TIME interview with Nelson Mandela on release from prison

26 February 1990

Q. What surprises you most about the changes you have seen?

A. The appearance of the place has changed very much, although poverty still stares you in the face. But from the point of view of the country as a whole, I am surprised by the extent to which a substantial number of whites have now accepted that a solution for this country lies in discussions with the [African National Congress], and their readiness to accept a nonracial South Africa.

Q. One of the first things you said was that you were not a prophet. Do people expect too much from you?

A. Well, I don't think so, although I felt the necessity of warning them that no individual can solve the enormous problems that face us. It is a collective effort that will enable us to solve [our] problems.

Q. Do you feel a heavy burden of responsibility?

A. I don't have any fear of a heavy responsibility. As I have said, I am a loyal and disciplined member of the A.N.C. My duty is to report to them, and I will use their machinery in any attempt to solve problems. I will not be acting as an individual. I will be acting as a member of a team.

Q. You look fit. How is your health?

A. My health, as far as I am concerned, is all right. I have been monitored by very top medical practitioners and specialists.

Q. How serious was your bout with tuberculosis two years ago?

A. Fortunately, they found it at a very initial stage. There was no spot or lesion in the lungs. They predicted very cautiously that it would clear away completely, and they assured me that it has cleared.

Q. What was the hardest thing about prison life?

A. We went through very harsh experiences at the beginning of our life imprisonment. I was never brutally assaulted, but many of my colleagues around me were.

Q. There were reports that you became friends with your guard.

A. In actual fact, there were three. There was Major Marais. He was in charge of the premises [at Victor Verster Prison Farm]. Warrant Officer Gregory was his assistant. And Warrant Officer Swart was the man who actually lived with me in the house from 7 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon, when he left until the following morning. I got on very well with all of them. We became very close friends.

Q. Do you intend to see them again?

A. If I have the opportunity, I certainly will see them.

Q. Are you bitter that you lost these years of your life?

A. Yes and no. I am bitter. There were aspects that were rewarding. I have lost a great deal in the sense that I spent 27 years of my life in prison.

Q. Was your sacrifice worth it?

A. Yes, it was worth it. To go to prison because of your convictions, and be prepared to suffer for what you believe in, is something worthwhile. It is an achievement for a man to do his duty on earth irrespective of the consequences.

Q. When did the government become more conciliatory toward you?

A. Actually, the attitude of the government took this form right back to the 1960s. I was visited by Mr Jimmy Kruger, who was Minister of Justice, several times. I was visited by Mr [Louis] Le Grange, who is now the Speaker of Parliament. Leading VIPs, both local and abroad, were allowed to visit me. The attitude of the government was contradictory. Despite the harsh treatment, they were prepared to have discussions with me. During the past three years, I started an initiative of talking to the government on the question of the release of prisoners and the question of a meeting between the A.N.C. and the government.

Q. You initiated political talks?

A. Yes.

Q. What makes you say that President De Klerk is a "man of integrity"?

A. From the two discussions that I have held [with him], this has been my distinct impression. There are many things that he said and did which convinced me that this is a man I could do business with.

Q. Do you have an understanding with De Klerk that the two of you must bring your people to reconciliation?

A. On the question of creating a climate conducive to negotiations, we see eye to eye.

Q. Are you optimistic that the issues of political prisoners and the ending of the state of emergency can be resolved fairly quickly?

A. I think so, personally. I don't think that [De Klerk] has any ground for resisting these two demands.

Q. The main pillars of apartheid still exist in your country. Why do you say that "freedom is on the horizon"?

A. Well, I have not really personally said that "freedom is on the horizon." What I have said is that I am confident that the State President is going to address the questions of the release of political prisoners and the lifting of the state of emergency in its totality. Once that happens, we would be able to sit down to discuss a new constitution.

Q. Is the A.N.C. going into negotiations in a weak position in comparison with the government?

A. No. We are in a powerful position, because the government now has accepted that there can be no peaceful settlement in this country without the involvement of the A.N.C. For them to change their policy on this question is a victory for the A.N.C.

Q. But the government still has the security apparatus.

A. They always have. But we have succeeded in getting them to acknowledge that we have a role to play.

Q. When should sanctions be lifted?

A. When a settlement is reached.

Q. Do you plan to accept the invitations to visit President Bush and Prime Minister Thatcher?

A. Oh, yes. Speaking for myself, I will accept the invitations. I have indicated to President Bush that I was honored by his invitation. But I will report to the A.N.C., and they will eventually decide whether I should accept the invitation.

Q. You have said the main issue in negotiations is reconciling black demands for one man, one vote with white fears of what that might mean for them. Is that possible?

A. There is sufficient goodwill to reconcile these two points. The A.N.C. is certainly ready to address the fears of whites.

Q. Would you compromise on one man, one vote?

A. I am talking about compromise in general. Compromise means accommodating the point of view of the other party. We are prepared to do that.

Q. Is this your personal view?

A. It is the view of the A.N.C. that a compromise will be necessary when you are negotiating. If you don't intend having a compromise, you don't negotiate at all.

Q. Is President De Klerk's fear of a right-wing backlash justified?

A. He has no reason to fear the right-wing backlash. He fears it because he is concentrating on the Afrikaners in this country. Or on whites alone. He is not taking advantage of the potential support he might get if he adopts the policy of a nonracial South Africa. He would get overwhelming support. He has already got over 75% of the whites in this country. Therefore, if he emancipates himself from thinking only of Afrikaners and thinks of whites, he will be assured of 75% of white voters. But if he expands the scope of this initiative, he will get the overwhelming support of blacks.

Q. Are white fears of black domination justified?

A. They are not at all justified. We have set out our policy in the Freedom Charter. That policy ought to satisfy everybody that we don't mean to dominate anybody.

Q. How seriously do you take the reports of threats to your life?

A. There is no threat whatsoever from the so-called radical left. The only threat can be from the right wing.

Q. Are you concerned?

A. No, my people will protect me.

Q. When will blacks be free in this country?

A. I am no prophet. I cannot say.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation