Sunday, January 19, 2014

Personal & Political Mentorship at a Prison Transformed by Its Inmates into a “Site of Resistance”*

“Mac” Maharaj recalling his time imprisoned with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu (among other ANC and SACP members) at Robben Island: 

“In many ways, like all of us, Madiba [Nelson Mandela] changed over the years. I think that in prison his anger and hatred of the system increased, but the manifestations of that anger became less visible. They were subdued, tempered. He became cold and analytical in focusing on the evils of the system. Madiba was meticulous in examining issues. Once he arrived at a position, he was extremely stubborn, almost unshakeable. At the same time, he was very dignified and extremely ruthless in debate. He prepared well, and he would pin you with questions; he would be relentless.
Walter [Sisulu], on the other hand, never came across as holding unshakeable positions. He had his views, he was a very good listener, but he would probe you very gently. I have always said that he inspired us to think outside the box because he never tried to crush us in debate. 

There was something very, very special about Walter. He did not have that sense of inferiority that many people living under oppression acquire, or the countering over-assertiveness such people often take on. There was no issue that I couldn’t take to Walter. I was never met with a dismissal. I would go to Walter with crazy ideas, but he wouldn’t say they were crazy. Instead, he would inspire me to investigate those ideas further, and in that way he would often bring me back to a sober position. He was a great encouragement. 

Walter interacted as an equal with those who had a superior education. It’s a remarkable ability. Oliver Tambo, who was a mathematician, and Anton Lembede, a philosopher with an MA, a lawyer—they were among those who used to gather at Walter’s home in the 1940s for intellectual discussion. Walter was like a magnet drawing them all to him. 
Walter and Madiba had the greatest regard for each other’s perceptions of strategy and tactics. Nelson had the determination to grapple with ideas, even to the point of stubbornness, but I think he understood that what Walter brought to the debate was a deep understanding of the human psyche. 
I went to prison at the age of twenty-nine and came out when I was forty-one. These are very important years in anybody’s life, your thirties. You are at the peak of your mental and physical abilities, and prison can be a very debilitating place. I went through all that personal agony. But against that, I had the privilege of living with people of a very high caliber. We interacted closely, debating vigorously and often acrimoniously. But in the end, the presence of Walter, the presence of Madiba, and seeing how they conducted themselves were major influence in my life.” From Padraig O’Malley, Shades of Difference: Mac Mahahraj and the Struggle for South Africa (Viking Penguin, 2007): 163-164. 
 * On the prison at Robben Island during the time in question, an indispensable study is Fran Lisa Buntman’s Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid (Cambridge University Press, 2003).


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