Nelson Mandela and Winnie – portrait of a marriage

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

Nelson and Winnie Mandela on their wedding day in 1958

Nelson and Winnie Mandela on their wedding day in 1958 Photo: REX FEATURES

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s