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Remembering Nonzamo Winnie Mandela

‘Part of her soul is still with him’

Her 1984 autobiography was named ‘Part of my soul..’, but the full sentence is ‘Part of my soul went with him’  and is the title of the book’s last chapter.  It is all about Winnie’s struggles against apartheid, as well as her love and marriage to the man who epitomised the anti-apartheid struggle.

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The book is about her personal tribulations and how she fought to keep the struggle alive when Nelson Mandela was in prison. When I saw Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, at close range, on January 22nd this year, the one thing that struck me about this legendary freedom fighter, was that part of her soul is still ruled by her ex-husband.

We met at her diplomatic suite,  at the Transcorp Hilton hotel where we had a noon interview appointment. And when our Editor- in- chief introduced me as someone who had reported South Africa for the BBC, Winnie Mandela’s first response was ‘Really, are you one of those I fought with?’ She asked with a smile. ‘No, but I reported your resignation from ministerial position.’ I replied. 

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‘That far back?’ she asked again. ‘Yes, we lived in South Africa between 1994 and 95.’ She nodded with another smile before our interview commenced. I could not help noticing that twice during our 90-minute interview, Winnie had referred to her ex-husband as ‘Zindzi’s father’, each time with down cast eyes. The woman in me could not help thinking ‘Does it still hurt, after all these years?’

I immediately recalled that even at the Annual Trust Dialogue, the day before, she had referred to him as Comrade Nelson Mandela, when she attributed a quote to him in her presentation. What political correctness!

The reference to South Africa’s former president and anti-apartheid hero, Mandela, had been purely accidental, we had been warned before hand to keep off personal and controversial issues, just before she joined us for the interview and we were willing to oblige. But it was in the course of answering our questions that she was forced to say ‘ ..then Zindzi’s father was in prison’ and a similar short reference afterwards. Both times the woman in me heard more than the words being said, I felt her pain. Who was it that said ‘love is the whole story of a woman’s life, but an episode in a man’s’?

But it wasn’t all a soppy session with Winnie playing the hurt heroin, far from that, it was a very interesting session, where the great African matriarch talked to us with such warmth and composure that one finds it hard to reconcile with her reputed image of a fiery freedom fighter. 

Looking radiantly beautiful in her elegantly embroidered yellow brocade and a three-layered string of pearls, I tried to imagine how she must have looked fifty years ago, when Mandela passed her by at a bus stop and was immediately stricken by her beauty.

He had to fight every urge to turn back his car and offer her a lift, that evening. But he could not believe his luck when a few days later, Winnie was introduced to him by his friend and colleague Oliver Tambo. 

According to Winnie’s biographer Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob, in the book “Winnie Mandela: A life”, Nelson Mandela often said afterwards, that he didn’t know whether such a thing as love-at-first-sight existed but he knew from the moment she was introduced to him that he wanted Winnie for a wife.

And Mandela’s feelings were almost instantly returned, with Winnie not only flattered that she had caught the attentions of the very famous anti-apartheid crusader, but also willing to waive away the 18 odd years between them by allowing herself to be swept off her feet by him. She had no idea at the time that her existing suitor, the very royal Chief Kaiser Matanzima, was Mandela’s first cousin. When they all found out, according to Bezdrob, it led to an unpleasant confrontation between Matanzima and Mandela.  

“But as the older and more senior man in tribal rank, Mandela prevailed. Kaiser abandoned his pursuit of Winnie, though not without bitterness, and Mandela turned the full force of his attentions on her, in a way that left no doubt as to his intentions.” Page 60.

But Winnie was equally smitten. So deeply in love was she that she didn’t mind at all that his marriage proposal was done in a very unconventional way. One day in March 1957, Mandela was driving Winnie home after a picnic on a farm in Johannesburg.

Suddenly he stopped by the side of the road and said to her that he knew a seamstress who would make her a wedding gown, so Winnie should go and see her. Winnie was too much in love to care that no one was asking her opinion on the subject. 

At this point I instantly remembered the equally unconventional way, Malcolm X had asked Sister Betty to marry him, and couldn’t help wondering whether all men of superior mission, in life, have a problem popping that all-important question. About a year after Mandela’s proposal to Winnie, Malcolm, in faraway US had travelled home to Detroit to visit his brother Wilfred. Wilfred was the first member of their family to become a Muslim.

While there, Malcolm’s thoughts were of Sister Betty, a nurse and member of the Nation of Islam. Having made up his mind that if one wanted to do something he might as well do it, Malcolm placed a call to Betty in Chicago. When she picked up the call and said ‘Hello, Brother Minister’, he had simply answered ‘Look, do you want to get married?’ When she said ‘yes’, after a little hesitation, he had told her that he didn’t have much time so she had better catch a plane to Detroit.

Winnie and Mandela’s marriage took place several months after his unusual proposition. So happy was she during the traditional wedding, at her father’s home, that when an aspect of it demanded that she cried because she was leaving home, Winnie just couldn’t fulfil  that rite. She was asked to pretend in order to satisfy the elders, but Winnie could find no place in her heart for tears on her special day. 

Earlier, when she travelled home to seek her parent’s permission to marry Mandela, her father and stepmother had done all they could to dissuade her from such a dangerous mission. They told her that Mandela was standing trial for treason, that he could go to jail for life, that his first marriage failed because it couldn’t stand the strain of his political struggles, but Winnie would hear no such pleas. In the end, they had to give their blessings. 

Indeed the only reason Winnie went alone to seek that permission was because Mandela was banned from travelling anywhere outside Johannesburg by the apartheid courts. He was eventually given just four days to attend his own wedding, a traditional affair that usually lasted a week, especially when both families were royal, as in their case.

Recalling all this, after my encounter with Winnie last month, I had to wonder exactly what went wrong in this most enchanting of love stories. A love that couldn’t be killed by 27-year absence crumbled in just two years of re-union. 

Of course there were all sorts of tales to justify the collapse of their marriage but like Bala Muhammad argued (he of the Saturday column fame) whatever was Winnie’s sin, she deserved to be forgiven, if Mandela could find it in his heart to forgive his White oppressors.

Perhaps that is the stuff of all celebrated love stories, to either end unhappily or in tragedy. Here one can cite, Charles and Diana, Winnie and Nelson, Malcolm and Betty, Martin Luther and Coretta Scott-King and of course haunting fairy tale of Romeo and Juliet. 

As I walked out of Winnie’s Transcorp suite, after a photo session that showed me another warm and motherly side to Winnie, I had only her daughter’s words to console me over her undying love and pain. Zindzi had invited me to South Africa to join them in celebrating the 20th anniversary of her father’s freedom on February 11th. She said they were planning some big celebration. I asked her whether her mother and father will be there together, and she answered.

‘Mama and Papa are always together during our family celebrations. When he is here’, she indicated her right side, ‘Mama will be here’ she showed her left side. I felt comforted somehow.


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