Candid memoir of Mandela's jailer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 November, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 November, 1995, 12:00am

GOODBYE BAFANA: Nelson Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend James Gregory, Headline $305 IT is regrettable that the controversy over this book - over the inclusion of extracts from Nelson Mandela's prison letters - has clouded its release. But ultimately it may prove little more than a storm in a teacup.

The extracts in question take up little space in these reminiscences by warder James Gregory, who built a unique relationship with the world's most famous detainee during 17 years of daily contact on Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison and finally Victor Verster Prison before Mandela's momentous release in 1990.

And they do not amount to material the reader might wince at and think: 'I shouldn't be seeing this.' The letter extract which has caused most fuss was written at a time in the particularly oppressive mid-1970s when Mandela was frustrated at the lack of contact with his wife, Winnie. She was in and out of detention.

Though personal, it is simply a touching passage in which he says: 'As long as I don't hear from you, I will remain worried and dry like a desert. I recall the Karoo I crossed on several occasions. I saw the desert again in Botswana on my way to and from Africa - endless pits of sand and not a drop of water.

'I have not had a letter from you. I feel dry. Letters from you and the family are like the arrival of summer rains and spring that liven my life and make it enjoyable.' As chief censor of Mandela's prison mail, Gregory, one imagines, had infinitely more ammunition at his disposal for tabloid-type sensationalism. And it is hard to imagine Madiba, as the leader is affectionately known, suddenly renouncing his peculiar bond with his erstwhile jailer. Warmth and humility, after all, are two well-documented hallmarks of Mandela, and they shine through in this unconventional yet captivating chronicle of a large part of his life.

There was irony, recently, in a statement issued by South African Prisons Department spokesman Chris Olckers - supposedly in defence of Mandela - describing Gregory's book as a 'dramatised and sensationalised' account of Mandela's incarceration. The very same Olckers, not so long ago, was a zealous anti-ANC reporter and commentator on the SABC-TV of the old regime.

But then the fairytale turnaround in South Africa has been awash with ironies, many of which are honestly highlighted in the 378-page book, for which Gregory enlisted the help of British journalist Bob Graham.

As much as it sheds light on what made Mandela tick in jail, it is a story of an ordinary South African's metamorphosis from farmer's son who befriended a black boy, Bafana, in his childhood in Natal, to advocate of apartheid through the notorious white education system and unashamedly racist Prisons Service, to gradual convert from bigotry under the inspiring and unfailingly dignified influence of the man he was supposed to keep subdued.

The warder spares no detail in exposing the naked hatred towards blacks of many of his colleagues at the time. He remembers, soon after arriving on Robben Island, a senior warder, Vosloo, saying: 'Come, Gregory, come see where these kaffirs and koelies live. See where we keep these animals.' Gregory says of his first encounter with Mandela: 'He seemed to stand taller and straighter than any of the others [political prisoners], with an aura that made a statement: 'I am a leader. You will not intimidate me.' Even in his drab prison clothes he was different. I could feel his inner strength. I knew this man would be a difficult one to overcome.' And with more exposure to his charge, he became less and less inclined to even try to do so. 'The more I realised these were cultured people, the more I was drawn to Mandela. This was the man I had considered the most terrible terrorist of all. It was not as if I was having some 'road to Damascus' conversion, it was more a simple fact that my preconceptions were wrong. And once I'd accepted that, I had to replace them with ideas which were realistic. There is no place for a vacuum inside a mind.' One of the most thought-provoking aspects of the book, interestingly, has more to do with Mandela's wife. Gregory says of her: 'Whenever Winnie would come to see Nelson she was always perfectly behaved, carrying herself with a fierce pride which challenged anyone. I was to learn how much Nelson was in love with this strikingly beautiful woman and how he treasured her visits.

'I was to hear and read of the controversies which always seemed to be close to Winnie. But in all those years, a lifetime too many, Winnie behaved impeccably and with great dignity, despite the often outrageous treatment meted out to her.

'In the years that followed Nelson's eventual release, he would be criticised for defending his wife in the face of evidence which damned her. I was never surprised that he stood by her as he did; she was the stalwart who had stood by him through all his years inside.' There are many poignant moments. There is the jailer and prisoner's respective support for each other, several years apart, after the loss of sons in car accidents. And Gregory's recollection of the emotion-charged first 'physical contact' visit by Winnie to her husband in 21 years.

He describes comforting Mandela during surgery; his shopping trips for the ANC leader in later years when the detainee's conditions were substantially improved; Mandela's humour and habits; the riveting buildup to his release; and Gregory's pride at attending, as a personal guest, the presidential inauguration.

This is an engaging read, tempered only by mild irritants such as a too-lengthy meander through the pre-prison life of Gregory himself and inaccuracies that should have been avoided, such as frequent misspellings of South African activists' names.

It is hard not to contemplate Gregory's motives for this work. The book, after all, is unlikely to be a flop on the strength of the subject matter alone. But his candour is refreshing and he does not leave the impression of seeking saint-like status for his 'seeing the light'.

The book's authenticity is also greatly strengthened by the back-cover quote from Mandela's handwritten note to Gregory on the day of his release: 'The wonderful hours that we spent together during the last two decades end today. But you will always be in my thoughts.'