We are Winnie and Nelson; Nelson and Winnie are us – a nation’s pain and triumph

We are Winnie and Nelson; Nelson and Winnie are us – a nation’s pain and triumph
South African anti-apartheid activists Winnie Mandela (1936 - 2018) and Nelson Mandela (1918 - 2013) wave to supporters near the intersection of 125th Street and 7th Avenue, in Harlem, New York, New York, 21 June 1990. (Photo: Shawn Walker / Getty Images)

Apartheid blighted the souls of everyone it touched, and none more so than the Mandela couple.

Author Jonny Steinberg’s magisterial Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage, which has just been published, locates South Africa’s iconic political couple as the embodiment of the violence and hatred as well as the grace and wisdom that shaped their lives and the history of the country.

There is a major teaching moment in Steinberg’s deeply sensitive excavation of the excruciating private lives of Winnie and Nelson Mandela.

The couple now belongs to “the angels and the ages”, as a grieving Edwin Stanton said of Abraham Lincoln after the 16th US president’s assassination in 1865.

Steinberg has enabled us to see Winnie and Nelson more fully now, with all their human frailties and faults. Though there may be many who will be of the view that Winnie does not deserve a place among the angels, then neither does Nelson.

Now that the depths of their domestic lives, with its searing pains, betrayals and considerable losses, have been so gently and lovingly revealed for all to see, we must hold Winnie and Nelson, Nelson and Winnie, differently in our hearts and minds. We must afford them both the deep respect and their rightful places in history, no matter how flawed.

They embody this country so fully that to diminish them in any way would be to continue to shrink ourselves and our souls. It would also be to dishonour the considerable sacrifices of these two leaders and others who birthed democratic South Africa.

A hatred never unlearned

Though it is not the first time we hear Winnie talk about hatred, the context of all that Steinberg recounts is what throws what she says here into stark relief.

In 1984, he writes, Winnie gave an interview to filmmaker Peter Davis. Outside, the civil war was flaring and growing.

Winnie brought up, unprompted, Theuns Jacobus “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel, one of the most prominent members of the infamous security police, who was attached to the “Sabotage Squad”.

He took delight in torturing Winnie, including during her record 491 days in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison, after she was arrested in 1969.

It was Swanepoel who issued the order on 16 June 1976 for police to open fire on student protestors, and it was he who meted out extreme sadism and cruelty in the name of “national security” to many anti-apartheid activists.

It was hatred that underpinned, nourished, sustained and drove the apartheid state for 48 years, cosmetic denials aside. And it was that hatred that revealed itself, naked and raw, to a battered and broken Winnie.

She told Davis: “It was [through Swanepoel] that I discovered the type of hate I had never before encountered in my life … He taught me how to hate him [back] … by the end of my interrogation, I knew that if my own father or brother walked in … and was on the other side … if I had a gun … I would fire.”

And it is to this moment that white South Africa should return.

Winnie and what was to become of her – what she embodied in the worst parts of herself – was a creation and reflection of ourselves and the government that represented the white minority.

Many will not be able to stomach it: the mirror too frightening, the shadow too large.

But Winnie’s shadow casts itself far wider and, in fact, touches all who live in it, past and present. The cruelty, too, meted out in her orbit – Stompie Seipei her most famous victim – lurks there.

Apartheid was a dragon that misshaped the souls of everyone it touched. It was a crime against humanity.

Longing and growing apart  

Nelson Mandela, dispossessed of his freedom and agency as a political leader and family patriarch, and marooned by his captors on Robben Island, grew to become somewhat of a myth, a legend.

The presence of his absence was inspirational, gave fire to the soul of resistance, until his memory faded, as planned, and a new generation turned to the other famous Mandela, Winnie.

While Winnie, other political leaders and activists and the masses dealt with the full physical force of apartheid, Nelson found himself trapped behind bars, where young white men barked orders in a world entirely not of his making. Inside and out.

To unmake this brutal reality and create a semblance of sanity for himself, Nelson did two things. He relied on his self-discipline and continued his political mission, and he began to enter the minds and hearts of his enemy. His comrades were there, sure, but that was common ground.

Steinberg unpacks his often agonised interior world and how he sustained himself between threads of fantasy of his life with Winnie and the ordinary couple they might have been. As the author points out, some of Nelson’s letters to Winnie are so beautifully naive in their prose that they appear juvenile.

But it was also this Winnie whom he had to encounter behind glass during her visits, and this same Winnie to whom he wrote and with whom he grew increasingly disillusioned.

It was this Winnie who deeply wounded him as a leader and patriarch when she flaunted her young lover, Dali Mpofu, whom she brought along to accompany her on the day the world’s most famous prisoner was to be released in February 1990.

The delay in Nelson’s appearance was caused by Winnie’s refusal to fly on a chartered jet because Murphy Morobe of the Mandela Crisis Committee, set up to distance itself from Winnie, was onboard.

When Nelson gave that speech from the balcony of the City Hall in Cape Town as a free man, wearing Winnie’s reading glasses, Mpofu too was there. We could not have known what was in Nelson’s heart.

Steinberg writes of the contempt that many young, black South Africans have grown to feel for Nelson, as captured in the lines of a 1994 poem by Koleka Putuma: “I want someone who is going to look at me / and love me / the way white people look at / and love / Mandela.”

Steinberg notes that the poem’s anger is directed at white people for whom Nelson had become “a talisman” and gives expression to the notion that “a small minority had dictated the terms of a momentous transition”. The notion of Nelson as an old man who had lost it and was a sellout began to grow and to some extent remains.

“Most profoundly,” writes Steinberg, “when young black people looked for a usable past, they increasingly turned their gaze from Nelson, searching for figures who had been suppressed like Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe, and, indeed, Winnie Mandela.”

Nelson Mandela, in his fullness, becomes an even greater South African hero thanks to Steinberg’s work. Winnie’s legacy too remains, but as a reminder that “the evil that men (and women do), lives after them, while the good is interred with their bones”.

Could we prove even Shakespeare wrong? We must. We are exceptional, after all. DM

Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage is published by Penguin Random House.

Marianne Thamm is assistant editor of Daily Maverick.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

home delivery

Say hello to DM168 home delivery

Get your favourite newspaper delivered to your doorstep every weekend.

Delivery is available in Gauteng, the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Eastern Cape.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.