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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Document 21. Memorandum on ANC "discord" smuggled out of Robben Island, 1975?

NOTE: It has never been established who wrote this document; Mac Maharaj & Ahmed Kathrada have tried and although they do not dispute the overall thrust of the document's narrative, they do take issue with some aspects of what it reports. But that, too, may be a matter of recall the events referred to took place over 30 years ago & they were, of course strong Mandela stalwarts.


In 1969 some discord arose amongst the ranks of the Congress movement in the single cells section of the prison. The discussions lasted for over a period of six years (1969-1975). During its duration, it fluctuated in intensity at times reaching extreme tension and bitterness, at times abating in response to efforts to solve it.

Robben Island prison is divided into two main prisons-the ordinary criminal prison and the political prison, which in turn is subdivided into three subsections-the main section, D section (so called Terrorist Section), and the single cell section. The three sections are completely segregated and strict security measures are enforced by the jail authorities to see that no contact or communication of any sort exists between the sections. The Congress Movement, of course, runs its own efficient regular clandestine communica tions channels but [these] were never used to spread differences to the other sections and the dispute remained confined to the single cells section.

The population of the Congress Movement in the single cells section never exceeded twenty-four, it oscillates with the number of discharged and new arrivals.

Since the beginning of the discord, quite a few members have been discharged from this section-all men who were naturally involved one way or the other-and could not have been impartial on the subject.

We don't think it far fetched that each independently might have reported on the dispute to the outside and in the process presented a biased interpretation of events. This report besides aiming at an accurate summary presentation of the major facts to correct individual distortions seeks to announce a happy resolution of the whole matter.

Background to the issues:

Our Executive Body in the Congress Movement is the High Organ. The original High Organ from 19651972 were: Madiba [Mandela], Xhamela [Sisulu], Govan [Mbeki], Ndobe [Mhlaba], joined in 1967 by M. D. [Naidoo] The only two sub-committees are syllabus and communications. Member-ship is organised into five units.

The dispute first erupted into the open when one unit proposed a discussion on the movement's attitude to separate development institutions (Coloured Labour Party, Bantu Homelands and Indian Council). Before then there was a simmering discontent among certain members because some of their fellow members were discussing these institutions informally with those of other organisations, and there was a rumour that Indian comrades who are not organised into a separate machinery had obtained permission from the High Organ to discuss the Indian Council and that they had done so and taken a decision which was not reported to the rest of the members of the Congress Movement. A split also existed in the communications committee on the issue of creating a machinery for communication with the external body. However, the bubble, as we say, was pricked by a suggestion for a formal discussion of the institutions of apartheid. After the High Organ had accepted and referred the matter for discussion to the units, one unit objected to such a discussion and suggested that the syllabus committee was the proper body to discuss the issue as a purely theoretical question. The High Organ then revoked their original decision and referred the topic to the syllabus committee. There was no mandate to the syllabus committee to give the topic any priority, and as the syllabus committee was already committed to its current programme the issue did not receive immediate attention, Meanwhile, there had developed a lot of suspicion and mistrust around this issue. There was a feeling among a section of the members that a move was afoot to undermine the Lobatse resolution [of the 1962 ANC conference in Bechuanaland] by those who seemed inclined to revise the boycott issue. There was also a related suspicion that either the initiators of the discussion or those who were alleged to favour a revising of the Lobatse resolution might take advantage of a consensus in their favour to send out directives to the organisation outside to operate according to their new tactics. The delay in formal discussion of the issue did not help matters. It exacerbated the growing misunderstanding because discussion was driven to informal groupings which were built around like minded members. Such groups naturally degenerated into gossip cells and mud slinging camps with men from the High Organ spearheading whispering campaigns in opposite directions. The usual disciplinary code of confining differences within was broken when individual High Organ men vied with each other and broadcast their mutual recriminations to their own adherents in a vicious slander campaign.

Besides the issues referred to above, another thorny question which though not openly debated was an undercurrent as it will appear in the findings, was the question of Madiba's status.

The first attempt at solution:

Somewhere in 1970 the High Organ, suddenly alarmed by the tensions prevalent within the membership, discussed the differences and appealed to members to sink their differences and restore cordial relations. Govan initiated the attempt. Nothing concrete came out of this appeal.

The second attempt

This was initiated by Govan in 1973, who felt that the situation had been deteriorating since the last appeal for unity. At this juncture the original High Organ had been succeeded by an entirely new one. In 1973 the original High Organ formulated a plan for a rotation system in the High Organ as a device to train other Congress Movement men in leadership and administration techniques. It was during the term of the second High Organ (1973-74) under this plan that Govan made his observation and suggested that the four original High Organ men as primary authors of the dissension should get together and explore ways and means of resolving the misunderstanding. The High Organ readily alleged causal blunders on which they did not even agree completely. The one remarkable statement in their report was that they had "no fundamental differences in principle."

The High Organ discussed the report, added some points of their own and submitted their report to the units, recommending that the report serve as a basis for settlement. One unit criticised the report severely, pointed out that the four original High Organ men had not applied the principle of self criticism in their deliberation as practised by revolutionaries in discussions of this nature and that a purely emotional appeal for unity was bound to flounder in the same manner as the previous one in the absence of a self critical background. This unit also recommended a commission of enquiry to investigate the whole dispute.

The High Organ which had not been convinced by the assertion of "no differences of principle" had also listed a series of questions revolving around the policies of the movement to be answered by the four original High Organ men to reassure themselves and the membership whether the dispute did not in reality centre after all around differences in interpretation of policy. The questionnaire and the criticism of the one unit were submitted to the four original High Organ for discussion. Unavoidable delays ensued, and it was not until 1975 that the four original High Organ met again to discuss the directives of the High Organ. By this time another High Organ had come in during 1974-1975.

This round of talks was a non-starter. It careered into a deadlock when the issue of self criticism was raised. Madiba withdrew from discussion alleging that Govan and Ndobe were not prepared to indulge in self criticism and that it was futile to pretend to solve the misunderstanding when they were not prepared to pay the price.

At this stage, the High Organ intervened and convened the four original High Organ men to jointly come together with the High Organ to review the discussions of the four original High Organ men and the whole dispute.


It is appropriate to indicate here that the four original High Organ men in the dispute have always been split. Madiba, Xhamela versus Govan and Ndobe on contentious issues, but the two who represented polar opposites in attitudes and opinions were Madiba and Govan. Their attitudes towards one another were not always supported or encouraged by the other two, namely Xhamela and Ndobe.

Discussion of the Nine:

In outlining the purpose of the joint meeting, the chairman of the High Organ expressed the concern of the High Organ on the downward course of healthy relations in the movement, reminded the four original High Organ men of their sacred role in the struggle [as senior?] members. He speculated that among other causes of the rift among the four original High Organ men a regionalism and different styles of work might be the main springs of disharmony.

It is not possible to report here in full on this discussion except to say it was long, frank and we think constructive and fruitful.

The central points were: the principle of self criticism, its theory and practise and its vital role in solving disputes; the struggle for power, its forms, its manifestations and its inherent dangers; individual and organisational mistakes in the whole dispute. The question of Madiba's status was raised by Ndobe who felt it created confusion in the minds of some and qualified as a decisive factor. He and Govan, however, questioned it on constitutional grounds and it was defended by Xhamela on the authority of Madiba's senior status before arrest and the practice of continuity of leadership status of individuals in jail situations and that it was not unconstitutional.

Among the five High Organ men, two sided with Govan and Ndobe and three with Xhamela. Because of the controversial nature of the issue it was referred to the general meeting together with other recommendations for final settlement.

Summary of findings:

The High Organ at the end of the discussions made the following findings:


A report back:

A summary report of the discussion was presented to a general member-ship meeting which though held under very difficult conditions achieved its purpose. After the report was given and by virtue of the difficult conditions for a meeting of this kind, the issue of Madiba's status was isolated for priority discussion. By an overwhelming majority the meeting reaffirmed Madiba's leadership of the Congress Movement on Robben Island prison.

Tight security precautions by the authorities subsequently precluded another general members meeting to consider the rest of the recommenda tions in the report.

The recommendations have been adopted by the membership through the units subject to amendments and recommendations that have not been discussed. The four original High Organ men are already working as recommended.

Source: Thomas Karis & Gail M. Gerhart, From Protest to Challenge; Vol 4: Nadir and Resurgence, 1964-1979 Bloomington, Indiana University Press

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.