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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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Long Walk Of Nelson Mandela - Interview With George Bizos

When Mandela set off to Robben Island, was he laboring under any delusion that maybe he would be out in two or three years?

He certainly did not show that he believed that it was going to be a short period, like most of his comrades that were caught and thought that they would be back with their families within three years, which sustained them and their families. He was more realistic about it.

The title of his book, A Long Walk to Freedom, was a phrase that was used earlier on, including the phrase that the road to freedom passes through the jail, and although he was encouraged by what was happening with the de-colonization process in the rest of Africa, he was sufficiently well informed and could deduce that even though the theoreticians in the liberation movement spoke about domestic colonialism, he was smart enough to know that the whites here would try and string it our for as long as possible. And the one thing that he didn't do was to express a feeling of despair, because that would have been counter productive to the people that remained relatively free, whom he wanted to continue the struggle.

You saw him in prison. He somehow elicited a special kind of treatment from the warders. Do you have any recollections or anecdotes on that?

On my first visit, in the middle of winter, he was brought to the consulting room where I was waiting. There were eight warders with him, two in front, two at the back, two on each side. Prisoners do not usually set the pace at which they move with their warders. But it was quite obvious that he was--from the open van that they came, right up to the little verandah of the consulting rooms. And I stepped down, past the two in front, and embraced him, said, "Hello." He returned the greeting [and] immediately asked, "How's Zami?" which is, how are the children. And he then pulled himself back, and said, "George, I'm sorry, I have not introduced you to my guard of honor." And then proceeded to introduce each one of the warders by name. Now, the warders were absolutely amazed. I think that this was the first time that they saw a white man and particularly a lawyer, I suppose, coming and embracing a black man, but they were absolutely stunned, and they actually behaved like a guard of honor. They respectfully shook my hand. And there was a lot of evidence that he was treated special, which I knew to my advantage as well. As a visitor, if you visited Mandela, you were invited to lunch at the officers club on the island, where they lived well with seafood cocktail and grilled lobsters. If you visited anyone else, you were left to your own devices, and the only place that you could have lunch at, is the warders canteen, where the specialty was liver hamburgers.

There was some other story involving a sandwich or some food, and a warder who let him eat the food ...

Yes, I remember that. As a matter of practice, the warders offered tea and sandwiches to lawyers that went there. Beautifully served. Usually they would bring a teapot and a little tray cloth from their home, judging by the appearances. And I had refused this because they did not make provision for the people I was consulting with. And this would upset them. And in relation to my visit to Nelson, I was asked--but this was a couple of years after, it wasn't right at the beginning--if I would have tea. And I said to the lieutenant, "You know, I do not drink tea alone when I am consulting with someone." And he appeared to be genuinely offended, and said, "We are really surprised, Mr. Bizos, that you would think we would offer you tea and not Mr. Mandela." I said, "In that case, please."

So they brought a wonderful tray of sandwiches and I noticed that I was having more sandwiches than Nelson was having. And I said, "Why aren't you having more?" He then said that [some]one--I don't remember who--had beaten him at tennis a couple of days earlier, and he had decided to become fitter in order to take revenge. Now that was quite an eye opener for me, as to the special place that he had. Something that he, himself, would never have wanted, and he always insisted on his colleagues being treated in the same way, and, of course, it's well known that he made it quite clear that he would not walk out of prison until all his Rivonia colleagues went out before him.

This special response that he received from prison authorities--was it an early policy on the part of the government? Or was it something that Mandela himself, evokes because of the power of his personality?

I don't think it was a result of any policy on the part of the government because even before his conviction, during the Rivonia trial, the most inhuman prison official was Colonel, later Brigadier, Aucamp. Nelson Mandela said that we lawyers must not intervene between him and the prison officials. He wanted to do it himself.

Colonel Aucamp would at times pace up and down outside the room in which we were consulting, locked in with our clients (there was a grilled door so that the warders could see us) and Nelson went up to Aucamp, and said, "You know these lawyers give me homework ... and the table that I have in my cell is a rickety one. Could I please have another table because I am under pressure to do this." He spoke politely, and the response of Aucamp was bombastic. "Mandela, you are no longer a lawyer in your office to give orders. You are a prisoner. And we will do what we have to. You can't order us about." Nelson looked at him and he said, "Have you finished, Colonel?" He said, "Yes." He turned round, looked at the man with a key, who opened the grille door, and he came back, sat down, said nothing. Just continued with the consultation with us as if nothing had happened. They took a break for lunch, and he came back with a little smile that you often see [and] says, "Guess what, there's a brand new table in my cell." So that his superiority as a human being had its effect even on the most inhuman of the people that he had to deal with.

You mentioned the story where you were stuffing more sandwiches down yourself ... and the explanation was an example of something that had been seen elsewhere of Mandela's self discipline.

Absolutely.

One gets a sense that it is almost as if he was preparing himself for leadership, for what would happen.

Oh yes. He believed that he had a role to play and that he would play it. And I think that that is evidenced by [how he] applied himself to learn Afrikaans. He spoke Afrikaans to the warders, not in a patronizing way, but he thought that he would learn to speak their language. And when Jimmy Kruger ... went to visit Mandela, in his capacity as Minister of Justice and Prisons and asked him if there was anything that he, Jimmy Kruger, could do, [Mandela] would jokingly have said, "Well you can release me" but he would lose no opportunity to show that he had no quarrel with the Afrikaner people. After all, he had so much admiration of the great Afrikaner Bram Fischer.

For full text see: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/mandela/prison/bizos.html

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.