[From our archives] The mystery of Mandela the smoker

In 1992, former president Nelson Mandela gave a talk at the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund in Johannesburg in which he advised the youngsters never to smoke, because, as everyone knows, smoking is bad for you. On hearing this, renowned photographer Jürgen Schadeberg, who was also at the event, approached Mandela and joked: “But you used to smoke.”

According to Schadeberg, Mandela replied: “No, no, I never smoked.” Schadeberg then showed Mandela a photograph of his younger self, during the Defiance Campaign in 1952. The photograph shows Mandela, then president of the ANC Youth League, reading a ­newspaper with two of his comrades, Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Dr James Moroka. The suave Mandela is immaculately dressed, with a cigarette dangled comfortably between his lips.

“Oh well, you see, I was just showing off. The cigarette was not lit,” Mandela told Schadeberg, and laughed.

Schadeberg, refusing to back down from this clear attempt to rewrite history, remembers saying to the former president: “But there were ashes on the ground!”

According to Schadeberg, Mandela stood firm, saying: “Well, we were celebrating because we were found not guilty. Someone must have placed the cigarette in my mouth. We were too relaxed and were happy to be acquitted.”

The photograph, which clearly shows that the cigarette was lit, was taken after the court case in which the three leaders of the Defiance Campaign – Dadoo, Moroka and Mandela –were accused of ­contravening the Suppression of Communism Act in October 1952. They were found not guilty. ­Schadeberg photographed them reading the latest newspaper report at Johannesburg’s supreme court.

Schadeberg took the picture when he worked as a freelancer for Time Life. He was asked to follow the Defiance Campaign, “which I did in depth”, he said.

The Defiance Campaign was designed to defy six of the major unjust apartheid laws. This increased ANC membership numbers from 7 000 to 100 000 and put the ANC on the map in South Africa.

“This was a landmark event in the 1950s in the freedom movement,” said Schadeberg.

Mandela emerged from jail in 1990 a different man to the radical hothead he had been known as in the 1950s. The former president is certainly not known to have been a smoker after his release, but there were still those photographs …


Schadeberg said Mandela “made the claim that he never smoked and that the 1952 image was just an exception because of the stress of the court case”.

“Then I told him: ‘But you also used to smoke a pipe,’” remembers Schadeberg, laughing.

He said the first image he took of Mandela was at a discussion about the launch of the Defiance Campaign on April 6 1951. Mandela was with Ruth First and he was smoking a pipe.

Schadeberg says when he asked him about smoking a pipe, Mandela again said he was doing it just to show off. He added that he and his comrades used to watch American movies where gangsters would dress up in suits and matching hats. They always had a cigarette or a pipe in their mouths and would speak with the cigarette balanced on their lower lips.

“It was showing off, you see,” said Schadeberg, “but it also shows that Mandela was influenced by events happening around him. He would tell [Walter] Sisulu that he needed to dress sharper.”

He adds: “But it is important to see him smoke because he was just a human being, even though I understand why he talked against it. You don’t want children thinking it is alright to smoke because Mandela smokes.”

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