Tony Hall: Going underground to meet Nelson Mandela in 1961

Hi Lucy,

Grandpa here - I have just dropped off Frank Hardee and a friend who spent the weekend with us, I will now turn to the interview story:

It was 1961, I was a reporter on the main SA daily newspaper The Star...

The African National Congress had been banned by the white Apartheid government, and its leaders house arrested and not allowed to meet or speak publicly. Nelson Mandela, a Johannesburg lawyer, and one of the top leadership, had gone underground, slipped out of the country. He went to London, where he spoke in Trafalgar Square, to other capitals, and to Algeria, one of the countries which supported the ANC, and he addressed the Organisation of African Unity in Addis Ababa. The tour was to announce to the world that the ANC was alive and carrying on the freedom struggle, and by the end of it, Nelson Mandela was a very well known figure. .

He then slipped back into the country, and in disguise, started on a tour of South African centres to mobilise ANC and support from all races for the calling of a National Convention to demand votes for all and a new constitution for majority rule.

In order to be able to move around the country he disguised himself as a chauffeur, complete with the old fashioned dark blue coat with brass buttons, and a traditional chauffeur's cap. His "employer" grandly sitting in the back of the limousine, was a well known Johannesburg actor named Cecil Williams, who was a secret ANC supporter.

Before they set off on the national tour, I was contacted at my newspaper in Johannesburg by ANC friends and asked to come and interview him , at a secret venue. (They knew that, as a Congress movement member myself, I could be trusted not to reveal his hiding place, or leak it to the police.)

One afternoon, a few blocks from the office, I was picked up in an ordinary car, but with darkened windows, and driven to a small house in what were then the Indian suburbs. I was taken quickly into a very small room where the dignified figure of Nelson Mandela, already becoming known in the media as 'the black pimpernel', sat at a dining table. He nodded a greeting. As I sat down opposite him I pulled out my notebook, I was in awe. His bearing was so erect and commanding - as it is to this day, even in his old age - his coat so brushed and the buttons shining, his hair neatly centre parted as it was in those days. I remember thinking to myself, nobody could be fooled into thinking this man could be anybody's underling.

He spoke of the plan for a three-day nationwide strike, about which the whole country was on tenterhooks, if the demand for a National Convention, and to work out a whole new deal for the people of South Africa, was not met. Johannesburg was tense with expectation.

I went back to the Star newsroom, my stomach turning with excitement at the coming front page story I had. But I promised that, beyond saying that the interview was at 'a secret venue', I would not try to report where it was or how he looked. - nothing that could give him away. I would report in detail only what he had to say.

He went on from there, 'chauffeuring' all round the country, holding one secret meeting after another to mobilise the leading people in the provinces, but making few more, if any public pronouncements direct to journalists...

...until one day, driving on the road near the Howick Falls in Natal, a following car pulled in front of them, armed men got out and arrested both Nelson Mandela and Cecil Williams. An informer had put the secret police on their trail. Cecil Williams ordeal ended in deportation to Britain. For Nelson Mandela, it was the beginning of his decades in jail.

A few months after my secret interview with Mandela, my wife Eve was arrested for promoting the objects of the banned African National Congress, and spent months in jail. She was then fined for 'insulting' the apartheid state president in a protest leaflet which she signed. We were both listed as members of a banned organisation, and could no longer work as journalists. We left as a family, with our three sons, to a life of exile, in UK and around Africa.

The first time I met him again was about thirty years later, at a birthday party in Johannesburg for the famous singer Miriam Makeba, who had become known as 'Mama Africa'. It was one of those many parties for all of us, to celebrate coming back home, after almost three decades of exile.

Grandpa - Dad - Tony Hall

Read the interview here


  1. Phil - did your folks ever express a view on the Kitsons?

  2. They were very affectionate towards the kitsons. Knew them but not well. Norma Kitson's radical politics were a bit much for the ANC old guard, but as you probably know she and her son and (daughter?)and City Group put up a jolly good show outside the SA embassy week after week.

    My father told me that when David got out after so many years he was very loyal to Norma and this put him a little beyond the pale.
    But they were both very admired and respected figures, for all the in-fighting.

  3. Good to know Phil - I always thought that the treatment of David by his union when he was at Ruskin after his release was shameful. It certainly was no credit to the movement.

    I was pleased to read that Mandela recognised the contribution made and restored David's stature.

    I did not know the Kitsons but I was a distant admirer and trade union contributor, whenever we were asked to "chip in", whilst David was serving his time

  4. Yeah, it was a little shabby. But Norma and her kids were a very radical bunch in those days. In those days the ANC needed to project a very sober and respectable image - still does.

    All credit to the Kitsons for what they did, but they were my parent's generation, not mine.

    I was a student then and joined them on the pavement quite a few times with my friend Alex Reynolds.

  5. Shabby it was but I choose not to quantify how much.

    The problem of what to do with the difficult/determined spouse will be with us forever - but after a 20 year stretch I would have wanted the comrades to be more understanding - bye the bye. I should add that I liked/admired Norma's determination .

    To my shame I heard the story of Mandela not that long after he was imprisoned. I resolved to write to the man every week. I don't remember posting even the first letter.

    A man of good intentions but no action has but the weakest of call when it comes to sometime later.

    At least you got to the pavement with your friend Alex Reynolds. Well done sir(s)

    The best I could do was to cancel life and ensure that I was there when Mandela on his World tour visited Leeds in Yorkshire. I shouted my approval again and again - till my vocal chords near bled.

  6. Vamonos, mi amigo sanscullotte!