TT: From 1994 you and Nelson Mandela were symbols of stability and innovation, symbols of people who were going to be our leaders for a new country. I wanted to ask you to reflect on your personal relationship with Madiba and what it was like to work with him.
FG: I first knew him as a youngster, in the 1950s, when he was one of the leaders of the ANC, and we sort of ‘hero worshipped’ him, if you like, even then. He and Oliver Tambo had started their law practice and they would be walking down from their office to the International Club or Kapitan’s for lunch, and the lot of us would come out and watch them. If you had asked any of us exactly what they did, we wouldn’t have known – like all heroes! My contact with him subsequently was after 1960, when he went underground and I went into exile with Oliver Tambo.
I was in Dar es Salaam when I got a call from the Tanzania/Zambia border saying that ANC leaders had arrived. When I opened the door I looked at him and said, “Oh my God, I have to hide you!” Because there was this enormous man with a Basotho hat, in a sort of safari suit, with mosquito boots … I mean, you couldn’t have stood out more in Dar es Salaam! In two days he was out of the country. He then went on to address the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East, Central and Southern Africa conference in Ethiopia, then on to Algeria and London.
Much later I asked him, “All of us in exile were waiting for you; why did it take you so long after you left South Africa?” He said, “When I got to Botswana, I had to go and see Seretse [Khama]; there were problems there with the British government.” Now this is so typical of him: his sense of responsibility, and that if there was a problem he had to address it.
TT: Talk about ‘collective leadership’
ANC has a tradition of collective leadership. I think it’s important because you’ve heard Madiba time and again saying “I am part of a collective” – that goes right back.
The first time the ANC had a deputy president was in 1958. The constitution was changed because by then the ANC knew they were going to get banned and they would need someone outside the country to speak with the full authority of the president. And the agreement was that Oliver Tambo would be leaving the country. But in 1969, after the death of Chief Albert Luthuli, Tambo said that he was not going to become the president because Mandela ought to be. There was a big discussion on the Island. These are things which I think South Africans are unaware of: the continuity of leadership and that this wasn’t a group of exiles acting without [discussion]. Mandela was the commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe and he argued that if he was the head of that he couldn’t be the head of the ANC. Then Tambo became president of the ANC. I’m raising that also because of the relationship between the two, which was extremely close. So, you’ve got that again, this collective leadership.
TT: Incredibly courageous and unselfish, principled.
Another thing that was of tremendous importance: when Transkei became independent, and even before that, they had been offering Madiba his freedom if he would go and live in the Transkei. He refused and said: “Only free men negotiate, prisoners cannot negotiate.”
People said that Mandela was negotiating with the regime: he wasn’t. I asked him what he felt like the night before PW Botha was to see him, and he said: “I was determined that he would not treat me like he had treated some African leaders, as a ‘boy’. I was determined that he was going to have to respect me and so I was prepared to insist on that.” What totally threw him was when he walked in, PW Botha got up, went and shook his hand and then poured tea for him. And so he wasn’t disarmed, but in a way it was uncharacteristic.
TT: I would like to hear your thoughts on the new government, in 1994.
FG: I had not wanted to be Speaker, but it was very much his decision, and he had to persuade the leadership about it. I wanted to go to parliament but I wanted to write and speak and be a member. Anyway I found myself as Speaker. Madiba had a tremendous respect for parliament; he thought it was very important; and he said to me: “You must run parliament in a way that carries on what we have done in negotiations, where we have tried to bring all parties on board, we’ve tried to involve everybody so that we take the whole of South Africa into this new arrangement.” It sounded great in theory, but I didn’t know what to do, because I had no experience in parliament before then!
I had a proposal but I wasn’t sure that I would get [it] through the ANC. I wanted to put the minority parties on the front bench. I said to him, “Parliament is televised and people will watch it, and if they can see their leaders sitting in parliament there will be an identification.”
So he said, “Yes, it’s a good idea.” I said, “But it means moving the ANC. We are going to have to ask the ANC. If I run into trouble, will you help?” He said, “You’re running parliament!” Anyway I didn’t need to ask … We gave the Democratic Party, Pan African Congress and Freedom Front the front benches.
Madiba would come and sit in parliament and if he wanted to speak he would send me a note. Many times I told him: “You don’t have to ask for permission; that is your seat as the president of the country and you can come any time.” But his office would phone me and ask if was okay if he came, and he would still ask for permission to speak.
He showed a lot of respect for the institution in many other ways, for instance when Speakers from foreign countries came he would receive them, which is unusual for heads of state.
He had that standing, that authority and that conviction. He did not attack anybody, it was the way he put things. I have seen him lose his temper but it’s been in a different context and sometimes I felt that he was doing it almost deliberately as a device. But he would make that sort of point even to heads of state in a clear way but not in a way that somebody would find offensive.
TT: I wanted to ask you a little bit about his legacy as a leader and what you think that is.
FG: It’s linked to this word ‘dialogue’. Most of us think of dialogue as ‘you and I talking’. His approach, when you pin it down and when he explains it, has been that very often, when you are talking, you are talking about different things and you don’t realise that. You may not even be addressing the same problem, because from somebody else’s perspective the problem may be very different from your perspective. So the first thing is to have a dialogue to understand each other and understand how the other person sees the problem. It is only when you have succeeded in doing that that you can begin to talk together about how to resolve it.
That, I think, is the real legacy of his – that notion of dialogue. The right starting point is to listen and to try and get an understanding of the perspective of the person with whom you are engaging. What that brings about is a respect for the other person. You then don’t start using labels like ‘racist’ and ‘opportunist’, because you are trying to go behind those labels and see why that person is doing or seeing something in a particular manner.
He respects the perspective of other people and he’s tried to inculcate it in those who worked with him in the ANC, not always with success. I think that’s a legacy that transcends any particular situation or country.
So dialogue has to happen not to reach a solution but first to understand the problem and the perspective of the parties who are engaging. Only then do you reach a solution and bring reconciliation.
TT: [About the media] I think your point is a fair one: that you have a life outside of your role in the ANC. But in defence of the media, our job is to be suspicious.
FG: Being a watchdog is not the prime role of the media in a developing country; it’s to help build the nation. When did we get an article on why it’s important to have integrity? On the constitutional principles? We don’t get that sort of stuff. They have been brainwashed.
If I come and tell you, ‘This is what we discussed on the National Executive and so-and-so said this to so-and-so,’ that gets reproduced, but the bigger story gets missed: why am I telling you? Why am I leaking that story? That would be a much bigger story, but it’s much easier to write the other one.