It was 1961, I was a reporter on the main SA daily newspaper The Star. The African National Congress had been banned by the white Apartheid government, and its leaders house arrested and not allowed to meet or speak publicly. Nelson Mandela, a Johannesburg lawyer, and one of the top leadership, had gone underground, slipped out of the country. He went to London, where he spoke in Trafalgar Square, to other capitals, and to Algeria, one of the countries which supported the ANC, and he addressed the Organisation of African Unity in Addis Ababa. The tour was to announce to the world that the ANC was alive and carrying on the freedom struggle, and by the end of it, Nelson Mandela was a very well known figure. .
He then slipped back into the country, and in disguise, started on a tour of South African centres to mobilise ANC and support from all races for the calling of a National Convention to demand votes for all and a new constitution for majority rule.
In order to be able to move around the country he disguised himself as a chauffeur, complete with the old fashioned dark blue coat with brass buttons, and a traditional chauffeur’s cap. His “employer” grandly sitting in the back of the limousine, was a well known Johannesburg actor named Cecil Williams, who was a secret ANC supporter.
Before they set off on the national tour, I was contacted at my newspaper in Johannesburg by ANC friends and asked to come and interview him , at a secret venue. (They knew that, as a Congress movement member myself, I could be trusted not to reveal his hiding place, or leak it to the police.)
One afternoon, a few blocks from the office, I was picked up in an ordinary car, but with darkened windows, and driven to a small house in what were then the Indian suburbs. I was taken quickly into a very small room where the dignified figure of Nelson Mandela, already becoming known in the media as ‘the black pimpernel’, sat at a dining table. He nodded a greeting. As I sat down opposite him I pulled out my notebook, I was in awe. His bearing was so erect and commanding – as it is to this day, even in his old age – his coat so brushed and the buttons shining, his hair neatly centre parted as it was in those days. I remember thinking to myself, nobody could be fooled into thinking this man could be anybody’s underling.
He spoke of the plan for a three-day nationwide strike, about which the whole country was on tenterhooks, if the demand for a National Convention, and to work out a whole new deal for the people of South Africa, was not met. Johannesburg was tense with expectation.
I went back to the Star newsroom, my stomach turning with excitement at the coming front page story I had. But I promised that, beyond saying that the interview was at ‘a secret venue’, I would not try to report where it was or how he looked. – nothing that could give him away. I would report in detail only what he had to say.
He went on from there, ‘chauffeuring’ all round the country, holding one secret meeting after another to mobilise the leading people in the provinces, but making few more, if any public pronouncements direct to journalists…
…until one day, driving on the road near the Howick Falls in Natal, a following car pulled in front of them, armed men got out and arrested both Nelson Mandela and Cecil Williams. An informer had put the secret police on their trail. Cecil Williams ordeal ended in deportation to Britain. For Nelson Mandela, it was the beginning of his decades in jail.
A few months after my secret interview with Mandela, my wife Eve was arrested for promoting the objects of the banned African National Congress, and spent months in jail. She was then fined for ‘insulting’ the apartheid state president in a protest leaflet which she signed. We were both listed as members of a banned organisation, and could no longer work as journalists. We left as a family, with our three sons, to a life of exile, in UK and around Africa.
The first time I met him again was about thirty years later, at a birthday party in Johannesburg for the famous singer Miriam Makeba, who had become known as ‘Mama Africa’. It was one of those many parties for all of us, to celebrate coming back home, after almost three decades of exile. *
May 1961, The Star
Lawyer Mandela prophesies -This is the start of the head-on clash
My undercover interview with Nelson Mandela while he was in hiding. The Star could not admit it was a “live” interview,” as he was banned from talking to the press. I carried out the interview with Nelson Mandela who was disguised as chauffeur, in a small room in an Indian suburb of Johannesburg.
By staff reporter Tony Hall
With the fluctuating changes in Native leadership caused by the banning, exile and imprisonment of one leader after another, it is difficult for even the best informed on Native affairs in South Africa to determine who are the dominant leaders of the Native masses and which man in particular is destined to become their leader-in-Chief.
Today Mr. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, secretary of the African Council and chief organizer of the threatened anti-republic demonstrations timed for the end of this month., has assumed the mantle of official spokesman for the Native people.But even Nelson Mandela does not regard himself as leader of the people except in the sense that for the time being he is available to act and speak on their behalf.
“Native leadership.” he says, “is a collective leadership – a system forced upon the African people by the White authorities.”
Mr. Mandela, who was born at Umtata in 1918, is a member of the Tembu Royal House. He is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Mpakanyisina Mandela. His father was eventually deposed as chief of the Mvezo Location, Umtata district.The present showpiece chief of the Transkei, 48 year old Chief Kaizer Matanzima, chairman of the Transkeian Territorial Authority, the man to whom the Hon. Hans Abraham , Commisioner-General, formally bows and doffs his silk top hat, is the tribal nephew of Nelson Mandela who, according to tribal custom, chose the chief’s first wife.
Nelson himself, however, showed little respect for his tribal custom when it affected his own fortunes. As a young man he was being groomed for an important tribal post and a marriage to a daughter of his own royal house.
Recalling his early days, Nelson once described how he revolted at the idea of having his affairs arranged for him. “My guardian , the acting chief of the Tembus, was on the point of paying Lobola for the marriage when precipitated a grade A tribal crisis by objecting to the marriage.”In the resulting confusion I broke away and made a dash for Johannesburg, where I got a job with the City Council.”Nelson has one other relative of distinction. He is a tribal uncle to the Paramount chief of the Tembus, Sabata Dalinyebo, who recently led a faction in defence of the Transkeian Territorial Authority.
Mr Mandela began his education first at Clarkebury and later Healdtown in the Eastern Cape. He went on to Port Hare University College and finally the University of the Witwatersand.He also studied with the University of South Africa – much of his studying was done part time.He finally graduated in law and became partner with Mr. Oliver Tambo, former deputy president of the African National Congress and now leader of the United Front in London, in a successful legal firm.
Nelson can be said to have started his political career at Fort Hare, where he distinguished himself by being elected to the students’ Representative Council and becoming vice-chairman of the Athletic Union.
In 1940 he caused a strike at Fort Hare by resigning from the S.R.C in a protest against the decision by the authorities to curb the power of the council.By this time too, he had begun to take an interest in African affairs. By 1948 he was elected general secretary of the African national Congress Youth League – the enfant terrible of the congress movement.Four years later he became national president of the league and in the same year president of the Transvaal division of the African National Congress.That same year, 1952 saw the launching of the defience campaign against the Apartheid laws. Nelson Mandela was elected national volunteer-in-chief and led the series of defiance acts in Johannesburg.He was arrested, convicted under the Supression of Communism Act and sentenced to nine months imprisonment, suspended for three years. Nelson Mandela, with his conviction, was well on the ladder of Native leadership.But in November 1952 his political career recieived the first inevitable setback. The then Minister of Justice, Mr. C. R. Swart, put a ban on him in terms of the Riotous Assemblies Act to prevent his leaving the magesterial district of Johannesburg.
Mr Mandela’s political wings were now severely clipped. His conviction under the Supression of Communism Act made him a statutory communist and the ban on his movement extended to his association with th African National Congress from which he was ordered to resign.He was also banned from attending meetings for five years. This ban was later extended for a further five years and was expired in March this year, which made his attendance at the All African Conference at Maritzburg two months ago possible.
‘Time for action.’
In December 1951 Mr Mandela who was then the legal advisor to the African National Congress addressed a Bloemfontein conference.He said: “It is time for action in a revolutionary sense. There is a great need for a united Non-White front with Africans as its spearhead.” The immediate aims should be to disorganise the system of Apartheid to make it totally unworkable, to divide the Whites seriously, if possible, and to use the resulting situation to demand further democratic rights.”Today Mandela says of the planned demonstrations for the end of May: “This is the beginning of the head-on clash with apartheid.”Mr Mandela has however, time and time insisted that his policy is not anti-White. “I would be the first to protest at any descrimination by the African people agaisnt the White community.” he has said.
Late in 1956 he was arrested in the nation-wide police swoops that rounded up more than 200 suspects. From then on he has spent most of his time in court as an accused at the treason trial. He was one of those acquitted last month.
With his powerful frame (he weighs 235lb and is an accomplished boxer and physical culturist), he has what one of his friends described as “an animal magnetism that attracts the African masses like pollen attracts bees.”
He does not drink or smoke and devotes a great deal of his time to reading. He is an admirer of Winston Churchill as a forceful militant leader , although he does not admire all Sir Winston’s political theories. Mr. Mandela is keenly interested in the African youth and helps to organise boys clubs and athletic activity.
Tony Hall was the first journalist on a mainstream newspaper in South Africa to be banned. You can read his obituary here in the Guardian
The first part of this article was originally in a letter to his Tony’s granddaughter, Lucy Eve Hall