Mandela meets Coetsee

Jailed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela and Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee have come face to face in at least two meetings in the last few weeks.

The meetings – between the world's most famous political prisoner and the government minister in charge of South Africa's jails – were a crucial part of the build-up to last week's release of life prisoner Govan Mbeki. At least one meeting took place in the Pollsmoor Prison cell in which Mandela is serving his life sentence.

The other may have taken place outside the prison, though this has not been confirmed. The main subject oftheir discussion was Mbeki's release, in particular a court application his lawyers had made to gain access to him. The Weekly Mail learnt of the hush-hush meetings from a number of reliable sources.

Coetsee yesterday neither confirmed nor denied that the meeting had occurred. "As Minister of Justice, prisons fall within the ambit of my responsibility. As such, communication with prisoners, and/or relatives and/or their representatives are not excluded, are prison- related and concern the private lives of people," he said in response to queries. Coetsee did not respond to an enquiry about whether one of the meetings had taken place at his Cape Town home.

The South African Prisons Service declined to add to Coetsee's comment. Mbeki's attorney, Priscilla Jana, had applied to the supreme court on October 7 to force the prison authorities to allow her to see him on Robben Island, where he was being held. She had been refused permission to consult with him for over two months. This application came at a time of intense speculation about the imminent release of the 77-year-old Rivonia trialist who had served 24 years' imprisonment. 

The next day Mbeki sent a telegram to Jana summoning her to see him. The meetings between Coetsee and Mandela are believed to have taken place within the following few days. Jana's application was withdrawn on October 15 and Mbeki was released on November 5. Jana yesterday declined to comment on the reports.

Mandela's attorney, Ismail Ayob,said he had been denied permission since April 1987 to see his client and therefore knew nothing about the matter. ANC sources in exile yesterday said they had no knowledge of meetings between Mandela and Coetsee.

At a press conference on the weekend, Mbeki said he had met Mandela on the morning ofhis release in Pollsmoor Prison. However, he declined to give further details. At least one face-on meeting between Mandela and Coetsee has been recorded.

The Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group reported an encounter between the two during the group's visit in May 1987. "The minister of justice, together with two senior officials, was present at the start of our second meeting and Mr Mandela pressed him to remain, saying he had nothing to hide and no objection to the minister hearing the discussion. "It was his strongly stated view that if the circumstances could be created in which the government and the ANC could talk, some of the problems which arose solely through lack of contact could be eliminated," the EPG reported.

And a book published this month in London, My Fight Against Apartheid by Michael Dingake, has given the first eyewitness account of an encounter between Mandelaand Jimmy Kruger, the former minister of justice, on Robben Island in 1978. Mandela had a long interview with Kruger during which he raised prisoners' demands and discussed topical questions, according to Dingake.

"Madiba (Mandela's clan name) came back from meeting Kruger very much disappointed and shocked. The minister, according to Madiba, was completely blank on the history and policies of the ANC. He could not argue on the Freedom Charter of the ANC, he had not read it," Dingake writes. – Weekly Mail Reporters

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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