GMC: This is a conversation with Ben Turok on March 15, 1973 in London. I'm going
to begin by asking Ben when he became associated with the Resistance struggle and
under what circumstances and then we will move on to several areas in which he has been
BT: Well, I ought to explain that I come from a home of Jewish parents who were born
in eastern Europe and who have always had a deep concern for race and equality and
race questions. They came to South Africa in 1929 I was born in Latvia but from
the earliest days my father was a 38, it was a Jewish worker's movement which really
was mainly interested in JEwish questions,, but it also obviously got involved in the
whole line of the fascist movement in South Africa. Now, given that background, when
I became a university student at the University of Cape Town I joined the Student
Socialist Society and was chairman for a short time. But although I absorbed a great
deal of Marxist thought at this time I think I. could be truly stated as being a
liberal, because I did not believe in the universal franchise. So, my Marxism was per-
haps diluted.zNow the thing that really changed my life and thinking was that I did my
post-graduate articles period as a surveyor in Rhodesia. And I spent 18 months there,
1950-51, and during that period I stayed on various farms in Rhodesia with, often with
Afrikans farmers and I had a team of African laborers, assistants, chain-men and I got
very close to them, and very distant from the farmers I was living with.
GMC: What is a chain-man? Is he chained or is he . .
BT: He's a man who carries various bits of equipment for the surveyor, I'm a graduate
engineer surveyor, a cadastral surveyor.
GMC: And these were regular assistants, and not under duress.
BT: No, they were my team, my boys as we called them. And I got quite close to them and
became more and more furious with the way that Africans were being treated in Rhodesia
and the pay that my men were getting. They were getting b2 12 and 6 a month, plus
a of mealy meal and two shillings go to meat a week the mealy meal a day and the
meat a week. Now, while I was living on the farm with various Afrika@s farmers often
sometimes English farmers, I was horrified by the brutality and treatment of laborers
and became increasingly so, the bitterness and anger. Because whb-ras I grew up in
Cape Town which because of its Coloured community, the color bar was in those days
very much easier, there were Coloureds at the university, there were even Africans
at the university with me on fairly equal terms. But in Rhodesia, everything was very
total, the race barriers were terrible.
GMC: You thought it was much more stringent?
BT: Much more so, and i became filled with horror, so much so that I once attended a
meeting in the City Hall in 6 -.m*'' organized by a man called Councillor Olley,
who is a very important historical character in Rhodesia. And he spoke about wogs,
about niggers and he wouldn't have a nigger clean his shoes and so on. And the resolut-
ion before the meeting was that Rhodesia wanted dominion status within ten years. This
by the way, was in 1951, and shows how history moves. And they wanted dominion status
within ten years. And I even got up and moved an amendment saying that Rhodesia wanted
dominion status with a proviso that Africans were given trade-union rights. By the way,
this is an indication of the level hostility goes. .
I had no seconder, in the hall was 1500 people. I made a short speech and supported my
amendment, I was shaking with the tension and fury, actually, my first big public speech.
But after the meeting quite a number of people approached me, one was a minister of
the church, another one was a little servant in the Native Affairs Department, and
various sorts of other people sort of fiddled up to me and said that they supported
fully my views but because of their jobs and positions they couldn't vote and second.
The atmosphere was really nasty and frankly, when I left the meeting, I was very anxious.
There were all sorts of bully-boys knocking about and I got into a car of a friend of
mine and drove home very quickly. But this was a psychological change.
GMC: That's very interesting, because it comes so often at a point.
BT: And at the time, thereafter, I tried to make contact with other African groups in
and didn't succeed. Politically, things were at a very low ebb. There had
been a strike in Bulawap@ about a year before which had been crushed by the location
being surrounded by police they cut off the water and electricity and everything
else and people were starved out. But I didn't make much contact so when I returned
home I then tried to make contact with people in Cape Town. I had been away for some
time. But this time the Communist Party had been banned and had gone underground. I
spoke to people who I had known had been Communists, they said that the influction
had been to close down and therefore nothing was operating at all.
GMC: I noticed you spoke in here about the self-criticism of having closed down rather
than to go underground.
BT: Well, this is the universal, universally accepted now, that they made a terrible
mistake. But the practical import of it is indicated in their position for me, because
when I wanted to get involved, it was a dangerous point and at a point of high tension,
there was nothing to relate to, nothing at all. So, what eventually I did do was to join
the Modern Youth Society, which was a sort of left-wing group, not affiliated to anything
or anyone, a left-wing group of young people, students and others and we held debates
and symposia and so on.
GMC: Was it related to Cape Town University especially?
BT: Not especially, no.
GMC: And were there Afrikaners as well as [no] mostly English?
BT: English-speaking youngsters, Jewish and some Coloureds. I don't know that we
had any African members, one or two, but Cape Town was a Coloured area. So we had some
Coloured people in the organization, so it was a non-race youth organization which
went out and sold THE GUARDIAN and weekly we held symposia which held parties, and acted
as a sort of protest. We also, a little later, started the Africa Club which was a
club where meetings were held once a week, lectures (I remember people like Dr. Simons,
Jack Simons) and people like that speaking, we had one or two study groups and things
were very.fragmented and at a very low level. And that was how I really came into the
GMC: But now when you say 'into the movement' there's a kind of gap there.
BT: I must explain. The Modern Youth Society gradually established links with the
GMC: Oh it did. Through the African members, or through the Congress. .
BT: I think through the rather free-wheeling sort of situation that existed in Cape
Town. THE GUARDIAN was a rallying point for everyone, people related to that. .
GMC: Was editor?
BT: Yes, no he wasn't, he was a member of Parliament at the time.
I then decided then the Defiance Campaign came along and my present wife who
was then Mary Butcher, was a journalist working on THE GUARDIAN, a reporter, and she
was a defier. She joined the group. But I had been thinking for a long time that I
wanted to do a post-graduate degree at London University, and I had made the arrange-
ments and I left South Africa just when the Defiance Campaign was petering out, late
'53. I left with a great deal of regret because I had become more and more involved
and more and more serious about things. But I felt that having made the arrange-
ments, since I had a passport I would use the opportunity while it was there. So I
came over to Britian in December of '53 to do a Town Planning degree at University
College, London. But, I didn't complete it. I had difficulties in registration, its
a technical question, I didn't have aesthetics. This degree is for architects and not
for surveyors ,and my degree had been very technical, mathematics and so on and when I
arrived, the professor who was the leading town planner to William Hawford, said that
I couldn't get the full degree. I could do two years and get something after that,
but I couldn't do the full degree. So after staying here for some months I decided
that it wasn't worth-while, I was going to be a professional man, and you can't put
after your name the certificate in so-and-so, you need the actual qualification. So
I decided to throw it up and then I went to, by this time I became secretary of the
London Committee of the Youth Festival, International Youth. This met in Bucharest
and I went to Bucharest with the delegation of South Africans, there were about 35
people and that's where I met Walter Sisulu, Alfred Hutchinson, Duma Nokwe and various
other people who came over as a delegation .from South Africa.
GMC: I see. So then you got together at this point, in Bucharest.
BT: So I had already decided that the time had come for me to go home and after
the festival I spent a few weeks in France and then went back to South Africa, and I
got married fairly soon after that to the former Mary Butcher.
When I got back I got a job as a surveyor and then opened a practice in my own
name as a professional surveyor in Cape Town. But the draw of politics was very
strong and I offered my services to the people who were around at the time people
like Bunting, Connerson and so on and in with consultations with various people it was
proposed that I should become a trade unionist. So, I became the Secretary of the
African Metal Workers Union, which didn't exist. It wasn't in existence. I virtually
started the union. Together with a man called Archie Sibeko, working under the general
direction of Bray Alexander, and working together with the Food and Canning Worker's
Union. It was very difficult because I couldn't speak the language most of the
workers were migratory.
GMC: Mostly Xosa?
BT: Yes, and migratory workers, obviously very curious and suspicious of this white
man who wanted to help them organize. We were also inhibited very much by the dichotomy
in the working, in the labor movement, with registered unions and non-registered unions.
My own view was that on no account should Coloured or African workers register.
BT: Because, firstly, theoretically, I thought it was wrong, I thought it was wrong
in principle, but it was mainly wrong in practice. Because what happened was that as
we set up this union, which consisted of Coloured and African workers, we registered
on Ray Alexander'sadvice the Coloured section, and immediately introduced a
between the Africans and the Coloureds.
GMC: And of course the Africans could not register.
BT: And furthermore, the Coloured workers were able to use the machinery of the
conciliation boards could apply for various kinds of conciliation mechanisms and
the Africans could not. The effect of this on the membership was that the Africans
suffered psychologically very seriously, in effect they were being treated as second
class citizens in the trade union, lost confidence in their own power to operate,
and resented the Coloured leadership because of necessity the committee had to be
Coloured, destroying unity at the base, at the very foundation of the union. I read
an article about this in LIBERATION calling for the non-registration of Coloured unions,
but the line of the movement by this time had congealed the existing trade union move-
ments which became SACTU later on. It was then the Trade and Labor Council group, Ray
Alexander's group within the Trades and Labor Council, they were in favor of retaining
the privileges of registration, they felt this protected them against police inter-
ference and terror, and so on, but I thought that the political question came first.
I would say that the political wing of the movement, if one can talk of this
thing at the time, was in agreement with me, we agreed together. This was the
general feeling, but the trade unionists were very strong on this question as they
were on the movement as a whole. And so the movement accepted that registration should
So I was working in this arena it was a very tough occupation, the police
hounded us and I would say that for the record, and this is something people ought to
remember, that organizing the ANC was an awful lot easier than organizing trade unions.
And when one looks at the scene and tries to explain why the trade union movement
didn't prove a stronger organization, and the ANC was able to do so, the explanation
is that the terror against trade unionists was very much fiercer.
GMC: Was it? You think all the way through or just in this period?
BT: All the way through. Because, in practice, an ANC group could get together
in a township under reasonably secure conditions. They could meet in someone's home,
it could be clothed, disguised as a tea-party and so on, and police survellience of
that kind was not veryAtense in the township. But, the moment you went to a factory
and a group of workers gathered, there was always the white foreman or the manager or
the boss himself who saw the group of workers, he was on the telephone, and the police
were out there in no time. So, the police were there, they arrested people or they took
GMC: And you couldn't, of course, get together in the townships between Coloureds and
BT: No, nor could you get workers from one factory on a residential basis, because
they were scattered all over. We tried this, we tried to organize workers at the
residential level, it was very difficult. The only way to organize trade unions is on
the job, really. And, I'm sure this is an international experience. So the problem was
to break this particular one and we didn't break it really. I should say that I was
at this time earning L3 a month from the union, and my petrol account, I remember, was
L7 a month and I was living off Mary who has a private income.
GMC: How fortunate. Was she still with the GUARDIAN?
BT: Yes, she was with the GUARDIAN but then we had a child in 1955, but we were
living on her private resources really and I had a great deal of conscience about this.
But on the other hand I was putting back more into it than getting out of it. In fact,
I did this for the rest of my political life. I never earned a salary as such.
Are you interested in this biographical stuff?
.GMC: Oh very. And we're moving up, I presume, to your share in the Secretariat of the
BT: Well, the next thing was that Lendley Waldon oh yes,
from Parliament, Brian Bunting then stood as his replacement, Brian Bunting was banned
under the Suppression of Communism Act, I was asked whether I would like to go to
Parliament, I turned it down, I thought I was too young and inexperienced. And Lendley
Waldon was then selected as the candidate and I become his election agent. Soon there-
after, Len (so I left my trade union work, not entirely, but I sort of drifted out or
gave most of my time to the election) and Lendley Waldon became the candidate, I was
his election agent and I did all the meetings because very soon thereafter Len was
banned also from addressing meetings, but not from being in Parliament. Because he
was not a named Communist, you see. Unlike Bunting and he would not have
been a member of the Communist party, in fact he was very much of what one would say
wishy-washy labor. He wasn't the strongest person or ideal candidate, really. And
in Parliament his performance wasn't quite up to the mark really. And I'm not saying
this to be nasty, but it was a very, very tough period anyway. What happens,
chronilogically, was I addressed numerous meetings throughout the Cape Province,
western Province, and there was a man, the most fascinating man I've ever met in
my life, Greenwood Ngotyana.
Perhaps I ought to just talk about him for a moment. Greenwood was a man who
came from the Trans-Ciskei as a migratory worker. He first came in illegally with-
out a permit, slept in the single quarters in Langa. I remember him telling me how
he shared a concrete bunk with someone and paid 5 bob a week rent. He became a
petrol attendant and he tells me many stories about how he operated there. And then
Greenwood, who is a man of the most tremendous passion and emotion and a man with the
deepest possible feelings for fellow Africans, gradually was drawn into political work
and became a full time organizer of the, first of the railway worker's union and then
of the ANC and then became a sort of organizer for the Lee Warden election campaign.
So he and I were drawn together, we moved together in these campaigns, he was my
interpreter and then he did his own speeches and we won the election fairly easily
and Lee Warden went to Parliament. From there I, then the Congress of the People,
and I became a full-time organizer for the Congress of the People.
GMC: How did this happen? You say you became one did you offer your services -
did people know of you . .?
BT: What happened there was a national planning council set up in Johannesburg.
And then they came down to Cape Town, I forget who it was, and set up some sort of
action council in Cape Town.
GMC: I see, it came from Johannesburg, not from the east where Walter Matthews had
BT: I can't recall in detail, I don't even know that I was present at the first
meeting. But what did happen was that a meeting was held of representatives of various
organizations and groups, in Cape Town. There was the ANC, the Coloured People's (what
were they called then?) Congress, in which in those days there was, it was led by Dr.
Fatarah it was a very respectable outfit at the time. They had a good many Coloured
leaders, respectable Coloured leaders, principals and so on in the organization. And
people like Temba and Leguma and George Peach and people like this. But, there was a
meeting of this kind and since I had become free, so to speak, after the election my
name was mentioned and Greenwood Ngotyana and I, Greenwood was appointed as the main
organizer and I was his assistant or supporter and so we worked together again. We
had become a pretty good team. Then there was issued from Johannesburg the call to
the Congress of the People, which was a leaflet setting out general objectives.
GMC: That must have been about '54?
BT: '54. Our job Vas to go out to all the various little groups and organizations
and trade unions throughout the western Cape and hold meetings and tell them about
the proposed congress and then, in the second stage, to call for demands. So I
think the first thing was to inform people about the intentions and the second thing
was to call for demands. We held hundreds of meetings, everywhere. The Food and
Canning Worker's Union was an excellent place because they had branches in all the Food
Canning Centers in the western Cape. I remember going to Ceres, Woosley, B
and then Mussel's Bay, Gansbaai, oh and so on. Many many little towns, hamlets, villages
where because there was a lot of fruit grown, the various canning companies had set
up factories in which they employed temporary labor, seasonal labor, often Coloured and
African, and we went out to speak to these branches of the Food and Canning Worker's
GMC: And you were not harassed in so doing?
BT: Oh yes. We were followed everywhere by the Special Branch and we struggled very
hard to elude them, but often couldn't manage this, and they often sat in on our meet-
ings, took notes and so on.
GMC: They didn't make arrests of the workers who were listening to you?
BT: Not directly, so far as I can recall. But one very interesting experience which
was my first one in prison, was that in George. A man called Tshumunga, who is now
a senior official in Mantamzima's government, this man was appointed national organ-
izer of the Congress of the People. He was based in Port Elizabeth and he was also
organizer for the Cape Province. We were working in the western Province. At one
point Tshumunga wrote to us and said they wanted to set up an action council
for the Cape Province. So by a series of telegrams we were notified that we ought to
come at a certain time at a point of half a mile outside an African location in George.
We made a terrible blunder, because that was the week when Dr. Malam was attending a
Cape Provincial Congress of the Nationalist Party. So the whole of George was full of
Afrikaner politicians, nationalist politicians, security was pretty high and they were
also, the police were also watching the post. So they apparently discovered a telegram,
one of our telegrams, and as I drove down the road at 8:00 at night, I suddenly sensed
or saw very powerful headlights behind me, and sure enough, the police came screaming
upon me, I was doing about 60 miles an hour, they came up at about 100 and skidded in
front of me, brought me to a half, I nearly crashed them. A number of police jumped out
and surrounded the car, I had 4 Africans in the car with me and they then forcibly pulled
me out of the car, I was driving and they pulled some of the Africans out of the car.
One of the Special Branch jumped into the back seat and said 'all right Turok, I'm
armed' and patted his holster. It was the first time that I'd really felt the, to use
a cliche, the fascist character of the police. They'd always been at our meetings,
we'd had many a time conflicts and arguments and so on, but one was pretty helpless
and there this man was in the back of the car, he was armed. They drove me to the police
station and they separated the Africans and then I no-ticed through the barrier, that
they had grabbed quite a number of Africans who I didn't know who had come from Port
Elizabeth and from somewhere else, I think from Umtata. We were going to the PRO-
vincial meeting. Curiously enough, I was the only white man there and the police
separated me and kept me in one section of the charge office and the Africans in another.
I asked to phone my lawyer and at 1:00 in the morning, it was some 5 hours later, they
gave me permission to phone my lawyer in Cape Town who had gave me the name of another
lawyer in George in the town we were in, and I phoned this man in the middle of the
night. He didn't know what the hell I was on about, he had never had this kind of
experience, and he said he would see me in the morning. So then I asked for bail and
they refused, so they threw me into a cell, which was occupied by a man who was obviously
a drunkard, the stink of alcohol the stench generally was awful. There was a little
mat on the floor, this drunk had taken most of the blankets and I only had one blanket
and I laid down in my clothes on the mat, didn't sleep a wink all night. Very cold,
absolutely freezing. And from time to time somebody switched on the light and looked
through the peep-hole.
In the morning the lawyer came along and he got me out on E25 bail. The Africans
they would not release on bail. I had a consultation with the lawyer and we discussed
tactics and so on and finally we came back and it was evident they were going to charge
us under the Road Transportation Act, because it was being said that we were charging
for, we were taking passengers for award, that's the phrase. The, unfortunately one
of the Africans had made a statement to the effect that he had contributed a gallon
of petrol and this was in the end held as evidence and they were found guilty. I was
acquitted, but they were found guilty and fined a few pounds. But all this meant that
we had to stay in George for a few days, and I stayed in the same hotel as a whole lot
of these politicians attending the Congress. And what I noticed was that most of the
delegates seemed to be the smart, lawyer types, from the country towns and not so much
the ordinary farmer. The men that did all the talking and were active and seemed to be
running the show were these smart young men who were lawyer-types, maybe professional
men of another kind and the stogy farmer type was sort of voting cattle. This was my
From there, the meeting failed of course, we couldn't set up this committee. Oh
yes, the Africans held a meeting in jail and Tshumunga was elected chairman and I, as a
tribute to my prison experience, I was made vice-chairman of the Cape Coast Action
Council of the Congress of the people. I never really fulfilled any functions in that
capacity because we never really met properly because it just wasn't possible. But
anyway, a nice gesture on their part. And particularly nice since Tshumunga at this
time was a very sharp African nationalist. It was sharply anti-white. And in fact,
when he came to Cape Town, subsequently, and we worked together, we discovered that he
had been holding secret meetings at the New Plat in the location 3:00
at night, with groups of men who later broke away and formed PAC. Now Tshumunga had
been holding meetings with these fellows, it was an Africanist section, he was very
much in the ANC, he was sharply critical of whites playing any kind of role with the
ANC. Of course, we were not members, but we worked very closely. He was very critical
of this and, although, he wasn't at that stage, prepared to oppose us openly.
Actually Tshumunga and I worked very closely together very well. I think we
got on well. He once called me the 'Lion of the South.' It was a reflection on my
wife no doubt, but it was also, I would like to think, a tribute because I worked
very, very hard at this time.
GMC: And why was he opposed to the whites? Was it because he thought they interfered
with African leadership?
BT: Yes, I think Tshumunga was in the mainstream of those who felt that Africans
should go it alone. He was, I would say, the kind of man who felt that the Africans
had a psychological liberation to go through. I think he also resented theinfluence
of white Communists, New Age and so on, and he certainly represented a faction within
the ANC that would have preferred to go it alone.
GMC: You were not a member of CO^?
BT: I was a member of COD. COD, the first was called Congress League or something
like that, Democratic League, which was formed in Cape Town, was not part of the
National organization. I was abroad at the time, 1954, but when I came to Cape Town
I did join the Congress of Democrats and I think at this time of which I am speaking
I was actually secretary of the Congress of Democrats branch in Cape Town. But I
think I broke through the barriers with Tshumunga because, frankly, we worked very
GMC: He could see you as an individual.
BT: Yes. And we went out on trips into the countryside, we stayed very ofte, for
instance, in a house in Asadawooz, an Indian lass who lived in Worscester, a very
dedicated member of the Coloured People's Organization. We stayed together at her
house so blacks and whites could live together there. On various occasions Tshumunga
and I and went out on organizing trips and I think he realized that
I was totally committed and I didn't have a color bar and was myself prepared to sub-
ordinate my own position to his and to that of Greenwood's and that I wasn't seeking
a leadership place. So I think that we established a very good rapport.
GMC: How much time was there between your initial organizing or informational
meetings and those in which they developed their demands and gave you some indication
BT: Well, the Congress of the People campaign was not a very long campaign, really..
I think, it's very hard to date these things, but I think that from about, the
Congress itself was held in 1955, correct, June '55. I think a call was first made
probably at the end of '54, so it was only a six-month campaign. So the whole thing
ran into each other, the various phases. We bad a very extremely intensive period of
going out to meetings. We would go out for 3 or 4 days at a time, to the countryside,
meetings were held in Cape Town and I would like to say that it was probably the most
democratic thing ever done in South Africa, in the sense that we did consult people.
We really did. And we dug up even little groups of people who had been active in the
days of the Communist party. I could tell you a little story. We went to a little place
in Kraaifontein where somebody remembered that there had been a group that had been
active in the Communist party. We arrived there, we dug up an old man and we told him
that we'd come for the Congress of the People, we'd come to speak to the people about
their demands and so on. It was a small cluster of the village right in the bush.
These were Coloureds, and they called the meeting, which we addressed and in the middle
of the meeting one old man came out and he produced a card which I had never seen be-
fore, it was a Communist party membership card. And he said that the worse thing
that had ever happened to him and to the people in that village is that somebody had
come in 1950 and told them that it had been decided that the Communist party should
be dissolved. He said that was a terribly bitter blow and since that time they had
not had any political contacts at all.
So we told them that we were not the Communist party, but we were the Congress of
the People and that we'd come to get demands and so on and they sat down with us and
we spent three hours while they talked about their conditions, and their conditions
were really terrible. They lived in flooded areas, in sandy wastes, they had no
roads, their huts were very poor, they were migratory workers getting odd jobs here
and there, their standard of living was appalling, malnutrition was everywhere, we
could see this, ix their water position was very bad, they drew water from a well
which was pollutted and they were very bitter about the persecution of the local
authority and I think their authority was the Stellenbosch urban authority if I'm
not mistaken, Stellenbosch or Paarl. Well, this is typical of the kind of thing that
we dug up during this campaign.
GMC: Ben, say a little bit about how you managed to get these demands. We've had
such diverse stories from the floods of scraps of paper to the all one handwriting
story. It would be interesting to hear what you experienced and how you managed it.
BT: Well, a typical case would be, let's take that one I was mentioning. This
village. Now, if my memory serves me rightly there were 3 of us on this particular
occasion who came out. I think one of them was George Peake, another was Greenwood
Ngotyana whom I've mentioned, and myself.
GMC: Peake is white?
BT: Peake is Coloured. We tried to operate in a non-racial team. I think that at this
stage Peake by the way, later on, became President of the South African Coloured Congress
GMC: Oh yes, that's how I know his name.
BT: He later joined PAC by the way, but that was in exile. The kind of thing that happened
was that we would sit down, the three of us, in front of a group of say twenty or thirty
people at that place, we would tell them about the Congress of the People, we would say
we are drawing up a huge charter which would express the demands and needs of the people
and we wanted them, in their own words, to put forward demands and what they thought.a
new South Africa should do. They thereupon would get up and talk about their conditions,
about housing, about water, about pollution, about low-wages and one of us, perhaps me,
in this case I seem to remember that I took the notes on what was said, would jot down on
a scrap of paper these points and when we returned to Cape Town, this was handed to the
organizing committee, because we had an action council in Cape Town, of which I was a
member and of course Greenwood too. (End of side one.)
BT: Now who actually held these bits of paper at this time I couldn't say.
I have the feeling that they were posted to Johannesburg. I think that was the
instructions, that at some point we ought to send them to Johannesburg. But I ought to
say too, that at this stage the Action Council contained some liberal party members as
well. A man called Gibson was a member, Peter Hjul was a member, in fact it was quite
a broad Dr. Sandaras the Coloured leader was a member, it was a very broadly based
committee. It was filled with tension but because the liberals were trying to steer
the whole thing in a certain direction. At this point, by the way,the liberal party
policy was not Universal Franchise, it was a loaded franchise, qualified franchise,
so they rather resisted these calls for universal franchise, one man one vote. But of
course the Congress policy was very clear on this, so there were conflicts about this.
GMC: Have you the impression that when you talked to these small meetings, people were
predominantly concerned with the economic situation, or did they see the franchise as
the key, or were they thinking in terms of anything beyond what you're talking about,
beyond constitutional democracy.
BT: I think that it varied very much. We ~pawk a good number of ANC branches. For
instance, in Woerster, there was a very sophisticated leadership of the ANC and there
they came forward with ANC policy which obviously put political rights first and so on.
But in many of the meetings people spoke from the heart about the very real conditions -
they did not formulate it in political terms, they wanted jobs, they wanted pay, they
wanted security, the passes of course came up again and again and again. So that was
a very real issue. Frankly, the demands often had a very down-to-earth character and
the political element was injected by the ANC branches and some of the more sophisticated
Trade Union branches. And COD, and CPC, the Coloured people. They actually had a meet-
ing as an organization, or as a branch of an organization, and they adopted, they had a
very rigorous discussion which produced a rather, what one might call systematic formu-
lation which included things like nationalisation. There's was a programatic paper
which they put forth as an organization, or rather, as a branch. This was the Cape Town
branch. I don't know that COD did this as an organization, I don't remember this, and 1
don't think that the ANC as a provincial organization did this, I don't think it so. The
branches certainly did. There was what one might call a political element, was put
into the charter by the organization of branches, except to say that we had a very well
developed system of residence associations in Cape Town. And viligant associations
in the African townships. These were set up to fight elections for Sam
Bunting, and Lee Warden. Actually what happened was the very meetings I had addressed
as an election agent, I then later addressed again as an organizer for the Congress.
And since Greenwood had worked with me as a translator and speech maker in the elections,
we worked in the same relationship only he had the leading role for the Congress of
the People. So, in fact, we had quite a sophisticated audience. We had been pumping
politics for the election and the politics came back for the Freedom Charter. So I
wouldn't like it to be thought that the demands for the campaign, the Congress of
the People, were in any way structured artificially. Therewas certainly a real and
developed and sophisticated ground-swell of organization and opinion which had arisen
out of all the electioneering, and discussion.
GMC: You spoke of the fact that you were in the Congress Secretariat. Was this some-
GMC: But it can't be much later. Was it
BT: At the Congress of the People itself oh yes, I received a letter from the
National Action Council in Johannesburg inviting me to be one of the main speakers at
the Congress of the People in Kliptown, June '55. We then set about organizing lorrie
loads and bus loads of delegates and we drove up in various forms to Johannesburg and
we held a meeting of all the speakers and some of the leading congressmen in Johannes-
burg on the night before the Congress of the People, Friday night.
GMC: Can you tell me who invited you? to be a speaker.
BT: I think it was Tshumunga, he was the national organizer. Another speaker from
Cape Town was Sonia Bunting, George Peak was a speaker, I think we were the three from
GMC: I've got the idea now that there was not a national secretariat in existence.
prior to the meeting.
BT: No, it was the National Action Council which was the structure.
GMC: So you met the evening before.
BT: Yes, under the chairmanship, the chairman was Galan Pahad,, if I'm not mistaken.
From Johannesburg, he was the leader of the Indian Cougress. Now, by this time a
large number of leaders had been banned from attending meetings and participating in
organizations. People like Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Moses Ktane,
Michael Harmell, Jusuf Dadoo, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, people like this who had been
leaders of the various different organizations had by then been banned. So we were
the second or third layer leadership. The meeting was, in fact, a little pathetic in a
way, because there we were, rather younger people, comparatively inexperienced I would
say, and our job was to concern the formulations of the Freedom Charter. There were
very few amendments proposed at the meeting and mine was one of them. I wasn't
satisfied that the economic laws accurately reflected the position that people had taken
in Cape Town. Apart from the position of the Coloured People's Congress. which had called
very directly for nationalisation of the main, highest points of the industry, various
otherpeople, particularly in the Trade Union movement, had also said that it was
a scandal that these nationalist Afrikaner fascists should be allowed to employ people
on the basis of seasonal labor and under very bad conditions. Housing is appalling in
the Cape'. Furthermore, these fruit canning factories were getting their fruit from
farms which were manned by often Coloured labor who were being fed on the pva system.
By the way, during my campaigning I went to a number of these farms and came across
Coloured farmers who were getting as much as 12 tox a day, every hour they would
a tot of wine which was a tumbler of wine and these people were drunk all the time.
They suffered from sclerosis of the liver, there was tremendous malnutrition. These
people and the people in the fruit industry, the trade union movement, they were the
one's who were pressing that these industries should not be in private hands at all.
So in the discussion of the meeting prior to the Congress of the People I urged that
this clause be strengthened. I can't remember the exact formulation of the clause but
in the end the present clause was adopted, after some discussion.
GMC: You have the feeling, I think, from your earlier conversation that possibly the
formulation was a little more systematized and in a way less directly related to some
of the formulations that have been made prior than was true for other parts of the
BT: You mean the economic section?
BT: I wouldn't say that, no.
GMC: I had the impression the other day when you were talking about it.
BT: I'm not sure. I think that my main anxiety was that the Charter did not express
strongly enough, frankly, I think 1 was an extreme did not express strongly enough
the importance of taking economic action as well as political action.
GMC: And you think you related you the background was what you had heard rather
than your own particular ideological position on this.
BT: I think so. Obviously, one has prejudices and one has one's own. . you pick out
what you think is important. I wouldn't say that I wasn't unbiased, but on the other
hand I would also say that Cape Town was in a sense a little more left-wing than the rest
of the country. Cape Town was the home of the GUARDIAN, it's international policy was
quite radical and Cape Town did not have the kind of liberal party pressures and moderat-
ing influences that other parts of the country had. We did have a liberal party, it
strengthens the point. We had been in conflict with the liberal party at elections,
parliamentary elections. In every election, certainly in my subsequent election, I was
first opposed by a liberal party candidate and in Lee WArden's election, we fought a
very tough fight against the liberal party candidate. So that I think in the struggle
with the liberal party for the seat in Parliament, we also sharpened our position idea-
GMC: What was your first election?
BT: I'll come to that in a minute. *mxxkixgx xkxxx So I wouldn't deny that Cepe Town
was a little more radical in its position generally, for the reasons I've given: the
existence of the GUARDIAN, the influence of a man like Sam Kahn who was a communist who had
tremendous prestige, and it might be true to say that Cape Town, because
of the very highly organized structure of the Trade Union Movement, they had Ray Alexander
there, the Trade Union Movement in Cape Town was very strong compared to other patts of
the country and the Trade Union tradition. I think that all these factors came to bear.
When I sought economic laws I thought that this did not reflect the kind of demands and
campaign we had run.
GMC: You thought there was more change on that clause than on others?
BT: Yes, I think so. Other clauses were also changed somewhat. Naturally this clause,
since this was the one I spoke on is firmly in my mind. But there were other changes.
GMC: Was there any resistance to this initial formulation of South Africa belongs to all
its people, black and white?
BT: I don't think so. This was the policy of the movement at the time and I don't think
so. Certainly not to my knowledge, from the Cape.
Well then we go to the Congress the next day. I don't think you want me to deal with
that at length, do you?
GMC: What comes out most vividly in your mind? Is there something special?
BT: There are more important things to talk about.
GMC: You choose what you think.
BT: I think the most significant thing about the Congress was the kind of delegates that
came. It was wonderful. From Cape Town alone we had 100 people or more. They came up
in buses, and many were stopped on the way. Many fruit and canning workers, some of the
very villages that we'd addressed managed to come, we raised extra money here and there
for them. The cost wasn't very high because vwe went by buses and lorries and cars and
it was a marvelous feeling, up to the figures 3,700 delegates and then this is wonderful.
And the spirit and so on was wonderful. Yke Speaking to hxiate atx this audience was
a tremendous experience. One got tremendous feed-back from them, they sang,they applauded,
there was no resistance to the policies pronounced from the platform at all, none at all.
By the time the thing was underway, something like 10,000 people had gathered outside
the fence of the conference and the police were there in very large force, sitting there
in the sand, taking down every word. I think the most climatic impression is the entrance
of the police. This was truly frightening and also truly inspiring because we were I
forget who was speaking when a group of.Special Branch men followed by aw uniformed
police came in armed with sten guns, followed by men no the first thing was that armed
police surrounded the meeting. There was a fence around the meeting ahd the armed police
on horse-back surrounded outside. And then we knew something was coming. But the meeting
continued. And then the of men with sten guns marched to the platform,
and we really thought they were going to open fire because it was so tense and so dramatic.
And then the chairman, who, I'm not sure, I can't remember at the moment who was chairman,
called on the people to rise and sing. The song was
which means 'The Burden is Heavy.' And the whole crowd sang, and the singing is what pre-
vented the riot. It was the fact that people got up and sang strongly, but organizedly,
that made us strong and the police seem paultry. And it took the sting out of the whole
thing. The police then wanted to close down the meeting, but we asked them if we could
put the resolution to the vote and for strange reason, they agreed. The Charter was put
to the meeting and it was carried, of course, without exception. Then th police said
the meeting must close and we had to be searched. And they set up a sort of block of
tables and then all the delegates were searched as we left, this process went on late,
until 8:00 or 9:00 at night.
GMC: They took the Papers away?
BT: All the papers were taken away, names and addresses of all the delegates, and so on.
And in the meanwhile, we sang and we danced, jumped about, talked and so on, inside the
enclosure. Later on all the delegates received visits from the police and many of them
lost their jobs, and the persecution really began. So that was the Congress of the People.
After the Congress comes the Treason Trial. The National Action Council decided to
launch a maxmeKnk million signature campaign which was a flop. After all this, to go and
sign petitions seemed very feeble and there was very little response. Also, people were
afraid to fill in the, do the signature signing, because they knew the police would be
at their doors the next day. IkIyxwatdai It was a silly campaign and didn't take off.
I think that. .
GMCBXX There's quite a gap, about 18 months, between-the Congress of the People and the
BT: And I'm trying to think what happened. I think this was filled with local campaigns
on passes. The million signature campaign, as a say, was a false start. It misdirected
energies and I think, I can't really put my finger on this particular period, but it was a
calm period. We were all brought alive by the Treason Trial. The Treason Trial raids were
in December 1956 and my experience was that at 4:00 in the morning there was a knock on
my door, Special Branch was there, and they said they were going to arrest me for high
treason which I thought was a lot of nonsence, I laughed at them, and they then searched
the house, dragged me off, took me to a police station and there I found that I was in the
company of a whole lot of other people and gradually we were all brought together and we
were some 31 people from Cape Town and flown up in aircraft later that day to Pretoria,
then taken to the Fort in Johannesburg. It was in the streets of Johannesburg that we saw
on the newspaper heading that hundreds of people had been arrested for treason, that was
the first we knew. And we then spent two weeksin in prison in the Fort in Johannesburg,
we were released on bail due to the very active and energetic intervention of Bishop
Reeves who organized an appeal committee, and we were released.
GME: Ben, I don't want to destroy your chronology, but you spoke before about how you
had worked under Walter Sisulu and what an enormous respect you had for him, but he
hasn't come into the picture yet.
BT: Still coming. So then we were out on bail and the prepatory examination began.
The preparatory examination lasted a year, during the course of this year, my family was
still living in Cape Town and we decided that they would move to Johannesburg. But,
during the year of 1957, there was an election for the Cape Provincial Council for the
native representative and my name was put forward as a candidate. Mr. Gibson, who had
been Lee Warden's opposition stood against me, but withdrew, because therehad been a
lot of pressure in Cape Town that he should not stand against a man who was up for treason.
And he made a very interesting statement that he disagreed with my policies but since I
was a victim of the government's persecution, he could not stand against me and withdrew
So I was elected unopposed.
GMC: And they still allowed you to be elected while you wxa were on trial? How interesting
BT: Now, very soon after this, I was banned from attending meetings. I was not a listed
communist, I had not been a member of the Communist Party, I was not a named person. So I
was banned in the same way that Lee Warden had been banned, namely, only from gatherings
but not from organizations. Despite this, I moved up to Johannesburg and the Provincial
Council only met for some 4 weeks a year, so I commuted. It was rather a crazy situation,
but there I was. There were 2 native representatives one was a liberal with whom I
didn't get on well at all, he was avery conservative liberal, he was from the Eastern
Cape,.Curran, and I once, in the House, attacked, I made some speech, and Curran then
disassociated himself from me and refused to sit next to me in the House, so we were
split. Curran, by the way, did not believe in the Universal Franchise either at this
time, so there were these tensions. But this was, for me, a very strenuous period,
being both on trial and having to sit in this terribly hostile House, playing the Parlia-
mentary games in which I didn't have any faith at all, trying to represent the desires
of the African people. For instance, I moved on one occasion, that the House should
adopt the Freedom Charter. It caused an outcry. The funny thing was that the politicians,
the Afrikaner politicians would come and sit next to me at tea dnd say, 'you know, Oo
you really believe this, do you really want these stupid these ignorant
barbarians to sit next to you and to marry your daughter?' It was fantastic. However,
the let me just conclude that I remained a member of the Provincial Council until 1960,
the end of 1960, when the bill which had been passed by the House of Parliament
abolishing all native representations took effect, and I was the last African Representative
in the Cape Provincial Council. I must say I used this position quite usefully to make
representations for individual people on pass cases and so on. I was able to intercede
very often with the Native Administration and while politically I achieved little, personally
I think I did a lot for individuals. However,. it was the end of the road and we knew it.
I was just batting on to the last wicket, to the last ball.
Maawnxi Meanwhile, the Treason Trial generated tremendous friendship and comrade-
ship among the accused. The story has been told often, I don't want to go into it. I
was among the, at the end of the preparatory examination I was formally charged, together
with the 156, but then some 60 were acquitted and 90 were charged. I was in the third
group of 90. There were three 30's and I was in the third batch. And the first group of
30 were then put on trial. Actually, I'm leaving something out. There were a series of
indictments and quashing of indictments and so on, I did go to Pretoria and sat in the
Synagogue and .all that, but the story has been told. Then in 1958 I think it was, the
secretary of the Congress of Democrats, Mrs. Barenbladt, was banned and since she was ha
maia person, she had to resign from the organization and they asked me to become national
secretary. So I became national secretary of the Congress of Democrats. Then, and at a
xia salary of b20 a month, it was a misdeficit because I was getting 160 a month from
the Provincial Council but I handed that tothe organization. I wouldn't complain, I
lived fairly well off the labor of African workers, in fact, if one is to be honest.
Namely, my wife's income, which she got through an old aunt. She comes from a rather
wealthy family. Embarrassing, but lucky.
So, I became secretary and then became involved in work with the leaders of the ANC.
And very soon I wa joined the secretariat of the Congress Alliance. And at this time, I
was thrown into working with Walter Sisulu, Duma Nokwe, who were the 2 main leaders active
in the ANC at the itx national level, with Jusuf who was in the Indian
Congress, Jusuf Dadoo in the Indian Congress, with the Coloured people's leaders who came
up from Cape Town in September, and George Peak and with theTrade Union Leaders who were
then Leslie Masina and Leon Levy. And that jka was the Congress Alliance. Now the
structure of this thing was that there was a joint executive meeting in which the
executives each sent a delegation. Now this meeting could be quite large, about 40 or so,
and this. was often chaired by Chief Luthuli or Dr. Nykaa for the Indian Congress when
Luthuli was absent. So that was the joint executive, and then we had a secretariat which
consisted of one person from each of the organizations and I was the secretary of the
committee, that committee. The secretary of the joint executive was Duma Nokwe. But I
was Atman's secretary, I wasn't a political secretary, administrative secretary, organizing
if you like, the secretariat. The way we worked was that I was very closely with
Walter Sisulu and Duma. I had the highest respect for both. Nokwe was a barrister .at the
time, Sisulu was a full-time functionary of the ANC, a man of very great insight and
political acumen and a great feel for the popular feeling of the time. He sensed bet-
ter, I think, than anyone else, what the modd of the masses was, he often corrected us
and he often set the pace. I would like to say that although let's seize the bull by
the horns although it is often said that white communists dominated the movement, and
I would be the first one to concede and say that they were extremely influential, people
like Harmel and Harmel Burnstein and Ruth First, and Pete Belefelt, who later on turned
traitor and Hillen Joseph and Ron Fisher, these people were very, of course some of
them were not communists actually, but this is history, I don't need to go into that.
Ike Although they were influential and so on, the power and personality and political
acumen of the Africans ought not to be undermined or understated. Kaxi; and Sisulu did
not need any lessons from anyone and certainly not Luthulu. So there was an ongoing
interaction between these various people and various forces. The history books tell us
that the communist party had by this time begun to get together and organize, they had
a cell system and they had a leadership going, but this was not public, and to what
extent they discussed things beforehand one doesn't know, one must assume that they did,
but the joint executives certainly was not a casual endorsing body to the policy making
body. We have many serious discussions.
GMC: How did you meet? Weren't some of these people still on trial?
BT: Yes, they were on trial, we were banned, we managed to elude thepolice very, very
successfully. It was absolutely remarkable, and it is very clear that the police did not
have an informer at the higher level for many many years. We met often, 40 people of whom
perhaps a third were banned, and we met in Durban on a number of occasions, we met in
Johannesburg on a number of occasions, we had numerous meetings and, in fact, there were
times when I attended as many as 5 meetings a day, of various kinds. It was a very, very
hectic period. I was working myself to death and we were running around, we were carrying
illegal documents on us and we were meeting and all one can say is that the police lacked
a certain edge which they certainly gained later on in '63. Would you like to ask me
anything about this period, because this is a very important period.
GMC: Yes, it's a vital period. What about the end plan, did this come up in this period?
BT: Yes. The end plan came up on many occasions actually. It came up formally on a
number of occasions in the joined executive. This was Mandela's brainchild. It was
really a very simple notion and the idea was that people should be organized on a resi-
dential basis rather like the Tanzanian system of the ten man cell system, the ten-
man structure -same thing. You've got a leader, you've got ten man cell structure, ten
houses linked together and the then there is a higher structure on a higher level, and it
goes on. The main thing that the people were beginning to feel was that one would never
get freedom by mere demonstrations and you had to build a structure. And many felt that
the Africans, particularly, were rather weak on structure. They were good at responding
to an odd issue, but they lacked the experience and the continuity that organizations
elsewhere in the world have. When you think of the British Trade Union movement which
goes on year after year there was no comparable experience for Africans who were not
in the Trade Unions. So the idea of the end plan was to make up the deficiency and
they began to implement it. But there were many difficulties. Apart from Port
Elizabeth where there was a tribal coherence, where there was geographic coherence, where
.perhaps the leadership was also more grass-root oriented, I would say. In other areas
I make a
and I think in Johannesburg axmaoax criticism of the leadership in good faith, I think
that some of our top leaders were too engrossed in the top level discussions and were
oriented too much to the higher levels of polittcing rather than grass-root organization.
I think that the leadership of the ANC in the Transvaal tended to get involved in
politicing with the Insitute of Race Relations, with the. /~' wonderful com-
mittee, /e ev6c set up an all-embracing committee which was very important, I don't
want to underrate it with negotiations with the liberal party, with meetings with the
Afrikaners, with the nationalist party newspapers. Well, it was a period of very in-
tensive political discussion, in newspapers, in Parliament and so on. The Government
had gone through all sorts of laws and tightening up and persecuting and banning people
and naturally there was a lot of public debate. But it seems to me, looking back, that
the leadership of the movement as a whole allowed itself to get too much involved in
this dialogue and these discussions and neglected the grass-roots problem. Now, the
grass-roots work. Whereas in Port Elizabeth they took a very much more hard line position
refused to moderate and refused to get involved, by-in-large, with th6se things and there-
fore were able to give more attention to organization.
GMC: What I'd like to ask is how much open discussion there was about the necessity of
rethinking the whole approach to what you call constitutional democracy, the rights
within the system and how much genuine xkawga thinking there was about something which
could take its place. 3ak That, plus of course, the violence that was necessary to
bring about such a radical change.
BT: At this stage, very little. We were still going on the crest of a wave, and although
we were being hit all around the wicket with banning and so on, we were still extremely
successful in rousing public opinion and in keeping interest in the newspapers, in getting
the opinions of crowds. And it seemed as though, through the activities of people like
Bishop Reeves and others, the liberal party and interest in race relations, and even
Harry Oppenheimer at one time, who was in the background making noises about an alternative
policy. By the way, Nelson Mandela had a meeting with Harry Oppenheimer's representative
on one occasion and they found that there was no common ground. We were not yet, I think,
rethinking our policies. We still felt that we wanted more of what we were doing rather
than qualitatively differences. For instance, there was a strike action in 1957, inter-
national strike, 1958 international strike. So we were pressing on in this area, we were
we were pressing
pressing on with organization, KpaiS~y on the industrial front, trying to use those
sort of tk methods. I've just recently read an article by Michael Harmel in AFRICA
SOUTH in 1959 where Harmel suggests that there has been many occasions when revolutions
have been non-violent and yet power has changed hands. As late as '59. Harmel by the
way was one of the first in the '60s to suggest violence. The period then, in '59 there
were stay-at-homes and so on. And then there was a feeling that we were losing support.
PAC broke away and PAC, I'd say, and I think the time has come when we ought to set things
straight, I have no doubt at all that PAC's appeal was very successful. It was a very poor
organization, they were poorly leaders I think. I don't know Sobukwe but I knew many of
the others and I think a.s caliber~ as go1it,i. ans, as men of sincerityA they had much to be
said. They were not good, they were poor. Opportunists, a man like Madzunya from
Alexanderia Township, and he was an absolute clunk. Very religious figure, a sort of
messianic figure, and he was a nut, actually. He was a screwed up nut, a populist leader
who arises in a town of great stress and so on.
But PAC did make an impact. Partly, because of the militant things they said, partly
because of the Afrikanists position, I've no doubt that the straight populace nationalist
was appealing and I think I would be prepared to say that by this time we were perhaps,
the Congress Alliance presenting too much of a non-racial image to be appealing to the
mass. The structure of the Alliance was now really saying things that were outrageous.
The structure of the Alliance, the non-racial platform that we always strove to put for-
ward, the slogan of 'one man, one vote' was by this time not in tune with the mass mood.
(end of side,2, tape 1.)
BT: The PAC was making an impact and we too felt that kRa we were losing support.
People were not coming to meetings very much, we called demonstrations and protests,
we held placard demonstrations, which seemed so pointless in the face of what the 0akxX
w~xe doing There had been all the rural rebellions Pondoland.
Now I might just stop at
Sorry, my visit comes after the emergency. When did I go to Pondoland, after the
Well, the PAC was making inroads and we felt we were losing ground. We tried Walter
Sisulu, together with me, I helped him draft a document for a Trade Union organizing
campaign and we put this to the joint executive and it wasn't really well supported. It
wasakk accepted, but when it came to implementation it was the wrong thing and all the
things we were putting forward at this time seemed to be the wrong thing. We put forward
a call for a national convention in response to the Republic. You may remember the
government declared a Republic in 1959 or '60, sorry. We were proposing various consti-
tutional arrangements and the masses did not respond.
GMC: Yes, I think you were talking about constitutional convention.
BT: In fact, there was a People's Convention which would take over some of the Freedom
Charter the Kliptown Conference. But, we began talking of more militant action. And
the more militant action, Oh yes, the other thing was this. The women had launched a
very militant campaign against passes in Johannesburg and there had been the bus boycott
in Alexander. When the women refused to take out passes, they were arrested in the 100s
and they were put into jail and then from jail, came the call for bail. We didn't have
the money, it was so obvious that the moment a mass campaign developed, the police would
arrest hundreds of people and the movement would not be able to fund the bail and all the
legal defense and so on. Tradition has developed that anyone who is arrested got bail
and defense. And the stage had come where the government was hitting us so hard that we
simply couldn't cope. Not the money, nor the lawyers. There were just too many people.
So, we got the idea of no bail, no defense, no funds.
GMC: So you invented that?
BT: Absolutely. It rose out of the Alexander women struggle. And we had a hell of a
lot of trouble with these women. Because they were sitting in jail and they said look,
'Our leaders have always got bail, have always got defense, and now here we appear, 100
at a time, and you don't give us bail.' And we had to run around I remember Nelson
and Oliver and people like this running around looking for money desperately because
the ANC was under tremendous pressure from the women who were wanting bail. So we set
mp down and talked about it and said we needed another campaign, a more militant
campaign and breaking the Criminal Laws Amendment Act. Now, the thing that had broken
the Defiance Campaign was the Criminal Laws amendment Act, which stated that anyone
who advocates change by, no, who advocates a breach of the law, no, who breaks the law
by way of protest.
GMC: Or even recommends it .
BT: Or even recommends it i9 can go to jail for three years and get lashes and so on.
Now this law had actually inhibited us very much, '53. And I think that looking back,
the six years of comparative lack of risk, putting it rather nastily, the caution in the
movement was to some extent tied up with this law. And in 1959 we thought that the time
had come, we had to face the music. And so we drew up a document which was only produced,
it was packed in one set of five copies. It was top security, it was handled by the
Secretariat of the Congess Alliance, Walter was in charge and I did the secretarial work
with him on it. By this time, by the way, I became the full representative of the Congress
of Democrats as well as the administrator. Because Pete felt for various reasons
he was too busy and so on. He had been the representative, I was there, it seemed to be
logical that I should be the representative, so I acted in a dual capacity. And we adopted
this thing, it was then put to a meeting of joint executives in Durban and the Durban
people objected. Now, there wax were various reasons, local reasons for that we needn't
go into. So there was a delay. And the rest of the country was agreed, it was going
to be a Defy Passes Campaign. The classical pass campaign of the, to a previous period,
which would be that people would burn their passes or refuse to carry passes. No bail,
no defense, clog up the jails, mass meetings, mass demonstrations without passes to chal-
lenge the police. The idea was we always had this feeling that somehow we would spark
off a mass response which would be the revolution. In retrospect, maybe naive, but that
was the strategy.
GMC: And when you say the revolution you really weren't thinking of guns, of over-
throwing the government.
BT: Well, various people have written, has written a piece in some
American journal, "Political Affairs" analyzing how coercion works. I refer to it in my
piece 6n the REGISTER. Various people have analyzed how non-violent action might work,
and I don't want to go into the theory of that. It could be elaborated. Actually, I've
written a section which didn't go into this piece, if you're interested. It's a more
theoretical discussion which didn't tie in with that anyway, the REGISTER thought it was
That was the distinctive of the movement at the time. We were euphoric and so on.
We thought that we were living on the edge of, as we so often said, of the climax. In fact,
it was much stronger and we didn't understand the dynamics of the revolution, I would
say. But with a delay on the Durban front, suddenly PAC, which had been very active and
organizing very hard and presenting quite a serious challenge in Cape Town, for instance,
which they nearly took over, they came up with this campaign and ran a very short
campaign which led to Sharpeville. Now, I should say that I was in Cape Town attending
a session of the Provincial Council in the week before Sharpeville, and the night be-
fore Sharpeville, the day before Sharpeville I talked to various Africans in the streets
and I had never before sensed the kind of intensity of aliveness and political commitment
that I noticed then. And they were going .to strike. That was the talk. The milkman,
the newspaper boy and so on, these fellows were talking about strike the next day, and
I've never known this in my political life. So I've no doubt that PAC had actually
sparked eff something there. And of course they held meetings of 1000 people in London
township which we had never had. We had hundreds and hundreds, but never thousands in
that particular place. They had organized a new flat, which we had never managed to do
in the same way.
GMC: Do you think the use of ,\Il ~ was a factor whereas you tended to use English?
BT: We did not iR use English per se. I mean, we did use Xhosa as well. But I think it
was a combination of the popular nationalist imagery, language, anti-whiteness, all that.
And they also appealed to the young intellectuals in a way that we hadn't. The aspirant
intellectual is obviously sharper, more sensitive on the race question than perhaps the
migrant worker who could never see himself aspiring to those heights. Sociologically
speaking, one must accept that they are these positions of take-off. Now, so Sharpeville
took place and I was driving past kozrtot at the time just after the shooting, and
I saw lorry load after lorry load of armed police and ambulance after ambulance and I
struggled to find out what was going on and no-one would tell me and only when I got to
Johannesburg did I hear on the radio that there had been a massacre. This was a very
intensive period I think it's been fairly well covered.
GMC: You were in Johannesburg because there were strikes there and in of course
and Lutuli I don't know how much all that . .
BT: I wasn't involved in all that, actually. If my memory will enable me to work through
chronologically, but immediately we were thrust into this tremendous situation, we had an
urgent meeting in Jo'burg, Congress Alliance. We immediately said we must call the ANC
executive, we immediately said we must come in, and there was a day of mourning on the
funeral, which was supported by PAC. And then there was a pass burning campaign, and then
Paul Sauer made his speech about the bookish clothes which gave us tremendous hope. And
then we started a huge organizing campaign to build up the strike, the next strike, and I
went underground at this time, we lived in a house somewhere, this was the first time.
And then came, the arrests. Now, I was in the office of the Congress of Democrats at the
time, it was a period of tremendous tension, one felt the police were everywhere, one knew
that this thing was coming. I think that those of us who were full time and close to the
scene of action were more sensitive to events than some others as was proven by what
happened. One night at 12:00 following on a phone call from Durban where there had been a
tip-off, someone called my house and told me that the police were going to have an allround
raid. I packed a suitcase very quickly and skipped, and went to a house of a friend of
mine half a mile away. Mary, my wife, drove me there. Sure enough, two hours later the
police were at the house, searched it, couldn't believe that I wasn't there, and they went
through everything looking for me, under the beds, everywhere. Fortunately, I was away.
Unfortunately, a lot of people who were tipped off at this time didn't take the slip and
slept at home. And this I would say is an indicator of the legalistic illusions we had
many of us. I don't want to pretend that I was profounder or more insightful than other
people, but I ran and they didn't. And I think that the fact that so many people were
taken in their beds is a very sharp index of the lack of understanding, of our own under-
standing, of what revolution and counter-revolution is all about. At the time, a strike,
of arrests, of burning passes, of police mobilization, of Sharpeville, people did not take
the alert seriously. And this is a reflection on our lack of revolutionary perspective
and understanding. So, what happened then, was the place I was living in became a head-
quarters for the leadership. And I don't know whether I should name names, Moses Katane
came there,..Jusuf Dadoo came there, Michael Harmel came there and a couple of other guys.
And we started setting up the structure. Now, then came the second wave of arrests.
People again were taken and by this time the movement was pretty well decimated, and
they were a small island of men, virtually in a sea of arrests. By this time, there
was something like 20,000 people in jail including all the top
throughout the country. And so we set up house. One of the first things we did was to
send Jusuf Dadoo abroad as the external representative. He was, in any case by this
time, getting o-n a bit. It wasn't the sort of liFi I think that he should lead. We set
about digging in. We had contacts in the township which we quickly took up, but we were
all wanted and I don't know how much to say. In the end, there were three little niggers
and we were coordinating what was going on throughout the country. And it was a very,
very fascinating period. We had to move around a bit, we were in disguise, this is when
I grew my present beard.
GMC: Mandela was out?
BT: No, he was in the emergency, I think he was inside.
GMC: When was all this black
BT: That took place after the emergency. Well, we learned a great deal during this
period. We learned the importance of an underground network, we learned the importance
of total security, of destructing telephones, of destructing letters. I took a clandestine
trip down to Port Elizabeth where I met with the leadership there and to discuss things.
The police actually paid my hotel and scanned my room. Because, again, Vervoerd was
visiting Port Elizabeth a few days after me, so the police scanned the room for that
reason, and the whole hotel guest list was under survelience. It was a very interesting
period of great tension, great anxiety and great excitement and nerves. We thought,we
didn't know how long we would last, isauxs we thought it might go on forever. We
discussed the possibility of going out into Lesotho or to Swaziland, setting up there,
or in Botswana. We thought it might be for keeps. My wife was living out at the time,
but then she came under pressure and she skipped from the home and set up a flat in dis-
guise. We met from time to time occasionally. I didn't see the kids all this time, but
actually I did. Towards the end of the emergency when people were being released, we
organized a clandestine week at a holiday farm in the Transvaal, and so I saw the kids.
It was a terribly heart-rendering time.
GMC: You said it was one of your great periods, and I wonder what was so great about it?
Was it companionship, was it a sense-of action in a period of this type, was it the
programs, were you yet developing a program for the future?
BT: Well, yes. One of the big things I would say, was that I was with Moses Katane an
awful lot. For the first time I got to know him and to respect him very much. That sounds
like a cliche, but a man of great caution. Very great caution, very great earthy wisdom.
Moved very slowly, questioned each step, very rigorously, totally undogmatic in his approach
And very profound politically and operationally. We had to, we were in touch with Durban,
with Port Elizabeth, with East London, with Cape Town and of course Johannesburg and we had
to work with these various people, some of whom were not all that security conscious. Some
of them were nabbed and we couldn't leave trails. We had to re-assess our whole struggle
and I wouldn't like to put it too high, I would like to say that we actually formulated
a violent strategy, but very clearly the old way was gone. We thought we were living
under permanent facshism, we didn't think the government would lift the emergency, we
had to re-think the whole organizational the ANC was banned. So from the policy point
of view one had to re-think the whole struggle. And I wouldn't say that we came firmly
to the position of saying 'well, we're going to turn to violence' because it seemed so
remote. Here we were, a small group.. But, nevertheless, I think that the groundwork was
laid for the coming policy decisions which were then formalized. So when I say inter-
esting and exciting it was for the reason that it was really a period of total change in
one's experience, in one's thinking, and in one's associations and so on.
GMC: And now, what after?
BT: The emergency is lifted, everybody came out, and we handed back authority to the
executives. As they were before. The same people took their places. Our view of the
situation was this that.we would not make the same mistake as the Communist party.
We would not liquidate the ANC, a9fasax which had been banned. The attitude we adopted
was this while we would formally take down the flag so to speak, and take down the
label on the front door, we would not close the office and the same people would continue
to operate from there and face what came, face the music. We were going to make it a
de facto continuation accepting. Well, the police rode to the
challenge, of course, and arrested many people for wearing badges, for . people had
photographs on the walls of their homes. This was taken to be membership.. The police
launched a campaign of repression. I argued again, I'm afraid I make it sound like I
was the wise man in the piece, but I was arguing at the time that we ought to continue
the underground system of working, the way we had after the emergency. I felt it was a
very strong position to be in. You see, the advantage of the underground as a system was
that you are secure from day to day police harrassement. You know that there is an over-
all survellience and you know that if you stick your neck out too far, it will be chopped.
But, at the same time you can keep documents with you, you can discuss, the telephone is
not listening, your post is not tampered with, your car is not followed, you're free. And
we had enjoyed a great deal of freedom of operation while we were underground. So what I,
when I say I, I should rectify it, it's we, there were a few of us who were saying that
what we ought to do was to have a rotor system. That at all times, there ought to be a
group of say three leaders living underground in hiding, operating an underground network.
And that, parallel with this, the movement above ground could carry on in its own way.
Because we all knew that this was not going to be the last emergency. We knew, in fact
we thought we were lucky to get away with this one. The next one was not far away, tension
was very great and so on. The overwhelming feeling was against this. Again, one must pass
a judgment on that and I would say that this too,. is a reflection on the fatigue, I think,
of the leadership which had been in power a long time, which had gone, even then, still
had certain legalistic illusions. After all, they'd been released, and the wisdom is
something like 'well the government cannot go too far.'
GMC: Can you say who in the leadership held this? Was it Luthuli, was it Sisulu, sounds
more like Luthuli.
BT: I can't put my finger on it now. I would say it was a fairly widespread feeling,
really. In fact, I would say that those who held the view I was talking about were in
the minority, there were very few.
GMC: No African names stick out?
BT: Well, I don't want to be unjust or unfair but I rather feel that Mandela and Sisulu
and were .
GMC: Ready to go along?
BT: I think so.
GMC: I don't want to push it.
BT: I wouldn't like to be quoted on this, but I think the general feeling was rather a
Here we are, all back to square one, where we can go back to our
organizations and work. This is the thing that I was pushing, saying in my article.
That you require the mental leap to a revolutionary position which involves all sorts
of strategic and tactical organizational things. And the movement was moving in an
almost, despite itself, to a position of action and struggle of a greater kind than
protest. But it hasn't yet elaborated everything that was supposed to go with it. It
was moving there, but everybody said we cannot any longer go back to protest campaigns,
we cannot longer go back to the old time pass campaign. We've got to set up a much bet-
ter structure. But I think, also, we were still, in a way, on a crest of a wave hoping
that the kind of Sharpeville situation would return. And that's why Mandela called
the Pietermaritzburg Conference, which was going to get Africans
together as Africans, was going to call for a national convention against the Republic
and a strike. The main thing was a strike. And the idea in our minds was that ikxweamd
ka if we can get the strike going, we can turn ib into a general strike and a permanent
strike. This was the idea. It was going to be three days, but if it took hold, it would
become permanent. Well, it flopped on the second day for reasons we can go into. So,
violence is still very much on the periphery, but we were learning and
looking back now, we learned slowly. The question of violence was being raised, and
certainly the masses were raising it. People were saying, give us machine guns. Now
people have been saying, give us machine guns for years and very often it was a sub-
stitute for doing political work, an easy way out. It began to become a serious position.
Give us guns, what's the use of meeting. Then Mandela went underground, I saw him quite
GMC: You were underground?
BT: No, I emerged like everybody else, I emerged and Mandela went underground for the
strike. We were beginning to learn, rather late, and even then it was only Nelson who
went underground setting up an apparatus, you see. One man, living a
symbolic life underground. In fact, I think that if one is to make any sort of political
judgments, the whole South African struggle is full of symbolism as opposed to concrete
action. Often, the symbol is taken for the struggle. Actually, the Black power movement
in America has the same structure. I suppose many popular struggles, national struggles,
take on this character as a symbol, the flag, the gun, I think of Huey Newton with a gun,
this is the symbol of Black power. In our case, 0si Nelson going underground was a symbol.
Much more than the reality, I think, if I'm not being unfair. I'm trying to face the
thing objectively. Because, after all, we disbanded the real underground which had been
both in the emergency.
So then came the strike. When the strike itself took place, we did go underground,
a couple of us went underground in the TransvaaT. There was Jusuf
Dr. Kazi, an Indian leader, Tom Ki Nkobi, Alfred I think he
was one of them. There was a small group of Transvaal leaders in Johannesburg who went
underground. I remember I adopted the disguise of a railway worker.- I had a peaked
cap and a brown coat which worked very well. So, we went underground in that way to
force a strike, but the police, we underestimated the police. They were tremendously
effective, they smashed our pickets, they arrested pickets and so the call of strike was
picketing, not in the sense of beating people up, but in the sense of organizing people
encouraging people, this was smashed. Every man was sitting in his home looking through
the window to see if his neighbor was going to work. Now, in previous strikes there was
a picket who was going up and down the street and said no work today, and people were
encouraged and would stay at home. But the police arrested this picket. So there was
no rallying force. Everyone sitting in his little house and didn't know what the hell
was happening and very often they went out, especially when the police started door-to-
door beating up and then they said 'well, we don't know what's happening, everybody else
is going, maybe we'd better go.' So the strike began to collapse. And the lesson we
learned from that was that the state was going to use every kind of force and violence
to smash up any kind of organizational effort and therefore only one
And so, we come to the point at which Umkonto started, '61. Now, I myself
was not in on the founding of UMKONTO. I don't know the details of how it was started,
I'm sure that Nelson was a leading figure in the thing, certainly it was started in his
name and the, my, I'm quite happy to reveal, my first knowledge of the organization as
opposed to the political thing, I'll deal with the political thing in a minute, my
first knowledge of the organizational thing was that I was asked to become a group
leader of a sabotague group. I must say, it made my hair stand on end, but I agreed.
We formed a group and we surveyed the street post-office in Johannesburg. We
thought this would be a good target. We were told that we would have a delayed action
arson device which would go off at night, an eight hour delay and which would hit the
place at night. So, a couple of us went into the place, we are all abroad now so I can
talk about it, and the police probably know everybody anyway. So, we did this on a Fri-
day afternoon and unfortunately the device didn't go off properly and so the post-
office still stands. Because it didn't go off, they discovered a fingerprint on a piece
of paper which was wrapped around the bomb. How that fingerprint got there, I still don't
know until this day, they got my fingerprint and that's how they arrested me. But, I'm
anticipatipr a little. Anyway, I joined this group. The policy aspect of the Council
was, it's unclear to me, because certainly Nelson had started off discussions on building
this kind of organization. There were people who were opposed to it because of tradition
and so no on. People were opposed to it. I'm sure Luthuli, well we know, was not in
favor, although he was not prepared to go against. Luthuli said he wasn't a pacifist
- he said you come and steal my chickens and you know what we'll do. But he thought that
Luthuli often said, let's have a really good strike which is affected in all centers
and bring out everybody before we turn to violence. And that was his attitude. He said
we haven't done those first things first properly, so why go to the second thing. Whereas
others were arguing that you can't do it like this, you need a qualitative change in tactics
because people are, in fact, the head of us. And the people also said, if we don't do it,
PAC will do it. And people also said that the masses were losing patience and we were
losing support, which we were. So, the actual machinery for setting up the UMKONto, I
don't know. I was still working at the level of the Congress Alliance and the Secretariat
and the UMKONTO OMM grew up separately. So I don't have inside knowledge on that. All.
I know is that politically there was a resistance, but certainly there were enough people
and Nelson himself, sufficiently dynamic to press on with this and it was set up. Now,
the first action, as you know, was December 16-17, the explosions throughout the country,
one bloke was killed, blew himself up, there were actions all over the country. And
then, very quickly, we sort of laid low for a while,.my group and then, unfortunately for
me, I was arrested with Walter Sisulu and a couple of other fellows interviewing an
Israeli journalist. The police burst into Kathraba's flat where Walter and I and Kathy
and one other person were interviewing this journalist and they burst in and grabbed us
all for breaking our bans. They locked us up for four days and during the four days they
took my fingerprints and this fingerprint was later compared at the Police Headquarters
and that's how they found me, and so they grabbed me. So then I landed inside, and
spent three years in jail. I think that at this point you'd better ask some sharp, final
GMC: I wanted to ask you about this political view of UMKONTO, because what were they
seeking as a result of this calculated and disciplined violence?
BT: I think that it would be correct to say that it was not the beginning of guerrilla
warfare, not initially. There was still, I remember there was one leaflet which said,
a handout leaflet we printed in Windhoek, which said 'there's still time for the white
man to change his mind.' So, in fact, it was a new form of protest politics using
sabotague. There was still a hope that one could generate sufficient anxiety and so on
in the country to polarize and isolate the government. Because don't forget a lot of
people in the Progressive Party were still making very great noises, so we hoped for a
white split. Mbeki was one of those men I know, who waid this is going to unite the
whites. It is not going to break them, it is going to unite them and he was right,
and the rest of us were wrong, at least we didn't think it through. I would like to make
this point very much. It's a question of thinking things through. The whole history
reveals, looking back, that we did not think the policies through. And if you ask me
why I would tell you the reason, at least partJy, is that it is a movement which was
heterogeneous in character, without any ideology in the sense of a communist party which
has a long sort of tradition and everything is worked out. And because we weee isolated
from the world. We didn't know about, there was no Che Guevera, well there was a Che
Guevera, but all the Mao's and Che Guevera's and all that stuff, none of these theories
have yet been developed to the point that they are now. We were working things through
and we worked them through very slowly. So, to answer your point more precisely, what we
thought we were doing was, we were launching a rebut, we were fighting with a new weapon,
we were not fighting an armed struggle.
GMC: And your revolutionary democracy hadn't really jelled as a system?
BT: As a system, no. But what had developed was the dynamics in policy which led to a
thing like Mandela going underground which led to the erosion, for instance, the formulations
in the first UMKONTO leaflet are very sharp, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It
talks about the white states, the formulations then were really pretty sharp on the line to
what I call revolutionary democracy, very much so. And the conception of extending
THE FRanchise had gone. Even the Orleon-Pietermaritzburg Conference did not talk about
extending the franchise. And even our campaign, no defense, no final bail, didn't talk
about extending the franchise. So there was a kind of continuum, a spectrum.
GMC: Were you at the Orleon conference?
BT: No, it was an African show only.
GMC:. They say that, the general reaction that we got was the reason it failed was becuase
the Communists ~wik were pulling the strings from behind.
BT: Well, I wouldn't go along with that. I've no doubt that people resent, Sobukwe and
others resented that had and as people have always resented working with
Communists, working with whites. But, in fact, this was, I think, a very genuine attempt
by the ANC itself to get African unity.
GMC: You've got liberals in there too, black liberals.
BT: Bes. You see, it's very hard. Looking at it even now if one were to take a suspicious'
view, let's say, how does one see an ANC taking an initiative to set up a black conference
in which the white communists are influential. They cut out the whites.
GMC: I don't know. The way you pull the strings and your puppet acts.
BT: XMX But it leaves the puller out of the scene. Because, actually, if all the blacks
had got together at Pietermaritzburg, if they had worked together, it could have meant
the isolation of the white communists. It would have killed the congress alliance, it
could have undermined the Freedom Charter, because these other people wouldn't accept the
Freedom Charter, it would have undermined the white participation so it would have been a
very foolish white communist who was pressing this as a puppet in the sense of manipulation.
I think that one must say that .
GMC: Going back to this revolutionary democracy, what form do you think is envisaged at
any point that it was, it it largely an economic change, is it the worker taking over.
Is there an element of symbolicalism in this? Is it simply a transfer of power to the
majority, and if so, you said it probably came up in response to the Russian Revolution,
it didn't last long, by the way, but you know that as well as I do. I wondered was there
structural thinking through this, was it mainly an economic line?
BT: No, I think that one ought .
GMC: Is it your phrase?
BT: Yes, it's my phrase and it's not a scientific phrase in the sense that it's not . .
GMC: Was there something there that one could grasp for, that people were talking about
seriously? What was it?
BT: Well, the end plan was involved clearly. This was a power But in terms
of program, one would say that the thinking was that there would be a new, I think the
focus was a national convention.