In 1958, she decided to get married. She may have thought at the time that she was getting married to one man. As it turned out, she was married to two – Mandela and the Struggle.
Winnie first met Mandela in 1957 at a bus stop in Soweto while he was still married to his first wife, Evelyn Mase. The relationship between Mandela and Evelyn was falling apart at the time and they eventually divorced in 1958. A short time later Mandela and Winnie tied the knot.
Her relationship with the second husband was something else. ‘She was a tremendous stalwart of our struggle, and icon of liberation’ in the words of Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, himself a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle.
The struggle was aimed at abolishing apartheid, an Afrikaans word for “separateness.” It has its origins in the Dutch language, with the “heid” part meaning hood for “apart-hood”. Politically, it was a system of government in which people of different races were separated.
No country in the world devoted as much of its energy and resources to racial segregation as South Africa under apartheid. It started with the first white settlement in South Africa on the Cape under the control of the Dutch East India company. The foothold established by Jan van Riebeck following his arrival with three ships on 6th April 1652 was usually taken in Afrikaner accounts to be the start of the ‘history’ of South Africa.
The Dutchmen who came to settle there began a systematic seizure of land from the black African population who originally owned the land through tricks and the use of brute force. Over the years, the maltreatment of the original African owners of the land was rationalised using the Calvanist Christian theology which defines the black race as sub-human descendants of those who were condemned by God to a life of slavery.
- Racial segregation and white supremacy thus became central aspects of South African policy. In 1913, the controversial Land Act was passed three years after South Africa gained its independence. This marked the beginning of territorial segregation by forcing black Africans to live in reserves and making it illegal for them to work as sharecroppers. Opponents of the Land Act formed the South African National Native Congress, which would become the African National Congress (ANC).
After the National Party gained power in South Africa in 1948, its all-white government immediately began enforcing existing policies of racial segregation under a system of legislation that it called apartheid. Under apartheid, nonwhite South Africans (a majority of the population) would be forced to live in separate areas from whites and use separate public facilities and contact between the two groups would be limited.
Nelson Mandela was already a well-known political figure, deeply immersed in the struggle against apartheid by the time of their marriage. While her husband was hounded by the government, Winnie began social action of her own, taking part in a protest against laws which restricted the movements of blacks in white areas. She along with several other activists, was arrested and decided to spend two weeks in jail without posting bail as a further protest, despite being pregnant with her first child at the time.
This marked the first activism she had taken part in away from her husband’s shadow.
In 1964 Mandela was jailed for life for his activism and the government began hounding Winnie in an attempt to demoralise him. Government security forces tortured her, tried locking her up, confined her to Johannesburg’s Soweto township, and then banished her to the desolate town of Brandfort, where her house was bombed twice.
She was allowed to visit her husband in prison rarely, and they were always divided by a glass screen. Throughout the height of apartheid, Winnie remained at the forefront of the struggle, urging students in the 1976 Soweto uprising to ‘fight to the end’.
But in the 1980s, the militant-martyr began to be seen as a liability for Mandela and the liberation movement. She had surrounded herself with a band of vigilante bodyguards called the Mandela United Football Club, who earned a terrifying reputation for violence.
Winnie was widely linked to ‘necklacing’, when suspected traitors were burnt alive using a petrol-soaked car tire which was put over their head and set alight. In 1986 she declared that ‘with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.’
Mandela was released from jail in 1990. I was in New Delhi India at the time and I screamed for joy as I watched on television Mandela complete his ‘long walk to freedom’ with Winnie at his side.
However, the couple soon ran into martial difficulties that were complicated when she was convicted in 1991 over the kidnapping and murder of Stompie Moeketsi, a 14-year-old boy. Moeketsi, who was accused of being an informer, was murdered by her bodyguards in 1989. She was initially jailed for kidnapping and assault, but her sentence was reduced to a fine.
Winnie and Mandela separated in 1992 amid rumors that Winnie was having an affair with one of her bodyguards and divorced in 1996.
Winnie denied involvement in any murders when she appeared before Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings.
‘She was a tremendous stalwart of our struggle, and icon of liberation – something went wrong, horribly, badly wrong,’ Tutu said as damning testimony implicated her.
She served as a deputy minister in President Mandela’s government, but was sacked for insubordination and eased out of the top ranks of the ruling party. After a 2003 conviction for fraud, she later rehabilitated her political career winning a seat in parliament in the 2009 elections. Hugely popular with ordinary South Africans, many of them still poor and unemployed, the “Mother of the Nation” continued to live in Soweto until her death at the age of 82.
At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu pressured her to apologise to Seipei’s mother and for other misdeeds she was accused of even as the old guards of the apartheid regime were let off the hook, despite many never having expressed remorse and spinning tales that the commissioners knew were not always true.
But her bitterness emerged in a 2010 newspaper interview, saying: ‘Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks.’
She also called Tutu a ‘cretin’ and the reconciliation process a ‘charade’, though she later claimed the quotes were never meant to be published
Despite it all, she was a regular visitor travelling from Soweto – where she still lived – to Mandela’s bedside in his final months, and she was present when he died.
He did not leave her anything in his will.
For remaining faithful to Nelson and the Struggle, Winnie was ultimately my winner.