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Rian Malan on “Winnie and Nelson” – Jonny Steinberg’s spot-on new biography
Renowned author, Jonny Steinberg’s newest biography ‘Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage’ takes a deep dive into the relationship between South African icons Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. In his extensive review, Rian Malan raves about Steinberg’s investigation and storytelling, and the author’s devotion to the truth. Superbly written and scrupulously researched, Steinberg provides a never-before-seen account of two of SA’s most prominent political deities. Malan says that ‘Winnie and Nelson’ is not a hagiography nor a money-grab, and is a must-read for both admirers and denouncers of the superstar activists.
The moral icon and the murderess
By Rian Malan
It was always just a matter of time before someone figured out a way of exploiting the stupendously rich human-interest material bequeathed to us by Nelson and Winnie Mandela, ordinary mortals turned into demigods by an enormously powerful myth-making machine. Scores of biographers had a go but none really cracked it, some because they were craven hagiographers, others because they became obsessed by the dark stuff.
Comes now Jonny Steinberg, who finally gets the balance more or less right. Winnie and Nelson is a riveting read, full of stories that will make admirers love the Mandelas more than ever even as it provides their detractors with deadly weapons to use against them.
Like, say, the story about Winnie coming home at dawn, drunk, disheveled and sans underwear while Nelson, newly freed from decades of loneliness and longing in apartheid prisons, lies alone in the marital bed, listening for her footsteps and praying for an innocent explanation.
My first reaction to that anecdote was horror. I thought, holy shit, Jonny will die for this. But I was wrong. Jonny is very clever. Among other gifts, he has an amazing ability to detonate explosive facts in the reader’s brain and then stand back to examine them from all angles.
The story above, for instance, seems to brand Winnie a shameless slut, but Jonny notes it could mean something else entirely. Maybe she’d been unhinged by the hardships she’d endured under apartheid. Maybe fate had placed her in an unbearable position. Maybe she was a rebel who reserved the right to choose her lovers freely and seldom crooked the knee to anyone.
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It would be wrong to describe Winnie and Nelson as a celebrity biography, but in way the Mandela’s were exactly that — celebrities whose destinies were to an extent determined by their looks. The opening chapters of Jonny’s book teem with quotes from people who were struck dumb by their beauty.
The dour communist Walter Sisulu knew the instant he saw Nelson’s broad shoulders and infectious grin that this man was “a godsend,” a hulk of raw material that could be moulded into political greatness. As for Winnie, she was “a goddess.” Together, their charisma was blinding, and they knew it, according to Jonny; Tembu aristocrats by birth and culturally advantaged by their Western mission school educations, they were never in doubt that it was their destiny to rule.
Let’s pick up the story on the day of their first meeting in 1957. Nelson was 38, a dashing lawyer who favoured bespoke suits and drove an Oldsmobile with white-wall tyres. Winnie was 22, outwardly timorous but blessed with a shrewd sense of her own sexual power. She two-timed Nelson from the start, rushing from early dates with the glamourous older man into the arms of young office worker Barney Sampson, sometimes entertaining him in Nelson’s law office while he was doing his daily stint in the boxing gym.
That first affair may have been chaste for all we know, but both parties in this marriage had a roving eye. Winnie told one of Jonny’s sources that her husband was “a playboy” who had secret lovers from the start. She retaliated by flirting with other men, which led to erotically-charged tempests like the one that seems to have struck Nelson on the day of his Treason Trial acquittal.
A group of comrades was waiting at the garden gate when he returned in triumph from Pretoria. Nelson chatted with them a while and then sent a minion inside to instruct Winnie to pack a suitcase for him. When the minion returned, Nelson climbed into a car and vanished into the underground without saying goodbye to his wife.
This was early 1961, about four months after the SACP had declared war on the Boers and appointed Nelson to lead Umkhonto we Sizwe or MK, supposedly the military wing of the ANC but actually a project of the Communist Party. To be clear, that’s my take on the facts; Jonny acknowledges that Nelson was “almost certainly” a member of the SACP “for a brief period” and leaves it at that.
This publication plans to revisit this delicate subject later, but for now, let’s return to Jonny’s account of the Mandelas’ marriage, which endured on paper until 1992.
In another sense, however, it ended on the day Nelson went underground, because he and Winnie seldom saw each other face-to-face after that, aside from a few nights at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, where MK had established its secret headquarters.
MK detonated its first bombs in December 1961. Three weeks later, Nelson set off on a tour of Africa, where he expected a warm welcome from leaders of newly liberated former colonies. Instead, he was usually dismissed as a stooge of white and Indian communists seeking to ride the mighty ox of African nationalism into power.
Almost to a man, the lions of uhuru were backing Pan-Africanist leader Robert Sobukwe, whose “Africa for Africans” line was the flavour of the moment. Giants like Nkrumah of Ghana and Nasser of Egypt wouldn’t even grant Nelson an interview.
Unaccustomed to such humiliation, he arrived in London six months later in a foul mood. As Jonny tells the story, he bluntly informed the prominent Indian communists who gathered to welcome him that “the ANC would from now on have to distance itself from its white and Indian allies.”
In his autobiography, Nelson claims he was just planning some “cosmetic” changes, but Vella Pillay told Jonny he was “spooked,” not just by Nelson’s words but also by the way he delivered them — “hard, unyielding and cold.” The meeting ended in acrimony, and left Pillay thinking that Mandela had turned his back on the non-racial socialist cause.
When word of these heresies reached Joburg, Nelson was summoned back to Joburg to explain himself. After sneaking across the Bechuanaland border, he went straight to Liliesleaf Farm, wearing Ethiopian military fatigues and a revolver on his hip.
From there, he drove to Natal to see ANC president Chief Luthuli. Someone tipped off the police, and he was arrested on his way home two days later. The New York Times has blamed the CIA for this betrayal, but as we shall see, Nelson had another theory entirely.
One the opening day of his trial on the relatively minor charge of leaving South Africa without a passport, Winnie showed up in ceremonial Tembu regalia to match the chiefly animal skins sported by her husband.
This fancy-dress exercise sent an unmistakably Africanist message to their supporters, thereby raising some intriguing questions regarding the course they might have pursued if Nelson’s political career had not been brutally truncated shortly thereafter, when police uncovered MK’s plans for armed insurrection. At this, Nelson was hauled back into the dock to face charges of sabotage.
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Beyond this point, Winnie moves to centre stage in Jonny’s narrative. In his estimation, the rest of her life was shaped by two powerful forces – a desire to see apartheid overthrown by violence, and a primal need for intense and dangerous love affairs.
The first of these involved Brian Somana, a young comrade tasked to look after Winnie and her daughters after Nelson went underground. Somewhere along the line, Somana became a police informer, and also Winnie’s lover.
The sequence isn’t exactly clear, but Jonny says Nelson came to believe that Winnie shared the secret of his whereabouts with Somana, and was therefore responsible for his capture. Adding insult to injury, she moved Somana into the Mandela home just two weeks after he was handed a life sentence at the Rivonia Trial.
According to Jonny, Nelson was initially of a mind to divorce her immediately, but he calmed down in time and began to send her tender love letters, assuring her that he was willing to let bygones be bygones.
Her responses were more guarded, although she signaled that she still believed in their marriage. Maybe so, but there were many lovers yet to come, and Nelson’s jailers made sure he was aware of all of them.
He bore these torments stoically, stating that he was willing to forgive Winnie almost anything so long as she continued to visit and write to him. Alas, poor man. For 27 years, he was sustained by the dream of returning to Winnie’s embrace and rebuilding the family life he’d come to crave. In the end, as we shall see, it all came to nothing.
Before we delve into why, let’s pause to consider the role the Mandelas eventually came to play. If one accepts, as Jonny does, that the war against apartheid was ultimately decided in the court of world opinion, Nelson and Winnie were the most powerful weapons in the ANC’s armoury.
This was achieved by presenting them to the outside world as paragons of courage and integrity and reasonable moderates to boot, seeking only justice and recognition of their human dignity. Any doubts on these scores were suppressed.
In Nelson’s case, this meant suppressing any mention of his membership in the Sovietist SACP and obscuring the reasons why he wound up in jail. As the years passed, MK’s plans for armed insurrection receded ever deeper into the background, eventually vanishing entirely.
By 1988, an organizer of Mandela’s famous 70th birthday rock concert at London’s Wembley Stadium was able to say, “A man is in prison because he is black and it is wrong. That is all.”
As for Winnie, she was ordained to be mourner-in-chief for her martyred husband and their broken dream of liberation. Silenced by repeated banning orders and spells in detention, she became almost invisible in South Africa, but foreign correspondents could quote her and publish her image, and they did so by the hundred, especially after she was banished to Brandfort in 1977.
Winnie was an irresistible story, a beautiful and bitingly articulate woman trapped in a whites-only Calvinist dorp and ceaselessly harassed by secret policemen who made her life a misery. As Jonny puts it, “the nightmare she inhabited can scarcely be held in one’s head.”
This is true, but there was always a darker side, something that began to rise to the surface in the early 1980s, when PW Botha’s reforms opened up space for political opposition. In Jonny’s book, we catch our first glimpse of this darkness in 1983, when Winnie’s lover of the moment (a young Rasta named Matthews Malefane) finds her thrashing a nine-year-old boy suspected of stealing a grandchild’s tricycle.
The boy is screaming and bleeding from a head wound but the attack continues until Malefane can no longer bear it. He wrestles Winnie to the ground, where “the two of them fought with their fists in the dust.”
This isn’t politics, but it could be, if examined from another angle. Winnie explained that she beat the child because she was trying to instill discipline in a community where many black people had lost their self-respect thanks to generations of virtual slavery. She was also drinking heavily by then, but the more powerful intoxicant was surely the whiff of revolution in the air, intensified as always by the fatal attraction of a good-looking man.
In 1985, Malefane displeased Winnie by returning to Soweto and finding a girlfriend closer to his own age. Winnie followed and burst into Malefane’s parental home one night, yelling at him to return to her or else.
According to Jonny, Malefane walked towards the telephone to call for help. Winnie got there before him, ripped the chord out of the wall and started punching him. Malefane managed to push her out the door, where two youths he knew from Brandfort were waiting, armed with a steel bar and an axe. Winnie shouted, “Kill the dog!,” but her assassins’ hearts weren’t really in it and Malefane escaped to tell the tale.
This is a story about love gone wrong, not revolutionary politics, but as Jonny says, the two were inextricably commingled in Winnie’s heart, and she was willing to kill for both. Or rather, willing to order others to kill, or look the other way while the deed was done.
When the occasion called for it, she was dignified and charming, but she could also become Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, a deranged empress capable of turning on anyone who displeased her and crying, “Off with his head!”
In the next three years, as South Africa slipped into the bloody chaos of an almost-insurrection, Winnie was to order or condone eight murders, or 12, or perhaps even 16, depending on who was counting and what they made of borderline cases where the facts were less than clear.
Some of the dead were probably police spies. Others were entirely innocent. Two made the mistake of besting Winnie’s notorious football team in a shebeen fight, and were executed in retaliation. Dr. Abubaker Asvat was one of the borderline cases, said by some to have been assassinated because he possessed information that might have put Winnie behind bars for murder.
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Jonny’s book is almost 600 pages long and teems with contradictory judgments of Mrs. Mandela, but for me, one quote comes closer than any other to naming the force that drove Winnie into the revolutionary maelstrom after 1985. Most black South Africans, she told her private secretary, had “made lives for themselves within the constraints of apartheid” and were resigned to going on that way forever. She added, “They had to be more scared of me than of the regime if they were going to rise up.”
They had to be more scared of me than of the regime. As Jonny says, this woman had a clear grasp of “fear as a political technology.” And she was about to put theory into practice in Soweto.
In fairness to Jonny, I’d like to insert an explanatory note here. His book is an elegant and often profound exploration of the psyches of his subjects. There are a thousand vivid anecdotes in it, some so sad they will break your heart. Other reviews will surely accord these their due attention, but this one is primarily an examination of Jonny’s account of a period when the Mandelas engaged in actions so vastly at odds with their image that it might yet alter history’s verdict on their lives.
Let’s begin in the spring of 1985, when Winnie tore up the order restricting her to Brandfort and returned to Soweto in open defiance of the apartheid state. This placed police in a quandary, because she was followed wherever she went by an army of correspondents, including foreign, who were totally on her side and sure to spark a global outcry if the cops laid a hand on her. So they didn’t.
They stood back to see what would happen, presumably because they already knew Winnie was a loose cannon, contemptuous of party discipline and prone to episodes where she completely lost control.
According to Jonny, the outlines of Winnie’s master plan soon became clear. As SA entered 1986, dubbed “The Year of People’s War” by the ANC, she would turn her two Soweto properties into liberated zones inhabited by members of her Mandela United Football Club.
Presented to outsiders as a sort of haven for homeless or displaced youths, the club was actually intended to form the core of a revolutionary army that would attack government installations and eliminate collaborators.
This was in line with the strategy punted by the ANC’s Radio Freedom, which was exhorting “the fighting youth” to self-organize into combat units that would “engage the enemy to the hilt and destroy him physically,” as ANC president Oliver Tambo once put it. On the other hand, says Jonny, the ANC never authorized Winnie’s hands-on participation, because she was under constant surveillance and known to be reckless. But Winnie, as always, did exactly as she pleased.
From then on, Johannesburg journalists began to hear rumors of unsound method in her household. There were unconfirmed reports about the execution of a common criminal who’d stolen Winnie’s minibus, followed by loose talk about two men shot dead after defeating Winnie’s footballers in a bar fight. But these cases were never properly investigated, so we didn’t really know, and nor did Nelson.
According to Jonny, Nelson spent his days tending his garden on a Pollsmoor Prison rooftop and his nights staring at a photo of Winnie beside his bed. He wrote to her as often as he was allowed to, touchingly sentimental letters about his longing to kiss her again and grow old with her at his side.
Her replies made no mention of revolutionary activities, because she knew her letters would be read by Nelson’s jailers. The same caution applied to prison visits, because the authorities were recording every word she and Nelson exchanged.
This meant they could talk fairly frankly about, say, their younger daughter Zindzi, who dropped out of university in the early 1980s and took up with dope-smokers and the like. Nelson believed Winnie was allowing the girl to run wild, and they had open fights about that. But when it came to revolutionary executions, Winnie was hardly likely to be frank.
As a special category prisoner, Nelson was allowed access to newspapers, including the Weekly Mail and the Guardian Weekly. But this didn’t solve his information problem because those newspapers – like all newspapers, everywhere – were covering Winnie extremely selectively. They reported her fearless speeches at political rallies, noting that she was surrounded at all times by a bodyguard of young males wearing Mandela United football regalia. But nobody reported what the footballers were doing under cover of darkness.
In November 1986, for instance, they attempted to recruit Sibusiso, the teenaged son of respected ANC veteran Dudu Chili. When Sibusiso told them he was not interested, they threatened to kill him. His worried mother paid a visit to Winnie. She was told, “Dudu, if (your son) is not in the team, obviously the other boys will think he’s a sellout.”
As Jonny tells it, Mrs. Chili’s blood ran cold; to be labeled a sellout in the midst of a People’s War was tantamount to a death sentence. She and other concerned mothers shared their fears with an even more senior ANC figure – Albertina Sisulu, wife of Walter Sisulu, Nelson’s closest friend.
According to Jonny, Mrs. Sisulu smuggled a message to ANC leaders in Lusaka, but “they simply refused to believe what she was saying.” Not long after, Mrs. Sisulu’s house was burned down in what she believed was retaliation.
We can be fairly certain that Nelson knew nothing about any of this. Why? Because Jonny obtained a hitherto-secret trove of transcripts of his conversations with Winnie during her prison visits. Dudu Chili’s predicament was never mentioned, Mrs Sisulu’s likewise. And since no newspaper anywhere was covering this sort of thing, it seems safe to assume that Nelson was in the dark.
As the drama wore on, the extent of his ignorance deepened. In January 1987, police found a murder weapon hidden in Winnie’s home. A few months later, two terrified teenagers ran into a Soweto police station, claiming they’d just escaped from Winnie’s house where they’d been beaten and tortured on suspicion of being sellouts. Among their injuries were ANC slogans etched into their flesh with battery acid.
Around this time, I had an off-record conversation with Jon Qwelane, a respected journalist then working for the Johannesburg Star. He said Soweto was seething with rumours about Winnie and her footballers, who were said to be running kangaroo courts, raping schoolgirls and threatening anyone who questioned their activities.
Jon’s bosses at The Star wouldn’t touch these stories because they feared for their delivery fleet, and Jon was not inclined to argue because, as he said, reporters who lived in Soweto were likely to pay with their lives if they criticized the “Mother of the Nation.”
The same is not true of the security police, who had by then planted several spies in Winnie’s household. According to Jonny, they were in the process of building a 650-page docket on Winnie’s activities, but meanwhile, they didn’t even bother to question her about any of the crimes above – presumably because their political masters were even then planning to draw her husband into secret talks about a peaceful settlement.
In July 1988, Nelson was moved into a house on the grounds of Victor Verster prison, where he enjoyed the services of a butler. One of the first visitors in his new home was Winnie, who came to fill him in about the burning down of their Orlando West home.
According to a transcript obtained by Jonny, Winnie observed that the arson attack came two weeks after the famous “Free Mandela” concert in London, which attracted a global TV audience of 600 million. This was followed by a silence presumably filled with winks and glances intended to convey that the attack was an act of retaliation on the part of the apartheid state and its agents provocateurs. “It had to happen,” she said cryptically. Nelson replied, “No doubt.”
Alas, poor Nelson. He’d been had, but we’ll get to that later. For the moment, he had bigger fish to fry, because the move to Victor Verster was intended to create a venue where he and Pretoria spooks could meet in absolute secrecy. As part of the bargain, Nelson was allowed regular consultations with his own lawyers and advisers. It was they, says Jonny, who kept him abreast of events when a full-blown scandal erupted in January 1989.
As we all know, it began when Winnie was told that Methodist minister Paul Verryn was “teaching sodomy” to young comrades given shelter in his manse. This turned out to be untrue, but Winnie found the idea intolerable and sent her footballers to seize three suspects, who were bundled into her mini-bus and driven back to her home for “interrogation.” Also taken was Stompie Seipei, aged 14, an alleged police informer.
Prior to this, the footballers’ victims had been poor people with few resources, but as Jonny observes, the Methodist church was a powerful institution in South Africa. Bishops and their lawyers pressured Winnie to release her captives. When she declined, the matter was escalated to Oliver Tambo, who phoned from London to order her to cooperate with the church before things got out of hand.
Winnie responded that the boys were staying with her of their own volition. (By that point, says Jonny, she had indeed “integrated them into her household,” inter alia by ordering them to participate in yet another revolutionary execution in order to prove their loyalty.) But the pressure mounted, and Winnie was eventually forced to surrender the abductees to her lawyer, who handed them over to a Methodist bishop. One problem: young Stompie was missing.
Winnie claimed that Stompie had been released ahead of the others, and had recently been seen an ANC transit camp in Botswana, but this was a lie. The truth, as revealed at a secret meeting in a Soweto church hall on January 17, is that all four abductees had been savagely beaten in Winnie’s garage, an ordeal that left Stompie so badly injured that he could barely walk or talk. He was still alive when Jerry Richardson, the footballers’ coach, carried him away, but they feared he was almost certainly dead by now.
They were right. Two weeks later, Stompie’s corpse was found in a government mortuary, bearing the stigmata of a savage beating and a gaping hole in its throat. The evidence against Winnie was now so strong that leaders of the ANC’s internal wing, the United Democratic Front, decided they had no choice but to denounce her. At a press conference on February 17, she was condemned for her actions and expelled from all UDF structures.
Now, at last, Nelson had all the information he needed, but he didn’t believe it. The real purpose of all this, he wrote to Winnie on the day of her downfall, “is to destroy images, to sow divisions, and to bring the violence currently raging in Natal to the Witwatersrand. We must remain absolutely vigilant and do everything in our power to destroy this wicked plan.”
Why would Nelson take this position? As usual, Jonny toys with several possibilities. Maybe he was blinded by love. Maybe he genuinely believed that his wife was being framed. Maybe it was just a cold-blooded political calculation – Winnie had an enormous following, and the ANC couldn’t afford to lose her.
All that is clear is that he made sure Winnie was at his side on February 11th 1990, when the prison gates opened and he walked to freedom. She also accompanied him on the tumultuous overseas tours that followed.
The Mandelas were mobbed by huge crowds wherever they went, with the warmest reception coming in New York, where 750,000 fans turned out to hail Nelson as a messiah. One did not ask such a man if the wife at his side was a child murderer. According to Jonny, the only journalist who violated this taboo had his head bitten off for bad manners.
When the fuss at last died down, Nelson set forth as promised to counter “the wicked plan” that threatened his wife. As Jonny tells the story, his first objective was to restore Winnie’s good standing in the ANC.
This was accomplished, says Jonny, by corrupting the ANC’s democratic processes. This is a serious charge, but if you want details you’ll have to read the book. Suffice it here to say that he began by pressganging important leaders into helping him form an ANC branch that was willing to accept Winnie as its chair. After that, he and a squad of ANC heavies invaded a meeting and, um, helped the delegates understand it was their duty to elect Winnie to the ANC’s regional executive.
All that remained was to find her a place in the national leadership. Nelson had a mind to appoint her head of the ANC’s social welfare department. According to Jonny, 100-odd ANC branches objected, but they were ignored, and Nelson had his way. In just two months, he had turned his wife from a disgraced outcast into a major player in South Africa’s largest political party.
Was Winnie thankful? Not really. She’d taken up with 27-year-old Dali Mpofu while Nelson was still in prison. Indeed, Jonny reports that she took Dali to Cape Town with her on the day of Nelson’s release, arriving several hours late.
When the royal couple flew back to Johannesburg, she refused to sleep in the palatial accommodations arranged for them in the northern suburbs, preferring to return to Soweto on her own.
After that, she continued to see Dali under Nelson’s nose. One of Jonny’s sources describes dinner at the Mandela home in this period. The meal was punctuated by strained silences, ultimately broken by a ringing telephone. Nelson turned to Winnie and said, “It will be Dali. You should answer.”
Jonny spares us the gory details, but Winnie was probably with Dali on the night she came home with her pantyhose around her neck (or whatever). Nelson was so upset that he fled their marital home, but his support for Winnie continued.
After years of looking the other way, FW de Klerk’s government decided in September 1990 to prosecute Winnie for abducting and assaulting Stompie and his companions. Exactly why is hard to say.
The government claimed it had no choice but to act on incriminating evidence that came to light during the trial of Mandela United coach Jerry Richardson, who was convicted of murdering Stompie. According to Jonny, Nelson was more inclined to see it as an attacking move in his chess game with the apartheid state, intended to weaken his position in coming negotiations.
As the trial approached, Winnie’s defenders lined up several witnesses who were willing to state that she was in Brandfort at the time of Stompie’s ordeal. Once proceedings got underway, the judge was expected to weigh their evidence against that of the three surviving abductees.
In the Richmond murder trial, all three testified that they were seated on chairs in Winnie’s garage and told to await her arrival. A few minutes later, Winnie entered and asked them each one question. As Jonny tells it, she didn’t like their answers, so she slapped each of them in the face, hard, and said, “You are not fit to be alive.” At that, she walked out, and the bloody beatings began.
For whatever reason, Jonny omits a salient detail – according to the abductees, Winnie slashed some of them with a leather whip before leaving the room. But a slap is as good as a whipping from a legal point of view, and Winnie was clearly doomed if these stories were repeated at her own trial.
But that never happened. One of the abductees, Pelo Mekgwe, vanished after being taken from his home by “three ANC men.” On hearing this, the two remaining survivors refused to testify, saying they feared for their lives.
A fourth key witness, Katiza Cebekhulu, was one of the footballers sent to seize the abductees from the Methodist manse. He too was expected to testify that Winnie was in Soweto that day and participated in the ensuing interrogation. Before he could do so, however, he was picked up by ANC intelligence operatives and spirited off to Zambia, where he was imprisoned without charge until the trial was over.
Jonny is at pains to stress that there is no evidence that Nelson was directly involved in any of the shenanigans above, but as he observes, they can hardly have escaped his attention, and his silence suggests that they “implicitly carried his approval.”
And they almost worked. Stripped of its most important witnesses, the prosecution was unable to disprove Winnie’s alibi about being in Brandfort on the day in question. She was thus found not guilty of assault. Nelson found this immensely pleasing. “My faith has been vindicated,” he said. “I have never believed that (Winnie) assaulted anyone.”
As for Winnie’s conviction on the lesser charge of abduction, Nelson was sure it would be overturned on appeal. “The last word on this matter has not yet been spoken,” he concluded. “We trust that soon her name will be completely cleared.”
One night soon after, he got a call from Xoliswa Falati, one of Winnie’s many hangers-on, a co-accused in her trial, and a key supporter of her alibi. Falati said Winnie had barged into her room with a pistol in hand and was now throwing her belongings out into the Mandela’s back yard. Nelson raced to her side, only to find that Ruth Bhengu of The Sowetan already there, taking notes as Falati screamed about how she’d lied to protect Winnie and now look at her, treating me like a dog.
At this moment, says Jonny, Nelson still believed it was possible to save his wife, so he asked Bhengu to keep her mouth shut, and when that failed, tried to bully her editor into spiking the story. This was a huge error, because The Sowetan’s defiance prompted other journalists to start asking a dangerous question: why was Nelson so anxious to keep Falati quiet?
The British Sunday Times offered a partial explanation – Falati was telling anyone willing to listen that Winnie was in Soweto throughout Stompie’s ordeal. Once Falati broke ranks, two more defense witnesses joined her, and Winnie’s alibi was suddenly in tatters. Worse yet, the Christian Science Monitor unearthed evidence linking Winnie to the murder of Dr. Abubaker Asvat, who had allegedly advised her that Stompie’s injuries were so severe that he would die unless taken to hospital immediately. This was impossible under the circumstances, so Winnie allegedly hired an assassin to make sure Asvat never told his story.
These stories signaled something momentous – the invisible force field that had shielded the Mandelas from hostile scrutiny for decades had at last been disabled. Winnie had learned this already; now it was Nelson’s turn.
This is my interpretation, not Jonny’s, although he does quote an anonymous ANC leader who says Nelson’s behavior made him fear that his party had created a monster. “Inventing the figure of Nelson Mandela was among the most effective political strategies in history,” this leader declared. “Now it was on the brink of bringing the house down on our heads.”
This was a commonplace view in the upper echelons of the ANC, according to British journalist Emma Gilbey. She says most ANC leaders took the view that protecting Winnie had become dangerous, and that Nelson was “virtually alone” in disagreeing. This might explain why someone high up in the ANC decided it was time to sever the last ties between husband and wife.
This was accomplished by leaking Winnie’s famous letter to Dali Mpofu, the one where she oscillates between damning Dali for betraying her with other women and begging him to return to her bed. There was also a passage where she berated Dali for forsaking her at a time when the ANC was asking questions about all the welfare department money (R160,000) she’d lavished on him.
This was the end. Publicly humiliated beyond endurance, Nelson finalized his divorce and went on to fulfill his destiny, becoming state president in 1994 while Winnie receded at least temporarily into obscurity.
After his retirement, Nelson married Graca Machel, widow of Samora, the liberator of Mozambique. But Winnie remained an object of yearning. On his deathbed, according to Jonny, Nelson kept asking for her to come feed him. Winnie obliged, and she was holding his hand when he died.
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Alas, poor Nelson. His love for Winnie was a deep and mysterious thing, and it drove him to extremes that remain barely comprehensible. We’ve all been fools for love at some time, but he was more fool than most, considering how little he got for what he gave. All that remains is to apportion blame.
Jonny blames apartheid, portraying Nelson as an old-fashioned man whose sense of honour required him to do all he could to protect his wife. As for Winnie, Jonny makes much of her spell in solitary in the late 1960s and the tortures (mostly mental) inflicted on her by interrogators. In his estimation, these and other cruelties turned her into a hater, which is fair enough. But there is another factor that must be placed on the table.
One of the most striking things about Jonny’s book is that he keeps referring to Nelson and Winnie as actors, playing roles in a drama that required them to be paragons of courage and integrity and so on.
As Thabo Mbeki and others have acknowledged, their role was to embody the hardships of all black South Africans and they usually played it to perfection. And when they didn’t, it barely mattered, because deviations from the script were unthinkable.
Case in point: the arson attack on their Soweto home in July 1998. Unlike the various outrages that preceded it, this did not happen unseen, often in murky circumstances. It took place in broad daylight, with hundreds of participants and almost as many witnesses.
The attack was precipitated by the footballers’ habit of dragging schoolgirls off the street and forcing them to have sex in Winnie’s house. After one such incident too many, pupils from a nearby high school marched on the Mandela home and burned it down.
None of this appeared in any newspaper anywhere. The Washington Post attributed the attack to “vandals,” while CBS TV news blamed an amorphous “black gang.” The New York Times spoke of an unexplained “dispute” between Winnie’s young supporters and their rivals. The word rape was never mentioned, and the American TV network NBC sidestepped the truth entirely in a report that it took up more than half of that night’s prime-time newscast.
The segment began with a summation of Winnie’s life in struggle. Someone spun a conspiracy theory around the late arrival of the fire brigade. Then the revolutionary cleric Allan Boesak stepped in to declare that the attack was definitely masterminded by “the system.” In the end, NBC’s reporter knelt at Winnie’s feet and invited her to denounce this latest outrage upon her person by the apartheid state.
What does that do to one’s head? Seems to me you might conclude that you were above all laws and beyond reproach, so why bother to restrain yourself? Winnie didn’t. In fact, she and her footballers intensified their application of “fear as a political technology” in months to come.
In the first 20 months of their reign of terror, Winnie’s footballers were implicated in five murders, according to the findings of our Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After the fire, their kill rate soared. All told there were seven more killings – unreported by anyone – in the seven months leading up to the Stompie scandal, which put a conclusive end to Winnie’s immunity.
When Nelson emerged from prison a year later, he played his role to perfection, charming the entire planet with his noble bearing and Christ-like willingness to forgive those who had wronged him. But he too seemed to believe that he, like a god, was unbound by the constraints that governed ordinary mortals. How else do we interpret the enormous risks he took to shield his wife from the consequences of her actions?
Questions like this lead into territory where Jonny’s courage fails him, presumably because he chooses not to offend the mostly white communists who created the Mandela legend, and the mostly white journalists who protected and defended it. This publication will in due course return to this subject, but for now, let’s give the last word to Jonny.
In his account, Nelson and Winnie’s marriage was to some extent a tale of rivalry, because both believed they were born to rule. Winnie’s ordained role was to be Nelson’s queen, but she was also wont to challenge or undermine her husband, especially after the divorce, when she took to trashing him for the conciliatory line he’d taken in negotiations. He wanted peace, she wanted vengeance, and in the end, says Jonny, she won.
Jonny is right, at least in the sense that many young black South Africans now regard Nelson as a sellout, while Winnie’s name is on everyone’s lips, including those of her protégé Julius Malema, now leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, and the Fallist radicals who wreaked havoc on university campuses in 2016.
As always, Jonny examines this phenomenon from all angles. We are offered a Fallist poem which illumines the idea that Nelson “allowed whites to dictate the terms of a momentous transition, leaving their privilege unscathed.” In the next breath comes Julius Malema, opining that Nelson’s great error was to leave Winnie for the house of a rich white man where “they” had access to him 24 hours a day, and convinced him to betray “the fundamental principles of the revolution.”
Jonny is not one for firm conclusions but this quote comes fairly close: by the time Winnie died, he says, she had “broken the back of her former husband’s story, and it is doubtful that it will ever be mended.”
Ah well. What’s a white boy to do? There is much in this book to offend the woke, who will argue that it wounds Black people in their dignity. Writers who do things like that have to tread carefully lest they be cancelled. Reaching a fashionable conclusion might help Jonny avoid that fate. I hope so, because this is a landmark book.
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This article was published by Politicsweb and is republished with permission
This article first appeared on the Konsequent newsletter on Substack.
Cyril Ramaphosa: The Audio Biography
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