Nelson Mandela Foundation


June 16, 2008 – In the fifth of the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s “In Conversation With” series, Dr Frene Ginwala talks to Tara Turkington about her relationship with Nelson Mandela, the early days of the international campaign to release political prisoners, political negotiations, the new parliament, her involvement in the inquiry into the National Director of Public Prosecutions’ suspension and the South African media.

Tara Turkington: In my opinion, from 1994 you and Nelson Mandela were symbols of stability and innovation, symbols of people who were going to be our leaders for a new country. I wanted to ask you to reflect on your personal relationship with Madiba and what it was like to work with him.

Frene Ginwala: I first knew him as a youngster, in the 1950s, when he was one of the leaders of the ANC, and we sort of “hero worshipped” him, if you like, even then. He and Oliver Tambo had started their law practice and they would be walking down from their office to the International Club or Kapitan’s for lunch, and the lot of us would come out and watch them. If you had asked any of us exactly what they did, we wouldn’t have known – like all heroes!

My contact with him subsequently was after 1960, when he went underground and I went into exile with Oliver Tambo.

I was in Dar es Salaam when I got a call from the Tanzania/Zambia border saying that ANC leaders had arrived, did I know anything about it, and I said I hadn’t been informed, but who are they? They put Joe Matthews on the phone. He didn’t tell me who was with him.  When they arrived, to my amazement, there was Nelson Mandela. My instructions from Oliver Tambo had been that when he did arrive I was to hide him, and he’s often joked that when I opened the door I looked at him and said, “Oh my God, I have to hide you!” Because there was this enormous man with a Basotho hat, in a sort of safari suit, with mosquito boots … I mean, you couldn’t have stood out more in Dar es Salaam! In two days he was out of the country. He then went to address the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East, Central and Southern Africa conference in Ethiopia, then on to Algeria and London.

The people he had stayed with were a Tanzanian minister and his wife, and after the minister died, his widow wrote to Madiba and said that for years she had treasured this pair of mosquito boots because they belonged to him, and she now wanted to come and give them to him. She did, and he was very happy to see her.

Much later I asked him, “All of us in exile were waiting for you; why did it take you so long after you left South Africa?” He said, “When I got to Botswana, I had to go and see Seretse [Khama]; there were problems there with the British government.” Now this is so typical of him: his sense of responsibility, and that if there was a problem he had to address it.

In about 1968 we decided in exile to launch a world campaign for the release of South African political prisoners. Madiba’s Rivonia Trial speech and mobilisation around it had already made him a figure. We wanted to use him as the symbol of that campaign, but the ANC has a tradition of collective leadership. The matter had to be referred to the Island and back came the word with great reluctance that we could use him. I think it’s important because you’ve heard Madiba time and again saying “I am part of a collective” – that goes right back.

The first time the ANC had a deputy president was in 1958. The constitution was changed because by then the ANC knew they were going to get banned and they would need someone outside the country to speak with the full authority of the president. And the agreement was that Oliver Tambo would be leaving the country. But in 1969, after the death of Chief Albert Luthuli, Tambo said that he was not going to become the president because Mandela ought to be. There was a big discussion on the Island. These are things which I think South Africans are unaware of: the continuity of leadership and that this wasn’t a group of exiles acting without [discussion]. Mandela was the commander-in-chief of Umkhonto weSizwe and he argued that if he was the head of that he couldn’t be the head of the ANC. Then Tambo became president of the ANC. I’m raising that also because of the relationship between the two, which was extremely close. So you’ve got that again, this collective leadership.

TT: And debate – it’s interesting that debate was happening even under very difficult circumstances.

FG: Yes, it had to. Had they put them all in separate prisons in different parts of South Africa they would have still found a way of communicating.

Another thing that was of tremendous importance: when Transkei became independent, and even before that, they had been offering Madiba his freedom if he would go and live in the Transkei. He refused and said: “Only free men negotiate, prisoners cannot negotiate.” 

TT: Incredibly courageous and unselfish, principled.

FG: It’s important that none of those senior leaders ever bought their freedom. They were committed to their principles. People said that Mandela was negotiating with the regime: he wasn’t.
I asked him what he felt like the night before PW Botha was to see him, and he said: “I was determined that he would not treat me like he had treated some African leaders, as a ‘boy’. I was determined that he was going to have to respect me and so I was prepared to insist on that.” What totally threw him was when he walked in, PW Botha got up, went and shook his hand and then poured tea for him. And so he wasn’t disarmed, but in a way it was uncharacteristic.

TT: Once the first government had been set up, what was your working relationship like?

FG: I think before that, in the negotiations … the ANC often had to seek mandates, and sometimes it took a long time to get mandates from the provinces. Madiba had always said FW de Klerk was a man of integrity, and I was one of many who had said, “You are too trusting.” It is a characteristic of him to look for the best in people. De Klerk had asked if he could speak at the end of Codesa, and Mandela had agreed and some of us were not too happy. And then De Klerk launched a stinging attack on the ANC and people were saying “How can we answer?” None of us reckoned on Mandela! No sooner had De Klerk sat down than he stood up; he didn’t look left or right and marched to the podium. I don’t think anybody could have stopped him. He didn’t ask for permission; it was his natural right to speak as the leader of the ANC.

He took the podium and he launched a very honest response. I don’t think any head of state anywhere in the world has, on national television, live, been exposed to criticism of that kind. Until then, within black South Africa, there had been a lot of concern about negotiations. There was concern about what was going on because it was too quick. And that evening there were people on their way home who had their radios on and they were listening, hooting, flashing lights, telling each other, and in the streets they were celebrating.

It had a very big impact. What was very important was his courage, saying “I have the right to speak; the ANC must speak; they must treat us with respect and dignity.” And in the negotiations, always, that we were equal partners. He was the one who always asserted it: that while they might be the government, they could not rule South Africa, so we had to be treated on the basis of equality.
These points show the kind of leadership he was giving. It was almost a natural kind of leadership, because he believed it so sincerely. Time and again, when talks were broken and so on, we would resume talks but always on particular terms. He was not going to kowtow. 

TT: I would like to hear your thoughts on the new government, in 1994.

FG: I had not wanted to be Speaker, but it was very much his decision, and he had to persuade the leadership about it. I wanted to go to parliament but I wanted to write and speak and be a member. Anyway I found myself as Speaker. Madiba had a tremendous respect for parliament; he thought it was very important; and he said to me: “You must run parliament in a way that carries on what we have done in negotiations, where we have tried to bring all parties on board, we’ve tried to involve everybody so that we take the whole of South Africa into this new arrangement.” It sounded great in theory, but I didn’t know what to do, because I had no experience in parliament before then!

I had a proposal but I wasn’t sure that I would get through the ANC. I wanted to put the minority parties on the front bench. I said to him, “Parliament is televised and people will watch it, and if they can see their leaders sitting in parliament there will be an identification.”

So he said, “Yes, it’s a good idea.” I said, “But it means moving the ANC. We are going to have to ask the ANC. If I run into trouble, will you help?” He said, “You’re running parliament!” Anyway I didn’t need to ask … We gave the Democratic Party, Pan African Congress and Freedom Front the front benches.

Madiba would come and sit in parliament and if he wanted to speak he would send me a note. Many times I told him: “You don’t have to ask for permission; that is your seat as the president of the country and you can come any time.” But his office would phone me and ask if was okay if he came, and he would still ask for permission to speak.

He showed a lot of respect for the institution in many other ways, for instance when Speakers from foreign countries came he would receive them, which is unusual for heads of state. 

At that point, in the early days, I used to go and see him regularly. He would also ask to see me, just to know how things were going, which was very good then because one would bounce ideas off him. Being Speaker was a job which nobody was familiar with, not even I. So before one took things to caucus I would meet to discuss with him, before anything was done.

I felt personally very strongly that the frontline states had suffered immensely for our liberation. Mozambique had been destroyed, virtually. I felt that South Africa ought to acknowledge in a public way what had happened in the frontline states. So when the president of Mozambique [Joachim Chissano] came and addressed parliament, I took it on myself, without any warning or discussion, even with Madiba, to apologise to him for the damage that my country had done to him and his people. It led to a walkout of the National Party from parliament while this was going on. And then of course there were demands for my resignation.  I went to him the very next morning and I said I had to do it. And he said to me, “You did right.” It was very important for me to get that kind of support, because I had really stuck my neck out on that one.

This was typical of him. He was very generous with his support as well as his time. He always found time.

He was also a stickler for time. In the National Executive Committee of the ANC, the political statement of the president in those days was always the first agenda item, so he would say, “The doors have to be locked and none of you will tell [latecomers] what I have said.” I was at a Commonwealth meeting of African heads of state, where I was to present a report on a Commonwealth meeting of governing and opposition parties in Africa. The meeting didn’t start on time, and the first thing Madiba did when we did start was to give a lecture to his fellow heads of state on the importance of starting on time, how it showed respect.

He had that standing, that authority and that conviction. He did not attack anybody, it was the way he put things. I have seen him lose his temper but it’s been in a different context and sometimes I felt that he was doing it almost deliberately as a device. But he would make that sort of point even to heads of state in a clear way but not in a way that somebody would find offensive. 

TT: I wanted to ask you a little bit about his legacy as a leader and what you think that is.

FG: It’s linked to this word “dialogue”. Most of us think of dialogue as “you and I talking”. His approach, when you pin it down and when he explains it, has been that very often, when you are talking, you are talking about different things and you don’t realise that. You may not even be addressing the same problem, because from somebody else’s perspective the problem may be very different from your perspective. So the first thing is to have a dialogue to understand each other and understand how the other person sees the problem. It is only when you have succeeded in doing that that you can begin to talk together about how to resolve it. 

If you went to him with a particular problem he would immediately ask, if it involved someone else, “What does that person say?” and you’d say, “I haven’t talked to them” and he would say, “Then please go and talk to that person, find out what that person has to say about the problem, not about you, not about what you want, but about what they want.”

That, I think, is the real legacy of his – that notion of dialogue. The right starting point is to listen and to try and get an understanding of the perspective of the person with whom you are engaging. What that brings about is a respect for the other person. You then don’t start using labels like “racist” and “opportunist”, because you are trying to go behind those labels and see why that person is doing or seeing something in a particular manner. 

He respects the perspective of other people and he’s tried to inculcate it in those who worked with him in the ANC, not always with success. I think that’s a legacy that transcends any particular situation or country.

So dialogue has to happen not to reach a solution but first to understand the problem and the perspective of the parties who are engaging. Only then do you reach a solution and bring reconciliation.

TT: I think I would be a poor journalist if I didn’t ask you about the commission you are chairing. [This is an inquiry into the suspension of the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Vusi Pikoli, in 2007.] What sort of role can and should this type of commission play in today’s South Africa?

FG: Why do you say “this type”? What do you see as different?

TT: The way I have read it is that it’s actually an HR issue that has escalated or that is of national magnitude, that it requires a commission to look into it.

FG: No, it requires a law. People haven’t read the law. Firstly, it’s not a commission.  It’s an inquiry. The President appoints the director of the National Prosecuting Authority and the President may (and the legislation says on what grounds) suspend the director pending an inquiry. That’s what I’m doing. I’m supposed to report to the President: these are the allegations on the basis of which they say he should be suspended. He can then say, “I was misinformed and therefore I’m reinstating him” or he can say, “Those grounds are validated and therefore I’m dismissing him.” Either way, parliament has to take a resolution confirming the president’s decision. It’s a unique case; there has not been an inquiry like this; and that is why I was asked to make the rules.

Two things I want to say about it. When I received a lot of the submissions, they were marked “top secret”, “highly confidential” … and since I was allowed to make the rules, I said you cannot classify an entire document. You have to classify each part and inform me why you are classifying it and at what level. And when those who had done the classification were forced to explain it, they removed all the classifications except one, which shows that there are still tendencies to be over-secretive in this country. 

The second thing I want to say is about something you put in your questions [emailed earlier], as to how I could be independent. Why should that be questioned?

There’s an assumption that any leader of the ANC is never going to act in the national interest – and on what basis is that allegation made?  Who does it? The opposition and white South Africa.

TT: But all governments around the world are fallible.

FG: Fallible is different. But if somebody is appointed to do a job, you don’t automatically say, on the basis of their political party, that they’ve lost their integrity – which is what they are saying, and they are saying it of all of us.

The implication of this would be that anybody who is a senior ANC leader has no role in public life outside of politics. What are we doing to this country and what are we saying? Those who supported apartheid have a role, but those who gave their lives for liberation are disqualified – by whom? Not by the constitution, not by the courts, but by the very people who supported apartheid, who now sit and presume to judge us.

TT: I think your point is a fair one: that you have a life outside of your role in the ANC. But in defence of the media, our job is to be suspicious.

FG:  Being a watchdog is not the prime role of the media in a developing country; it’s to help build the nation. When did we get an article on why it’s important to have integrity? On the constitutional principles?  We don’t get that sort of stuff. They have been brainwashed.

TT: My personal opinion is also that the media is weak.

FG: It’s ignorant.

TT: It’s under-resourced, newsrooms are juniorised and they report on events because it’s easier to report on what so-and-so said instead of underlying trends. We’ve also had a difficult past.

FG: Why not train your journalists, why are your news editors not more alert, why don’t they send them to stories? I’m not talking now of polishing government’s image. I have heard the media, when I was Speaker, saying, “But you are accountable to us” and I said, “I’m not, I’m accountable to parliament and to the South African public.”  They had the nerve to tell me I was accountable to them; that arrogance you see all the time. I’ve earned my living as a journalist under very difficult circumstances in Britain, so I know what I’m talking about. But the watchdog role is one of many roles and they have not yet learnt it.

If I come and tell you, “This is what we discussed on the National Executive and so-and-so said this to so-and-so,” that gets reproduced, but the bigger story gets missed: why am I telling you? Why am I leaking that story? That would be a much bigger story, but it’s much easier to write the other one.

TT: Some of our leaders have been good at slamming the media and if we are going to have a stronger democracy the media has to be stronger and encouraged.

FG: But they won’t be stronger because they see either what they call sunshine journalism or watchdog journalism and nothing in between, and that’s the problem.

A shorter version of this interview appeared in City Press newspaper on June 15, 2008

About Frene Ginwala

Dr Frene Ginwala helped shape the ANC’s and South Africa’s history. She went into exile in 1960 and worked for the ANC and as a journalist. 

After returning from exile, she was elected Speaker of the National Assembly of the Parliament of South Africa, a position she held for 10 years. She was instrumental in aiding the process of transformation within parliament.

Ginwala was elected vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in April 2005. She is a recipient of many degrees and accolades, including the Order of Luthuli in 2005 and recently the Order of the Rising Sun from Japan.