First sip: Prisoner 913 by Riaan de Villiers and Jan-Ad Stemmet

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Like a good beverage, a good book holds promise from the first sip. This extract is used with the permission of NB Publishers.

Prisoner 913
Riaan de Villiers, Jan-Ad Stemmet
Publisher: Tafelberg
ISBN: 9780624076322

Riaan de Villiers & Jan-Ad Stemmet

Riaan de Villiers is a journalist, editor and book publisher with decades of experience. He was the managing editor of Leadership magazine in its heyday. He lives in Cape Town.

Jan-Ad Stemmet is a historian at the South African National Defence Force Military Academy. When he came across Kobie Coetsee’s papers in the course of his research, he realised at once that it contained new information and that they would be of great interest to South Africans and to historians across the world. He lives in Saldanha.


In 2013, historian Jan-Ad Stemmet opened a box at the Archive for Contemporary Affairs at the University of the Free State and realised he had found a collection of documents that would rewrite the story of Nelson Mandela’s release.

It contained a vast set of files, assembled by then justice and prisons minister Kobie Coetsee. Coetsee had promised Stemmet the material 13 years earlier, only to die suddenly two days later.

Stemmet and co-author Riaan de Villiers bring some of its most compelling secrets to light. It reveals that the covert collaboration between Mandela and the last NP government went further than was generally known, and included an attempt by Mandela to broker a deal between the apartheid regime and the ANC in exile prior to his release. It also reveals that F.W. de Klerk made Mandela an offer that, if accepted, would have fundamentally changed the latter’s role in the South African transition.


If the archive presents researchers with a unique resource, it also presents them with a formidable challenge. It comprises hundreds of files totalling some 13 000 pages, filed in a sprawling and untidy range of categories. Over the years, some items have become misplaced, resulting in some key documents turning up in unexpected places. Documents are typed, telexed, handwritten and photocopied, and some are very difficult to decipher.

The archive is equally vast in scope, reflecting a range of dimensions – administrative, legal, political, diplomatic, medical and personal – surrounding Mandela’s incarceration, moving through several stages from his ‘deep’ incarceration which still held in the early 1980s through renewed prominence sparked by growing international pressure and internal unrest, to his eventual ‘open imprisonment’ and release.

Notably, the Mandela file – simply labelled ‘913’ – is just one such composite file in the Coetsee archive. Similar, albeit less extensive, records were kept on other ‘security prisoners’, notably Walter Sisulu (Prisoner 916). (Also, while our narrative ends when Mandela walks out of prison on 11 February 1990, the secret surveillance of leading ANC figures continued for a significant period, and some of these records also appear in the archive.)

The entire archive – or, more accurately, the whole 913 file – tells a sweeping and multifaceted story, far too big to capture in a single volume. Given this, we decided to focus on a single theme, namely the light cast by the archive on the hidden process surrounding Mandela’s impending release in the last years of his imprisonment.

As noted by my co-author, the Coetsee archive is not complete enough to allow the development of a continuous and comprehensive narrative. Therefore, we have juxtaposed our selected material with standard accounts by two key role players, namely Mandela himself – in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (1994), and former President F.W. de Klerk, in The Last Trek: A New Beginning (1998), who released Mandela and set in motion the transition to democracy. Put differently, we use the disclosures in the archive to amplify their accounts, plugging the gaps where indicated. In line with these accounts, our narrative moves forward chronologically.

In the course of developing our narrative, we also found that Secret Revolution: Memoirs of a Spy Boss (2015) by Dr Niël Barnard, head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) at that time, became directly relevant.

Against this background, the archive yields some notable new insights. Without wishing to pre-empt the detailed disclosures as they arrive at their proper time in the course of our story, it reveals:

  • That Mandela repeatedly offered to act as ‘facilitator’ between the NP government and the ANC, and that some of his proposals for a negotiated settlement cut across accepted ANC policy;
  • That Mandela, with the collaboration of Coetsee and the Department of Prisons, launched an extensive campaign, while installed in a cottage at Victor Verster Prison, to meet as many released prisoners and other political leaders as possible, with a view to moderating their political views and strategies;
  • That, from December 1989 onwards, again with the government’s knowledge and approval, Mandela began to talk to the ANC leadership in Lusaka, conveying various requests and proposals, including the terms of a proposed negotiated settlement;
  • That the ANC responded by moderating some of its public statements – notably its 8 January statement in January 1990 – at Mandela’s (and effectively the government’s) request, and potentially also some of the decisions taken at a key meeting between released ‘security prisoners’ and other internal leaders of the broad resistance movement and the ANC in exile in Lusaka in late January 1990; and
  • That talks between Mandela and the government about the terms of his release and a negotiated settlement continued up to De Klerk’s address on 2 February.

Lastly, it casts light on one of the most puzzling themes in the story of Mandela’s release, which perplexed various other role players – ranging from Margaret Thatcher to diplomats active in South Africa to the ANC’s leadership in exile – for some time, namely his apparent reluctance to leave prison. This was partly due, the archive discloses, to his strategic efforts to bargain for a ‘package he could take to Lusaka’. However, it also reveals that Mandela was greatly discomfited when De Klerk abruptly told him, on 9 February 1990, that he would be thrust back into the outside world two days later.

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