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Winnie Mandela, the other Mandela

Winnie Mandela, the other Mandela
12.12.2013 • South Africa •

Could Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife be the voice of this other South Africa, the one which accuses Madiba of having given in to the white population too much?

‘Nobody knows Mandela better than me’ liked to say Winnie Mandela. Figure of the South African political scene both worshipped and hated in turn, the ex-wife of the South African hero was also applauded by the crowd which had come to celebrate the former on Tuesday 10 December at Soweto.And on Twitter, some of her followers did not appreciate the fact Barack Obama seemed to ignore her.


Despite her seventy six years of age, her divorce and other pending matters, Winnie is still a member of the National Executive Committee, the chief executive organ of the ANC. But could she make a comeback now that her ex-husband has passed away? What does the one who for so long was celebrated by the black community as the ‘Mother of the Nation’ represent today?


Flashback. Court of Johannesburg, 14 May 1992. Nelson Mandela still believes his wife to be innocent, says he, but he did not deem it necessary to attend the conclusion of the trial in which she appears. Before announcing the sentence, the white judge describes her harshly as a ‘liar’, ‘without principle or shame’, who showed ‘no compassion whatsoever for the victims’.  She is sentenced to six years of imprisonment for kidnapping and complicity in the attacks carried out on several young men by her entourage, the Mandela United Football Club (MFUC) which also serves as recruitment office for the armed branch of the African National Congress (ANC, banned until 1990). It will have taken all the skill of Nelson Mandela’s old friend, the lawyer Georges Bizos, the collaboration of the public prosecutor of the Transvaal, and an alibi which has since then been questioned to spare her from being accused, and found guilty, of the murder of young Stompie Seipei. Later on, her prison sentence will be commuted to a heavy fine. The Mandela couple will not survive this scandal. A couple months later, Winnie leaves on a trip abroad with her young lover Dali Mpofu. It is an escapade too many. When she returns, Nelson Mandela moves out of the family home. The divorce is pronounced in 1996; Mandela has by then been president of South Africa for two years. In the meantime, Winnie is sentenced for embezzlement.

In fact, this marks not only a sentimental separation. It is also a political split.Since her husband’s liberation could Winnie be having trouble accepting the fact she no longer has the spotlight? From the start, she disapproves of her husband’s way of handling the negotiations, and accuses him of being too understanding when it comes to the president Frederik de Klerk whom she suspects of encouraging the deadly clashes which oppose the ANC with the Zulus of the Inkatha Freedom Party led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi who advocates a federal state, and does not exclude forming an alliance with the nationalist white party. And she claims it loud and clear. Yet, it is Nelson, the lawyer by 18 years her senior, a boxer in his free time who starts to politicize this young assistant, sociable, intelligent, even brilliant, with whom he is madly in love and whose father  – a chief of the Transkei – is on the contrary plays the game of the apartheid. The teaching period will be short. Married in 1958, Winnie and Nelson will barely live together. Thirty years later faced with his wife’s repeated slips Mandela wants to take his share of the responsibility. He blames himself of not having been there for her.In March 1961 with the launch of the armed force of the ANC and the first sabotage campaign, Nelson Mandela goes undercover. ‘He rarely saw Winnie and he was really crazy about her. He took enormous risks to see her as I often told him, but he could not help it, he suffered greatly from their being apart’, told me a former companion of arms, white and communist, Lionel Bernstein in 1989 at Lusaka (Zambia) where he was in exile, the ANC still being banned in South Africa.Nelson Mandela is arrested on 5 August 1962. ‘Part of my soul left with him that day’, will say Winnie Mandela. In 1964, he is found guilty of sabotage, treason and breach of national security during the Rivonia trial and he is sent to crack rocks for perpetuity at the penal colony of Robben Island. In prison, Nelson writes to Winnie: ‘These days I think a lot about you Dadewethu, my lady, comrade and mentor; while I write, your beautiful picture stands next to me less than a meter from my left shoulder. I dust it carefully every morning; it gives me the pleasant feeling of touching you like in the past.’

Everything about his 27 years in Robben Island and then on the continent has been said, and especially how Nelson Mandela (and his companions) managed to impress his prison guards and to transform that place into a centre of resistance against the apartheid.
By contrast, much less has been reported on everything Winnie had to go through. The white nationalist state whose system of repression was among the best of its kind at the time did not spare her anything.Pressures of all kinds: on her employers, on her daughters which she will send to Swaziland to study in the end; her small house of Orlando East in Soweto being stormed in the middle of the night, repeated threats; and then prison during 491 days in 1969 – she just published in 2013 a journal she kept at the time: vaginal searches, isolation, torture, humiliation…

With the uprising of students against the teaching of Afrikaans in 1976, Winnie takes on a new stature at a national level. The regime then puts her under house arrest for ten years. She is prohibited from staying in Soweto, and is confined to Bradford, her ‘little Siberia’, several hundred kilometres away in the very conservative state of Orange.‘It is at this point that I contacted her, recounts Alain Bockel, the cultural advisor of the French Embassy at the time. I had not told anyone about this meeting. And apart from a Norwegian official, none of the principal embassies had come to see her. She seemed very much alone.’The law forbids talking about Mandela. Neither pictures of him nor what he says can be published. If he continues to exist for South Africans and for the international community, it is in great part thanks to Winnie’s activism.
The campaign ‘Free Mandela’ is launched in 1980. Two years later, Mandela is transferred to the continent in the high security prison of Pollsmoor. In 1984, they will be allowed their first real meeting.  Winnie appears then as the agent of the leader’s words and guidelines.

Alain Bockel relates: ‘She explained to me at length that there was no question of South Africa repeating the mistakes of the African revolutions at the time of the Independences. Clearly, she had discussed it with Nelson Mandela and had been instructed to pass on the message.’
The Glasgow Herald wrote in 1985:
 ‘They can write pop songs about Nelson Mandela the freedom fighter all they want (…) but his wife is just as important in the eyes of the South Africans, and increasingly so.’

However, Willie is also the Achilles heel of the white government’s enemy number 1. Her infidelity has been minutely fed to Mandela by the prison authorities by means of newspaper cuttings mentioning his wife’s affairs. Furthermore, some of her statements are not exactly in line with Mandela’s ideas: for instance when she advocate in 1985 the use of the ‘ordeal of the necklace’, a tire doused in fuel placed around the neck, for the ‘traitors’ (black people who worked for the police, and of whom Winnie has an obsessive fear because of the great number of infiltrations in her inner circle). Several hundred supposed ‘snitches’ will die in this manner in the 80s, sometimes the victims of rumours or a settling of scores more than actually ‘collaborating’.

It is at the time of Mandela’s prostate operation in 1985 (the authorities were then very afraid Nelson Mandela would die in prison) that Winnie travels in the same plane as the Minister of Justice, Kobie Coetsee. She would have convinced him at that point of paying her husband a visit. The secret negotiations between the nationalist government and Nelson Mandela begin. The latter is soon set up in the comfortable house with a pool of the prison director Victor Vester, close to Cape Town. Niel Barnard, the chief of the South African secret service, offers Winnie to come join him. She refuses categorically.

When did this change in Winnie take place? When did she ‘switch off’? Her stay in prison in 1969 indisputably constitutes a break. After that from the mid-80s, very popular, sponsored, did she become conceited? Did she sink into a paranoiac frenzy – not entirely unjustified – which led her to see enemies all over the place like so many other powerful men (and women)? What part did alcohol play in this downward spiral?

Informed by several high executives of the ANC of the abuses of the Mandela Football Club and his wife, and specifically the murder of the young ‘comrade’, Stompie Seipei, and the assassination of the last doctor to examine him, Dr. Abu-Bakr Asvat, Mandela gets angry, but cannot get Winnie to listen. More and more she is playing her own game. A certain jealousy notwithstanding, the executives of the antiapartheid movement are exasperated. ‘She only does what she wants’, complains the President of the Civic Association of Soweto, Isaac Mogase, a kind of ‘mayor of the shadows’ who confides in a French priest living in Soweto, Emmanuel Laffont who will sometimes act as a mediator.
Just before Nelson Mandela’s release, the situation is so tense that some of the high executives lobby for Nelson Mandela not to exit the prison, on 11 February 1990, with Winnie by his side. He refuses and pays a solemn homage to his wife.

Coincidently, the man of the secret service of the ANC in exile, and then of the government of the new South Africa, Joe Nhlanhla who had gotten to known Mandela in the 1950s, becomes her personal chaperon.While Winnie holds certain positions (at the head of the ANC Women’s League and then in the government), she repeatedly criticises the negotiation process of which she is excluded, and denounces the compromises and the elitism of the leaders. She then refutes the legitimacy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission put in place in 1995, in front of which she appears but barely gives away a thing. She occasionally seems close to the Black Consciousness Movement. She has very harsh words for Nelson Mandela whom she accuses of having sold off the final deal. In 2010 she hammers: ‘The economy is still mostly white (…) so many (Blacks) gave their lives for the struggle and died without being rewarded’And that is why Winnie Mandela cannot be ignored today.

As paradoxical as it may be, she represents these South Africans, mostly black, who blame Nelson Mandela of having given in to the interests of the Whites too much. Admittedly a new middle class, the ‘black diamonds’ arose, but twenty years have gone by since the election of the first black president in 1994, yet almost half of the Blacks under 30 are unemployed and the average income of the Whites remains six times higher than that of the Blacks.

This is also what denounces a figure of increasing importance in the South African political scene, Julius Malema, who at the head of the ANC Youth League confronted the old guard a little bit like Nelson Mandela did in the 50s. This 32 year old populist politician who is involved in various shady financial affairs denounced ‘American imperialism’, pronounced statements that were in effect calls for the murder of white farmers, supported Robert Mugabe’s politics in Zimbabwe, and advocated the nationalisation of mines.

Suspended from the ANC for five years in 2012, a Hugo Chavez style red beret stuck on his head, Julius Malema has just founded the Economic Freedom Fighters’ party (EFF). End of November he paid a strong albeit ambiguous homage to Winnie Mandela:
‘If we had all the power, we should make her our president before she dies. If we do not honour Winnie, it means the apartheid propaganda succeeded.’

In South Africa, there are also those who criticise Nelson Mandela’s reconciliation policy. They even reproach him sometimes in veiled accusations of having ‘robbed them of a revolution’. They are far from being fringe elements. In that struggle, the icon Winnie, the other Mandela, serves their purpose.
Ariane Bonzon
Translation: Suzanne Compagnon
Photo: DR

Original french version :
Winnie Mandela, l’autre Mandela

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