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If you like Nadine Gordimer's story, you might also like:
Joan Didion,
Carlos Fuentes,
Athol Fugard,
Ernest Gaines,
Louise Glück,
Norman Mailer,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Albie Sachs,
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and Elie Wiesel

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Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer
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Nadine Gordimer Interview (page: 5 / 8)

Nobel Prize in Literature

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  Nadine Gordimer

Could you tell us about Bettie du Toit? She was your friend, wasn't she?

Nadine Gordimer: Yes, a great friend. The closest woman friend I've ever had, quite wonderful. From her too, I think I received a political education. She was of solid Afrikaans stock, because that's a Huguenot name, "du Toit." But here we call it "Du-toy," because it got naturally, I don't know, Afrikanerized. Bettie was a member of the Communist Party. She had been illegally married -- I mean married somewhere else and came back to live here -- to an Indian of the prominent Cachalia family. She worked in trade unions. She worked with Albie's father, Solly Sachs, and the garment workers union, and this one and that one. Anyway, this was a world unknown to me with my little sheltered life. She was, of course, also white, and she had been totally disowned by all her family because she was a traitor. We became great friends, both my husband and I, really close to her because I happened to meet her as a young divorced woman. My first marriage was a failure.

I met Bettie du Toit and my future husband then, Reinhold Cassirer, on the same day in somebody's house, yes. And the three of us were very great friends, and both Reinhold and I felt she was our guru in many ways, because she was right in the thick of the whole thing. Now of course, the time came when she was detained, she was in detention. Her family had abandoned her. All her comrades in the movement, in the ANC and the South African Communist Party, dare not come forward and say, "We want to visit her." You were supposed to have family visits only. Anyway, it was no great courage on my part, it was just the obvious thing to do. I went to the police, you had to go, and said I'm her sister and I wanted to see her. So they said, "But you've got a different name." I said, "Of course I'm married now." So I got permission to see her, and that meant I could go to the women's section of the Old Fort, which is now the famous Constitution Hill complex, part of that. Albie would have talked about it. So I saw the inside of a prison for the first time. And to see your friend there is quite extraordinary, all part of your education if you lived here. On a visit then, I would be sitting here, there would a heavy grill in front of me. She'd be brought in and she'd sit on the other side, and then we would talk through this with two warders looking at their watches and so on. But I think it was very fortunate for me that I had this experience. It made me understand the realities of where we were living. And so my involvement with and adherence to the liberation movement started.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Why was she detained?

Nadine Gordimer: She was detained for all her activities, for her activities within the ANC, the meetings. The Umkhonto (armed wing of the ANC) hadn't been formed yet, but there were many other things. And as I said, she used her trade union experience as well to speak against the apartheid regime and so on.

Could you take us up to March 1960 and the Sharpeville Massacre? What do you remember?

Nadine Gordimer Interview Photo
Nadine Gordimer: Everything. We didn't have TV, but we did have the newspapers and we did have the radio, with some censorship, but still. And of course, one had friends. I certainly had friends among journalists and among political activists who were back and forth. So one was very well informed. But it was a remarkable thing. It was tragic, the killing of that boy. But the courage, it was the children who really gave the impetus to their elders to take the struggle further. As Chief Luthuli said, who was in Congress, very much a leader until the youth group with Nelson and others took over. He said once in a speech, I've never forgotten it, "We are tired of knocking on the back door." So this was the end of knocking on the back door.

In the 1960s, the liberation movement in South Africa became an armed struggle. There were bombings and assassinations. Was there ever a time when you considered arming yourself?

Nadine Gordimer: No, no, no, never. We're talking about the height of apartheid, when indeed I gave evidence for the defense in a big treason trial. My great friend, the wonderful, great lawyer, George Bizos, Nelson Mandela's lawyer, said to me, "Look, please, when you get out of your car, have a look," because of what happened to Albie Sachs. Albie of course was a great figure in the liberation, which I was not. But now, once having given this kind of evidence in a big court case, George thought that there might be some danger. And I thought, "Good God, how ridiculous. Who's going to?" That was really the only... and then there were other times. You know, I feel my own contribution, it was never enough, but my husband, Reinhold Cassirer and I, we hid people. We did all sorts of things.

You mentioned Nelson Mandela. Did you meet him before his arrest in 1962?

Nadine Gordimer Interview Photo
Nadine Gordimer: Oh, yes indeed. I was introduced to him, my great good fortune, by the English journalist, editor of Drum, Anthony Sampson, who was introduced to my husband and me and who became an intimate of the house, a great friend. He was reporting that first trial in the Drill Hall here, and he took me along, and in the recess I met Nelson Mandela, and so after that I was fortunate enough indeed to get to know him.

Did you do any writing for Drum?

Nadine Gordimer: I never wrote anything for Drum. No. We were friends. Drum was indeed, quite rightly, to encourage writing among urban blacks. It would have been presumptuous of me to write for Drum.

Do you remember that first meeting with Mandela? What did you talk about?

Nadine Gordimer: Oh, how do I remember! Well, we talked politics, of course. What else would we talk about?

How soon did you see him after his release from prison in 1990?

Nadine Gordimer: Since his release? Well, I saw him very soon, indeed,

I was there the day when he came out, saw him come out of the prison, yes. I was with Anthony Sampson, and then I saw him alone after that. When he was in prison, indeed, among the people he asked to see, he asked to see me. And I applied and I was refused. They wouldn't let me see him on the island. But I was one among a number of people who were refused. Indeed, oddly enough, somebody had smuggled in Burger's Daughter, and he read Burger's Daughter and then he asked to see me. So I was absolutely delighted and was ready to hop on a plane and go to Cape Town and go to the island but, as I say, I had to apply and the answer was no.

Were you given an explanation?

Nadine Gordimer: No. You weren't entitled to one.

So when he was released, you saw him right there at the gate.

Nadine Gordimer: Yes. And when the negotiations were going on, he and some other comrades, it was useful for them to have a house where they could meet quietly, so they came here.

They came here, to this house?

Nadine Gordimer: Yes.

Did you really just talk politics with Mandela?

Nadine Gordimer: Oh, we talked all sorts of things. He's a very lovely man and Nelson has many interests.

Can you tell me some of the topics that you talked about?

Nadine Gordimer: Oh well, he talked about his childhood and youth. But we talked mostly about, you know, politics and what was going on, yes.

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