For those who have always thought ill (as I once did) of Nelson Mandela for divorcing Winnie, I have done a bit of research and of all the articles I read, I found this to be quite engaging.
Read and draw your conclusions.
A shy beauty turned volatile gang leader, Winifred Madikizela was a source of pride and despair to her husband
When Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela married Nelson Mandela on June 14 1958, the bride’s father warned his daughter: “If your man is a wizard then you must become a witch.” His words turned out to be eerily prophetic.
The marriage between the world’s most famous political prisoner and the South African liberation movement’s First Lady lasted 32 years, most of it conducted in parallel worlds. For, within 20 months of the wedding, Mandela, already the father of two daughters, was arrested for treason and began an exile that would take him underground and then to prison for 27 years. By the time he re-emerged in February 1990, the world – and Winnie – had changed, and within two years the end of the marriage was announced by a grim-faced Nelson at a press conference in front of the world’s media.
Over those three decades Winnie had metamorphosed from “shy country girl”, as she once described herself to me, to political firebrand and international celebrity, to street criminal and enemy of her own people, and later to populist politician with no portfolio.
Throughout all of this she remained pretty much the same person, for, as the South African political commentator Allister Sparks said: “The essential qualities – her imperiousness, her wilfulness, the combative and survivalist spirit – that helped her get through the hard years also brought about her downfall.” What had been admirable defiance of the apartheid regime in the Sixties and Seventies turned into a complete disregard for law and order as she unleashed her gang of street thugs – known as the Mandela United Football Club – on the people of Soweto in the Eighties.
This trajectory from political widow and defiant anti-apartheid activist to gangland leader appeared part-Shakespearean drama and part-political soap opera. In the early days, Winnie’s rebellion against the arrests, banning orders and daily police harassment visited on her by the South African government kept the Mandela name in the international press at a time when her husband had been effectively silenced on Robben Island. The South African government’s response was to try to remove her from the public spotlight, and in 1977 she was banished to a fly‑blown Afrikaans town called Brandfort.
In fact, her exile in Brandfort had the opposite effect. Beautiful and banished, she attracted the attention of the world’s press and a procession of international celebrities, from Ted Kennedy to Dickie Attenborough. They came to pay their respects to Mama Wethu, the Mother of the Nation, but such pilgrimages were invariably accompanied by a host of journalists.
It was also in Brandfort, according to her young lover at the time, MK Malefane, that she began drinking heavily; and with that came wild, erratic behaviour that was hidden from public view and ignored by those around her. Malefane described one occasion when he turned the garden hose on her to help sober her up before Ted Kennedy and his entourage arrived.
Contact with Nelson was infrequent – she was allowed one or two visits a year to Robben Island, and not many more when he was moved to Pollsmoor on the mainland – but the letters flowed; and it was in these epistles that Nelson displayed the compassion that marked his character throughout his life. He expressed all the usual concern that a husband and father would for his wife and children, and blamed himself for his enforced and prolonged absence. He was also gracious in letters to the lover Malefane and thanked him for holding the Mandela family together in times of great stress. In one letter to Malefane, Nelson acknowledged that Winnie’s erratic behaviour was a serious problem and urged him to stay on in Brandfort to continue his vital, if unorthodox, role in the family.
By the mid-Eighties the South African government was beginning to make overtures to Mandela, and he was able to ask the then justice minister to allow Winnie to return from exile. It turned out to be a fateful request, for the erratic and sometimes violent behaviour she had displayed in Brandfort was now to reveal itself in more criminal form in late Eighties Soweto. This was a time of great social upheaval, and, in the gathering gloom of an increasingly lawless black township, Winnie assembled her army of hoodlums and delinquents to terrorise the very people she was claiming to represent .
At the height of the Mandela United excesses the government was preparing the path for a lifting of the ANC ban and the release of political prisoners. Winnie’s unchecked public statements – “we will liberate this country” with “our boxes of matches and our necklaces” was the most flagrant – were counterproductive. Both sides were aware of Winnie’s activities with her gang of thugs and both were aware of the political implications. Thus, the government hesitated to prosecute her, while Mandela engaged in a flurry of messages from his prison cell to the ANC leader-in-exile, Oliver Tambo, who was in the Zambian capital, Lusaka.
In his evidence to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission a senior police officer said that although the police at the end of the apartheid era had compiled a list of 30 crimes they believed Winnie had committed – from high treason to murder – the attorney general had refused to prosecute her because she was regarded as “untouchable”.
One family friend told me that just before his release in 1990, Nelson summoned Winnie and his youngest daughter, Zindzi, to his rooms in Victor Verster prison. He sat them down and said he knew about every lover, every beating, every abduction, every crime Winnie had committed, and that he wanted to put it behind them because they had a momentous task facing them. Zindzi was so moved that she burst into tears. Winnie denied everything.
Matters did not improve after Mandela’s release. The image we remember is of the apparently heroic couple making that walk to freedom, hand-in-hand, fists raised in unison. But even in those first few days of freedom Winnie was flaunting her lover of the time, a young lawyer by the name of Dali Mpofu. Mandela told his associates that while he had not expected Winnie to be celibate while he was in prison, he did expect her to be discreet.
Even as their marriage was heading for the rocks, Mandela publicly supported his errant wife. When she was tried in 1991 for assault and abduction, he arranged for his old friend George Bizos to lead the defence team, attending the trial regularly, following proceedings carefully and emerging at lunchtime at Winnie’s side, publicly defending his wife. What the public did not know was that Mandela refused to attend the consultations between lawyer and client because Winnie insisted on having Dali Mpofu with her. Mandela was later to admit that this was the loneliest period of his life.
The Mandelas were formally divorced in 1996 after 38 years of marriage. Winnie took the name Madikizela-Mandela and Nelson found happiness in his later years with Graça Machel, the regal and gracious widow of Mozambique’s former president, Samora Machel.
As for Winnie, she is still out there raising her fist in the political margins, to the eternal applause of the dispossessed masses. She may feel that her day is yet to come. But as the curtain falls on Nelson’s life, there is no doubt which Mandela will be remembered with unalloyed admiration.
Graham Boynton is the author of ‘Last Days in Cloud Cuckoo Land’, a history of the end of white rule in colonial Africa.