In May and June, 1961, Maclean’s Senior Writer Rae Corelli, then a reporter for The Toronto Star, covered South Africa’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth and its birth as a republic. While in Johannesburg, he became the first North American journalist to interview Nelson Mandela after the black nationalist had gone underground to escape arrest for calling a national strike. Corelli’s recollections:
Benjamin Pogrund was the capable African-affairs reporter for Johannesburg’s Rand Daily Mail. He was so capable that the South African government later took exception to some of the things he wrote and put him into jail.
“What do you want to do while you’re here?” Pogrund asked me. He was very thin, with olive skin and a big nose.
“Talk to Nelson Mandela,” I said.
Pogrund laughed. “A lot of people want to do that.” He told his editor, who also laughed. They took me to a pub for lunch. Pogrund said he would do what he could about Mandela, but he was not optimistic.
After lunch, I tried Drum, the black African magazine. Same result.
But the next morning, I was in my room when the phone rang. A woman said, “We understand you wish to see Nelson Mandela.” “Yes.”
“Meet me downstairs in the lounge in a halfhour,” she said.
“How will I know you?” She hung up.
When I walked into the lounge, a woman at the first table inside the door motioned for me to join her. She was white, smartly dressed and probably in her mid-30s.
“How did you know who I was?” I said. She asked me for identification. I produced my passport and driver’s licence.
She handed the documents back. “Why do you want to see Mr. Mandela?”
“To interview him, write a story about him and his views.”
She got up. “I’ll be in touch.” She left the hotel, and I saw her get into a small English car at the curb.
Next day, same thing, same place. This time, she was with a man, also white. More questions. I said, “What now?”
“We’ll be in touch,” the woman said. She offered the man a lift, but he said he would walk.
On the third day, the phone call was from a man. “Go out onto Eloff Street and turn left to the first intersection. We’ll pick you up in 10 minutes.” He hung up.
The car was a battered old Buick. It was probably the only one in Johannesburg, which made it an odd choice for clandestine
operations. Both occupants were white. I got into the back seat, and we drove around the city for 40 minutes saying nothing and constantly doubling back. The driver was thin and had black hair. He kept checking his watch and looking into the rearview mirror. I did not know whether they were trying to elude surveillance or confuse me. In the end, they did both.
We drove into an alleyway and parked behind a row of rundown apartments.
The man in the front seat said, “Come.” I got out and the car drove away. I followed him into the building and up a flight of stairs to a metal door. He knocked and somebody I could not see opened the door.
A muscular black man wearing a blue turtleneck sweater, brown cotton slacks and military combat boots leaned against a plain wooden table across the room. I walked in and he stood up, smiling and holding out a huge hand.
“Mr. Corelli, I am Nelson Mandela. How are
Besides the table, the room contained two straight-backed wooden chairs, a sink, a narrow bed and one window. Whoever opened the door had disappeared. The man from the car went to the window and watched the street.
Mandela and I sat in the chairs. He refused a cigarette. For 45 minutes, while the lookout kept watching the street, he talked about apartheid (“immoral, unchristian, oppressive and inhuman”), the beatings and mass arrests of blacks, nonviolence as a political weapon, the inflexibility of the ruling Nationalist Party and the future.
At one point, he said, “The Europeans here have not learned any lessons and give increasing support to apartheid.”
At another: “Is it unrealistic to expect that increasing numbers of Africans will feel it futile to go on preaching peace and nonviolence? If people everywhere had always heeded the advice of the practitioners of nonviolence, the world would still be languishing in the Middle Ages. The Africans cannot be blind to the lessons of history.”
The man at the window said something. Mandela looked at his watch and stood up. “I am sorry but I must go now.” We shook hands. I began to follow him out the door. The man from the window put his hand on my chest. “You stay.” He went out and I heard him lock the door.
For half an hour, I sat in the chair. Then the lock clicked. The man from the window opened the door and beckoned. The Buick was in the alleyway. Without a word, they took me back to the comer where they had picked me up. I got out and they drove away.
In the Carlton coffee shop, I
met an amiable Afrikaner. The
problem, he said, was that when a black “was given an inch, he just wants more.” Later, in the lobby of the Culemborg Hotel in Pretoria, the assistant manager tried to explain the reality of South Africa. He pointed directly at two black porters standing 15 feet away. “Look at them,” he said. “They are happy. They would not want things any other way.”
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