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Rolling in the Deep: The evolving tragedy and triumphs of being a Mandela

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Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

Zoleka Mandela died. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was honoured. Both suffered and both prevailed.

On the day Zoleka Mandela died, aged 43, after a long struggle with cancer, William Nicol Drive in Johannesburg was renamed Winnie Mandela Drive, after her grandmother.

By some cosmic coincidence, the name of the once deputy chair of the mighty Afrikaner Broederbond was wiped out, to be replaced by a woman inexorably shaped and bullied by this country’s history.

There she is, remember her.

It was the 12-month-old Zoleka, daughter of Zindzi, whom Winnie smuggled into Robben Island maximum security prison in 1981 so she could be held by her grandfather, Nelson, who had not seen an infant or a child in the 18 years he had spent there. He was to spend nine more years in captivity.

Zoleka also passed through, in her short life, mighty rings of soul fire to find a semblance of wholeness, including the tragic death of two of her children; alcohol, drug and childhood sexual abuse; a string of failed relationships; and a tenacious cancer.

She bore her burdens with dignity and honesty right until the end – a warrior.

She grasped at happiness in those moments she was pain-free and ensconced with the surviving six of her eight children. The youngest, Zingce, was born in April 2022, a day before her mother’s 42nd birthday.

In 2010 Zoleka’s 13-year-old daughter Zenani died in a gruesome drunk-driving collision en route from a Fifa World Cup kick-off concert. She never forgave herself for a loss that cut her deeply. It also devastated the frail Mandela, who attended the funeral.

His advice to his granddaughter was to find strength as she was not the only one who had lost a child to a tragic accident. In July 1969, Mandela’s eldest son, Thembekile, aged 35, was killed in a fatal car crash in Touws River in the Western Cape.

Mandela, incarcerated on the island, was not allowed to attend his funeral.

Zoleka later fully accepted responsibility, noting that when Zenani died she had been in rehab, her life and spirit crushed. Her choice at the time of drugs over her daughter haunted her.

The death of her baby son, Zenawe, in 2011 from an infection he had contracted in utero was another blow to the young mother.

Her 2013 biography, When Hope Whispers (Jacana), is a searing account of the devastating impact of the politics of resistance in the family on her personal life and her state of mind.

Shaped by South Africa

The renaming of William Nicol Drive has not been without the usual drama so common to the reclaiming of time and space in this country.

The cost, R250,000, has been singled out for criticism by some, as has the choice to stamp Winnie Mandela on the landscape.

The cost to the Mandela family itself has been burdensome. Being part of political royalty brings with it many curses and burdens, as the Mandelas have discovered.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, as has so eloquently been set out in Jonny Steinberg’s biography of South Africa’s political royal couple, Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage (Jonathan Ball), is a product of South Africa.

Those parts of her that festered after her prolonged and brutal torture and solitary confinement by the apartheid state, the cruelty of it all and the rage it produced in Winnie, belong to history.

Winnie’s prison journal 491 Days, which was never conceived for publication, is an account of her time in illegal detention in 1969 and provides deep insight into the trauma. It was only published in 2013.

But her granddaughter’s book, as Winnie writes in the foreword, was one “born out of so much pain that it obscures my own experiences”. Zoleka’s struggle was monumental.

First family, warts and all

Zindzi, who was banished to Brandfort with her mother in 1977, died young at 59 in July 2020 from suspected Covid complications.

The relationship between mother and daughter, considering the turbulent and violent times, was complicated, as the young Zoleka was shunted between her beloved aunt Zenani, her mother and her grandmother.

These were often spaces and homes populated by those drawn to Winnie and those active in the armed resistance. It was an inspiring but also destructive and unsafe environment for all who inhabited it.

Through Zoleka’s eyes Winnie is granny, ever-present, ever-willing to help and bail her out and look after her. She is the matriarch of the family, the pockmarked pillar who held it all together while Zoleka’s grandfather lingered in jail for his political beliefs.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and all the Mandelas, are a part of this country’s political and emotional DNA and for this we should be reminded.

As popular historians Nick Dall and Mathew Blackman noted in Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa (Penguin Random House), Nicol, a dominee, had attempted to justify apartheid in a book he co-authored Regverdige Rasse-Apartheid (Just Racial Apartheid) in 1947.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Why is a major Jo’burg road still named after one of the worst racists in our history?

For years William Nicol has lived on in maps. Black South Africans have had to drive the road. Many of us had no idea who Nicol was, but to those who did, it must have caused offence each time. Now we all know.

To those opposed to the change of name, suck it up. However you choose to evaluate Winnie, in the end she is us; we are her. DM

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

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Nathan Meyer says:

    Oh the revisionist versions of history. I find the choice to present Winnie Mandela as an anti-hero intriguing. It seems impossible for South Africans to acknowledge that certain struggle heroes were not the heroes they claimed to be or we regarded them as. Certainly not worthy of street names.

    Let both her and Nicol be relegated to the history books, and let the focus be on the next generation of real heroes.

  • Lesley Green says:

    Inspired words. Thank you. Citizenship and dignity are born of stories like this.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    While I am happy that William Nicol no longer has his own street, lets face it, Winnie is a murderer that inspired people to necklace others. Sure, we have to “suck it up”, but I think it’s fine to be offended non the less and no, we are not Winnie the murderer and let’s ensure that history is not washed clean by a ruling party who loves to distract from their own failure and wholesale corruption and destruction with excuses and lies.

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