By Nadira Naipaul*
Nelson and Winnie Mandela in 2004 (photo: AP)
My husband and I have just crossed Africa. On the final leg of our journey we had finally come to South Africa – a place that now went hand in hand with the name Mandela.
My husband had been reluctant to come here but then he had followed his instinct and it had brought us to the Soweto door of the mystifying Winnie Mandela, a much celebrated and reviled woman of our times.
Looking out at her garden, I wondered how long we would have to wait to see her. We were in a stronghold of sorts, with high enclosing walls and electronic gates which were controlled from inside a bunker-like guardhouse. There were tall muscular men dressed in black who casually appeared and disappeared.
In the late Eighties, Winnie’s thuggish bodyguards, the Mandela United Football Club, terrorised Soweto. Club “captain” was Jerry Richardson, who died in prison last year while serving life for the murder of Stompie Moeketsi, a 14-year-old who was kidnapped with three other boys and beaten in the home where we would soon sit, sipping coffee. Winnie was sentenced to six years for kidnap, which was reduced to a fine on appeal.
Members of the gang would later testify to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Winnie had ordered the torture, murder and kidnap of her own people, and even participated directly.
Winnie used to live, before she was famous, down one of the narrow, congested streets with small brick and iron sheet houses. Soweto is still a predominately black township: tourists come in buses to gawp at the streets linked to freedom, apartheid and Mandela.
Winnie now has an imposing fortress on the hill. The garden is full of trees and well-manicured shrubs. We walked straight into a small cluttered hallway. It was full of the man: Mandela. He was everywhere. Presents, portraits, honorary degrees and letters covering every empty space on the walls.
There was an air of expectancy as we entered. Our fixer had arranged this meeting with Winnie (or Mama Mandela, her township name) through her confidant and admirer. He is a young man in his early forties who is a well-known television presenter here and clearly an ardent devotee.
He sat us down and talked softly about her. The politics of his generation, he said, had been defined by this woman. Her courage, her fire and her sheer stubbornness had made them men. They saw how unafraid she was and the risks and humiliations she was willing to absorb. These humiliations had not ended with apartheid. She was discarded, demonised and betrayed, he said.
My nerves were playing up: my husband does not like to be kept waiting at the best of times. He is punctilious and has been known to walk away from a delayed meeting, leaving me to deal with the fallout.
It was at that moment she appeared, tall, carefully attired in soft grey, wearing her signature wig. She held Vidia’s outstretched hand and asked him to sit next to her. She flashed a smile in my direction. The air was electrified by her presence.
I did what was expected of me. I asked her if she was happy with the way things had panned out in South Africa. Winnie looked at my husband. Did he wish for the truth? She had heard of him. He pursued the truth or the closest he could get to it.
No, she was not happy. And she had her reasons. “I kept the movement alive,” she began. “You have been in the township. You have seen how bleak it still is. Well, it was here where we flung the first stone. It was here where we shed so much blood. Nothing could have been achieved without the sacrifice of the people. Black people.”
She looked at Vidia expecting another question. He said nothing, but his dark hooded eyes shone and she carried on with her eyes firmly locked onto his face. “The ANC was in exile. The entire leadership was on the run or in jail. And there was no one to remind these people, black people, of the horror of their daily reality; when something so abnormal as apartheid becomes a daily reality. It was our reality. And four generations had lived with it – as non-people.”
As she spoke, I looked at her thinking she was, at 73, as her reputation promised, quite extraordinary. The ANC had needed this passionate revolutionary. Without her, the fire would have been so easily extinguished and she had used everything and anything to stoke it. While some still refer to her as Mother of the Nation, she is decried by many because of her links to the Stompie murder and other violent crimes during the apartheid era, and a conviction for fraud.
“Were you not afraid?” I asked instinctively, but then I regretted this foolish query.
She looked towards my chair. Her grey glasses focused on my face. “Yes, I was afraid in the beginning. But then there is only so much they can do to you. After that it is only death. They can only kill you, and as you see, I am still here.”
I knew that the apartheid enforcers had done everything in their power to break this woman. She had suffered every indignity a person could bear. They had picked her up in the night and placed her under house arrest in Brandfort, a border town in Orange Free State, 300 miles from Soweto. “It was exile,” she said, “when everything else had failed.”
At this remote outpost, where she spent nine years, she had recruited young men for the party. “Right under their noses,” she said to Vidia, laughing with the memory of it. “The only worry or pain I had was for my daughters. Never really knowing what was happening to them. I feel they have really suffered in all this. Not me or Mandela,” she said.
Her two young daughters had never quite understood what was really happening. Bad men went to prison. Their father was in prison but he was not bad. “That anguish was unbearable for me as a mother, not knowing how my children coped when they held me in long solitary confinement.”
Zenani, now 51, and Zindzi, 50, remain very much in the background, having no wish to enter politics themselves, Winnie said. Nelson Mandela is no longer “accessible” to his daughters and they have to get through much red tape just to speak to their father, she told us.
Winnie brought up his name very casually, as if it was of no real value to her: not any more.
“This name Mandela is an albatross around the necks of my family. You all must realise that Mandela was not the only man who suffered. There were many others, hundreds who languished in prison and died. Many unsung and unknown heroes of the struggle, and there were others in the leadership too, like poor Steve Biko, who died of the beatings, horribly all alone. Mandela did go to prison and he went in there as a burning young revolutionary. But look what came out,” she said, looking to the writer. He said nothing but listened.
It is hard to knock a living legend. Only a wife, a lover or a mistress has that privilege. Only they are privy to the intimate inner man, I thought.
“Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘white’. It has a few token blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded.”
She was pained. Her uncreased brown face had lost the softness.
“I cannot forgive him for going to receive the Nobel [Peace Prize in 1993] with his jailer [FW] de Klerk. Hand in hand they went. Do you think de Klerk released him from the goodness of his heart? He had to. The times dictated it, the world had changed, and our struggle was not a flash in the pan, it was bloody to say the least and we had given rivers of blood. I had kept it alive with every means at my disposal”.
We could believe that. The world-famous images flashed before our eyes and I am sure hers. The burning tyres – Winnie endorsed the necklacing of collaborators in a speech in 1985 (“with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country”) – the stoning, the bullets, the terrible deaths of “informers”. Her often bloodthirsty rhetoric has marred her reputation.
“Look at this Truth and Reconciliation charade. He should never have agreed to it.” Again her anger was focused on Mandela. “What good does the truth do? How does it help anyone to know where and how their loved ones were killed or buried? That Bishop Tutu who turned it all into a religious circus came here,” she said pointing to an empty chair in the distance.
“He had the cheek to tell me to appear. I told him a few home truths. I told him that he and his other like-minded cretins were only sitting here because of our struggle and ME. Because of the things I and people like me had done to get freedom.”
Winnie did appear before the TRC in 1997, which in its report judged her to have been implicated in murders: “The commission finds Mandela herself was responsible for committing such gross violations of human rights.”
When begged by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to admit that “things went horribly wrong” and apologise, Winnie finally said sorry to Stompie’s mother and to the family of her former personal doctor whose killing she is alleged to have ordered after he refused to cover up Stompie’s murder.
Someone brought in the coffee and we took the offered cups in silence.
“I am not alone. The people of Soweto are still with me. Look what they make him do. The great Mandela. He has no control or say any more. They put that huge statue of him right in the middle of the most affluent “white” area of Johannesburg.
Not here where we spilled our blood and where it all started. Mandela is now a corporate foundation. He is wheeled out globally to collect the money and he is content doing that. The ANC have effectively sidelined him but they keep him as a figurehead for the sake of appearance.”
The eyes behind the grey tinted glasses were fiery with anger. It was an economic betrayal, she was saying, nothing had changed for the blacks, except that apartheid had officially gone. As she spoke of betrayal she inadvertently looked at a portrait of Mandela.
I looked at Winnie. Maybe she did not know when to stop. Maybe that is the bane of a revolutionary: they gather such momentum that he or she can’t stop. I saw that although her trials and tribulations had been recorded, the scars on the inner, most secret part of her spirit tormented her.
But for Winnie the deaths, the burning tyres around the necks of the informers and her own Faustian pacts perhaps made Mandela and his vaunted wisdom look like feeble compromises from a feeble man. No one could expect him to protect her or his children from his 27-year incarceration but now he was out he had wanted peace. He had longings, perhaps scars in the mind, fears and perhaps even wisdom that she could not match or return.
The rumour rife in South Africa was that she could not abide him or touch him during their two-year attempt to salvage the marriage after his release in 1990. It was all too sad. And though he had been prepared to forgive the past, his wife’s affairs while he was in prison, it had not worked. They divorced in 1996, having spent only five of their 38 married years together. Her anger was a mighty liability and her defiance was too awful for words.
“I am not sorry. I will never be sorry. I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything.” She paused.
I thought of the terrible shadow of the murder of Stompie. Winnie had flung the stone that had cracked the one-way mirror of apartheid. The “interrogators”, the compromisers, were now all unmasked and for what?
“You know, sometimes I think we had not thought it all out. There was no planning from our side. How could we? We were badly educated and the leadership does not acknowledge that. Maybe we have to go back to the drawing board and see where it all went wrong.”
This was Winnie the politician. This was the phoenix. Publicly, the ANC leadership, who made her a minister in the first post-apartheid government in 1994 and welcomed her back subsequently, distanced themselves from her amid allegations of corruption (in 2003, she was convicted of fraud and given a suspended prison sentence). But for the masses, she spoke their language and remains popular with those who feel their government hasn’t done enough.
We could see why the ANC had needed this obdurate woman. She was bold and had an idea of her worth. She was the perfect mistress for the ANC in the bad times but then she became dangerous.
As we stood up to leave, we saw a photograph of a young Winnie looking wistfully into the camera. She was ravishingly beautiful and Mandela had sought her. But the battle was over. She had played her part. It was over. She had been sidelined and discarded, but since the freedom had not brought the promised dream for the vast black population, she would continue to play her hand in politics. Of that I was sure. She was still a woman who could reflect the dangerous part of a man’s dream, whatever it may be.
“When I was born my mother was very disappointed. She wanted a son. I knew that from a very early age. So I was a tomboy. I wanted to be a doctor at some point and I was always bringing home strays from school. People who were too poor to pay fees or have food. My parents never rebuked me or told me that they were hard-pressed, too.”
She lit up talking of her past and of early memories that had nothing to do with the struggle. And then she suddenly turned towards Vidia and said: “But when I am alone I cannot help but think of the past. The past is still alive in here. In my head.” She pointed to the brain.
Was it all nothing but a great loss? I wanted to know. Part of me ached for her. As a woman I felt her great transgressions and the pain. I wanted to tell her that if I had been Mandela I would have forgiven her but I lacked the courage. What would Vidia say to me if I did?
He was saying goodbye. My eyes were filling. Instinctively she turned and looked into me and her eyes softened. She walked towards me and pulled me into her embrace. “I know what you want to say,” she whispered into my ear, “and for that I am grateful.”
· Note: This piece first appeared on March 8, 2010