Reader impression: Prisoner 913 by Riaan de Villiers and Jan-Ad Stemmet

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Prisoner 913: The release of Nelson Mandela
Revelations from the archive of apartheid minister Kobie Coetsee
Riaan de Villiers and Jan-Ad Stemmet
Tafelberg, 2020
293 pages

This reader impression was written and sent to LitNet on the writer’s own initiative.

Loose talk, especially pillow talk, can be dangerous. In the arms of a lover, Nelson Mandela’s wife, Winnie, whispers that Nelson will be visiting Durban. The lover wants Winnie for himself. He sees an opportunity to betray Mandela to the authorities, and the rest is history. Mandela is arrested at a roadblock in Natal, is convicted of treason and spends 27 years in jail – until the endgame, when the National Party government is boxed in by events and decides to free him prior to negotiating an end to apartheid.

Mandela’s belief that Winnie played a role in his betrayal comes from his own lips as he meets with their eldest daughter, Zenani and her husband in his cottage at Victor Verster Prison in Paarl some five months before his release. The entire cottage is bugged, and every word he says to his visitors is recorded. Everything in this Orwellian surveillance space finds its way to the desk of Kobie Coetsee, the shadowy minister of justice and prisons, who plays a central, if murky, role in Mandela’s eventual release. 

All of this comes to us via Prisoner 913 – one of the most riveting books I have read about the Great Man and the largely hidden dynamics swirling around him at that time. It is based on Coetsee’s own secret files on Mandela which he kept in his ministry – which he removed when he left government before the 1994 elections, and promised to co-author Jan-Ad Stemmet two days before his death in 2000; Stemmet eventually rediscovered them in a Bloemfontein archive 13 years later.

Coetsee is like some Stasi operative in East Germany, eavesdropping on his neighbour. Part of the guilty fascination – if one can call it that – of this book is to see how the eavesdropping Coetsee is “turned” by the Mandela charisma and becomes his fierce champion, even if he cannot bring himself to admit it.

Readers must decide for themselves. But Coetsee – legal brain, deputy defence minister and minister of justice and prisons under President PW Botha and FW de Klerk – clearly believed that the trusting relationship he built with Mandela entitled him to be Mandela’s “gatekeeper” from 1982 to 1990, when Mandela was released from prison.

While in later years Mandela was popularly associated with the prison number 466/64, his number on Robben Island, he had another – and permanent – number in the broader prisons system, namely 913. Coetsee’s Mandela file was tagged “913”, and, in Gulag style, all the largely classified government documents in the archive never refer to Mandela by name, only by his number. But, as the reader works his way through this epic distillation of the vast “Prisoner 913” collection of 13 000 pages, Mandela comes alive like a hologram, dancing on the page.

This reviewer had the privilege of dining alongside Mandela a couple of times at functions, and his voice – once heard, never forgotten – was unique to the man. It therefore feels furtively voyeuristic, intrusive – as if in some mysterious way, one is conspiring with the scrutiny apparatus which captured his private conversations – to read these transcripts of Coetsee’s secret recordings. In German, they say, “Der Lauscher an der Wand hort seine eigene Schand” – the listener on the wall hears his own shame. You come away feeling that this is what happened to Coetsee. He heard his own shame and that of his countrymen, and changed his apartheid spots to the extent that he could, and, while not becoming another Beyers Naudé, experienced his own Damascene conversion.

There are dozens of other extraordinary revelations, the Winnie betrayal being but one, in this first-rate addition to understanding what really went on behind the scenes in the “lost” decade of the 1980s leading up to Mandela’s release. Prisoner 913 is a very good companion to Anthea Jeffery’s Peoples war (2019, Jonathan Ball), which details the ANC/SACP adoption – after a visit by Oliver Tambo and colleagues to Vietnam and General Vo Nguyen Giap in 1978 – of Giap’s strategy of pursuing both insurrection and negotiation at the same time. Because the ANC lacked a conventional army, insurrection had to be predicated on Lenin’s famous “magic trick” of a united front which aimed at harnessing the masses to make the country ungovernable – in South Africa’s case, this became the United Democratic Front, acting as a kind of internal ANC force. But it also amounted to a mandate harnessed by Mandela to enter into negotiations with the National Party government. He grabbed the opportunity with both hands, and brilliantly fought his and the ANC’s corner, as Prisoner 913 shows.

There are probably two dozen serious books about Mandela, including his own autobiography, but I can think of very few that capture the “real man” in the same way Prisoner 913 does. Young Mandela by David James Smith offers a tantalising picture of the man when young, as does 'n Seun soos Bram by Hannes Haasbroek, but here we have his mature voice in actual conversation with a panoply of visitors. Mandela is somehow reduced, and yet becomes larger and more attractive in human terms. Poignantly, despite the bitterness towards Winnie momentarily revealed in his conversation with Zenani, he continues to look forward to her visits, and continues to draw comfort from them. He remains a father we all recognise, touchingly scribbling a note for Winnie to pass on to their daughter Zindzi after the apparent suicide of her partner: “Darling,” it reads, “what has happened has happened, and no useful purpose can be served by torturing yourself over it. Pull yourself up, darling, and remember that we love you very dearly. Let’s forget what ... cannot be changed .... I love you. Tata.”

But it is not only the insights into Mandela’s character and motives which make for gripping reading; the book also casts new and penetrating light on the hidden dynamics, prior to constitutional negotiations, between the National Party and the ANC. Prisoner 913 shows that both Mandela’s and President FW de Klerk’s autobiographical accounts of events are highly selective, to the point of being misleading. Many examples are given, but De Klerk is either disingenuously obtuse or genuinely ignorant when he writes about being unaware of the lengthy interaction between Coetsee and Mandela. In De Klerk’s own account, he simply picks up the reins after President Botha’s stroke in 1989, lends the process “his tacit approval”, has his first meeting with Mandela in December 1989 and announces his release on 2 February 1990.

Was he really not aware that Coetsee had – with PW Botha’s approval – been meeting with Mandela ever since the latter’s prostate operation in 1985? It seems not. De Klerk was apparently kept out of the loop by Botha and the military. Indeed, it is Botha who first offers to release Mandela in “white” South Africa rather than the “independent” homeland of Transkei – under the tender mercies of his cousin, Kaiser Mathanzima – which is what the diehard apartheid groupthink lobby wanted.

Notably, the book reveals that, at his meeting with De Klerk on 13 December 1989, Mandela was asked to serve as the latter’s advisor, as a member of a “panel of wise men”. Whether this was relayed by De Klerk himself or by Coetsee in De Klerk’s presence remains unclear, but the import remains unchanged. Startlingly, it also reveals that the offer remained alive until a day before De Klerk’s epochal address in parliament on 2 February 1990, only to disappear without trace from De Klerk’s final address. Whether Mandela finally rejected the offer or De Klerk himself decided against it remains unclear.

The book also discloses that De Klerk made certain proposals which Mandela agreed to relay to the ANC in exile. Indications are that this would have entailed an attempt to meet at least some of the preconditions in the Harare Declaration, in exchange for the ANC either suspending or renouncing its “armed struggle”. Transcripts of telephone conversations between Mandela and key ANC figures in Lusaka – notably Alfred Nzo and Thabo Mbeki – reveal tantalising glimpses of a possible agreement that would have resulted in a “simultaneous declaration” between Pretoria and Lusaka. However, this initiative petered out in January 1990 for reasons which still remain unknown. The book also reveals that Coetsee raised the prospect of releasing Mandela with PW Botha as far back as 1984, and that Botha gave him the green light to recast government policy for releasing “security prisoners” in a way that would have allowed Mandela’s release, on the one hand, and imprisoned poet Breyten Breytenbach, on the other.

It makes other significant disclosures, among them Mandela offering his services as a facilitator between the National Party and the ANC with ideas that seemed to cut across ANC policy – without consistent communication with the ANC in exile, he was forced to wing it on his own. Finally, however, the Harare Declaration, endorsed by the OAU in 1989, provided the ANC with a clear blueprint for negotiations, and everyone – prisoners like Mandela and Walter Sisulu, the internal resistance movement and the ANC in exile – began to sing from the same hymn sheet. (Usefully, Anthea Jeffery also records that the blueprint was drawn up with Soviet help and, according to Soviet foreign minister Shubin, provided for talks between the liberation movement and the apartheid regime to take place on ANC terms.)

The Harare Declaration gave Pretoria a headache of the first water, and transcripts of Mandela’s conversations with key figures in Lusaka, as well as with “security prisoners” about to be released, demonstrate how adroitly Mandela worked to advance a constitutional settlement in terms favourable to the liberation movement. Indeed, from the advent of the Harare Declaration, broadly coinciding with Botha’s ousting and De Klerk’s rise to the presidency, the latter increasingly starts to play catch-up, and eventually relies heavily on relayed pressure from Thatcher’s government to override last-ditch resistance from the security establishment.

The transcripts of the telephone conversations between Mandela and his colleagues in Lusaka make for fascinating reading – they show how Mandela, with his old-fashioned use of words and phrases like “chaps” and “having a nap”, deployed his “Uncle Nel” (as Thabo Mbeki called him) charm and gravitas to great effect.

We also gain greater insight into one of the most puzzling themes in the story of his release, namely his apparent reluctance to leave prison. This, it turns out, was partly strategic and partly personal. On the one hand, he used the international clamour for his release as a sort of inverse bargaining chip, telling De Klerk and his cohorts that he wouldn’t leave prison “without a deal he can take to Lusaka”. At the same time, it becomes touchingly clear that he was comfortably settled in his cottage at Victor Verster, and that part of him was greatly discomfited when De Klerk abruptly told him on 9 February that he would be ejected into the outside world two days later. He packed his clothes in a cardboard box, so unprepared was he.

De Klerk would not compromise on the date, but did agree to release him in Cape Town rather than Johannesburg. And so it came to be that he walked out of the Victor Verster gates on 11 February, hand in hand with Winnie – but not before security had to be doubled after receiving a tip-off that he would be shot upon his exit by a renegade prison warder.

It’s all in the book – an essential addition to the library of any serious student of South African affairs. Kobie Coetsee’s only known honour was to have a South African naval ship named after him – the SAS Kobie Coetsee. But even this proved short-lived – the ship was eventually renamed the SAS Job Maseko, after a black South African hero in World War II. A few books – including those by journalists Allister Sparks and Patti Waldmeir, and eventually Mandela’s own Long walk to freedom – have hinted at Coetsee’s behind-the-scenes contribution, but Prisoner 913 casts penetrating new light on his strangely important role in easing South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy. FW de Klerk was the one who walked away with the Nobel Prize in the end, though. Winner takes all.

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