By Mick Krever, CNN
South Africa could have been “reduced to ashes” and suffered “a bloodbath” had it not been for Nelson Mandela’s negotiations with the apartheid government, Mac Maharaj, who was imprisoned with Mandela on Robben Island, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
He was responding to the criticism by some that Mandela gave up too much in the talks that brought down hundreds of years of minority white rule.
“Rwanda would have been child’s play if we had a race war here,” Maharaj said. “And there were times that we were on the brink of that.”
Maharaj would serve in Mandela’s cabinet, and is now spokesman for President Jacob Zuma. When he was released from prison in 1976, Maharaj smuggled out a draft of the manuscript that would become Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
“We had dreamt of an insurrection, and an insurrection movement was possible,” he said. “But it was the leadership of Mandela and the ANC, which said, ‘No,’ keep your eyes trained on the negotiation.”
Maharaj said that despite all the hardship of political imprisonment – including backbreaking work breaking stones – he was grateful for the life he had been given.
“Whenever I go back and I reflect on Robben Island I only think of the good times,” he said. “If we have been defeated I think we’d only see the pain.”
“To me, I had free food, free board and lodge, free exercise, plenty of sunshine, and I’m still alive. … I look back at my life and say, ‘What a privilege.’”
Part of the world’s fascination with Mandela stems from his ability to have come out of 27 years of imprisonment with so little bitterness.
Maharaj said that he believed only 5% of his fellow political prisoners came out bitter.
In prison, he told Amanpour, Mandela taught him how to take on the apartheid enemy.
“Mandela honed himself by understanding the enemy. He taught me in prison, and forced me to study Afrikaans, and read Afrikaans poetry.”
Maharaj said Mandela told him you must understand the enemy in order to defeat it.
“What we learned by looking at the history of the whites, which Mandela epitomized, was that the result of the war between the Afrikaner and the British had left a legacy of hatred. And we wanted to avoid that.”
Twenty years later, and as South Africa grapples with a reality without Mandela, many say that the promises of the Rainbow Nation have not been delivered.
Maharaj, who works for the current government, said much more time will be needed.
“We were conditioned for more than three centuries – every ethnic group – to think only of their own and see the other with hatred and fear,” he said. “We cannot remove that in 19 years.”
“What we achieved so far is more than what any other country in its first 19 years of independence has achieved.”
“And I think that we have got a lot of mistakes, a lot of acts of omission and as of commission. But that’s in the nature of work in progress.”