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He was SA’s most wanted and, for a young journalist, it was the scoop that launched his career. That interview was with Nelson Mandela, and it was the last he gave before his arrest in 1962.
The journalist was Peter Hazelhurst, who was working for The Sunday Express.
And until Tuesday – when the Nelson Mandela Foundation announced it had been found – there had been no sign of the article until the SA National Library and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory got stuck in.
It all started one day in May 1961 when activist Ahmed Kathrada visited the reporter in the Joburg newsroom of the Sunday Express.
He asked Hazelhurst if he would like an appointment with the elusive leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe, who was on the run and nicknamed the Black Pimpernel.
“I knew Ruth First and she approached Kathrada and gave him assurances that I was okay,” said Hazelhurst.
On the day of the interview, Kathrada took Hazelhurst to the back room of a shop in Polly Street in the centre of Joburg.
There sat Mandela.
In a 70-minute interview, the 42-year-old fugitive said that a series of planned strikes against SA becoming a republic were not aimed at whites but at the National Party government.
He also told Hazelhurst that the demonstrators had strict instructions not to use violence.
Hazelhurst had to write a couple of white lies, such as he was blindfolded and taken to a house in a motor car.
Luckily he did, for on the day after the article appeared he was questioned by the notorious Colonel At Spengler, of the police’s Special Branch.
“I knew that the police were going to pick me up. I had to protect myself and also those people who had organised the interview,” Hazelhurst recalled.
It wasn’t the last the reporter heard from the authorities about the article.
Mandela was arrested on August 5, 1962 and charged with leaving the country illegally and inciting a strike.
Hazelhurst was subpoenaed as a witness, because of his Mandela interview.
It was that last interview with Mandela, said Hazelhurst, that got him a job as a foreign correspondent for The London Times.
Hazelhurst said he always felt indebted to Kathrada for this and got hold of the activist last month to thank him.
Hazelhurst told Kathrada and the senior researcher for the Mandela Centre of Memory, Sahm Venter, that he had lost the article decades earlier.
“The problem was that he couldn’t remember when he did the interview or when the article appeared,” said Venter.
The break came when Venter came across an article written in a newspaper, about the Mandela trial, that made reference to Hazelhurst’s interview. The date the story appeared was May 14, 1961.
The newspaper was located in the SA National Library in Cape Town.
Hazelhurst said he was amazed that when Mandela was released from prison, he spoke about his vision of a new non-racial and democratic SA. These were the same ideals he had spoken about 51 years ago to a young reporter in Polly street.
“Most politicians… their ideals change over time. His didn’t,” Hazelhurst said.