Prisoner 913: The Release of Nelson Mandela

Riaan de Villiers and Jan-Ad Stemmet, Prisoner 913: The Release of Nelson Mandela (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2020)

EVEN trees in the garden of Nelson Mandela’s cottage at Victor Verster Prison were bugged. Only one inside room was not. This was Mandela’s last place of incarceration before his 11 February 1990 release, and after transfer from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982. All of his interactions with the outside world were recorded one way or another, initially in notes taken by prison warders. On the face of it sinister, this had its upside: a treble insurance policy that enabled trust (Mandela’s conversations were often simultaneously monitored by prison officers and the National Intelligence Service, NIS).

Over the last eight years of Mandela’s imprisonment, Kobie Coetsee, minister of justice and prisons, built an archive around him. It was an informal intelligence gathering operation that amounted to thousands of pages, many classified uiters geheim, now housed at ARCA (Archive for Contemporary Affairs) in Bloemfontein. Its removal by Coetsee is likely to have been illegal. Jan-Ad Stemmet met him in July 2000. He was in what Stemmet described as an ‘agitated mood’, but indicated that his archive was dynamite, and suggested a deal to turn it into a published record. He died two days later and the archive disappeared for some years.

Riaan de Villiers suggests that Coetsee’s archive is something of a mystery, but on the evidence of this book it was perfectly logical. Coetsee was a highly significant politician during apartheid’s final crises and played a key role in the transition to democracy. On the positive side he was a reformist ahead of his time (on conscientious objection, small claims courts and matrimonial property, for instance) who believed government should act within the law.

On the negative he was a man of ambiguities and opacities, operated solo, and held his cards close to his chest while giving an impression of chief conductor of events. Colleagues remembered him as elliptical and impenetrable with a sphinx-like demeanour and a penchant for confusing, and annoying, people. He had fingers in multiple pies according to Niël Barnard, head of NIS; and Tony Leon wondered if even his wife really knew him – a truly extraordinary, but telling remark. Among his failures were negotiations over amnesty after 1990 (a persistent problem); and proposals for judicial appointments under a democratic dispensation. Indeed, he was so appalled by the negative potential of his own plan that he leaked it to his opponents.

It is now known that exploratory discussions between government and Mandela began as early as 1985. Coetsee, who had suggested Mandela’s release a year earlier, was the gatekeeper to the system’s most important political prisoner. His archive, which was an aid to control and manipulation and over which he developed an ‘obsessive preoccupation’, was a key. The authors have used it to gain insight into the dialogue, not to rewrite history; although they do indulge in some ‘plausible reconstruction’. They compare the archival documents with the published memoirs of Mandela, F.W. de Klerk and Barnard and judge the latter as selective and simplified. Like all archives it is subject to questions about its completeness and quality (some of the transcripts are poor): for example, there is a crucial missing document from Mandela to the ANC in Lusaka in early 1990.

Mandela was a facilitator: a conduit to the ANC and a successful moderator regarding released political prisoners. He became so involved that even Coetsee needed an appointment to see him. Mandela had to balance the interests of the South African government, the ANC, fellow prisoners, the international community and his own family. The situation was delicate and fluid and Mandela trod a fine line, wary of perceptions among more radical elements in the ANC. Given this situation he was ambivalent about his own future and in no hurry to leave prison: the world’s most famous prisoner was in effect orchestrating his own release; a situation that apparently puzzled foreign politicians, although it must have been clear he could not simply be sent into a vacuum.

De Villiers and Stemmet argue that Mandela emerges from the Coetsee archive with enhanced stature. And this record shows that he came out of imprisonment well practised at political bargaining. In late January 1990 a proposal that Mandela become a special adviser to the state president was still in the mix, although always unviable. It was indicative of the minefield he had to navigate. A record of his final three days in captivity shows him to be tense and quiet. In an emotional episode, he tells prison staff he will miss them.

The bombshell document, and the trigger for publicity for this book, is a redacted record of a conversation between Mandela and his daughter Zeni in mid-1989. It reveals his extreme frustration with Winnie Mandela, accusing her of disrespect and infidelity. He links the latter directly to his arrest near Howick in August 1962 after his presence in Durban was revealed through an indiscretion on her part.

The importance of this book lies in the extent to which it encourages us to see the past in nuanced ways. Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor because of increasing militancy on the Island, and elements in the government soon appreciated the advantages of dialogue. These archival documents provide a sense of pragmatism that was largely absent from contemporary government rhetoric and action. Indeed, De Villiers and Stemmet show how much the ANC’s Harare Declaration and behind-the-scenes discussions with Mandela influenced De Klerk’s famous parliamentary speech of 2 February 1990.

And yet in official records, and to the very end, Mandela is referred to as ‘913’, his original prison number dating back to 1962. This is indicative of apartheid culture even as it collapsed; and provides a very memorable book title.


Source: From The Thornveld