One of Nadine Gordimer’s Last Interviews Indicts the ANC for Betraying South Africa

July 16, 2014

By Danny Schechter

Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer’s death at age 90 in Johannesburg is a big loss—for literature and for voices of conscience in her native South Africa. She was best known for speaking out against apartheid, but her work went deeper than that, capturing the texture and nuances of the struggle and the reality it confronted.

When she won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991, she was praised for “her magnificent epic writing” that “has been of very great benefit to humanity.”

Nadine became a member of the African National Congress when the movement, which became the country’s post-apartheid ruling party, was outlawed and though many of her works were banned, she did not stop writing and continued to provide a voice for victims of the apartheid.

But, she also wrote about the victors. She knew Nelson Mandela personally, as well as two struggle activists I was close to, Joe Slovo and Ruth First. Joe died of cancer while serving in Mandela’s cabinet after being a leader in the armed struggle and Communist Party. His wife, Ruth First, a writer and intellectual, was murdered in an act of terror by the secret police.

Gordimer wrote about them in her introduction to Alan Weider’s biography, The Barrel of the Apartheid Gun (Monthly Review Press 2013). Through this excerpt published in the magazine Guernica, you can sense the moving way her words brought ideas alive.

“Joe Slovo and Ruth First. We are entering their paths.

Both grew up unbelievers in Jewish or any religious faith. They met when Ruth was at the University of the Witwatersrand, Joe just returned from the South African Army in the war against Nazi Germany. His motivation for volunteering, eighteen years old, unemployed, lying about being underage for military call-up—his early alliance with communism, and so to the Soviet Union under attack—was decisive in the act. But there remained the devastating racial dilemma in South Africa. He wrote: “How do you tell a black man to make his peace with General Smuts—butcher of Bulhoek and the Bondelswarts? ‘Save civilization and democracy—must have sounded a cruel parody. And fight with what? No black man was allowed to bear arms…if you want to serve democracy, wield a knobkerrie [wooden club] as a uniformed servant of a white soldier.

Joe Slovo’s appetite for the pleasures of life is brought face-to-face with his political humanitarian drive when at the end of the war he took a holiday. From Turin to Cairo he went, and with other decommissioned soldiers somehow got to Palestine although travel was restricted because of Zionist resistance to British occupation; on to a kibbutz where “looked at in isolation, the kibbutz seemed to be the very epitome of socialist lifestyle… it was populated in the main by young people with the passion and belief that by the mere exercise of will and humanism you could build socialism as one factory or one kibbutz and the power of example will sweep the imagination of all… worker or capitalist.”

That’s just a taste of her writing. Discover the richness of her work yourself.

Nadine agreed, as frail as she was becoming, to sit down with me to discuss her relationship with Nelson Mandela for documentary films I was directing on the making and meaning of the Mandela bio-pic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

Here’s part of the transcript of our conversation. She minces no words about her disappointment and disillusionment with the state of the current ANC, the  “liberation movement”  now in power.


Danny Schechter: When was the first time you saw, heard, or met Nelson Mandela?

Nadine Gordimer: Ah, well heard of,  I really can’t recall, but the first time I met him, was indeed down in the Court where the trial was going on, the first treason trial (1956-1961). And I met him through my friend Anthony Sampson who was then editing the first black urban magazine, Drum, he was there to report on it, and he got to know Nelson, then introduced me to him. (Sampson later wrote Mandela: The Authorized Biography).

DS: And your impression?

NG: You know, the impression was partly made up out of what I’d read and seen and heard, and matching it to this individual. But of course his warmth, his way of greeting you with what seemed genuine pleasure, and the force of his personality is felt indeed the moment that you meet him and he takes your hand.

DS: So many people have said what has startled them is when you talk to him, you feel like you’re the only person in the world. That he was really focusing on you

NG: Yes, yes. Well of course that can be a politicians tactic, but it’s not his. It’s his genuine nature. By then I was close to George Bizos (Mandela’s lawyer) and I was there almost everyday, so that was really my beginning of getting to know him.

DS: Tell me about George Bizos for a second. This was a really special person. Really impressive, yet so gentle in his style, and so analytical in his approach. What were your impressions of the way George Bizos operated in these trials?

NG: Well, I don’t use the word lightly, brilliant. But he’s equally a great human being, and has a natural affinity with people who are in any kind of trouble, especially an oppressive political version which he is involved himself. He has been incredibly courageous, always going, really walking on the cliff edge of what you can do professionally and what you do as a human being.

DS: He seems to have inspired tremendous trust from Nelson Mandela and the other defendants.

NG: Complete trust, yes. And now in these late years my connections with Madiba have been with George. George taking me along with him to the breakfasts we used to have up until very recently with Madiba.

DS: Breakfasts?

NG: Yes. He’d come to breakfast. Because he had his breakfast now in his later years when he’s not very strong, rather late in the morning. And we’d be invited to the breakfast, and we would feast with him.

DS: Was he a big eater?

NG: He ate quite a big breakfast. But you know he wasn’t very mobile anymore by then. So I don’t know if he was a big eater otherwise.

DS: But as a person in terms of his conversation and the issues that he addressed, he always seemed to me to be very sharp and very clear.

NG: He was very forthcoming, and obviously, if he felt you were a comrade and could be trusted, then he absolutely responded to you in the same warm and trusting way. But of course, my most extraordinary experience with him was really a rather sad one… But, when he came out I had the great privilege of being one of the first people to see him. That he, asked to have a meeting with me. So I saw him then.

DS: Here in Jo’burg?

NG: Here in Jo’burg.

DS: And your impressions? How he had changed?

NG: Well, this is so personal for him that I don’t know what to say and what not to say. Of course there was great sadness there. We had all seen him coming out of not Robben Island, but that, what was that other place?

DS: Victor Verster (The last prison he was in, living in a house.)

NG: Victor Verster, yes. Out of Verster. There was beautiful Winnie with him hand in hand, but of course when he got home, he found that indeed the relationship with Winnie, the marriage, was just not there. So when I saw him that day he was rather down.

DS: George Bizos told us that Madiba told him that these were the loneliest days of his life.

NG: Yes. Well I can confirm that. This was, it wasn’t the great Nelson Mandela, but it was, because he’s a human being. It showed that he was normal, all the disappointments and disasters that come to us. And, he was broken-hearted.

DS: But, you know so many people in the world-at-large had linked the two of them. They saw it as the great—

NG: I mean they would have been the greatest couple in the world. Who else would have been?

DS: And yet, so maybe he felt that it was crushing personally, but it would also disappoint so many people?

NG: No I don’t think, to his credit I think this was a personal reaction to his feeling of rupture with a woman that he greatly loved. But then, I’ve seen a very nice sequel to this, the way  he handled these things. This is only about a year ago, 18 months ago perhaps, I was there visiting him, with George I think, or maybe on my own, I can’t remember, and we were having tea or something together, and his daughter came in. Her car arrived and she came in. We greeted one another because she was at school where my son was at school. At Waterford. So, I knew her as a schoolgirl. We chatted, and she embraced her father. And he said,  come, have tea with us and so on. And she said no, I can’t cause mama is in the car. And he said, what do you mean in the car? Bring her in! And she went out, the daughter, and came back with Winnie, and he called Winnie over, and they embraced, and I thought, this is the way to behave, when you’ve still got family, and children, whether they’re little, or grown-up, or whatever they are. That you still keep something together. You did have a life together.

DS: So in a way, I think he developed a very keen sense of the importance of children and family.

NG: Exactly, yes.

DS: And the like, perhaps because of their absence over so many years.

NG: No, I think it’s part of the personality. Part of the warmth, human warmth. that he feels.

DS: I’ve received some of that warmth.

NG: I’m sure, yeah.

DS: But, not in the same intense way that people who know him better. But I do feel as if he is very conscious in a way of trying to live according to certain values and certain principles…

NG: He’s been now, his whole life is being, to put it crudely but I think correctly, has been turned over to see if you can find something that could link him in some way to his unfortunate successor, Mr. Zuma.,,,, you can’t talk of them in the same breath I think. But there you are… Madiba is a human being. He must have done all sorts of things in his youth, and perhaps even in his political career. That he thinks now he might have done differently or perhaps better, and indeed worse. But if you look at everything that he did, and if you see what he wrote about his life, it has the genuine the honest ring of truth about it. None of us can get the whole truth. But he has lived so much towards the truth in terms of human shared resources, human shared relationships, that he has taught us a great deal.

DS: He’s discouraged people from considering him a saint or a savior. There are many people who see him as, if  ‘he freed us’ so he’s almost god-like?—

NG: Then they must be people who are very religious and believe that human beings cannot be like somebody up in the sky. But we’ve got somebody right down here, hasn’t got to be a so-called saint or a savior…

DS: He seems to have wrestled with how to, sometimes I think a little hard on himself in some of his recent confessions.

NG: Yes,  but I admire him so much. Because it’s very difficult to face your own shortcomings.

DS: In the culture today, we’re in a culture of tremendous political acrimony and hostility it seems as if every time a leader emerges,  somebody tries to find something about him to expose in some way. And,  yet, it seems as if not only has Mandela’s reputation remained essentially unscathed, but beyond that, he himself has been willing to acknowledge issues others have raised or he has raised himself.

NG: Yes,  he’s willing, he’s lived, sadly, to see what was told to us would be a better life, completely overrun by a culture of corruption. There’s never been any materialist corruption, corruption of any kind with Mandela. And now of course we’ve got it all right from the top, all the way down.

DS: How does that make you feel as a long time supporter of the liberation movement?  I mean I know it’s painful for me to acknowledge.

NG: I find it very painful. Very disillusioning. I have to keep telling myself, it looks bad and worse every day and every week. Two weeks ago, a few weeks ago,  it was the scandal at 8 months into the school year that our children are without books. And then,  now what happened last night, and the preceding days, this terrible massacre going on between the police and the workers at the platinum mines. (This is a reference to a police massacre at the mine at Marikana.) So it’s very difficult not to feel discouraged. But I just say, now look, If we got through and rid of apartheid, somehow or another,  we must be able to get through and get rid of this corruption.

DS: I mean the ANC ‘s biggest claim was a moral sort of claim, a claim of justice vs injustice? Nadine: Liberation came first before any personal ambitions or material desires.

DS: What is it that you think? Is it just our culture being so materialistic? Or people feeling like ‘now it’s our turn,’ you know? I raised this question with Joe Slovo on election day in 1994.

NG: Did you?

DS: And I asked him, was he worried about corruption?  And he said, if we fall into that, we’re finished. He was very aware of it and spoke out against it. I included his statement in my film on the election, where Slovo makes this warning about the dangers of corruption. So he acknowledged and saw the danger early on. But I think it’s hard for politicians to speak out against it particularly if they themselves have benefited from it.

NG: Yes, well,  I think that,  without making any excuse for this, it is partly the legacy, not just of apartheid, but going back to 1652. The 17th century, when the first man from the Dutch East India company as you know landed on what is now the Cape. 1652, way back then, 17th century. Since then, that was the beginning of the colonist period. The moment the foot of a white man went on the shore there. And the black population in SA, the indigenous people, have indeed been deprived of 90% of  what  life should mean for these centuries. … And, then we had apartheid which was really the epitome of everything that has been done to black people for centuries. That is now, I can only think it’s in the DNA, if you’re black. So there is this push to say, well we had nothing, now we must have everything. At any cost. And that of course leads to terrible corruption. I’m not excusing it, because, of course, here among the saddest thing for me is that some of our great heroes from the struggle have fallen into this mode of accepting corruption as part of what they were fighting for. And it’s the absolute opposite. It’s complete denial of everything the struggle meant.

DS: A betrayal?

NG: And it saddens me because they were such wonderful people, I bow my head before them.

DS: Is it sort of a betrayal of the revolution?

NG: Yes, but I don’t like to say that as a white about blacks who did the main fighting in the struggle. I’m not excluding, of course, wonderful people like the Slovos, Bizos and others.

DS: Well I have tell you, as an American, who has made two films about the financial crisis in America, and the trillions of dollars that have been ripped off by a small handful, the 1% of the 1%, we have economic inequality as bad now as SA has had. So you know,  I don’t feel I’m in any position to lecture people in SA

NG: Yeah, quite. But I’m a South African, so I can speak out against my own people and they can speak out back against me.

DS: Yet, that debate is still being heard in the margins. It hasn’t really gone into the center of the political system yet, but I think it will. I think that there’s so much disillusion—

NG: I’m sorry I have to disagree. I think it’s deep in the political system here now. Indeed you know, for instance, the new state protection of state security bill that is hanging over our heads who are contesting all the time, those of us who believe in freedom of expression

DS: You’ve spoken out against this?

NG: I’ve spoken out against this, among other people. And indeed, it is now being dubbed the protection of corruption act.

DS: So this is one of the big battle points right now?

NG: Yes, it is clearly to protect the tremendous protection that goes on right from the very top down through the gov’t, and involves commercial enterprises. Anybody who puts in a tender, and then gets it because of handing something into the pocket of the minister that’s in charge of accepting or refusing a tender.

DS: I would assume that Madiba must know about all of this

NG: Now, look, I don’t know how recently you’ve seen him, but quite rightly he’s rather removed from the world now. So I don’t think that one can intrude upon him by asking these searching questions. Whether he’s thinking privately about it, we don’t know. I mean he’s got a great mind. He probably still is but is probably not going to enter into debate about it.

DS: So you know we’re on a terrain of people talking about his legacy, and what it is.

NG: His legacy has been betrayed.

DS: Betrayed?

NG: Betrayed! It’s being betrayed now!

DS: And what is his legacy, in your view?

NG: His legacy was genuine freedom and indeed I don’t think it ever enter his mind, it would be interesting to know, that people would become corrupt. That they would put their personal advancement and comfort and love of luxury before what they had fought for.

DS: I’m a person who has been railing against sort of the values of our media, and the way in which the system’s values are imposed  on people and people think in terms of themselves instead of any collective—

NG: I don’t think you can blame the media for that. I look principally at newspapers, and without our newspapers we would not know what’ going on. Now,  this is the great threat of the new secrecy bill. That if you work for some uh, some ministry. You’re in there. And you have heard something that makes you clearly suspect that money was passed to gather tenders, (ie. government contracts), let’s say that as an example. And I know you, and I’m a journalist, and you give me a hint about this. I then write about it. Well, under the new secrecy act, I will be have indeed infringed the law, and I will have to reveal who slipped me the word initially. And then you too will be arraigned and taken into court. Now this is a dreadful state freedom of expression– one of the things that the ANC has stood for when it was formed and as it indeed brought about victory against apartheid

DS: Does this feel to you like deja vu all over again given in the past you’ve dealt with censorship and the suppression of your work?

NG: Well, mine and others. Yes, indeed, I had my share. But of course it puts me in mind, and I’m not the only one. This is censorship apartheid style coming back. Under a different name you know, and carefully disguised, a euphemism for censorship. That’s what the secrecy bill is.

DS: Speaking of books and censorship, you know Nelson Mandela wrote a book when he was on Robben Island. It had to be smuggled off the island. It was finally published. I’m sure you’ve read it.

NG: Of course.

DS: Tell me about your reaction about the Long Walk To Freedom, his life story?

NG: Well of course  absolutely felt a marvelous sense of recognition and relief. Here was the story from a man who’s right in it. One could not see any grounds for saying, well did this happen or not happen? Because it all happened to him, and to his comrades. Of course, there was another good book about  him, and that was the first biography, not autobiography, a biography, written by Anthony Sampson, which Nelson himself approved. But we wanted it indeed from him, through his eyes and related to us by him. And so of course it’s wonderful to have that book

DS: As a writer I’m sure you have to be impressed by his discipline and dedication in believing it was important to tell his story?

NG: Yes, yes. And he wrote it on scraps of paper or whatever, and, and, of course, with the help of others, it was smuggled out. And thank whatever gods may be, we have it

DS: This long walk for freedom metaphor

NG: It’s a beautiful metaphor. It’s a very literal one.

DS: Is it still sort of relevant? Because he closes the book by saying, you climb a mountain and you see another mountain.

NG: This is prophetic. We are seeing that mountain, and indeed we are stuck, clamoring and clutching our way up at the mountain…

DS: So maybe this is a struggle that doesn’t end, the idea of a struggle for freedom. That it’s almost something that we have to be committed to for the long haul?

NG: Maybe. You look at history and you see how there’s one revolution after another.

DS: I mean did you ever think, I’m sure you must have vacillated like many did over a certain despair about what was happening in SA, and how long it was taking. And yet then, there was this bright moment when he was released, February 11, 1990.

NG: Well I don’t know, I think, I was fortunate enough to have contacts. I’ve always been with the ANC, and then I had contacts with people like George and many others, some of my black comrades. And I use the word comrade in the dictionary sense. We can all be comrades. You haven’t got to be a member of communist party. I think we call each other comrades now, which is often misunderstood. So I don’t think that I thought at any time that we would not somehow progress out of it. We now come to questioning the whole idea of what progress is eh? But I think we mustn’t do that. That way leads to despair and, in despair, you try not to do anything.

DS: But still that moment. I mean you knew obviously there was a process going on, that he was going to be released

NG: Well we began to think sometimes that he’s never going to be released. They’re gong to keep him there, perhaps bump him off. One had all these suspicions and fears

DS: But it’s quite fascinating that he initiated that negotiating process. De Klerk is credited with freeing him

NG: Yes. Yes.

DS: But it seems as if

NG: He initiated it. We don’t quite know how he did it. Must have been also part of force of personality. There is something… integrity in the man

DS: Just by dint of moral force and persistence, he kept it from his closest friends because he was afraid they were going to challenge him and not allow this thing to actually happen, and he pursued in believing—

NG: And he was even criticized you know, you mustn’t give into them in anyway. You mustn’t sit down with them around the table, is betrayal. But you see he has had and still has, a charisma. Of the best kind. Because it’s based on the truth

DS: When he was meeting, the negotiations, there was a time when it looked like it was stuck. De Klerk was at that time, it seemed like knowledgable about the third force violence that was taking place. And Madiba got up at the the CODESSA multi-party political negotiations, and very forcefully challenged, de Klerk. He really stood up and put the whole process at risk,  at a point where it either would move forward or stop. A war was threatening!

NG: Yes. You see there was extraordinary in the way he knows how to handle people. I don’t say that in a prerogative way, to handle the element of getting the best out of them, of feeling his way to some kind of consensus, on even small things. Small things to begin with. But now we’ve, if you can take a jump to the sharing the Nobel Prize. I was appalled, furious about this. Why should de Klerk get a Nobel Prize? But Madiba agreed to it, and I think now that. of course, he was right and I was wrong and others were wrong, because it at least somehow, we really got rid of apartheid and then we went in ‘94 and voted together for the first time. Stood in cues together and voted together. It was not expected,  also  went, as part of the Mandela entourage,  to get the prize in a plane with him.

DS: What was that like?

NG: And of course that was a tremendous honor and joy. It was quite wonderful. And um, little things happened there, not so little, because I never forget them. After the ceremony when one had to swallow hard and accept that de Klerk was being crowned so to speak along with Madiba, then there was a parade past the hotel where we were living. And these were Swedish students and citizens, not Swedish, it was in Oslo, but there were some Swedish students who had come as well. And um, with the Norwegians. And so George and I were on the balcony looking down and shouting back cheers when they called up, not to us but to Mandela. And on the next hotel room or suite, there was de Klerk and his wife, and they stood there expecting, I suppose to be cheered and celebrated, but all they could hear was “Mandela, Mandela, Mandela.” And they turned around with sour faces and walked back into the room. Now, Mandela could accept coming to share the honor with de Klerk, but de Klerk and his wife couldn’t allow the fact that these students and young people, the Norwegians and the Swedes were there, that they could not celebrate in the street, Mandela and not take note that he had shared the honor with anybody else

DS: He was magnanimous in a way, wasn’t he?

NG: Always

DS: And I think on Robben Island he had made a decision to learn the Afrikaans language, to really learn the culture of the jailers, many of whom came to admire him and interact with him in a positive way.

NG: Yes

DS: Who felt transformed by the experience of knowing him

NG: Really? That’s interesting

DS: And yet here we are at this point where SA itself seems to be changing. Not just in terms of corruption but you know the great struggle defined the history of this country. And it’s, there’s still a struggle going on but it doesn’t have the same visibility.

NG: No, the metaphor you gave, you quoted about there always being another mountain to climb, that’s what we have to do, everybody has to do here now. But I think there are so many things we didn’t think of. For instance, the crisis in education. This is something that this is something I just can’t get over. That we could be 8 months into the school year and children haven’t got their books

DS: Seems like not just kind of incompetence but criminal negligence

NG: Oh absolutely. And it turns out that corruption is involved as well. Where isn’t corruption involved?

DS: Right. So how can we who have been through this all these years keep the faith if you will?

NG: Well first of all we must speak out, those of us who think about these things as we do, who are troubled. We can’t just sit back and continue with our private lives. I always bring to my mind when I think oh, another interview about this that and another. I’m not a journalist. I think of the great Albert Camus. And it’s truly engraved somewhere on me. He said the day that I know more than a writer, I shall cease to be a writer. He was talking about your responsibility, the only responsibility we all have, whatever we do, we all have responsibility to our society, our country and all our fellow human beings. It’s all we can do

DS: South Africa, as a country has had an exceptional relationship, as a source of inspiration to people all over the world. I mean Madiba was not just a South African leader, but a global icon,  a global figure who is probably one of the most respected in the world.

NG: I’m not a public figure in that sense. To me, a writer is in search of the meaning of life. And the meaning of life is not just an abstract concept. It’s taking in from the people around you. From your childhood on, from everything that happens to you, to them, to your society generally, is what is your personal relationships and to your country. This is the ordinary responsibility which the writer or the artist has in addition to whatever his particular talent and ability and profession is, if you have one.

DS: I appreciate very much you taking the time to see us. Thank you

This is one of the interviews referenced in Danny Schechter’s book, Madiba A-Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela (Seven Stories Press 2013).

Photo: Bengt Oberger

One Comment

  1. audiodramatist

    July 19, 2014 at 4:05 PM

    Thank you Danny…Thank you so very much Nadine Gordimer; Peace and Blessings upon your immortal soul. May your DNA propel us all from mountain to mountain to mountain(s) beyond….