisoners and finally Madiba himself into a South Africa which he had prepared for talks to end white minority rule and to usher in democracy.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation is still being gifted letters from individuals, or their family members, whom Mandela wrote to. This must be exciting. Can you tell us about this? Are there letters you know of that you haven’t been able to locate?

One of the particularly joyous aspects of working on this book was that I could use letters that had been gifted to us over the years, albeit in copy form. And I loved the synchronicity of the process which in some instances encouraged completely new letters to emerge. The publicity generated by the announcement of the book in June 2017 resulted in Meyer de Waal contacting Blackwell & Ruth. He was the son of an extraordinary couple; a lawyer, Piet de Waal and his wife, Adele. When Winnie Mandela was banished to a scrubby African township near the rural town of Brandfort in 1977, Adele befriended her. Unbeknownst to her initially, Piet was a good friend of South Africa’s justice minister Kobie Coetsee. Meyer allowed us to use the letter Madiba wrote to his mother in 1983 to thank the couple for the assistance and friendship they gave his wife. Remarkably two years later in 1985 when Madiba was in hospital in Cape Town for prostate surgery, Winnie Mandela was on a plane from Johannesburg to visit him when she spotted Kobie Coetsee. She went over and introduced herself and suggested that he also visit Madiba. Coetsee must also have been primed by Piet de Waal through their friendship. He did visit Madiba in hospital and the gesture inspired Madiba to reach out more formally to Coetsee to explore ways in which they could begin talking about what would be needed for both sides to eventually come to the negotiating table. Madiba had many meetings with Coetsee and later with an expanded government team while still in prison. Together they hammered out the conditions necessary for full-blown talks which began after his release in 1990. One day out of the blue I received a call from Sithembile Dingake whose father, Michael, was held in the same section as Madiba on Robben Island for some years. She had found my business card I had given him when I’d met him on the Island a couple of years previously. We got talking and she told me her father had kept a letter Madiba had written to him from prison after his own release. Yet another instance was when I contacted Morabo Morojele, a writer in neighbouring Lesotho who I knew was related to people Madiba mentioned in some letters. While he was explaining who so-and-so was and how they fit in, he mentioned in passing that he had a letter Madiba wrote from prison to his filmmaker uncle, Lionel Ngakane. We had to work fast to transcribe that letter, initially through blurry cell phone photographs, as the book was almost done but that one also skated in just in time.

For some of his time in prison Mandela made copies of his letters in an exercise book so he could refer to previous correspondence if necessary. His work practices are meticulous. Do you think the nature of prison life cultivated these exacting personal habits out of necessity or were these characteristics already very much part of Mandela’s personality?

From what I can gather from what I have read and learned about Madiba over the years, he was not only a meticulous person, but also that as he knew that there was heavy and arbitrary censorship in prison he wanted to keep copies of what he had written in case he needed to rewrite aspects of certain letters. He also knew that some letters would not reach the intended recipients so he could use these copies to resend them later. There are several examples of this in the book.

The book features thousands of notes that provide contextual information on people and events referred to in the letters. Often the people may be referred to by just their first name. What was your process for identifying people or investigating events?

I had to go to primary sources where possible and Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela and I visited Winnie Madikizela-Mandela on a number of occasions to ask for her assistance. Her remarkable memory, even at the age of 80 and 81, has helped tremendously.
I also had a lot of assistance from other members of the family such as Madiba and Winnie’s daughters Zindzi and Zenani Mandela, and their cousins Sino and Andile Xaba. I also reached out to members of the Matanzima family, and relatives of others: Vicky Kente, niece of Gibson Kente, was particularly helpful as was Sithembile Dingake, daughter of Michael Dingake, one of Madiba’s fellow prisoners. Mac Maharaj who was also in B Section on Robben Island with Madiba made himself constantly available to me despite his own heavy workload and was incredibly generous with information that so few people still possess today. Very few of the people imprisoned with Madiba in that part of the prison are still alive and Mac went above and beyond the call of duty to share what he knew. Without the assistance of this multitude of family, friends and acquaintances the supplementary information in the book would not have been nearly as rich.

Because letters were censored by the prison authorities, Mandela often wrote in code, using pseudonyms or African names to refer to individuals, or alluding to events in an ambiguous way. Can you expand on this?

An exciting part of making this book was that a fair amount of detection was necessary to discover the true identity of the recipients of certain letters where he used code or nicknames. It was thrilling, for instance, to find that Gcwanini Miya was in actual fact, Duma Nokwe, a brilliant lawyer and political activist who, like many others, had fled into exile. I found out first that Gcwanini and Miya are both South African clan names but it was not until Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela and I sat down with her grandmother, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela that the mystery was uncovered. She told us very quickly that Gcwanini Miya was, in fact, Duma Nokwe. I was sad to discover that he passed away in Zambia almost exactly a year after the letter was written and we don’t know if he ever received it. Duma’s true identity led me, through Madiba’s daughter Zindzi Mandela, to his two daughters who were not only thrilled about hearing about the letter but provided clues to the identity of others Madiba had written about.

Mandela’s obvious skill as a writer and his ability to tailor his communication style to his recipient illuminates these letters as beautiful pieces of literature. Do you think that the regular practice of writing letters developed his skills as a writer? Did he ever mention this?

Not to my knowledge but he did reveal after his release from prison that there was a fair bit of essay writing in high school and that in 1938 he won the prize at Healdton College for the best essay in his mother tongue of isiXhosa. In the beginning in prison he was only allowed to write and receive one letter every six months and of no more than 500 words. When he was asked about that in later years he did agree that it was a hardship. Here is a man, like many others in prison, who was essentially a family man. Besides his political work he had a wife he loved, children he adored, sisters, brothers- in-law, nephews, nieces and his mother was still alive until 1968. He had a great circle of friends and a wonderful social life. Barring the meagre correspondence initially permitted just to family, all of that social life came to a complete halt when he was imprisoned. He must have desperately missed that contact. His letters recalling music, song, dance, restaurants, the vibrancy of the life he lost appear to me to be a yearning for it. Wouldn’t we all feel that way? Apart from one’s own memories and imagination the only way to conjure up that lost life would be to write about it as carefully and accurately as one could recall. I can only imagine how in these circumstances, letters can assume an importance way  beyond the experience of those of us who have not been incarcerated.

When writing the notes for this book, you consulted closely with Mandela’s family, particularly his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Many of his letters to her and their children express so much passion and pain about private family matters. How did you approach asking personal questions with family members?

I believe that it is enormously important to be as respectful as possible. Madiba and his family have had, and still do have, so much of their private lives exploited in the public arena. They have been through a kind of hell that so many of us will never be able to understand. Having a man like him as a husband, a father, an uncle, a brother resulted in all kinds of deprivation, expectation and oppression. Layers and layers of emotional assault on his loved ones must surely have earned them the right not to have their feelings continuously analysed? Everyone who encounters and reads this book comes from a family and experiences its dynamics and relationships; we do not need to further abuse them by exploring those in depth. Madiba’s letters reveal all that we need to know about them and we can only imagine what they went through.

Out of all the letters, which one stands out for you the most?

It is extremely difficult for me to choose. Each one illuminates a certain aspect of his life as a prisoner which changed over the years. There is a letter though that, to me, encapsulates his determination, principle and integrity. Coming from a man who, when he was convicted on 7 November 1962 for leaving the country without a passport and inciting workers to strike, he addressed the court and said,

“If I had my time over I would do the same again, so would any man who dares call himself a man.”

Then nearly 24 years later, by which time he was in Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and had had access to newspapers for almost six years and their reporting about a new uprising, successive states of emergency, mass detention without trial and murders of anti-apartheid activists, he penned a simple letter to a family friend which, to me perfectly illustrates the mettle of the man. He wrote to Joy Motsieloa and said,

“When a man commits himself to the type of life he has lived for 45 years, even though he may well have been aware from the outset of all the attendant hazards, the actual course of events and the precise manner in which they would influence his life could never have been clearly foreseeable in every respect. If I had been able to foresee all that has since happened, I would certainly have made the same decision, so I believe at least. But that decision would certainly have been far more daunting.”

Working as a journalist, you covered Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. What was that like for you both professionally and as a South African?

My colleagues and I spent so much time at institutions housing Madiba including hospitals such as the Constantiaberg MediClinic where he was being treated for tuberculosis in 1988 and various prisons, in particular Victor Verster when he received visitors and during the many rumours that he was going to be released. In December 1989 a friend of mine Janet Levy, who worked on the production desk of a morning newspaper, told me that the front page lead headline for the next day was that Madiba ‘met’ then President FW de Klerk. My photographer colleague at the Associated Press, Adil Bradlow and I decided if we were to use this information efficiently, we needed to surreptitiously hang out near the prison house in which he was being held before dawn. We had heard that he woke very early. Feeling a little silly, we parked Adil’s car in darkness on a country lane within sight of the house. We had a flask of tea and biscuits and I think covered the hood of the car with branches. Sure enough at about 4 a.m. a series of vehicle lights approached the house. We drove up the lane towards the main road and waited close to the main entrance of the prison and I suppose, as one does, when we saw a few vehicles leave, we gave chase. Needless to say the security experts guiding the operation made sure we lost them! Like many other journalists I was able to meet Madiba within days of his release but it was in September 1990 that I had the opportunity to relate that particular prison chase escapade to him. I was delighted to discover that not only was he in the convoy but that he was aware of the operation to shake the “cheeky journalists”. More recently, Jack Swart the guard who took care of him at the house revealed that he was in one of the cars. That experience was almost more exciting than watching him finally emerge from prison in the late afternoon of Sunday, 11 February 1990. All I saw was his first in the air, a grey halo of hair and then the tears in my eyes.