South Africa


Brandfort: Place of hollow forgetting and shallow remembering 

Winnie Mandela's renovated but deserted house in Brandfrort. (Photo: Marianne Thamm)

Brandfort in the Free State has a rich and painful history. It is where Winnie Mandela and Hendrik Verwoerd intersect in time and space, where the British set up concentration camps during the Boer war. It was also home to our early ancestors.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

“Phathakahle” (handle with care) is what the residents once named the township at Brandfort, the Free State town that is now the centre of a controversy over its name change to Winnie Mandela.

Signs have been defaced, roads closed and ANC officials made to feel unwelcome, not only in the crumbling dorp but the untarred streets of Majwamasweu township, as it is known today.

Banishment to Brandfort in 1977, wrote Winnie Madikizela Mandela, was a last act by the apartheid authorities “to bury me forever”.

Instead, it was she who put the town on international map when authorities dumped her there from Soweto with her belongings outside house 808 Mothupi Street.

Town with no name…Home to Winnie Mandela in banishment. (Photo: Marianne Thamm)

Before that, Brandfort was written up in history books as the town where, during the Second Anglo-Boer war, the British set up a concentration camp for white Afrikaner women and children at Dwyersdorp — as well as a second at Nooitgedacht for black South Africans caught up in the war. 

The mortality rate was particularly high. The camp cemetery was declared a national monument in 1985 and currently holds Provincial Heritage Site status.

Hendrik Verwoerd, a man who has come to embody apartheid and its ruthless application by the National Party he led, lived for a short while in Brandfort. In fact, he completed high school there in 1919.

The Dutch-born Verwoerd’s parents had opted to move to South Africa because of their sympathies with the “Boer nation”. Verwoerd’s father, Wilhelmus Johannes Verwoerd, was an assistant evangelist in the Dutch Reformed Church and took up a position in Brandfort.

About 46km to the West of Brandfort is Florisbad, a Middle Stone-Age hominid  site. A skull found at the site in 1932 is regarded as an important ancestral human fossil.

The town is located in the Lejweleputswa (grey rock) region of the Free State and was founded in 1866.

While there are many competing ghosts of history that swirl about Brandfort, it might be time for them all to do some work for the wretched living and help spark and revive tourism to the historic area.

Brandfort main drag with Wynie’s Meals on Wheels. (Photo: Marianne Thamm)

Verwoerd, however, can be left to his acolytes who flock to visit his shrine, the white “volkstaat” of Orania, just across the border in Northern Cape.

Winnie’s house, after years of neglect, has finally been renovated with R14 million set aside for a museum project. The freshly painted three-roomed house stands empty, deserted and forlorn.

The “museum” is devoid of artefacts or any trace of Winnie Madikizela Mandela. The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) is investigating complaints that money was siphoned off by officials and contractors.

What could potentially be a sustainable income-earning asset for the township and the town itself lies unutilised and wasted.

The Boston Globe in 1982 on Winnie’s banishment to Brandfort.

Petty political infighting has seen Winnie Mandela’s name become the focus of a pushback from both black and white residents of the town, who say the ANC-run municipality’s lack of service delivery over the years does her name a dishonour.

The DA, meanwhile, has said it is not against the name change, just the manner in which the ANC forced it on residents without consultation.

Three attempts to unveil the new name have been scuppered.

“If you keep pounding and pounding on the same spot the feeling dies, the nerves die,” wrote Winnie Mandela in the Epilogue of the 2012 publication of her memoir 491 Days.

Since her death in 2018, Winnie Mandela and her legacy have been claimed by the EFF but the party to whom she dedicated her life, the ANC, has been less enthusiastic.

The pounding Winnie’s memory has received from ANC appears to have “killed” the feeling it should have for one of its most committed members.

The newly refurbished house of late struggle icon Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in Brandfort, Free State during a visit on Sunday 12 January. The refurbishment of the house, which is meant to be turned into a heritage site, began in 2005 — 16 years later it remains unfinished. (Photo: Ayanda Mthethwa)

Madikizela-Mandela was a complex woman, a fighter who faced solitary confinement, Stratcom dirty tricks, consistent harassment, arrest and banishment for her role in the struggle inside South Africa.

Winnie’s greatest flaw was that she was a bad judge of character and trusted too many people who turned out to be either state plants, charlatans or chancers using their proximity to her for their own ends.

On the day Daily Maverick passed through Brandfort, a large marquee which had been erected for the official ribbon cutting of the name change was being torn down after the event was cancelled.

In August 2021, Nathi Mthethwa, Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, gazetted the name change of Brandfort to Winnie Mandela. 

In her memoir, Madikizela-Mandela recalled: “I was never as active as in Brandfort.”

The then wife of one of the world’s most famous political prisoners, Nelson Mandela, wrote that while “I presented a public picture that I was in banishment and the international community was singing our name all over the world, I recruited from the Free State like you have never known”.

This fighting spirit encapsulated Winnie’s life in a landscape where apartheid laws followed her even in her dreams.

This is said to be the hill from where the apartheid police would watch Winnie Mandela after she was banished in the late 1970s. (Photo: Ayanda Mthethwa)

In Brandfort, Winnie faced the danger and the thrill of outwitting the security police minders who monitored her every move, so dangerous was she considered to be.

“Because I was under house arrest in Brandfort, I had to sign in every day at 6pm. Especially over weekends, I would sign in at 6pm and then get back to the house, change, dress like an auntie who was selling apples and get into the car, a different car. I sometimes went to Soweto.”

The image of Winnie passing for “an auntie” is too good not to savour.

About a three-hour drive away, in Soweto, Winnie “recruited through the night”.

“At about 5am I was back on my bed, sleeping and they always came to check around 5.30am. By 6am they are in front of the house to see if i was going to get up and I would go out the toilets were outside and stretch myself. I would act as if I had been sleeping meanwhile, I had been in Soweto the whole night. They taught us to do things like that. We really became criminals.”

In the end, she wrote those who fought “for their own positions” had fought “differently from us” from Tambo, Mandela, Sisulu and Hani.

Meanwhile, the Public Protector has asked the Hawks, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, to investigate Eastern Cape ANC mayor Oscar Mabuyane for allegedly siphoning R450,000 from the R1 million set aside for Madikizela-Mandela’s memorial service.

The neglect of Winnie’s Mandela’s legacy, the lack of commitment to honoring her memory, in Brandfort and elsewhere, as well as the alleged misappropriation of funds for a memorial in her home province of Bizana, reveals the ANC’s shallow remembering and hollow forgetting of a struggle icon.

Think of her what you will, Winnie Mandela found herself in the eye of a political storm and bore the targeted and cruel harassment of the state with inspirational resistance.

“Throughout the years of oppression, I think my feelings got blunted because you were so tortured that the pain reached a threshold where you could not feel pain anymore. If you keep pounding and pounding on the same spot the feeling dies, the nerves die. I can feel us sliding back right now,” said Winnie Mandela 2012. DM


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