When the ashes of his marriage had grown cold, Nelson Mandela once spoke sorrowfully of how his wife let him down. Not once since his release from prison, he said, had Winnie Mandela ‘ever entered my bedroom while I was awake’.
The truth was that Winnie, who died last week, had long abandoned her husband, but never did she abandon, or even deviate from, her deeply held convictions.
To many, that’s the best that can be said of the woman they called Mama Winnie. I was the last person to interview her before illness forced her to withdraw from public life 18 months ago, and I can attest that she was as combative as ever; speaking with the same burning ferocity as she did as a fearless young resistance fighter in the apartheid days.
It is little wonder that her death unleashed such a tangle of emotions. This was a woman who had suffered torture, solitary confinement, constant surveillance and harassment – but who, in the years before her husband’s release, used thugs to terrorise not South Africa’s whites but poor blacks in Soweto slums she had accused of being informants.
Those thought to be working with the apartheid regime were ‘necklaced’, a form of killing in which a tyre doused in petrol was put round the victim’s neck and set on fire. Winnie endorsed this in a public speech, claiming it was the only means by which to defeat the armed regime.
I met and interviewed her many times, spent hours in her company, usually in the sitting room of her Soweto home, cluttered with memorabilia of her and Mandela’s years together, photographs and collages filling every space on the walls, gifts of African furniture and artefacts spilling from the room into the passageways.
She wanted, she said, to tell her life’s story more truthfully than it was being portrayed in films, documentaries and books by people who had never met her.
Our time together started in June 2013 when Nelson Mandela was spending long periods in hospital. At our last meeting – her last-ever interview – she was limping badly. Later she fell ill and disappeared from public life.
Impossible to interrupt or contradict, she expressed dire disappointment at her unrealised dream of true freedom for her people.
What surprised me perhaps was her denial of obvious truths in the face of overwhelming evidence. Chief among them was the kidnap and murder of 14-year-old Stompie Seipie who Winnie believed was an informant of the security police.
Her role in that crime stained her for a lifetime. She told me she had been set up, that the apartheid regime would stop at nothing to tarnish her and the revolution.
The world also saw her as a promiscuously unfaithful wife who betrayed one of the world’s best-loved revolutionary figures. But her preferred vision of herself was as a fearless fighter who joined the struggle at the age of 10 when she saw her father being disrespected by a white shopkeeper, and never gave up.
I came to know her in the aftermath of democracy in South Africa, in the years when Nelson Mandela was dying his long slow death.
In all the time I spent with her after our first meeting – as Africa Correspondent for this newspaper – the effect was the same whenever she walked into the room. I’ve interviewed princes and presidents, movie stars and murderers, but never anyone like Winnie. With her signature kaftan and a colourful turban she made a huge entrance, but when she hugged you she had a surprisingly small frame.
More than anything, she was aware of her dramatic presence and her overwhelming charisma. Every word she said to me was memorable.
“I don’t give a damn what you or anyone thinks of me,” was her opening sentence at our first meeting.
It was startlingly aggressive and offset by a charming smile, all at the same time.
“I believe in myself and the justice I’ve fought for all my life. All I want is to achieve real freedom and a decent life for black people in this country. And one day I want to be able to claim my rightful place in its history.”
We were in the garden of her home in Soweto, the suburb of Johannesburg whose name is a byword for anti-apartheid activism.
“I’m proud to still live here,” Winnie said. “I don’t want a grand villa in a rich suburb alongside white people where many of my former comrades choose to live. I would never betray my roots in that way. I was here in Soweto on that June day in 1976 when hundreds of our children were shot dead by police, the day when the whole world learnt the truth about our wretched lives under apartheid.”
“The police wanted to blame me for starting that riot and they pursued me ever after, desperate to have me found guilty and locked up for treason like my husband.”
Leaning forward, her eyes blazing, Winnie was spitting out the words: “If I had organised the Soweto uprising I would be proud of it, I would proclaim it to the world. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve ever done in the name of fairness and justice for my people.”
She had arguably done many things to cause her shame. In 1986 she told a rally of supporters that ‘with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we will liberate this country’. In 1988 she and her private army of Mandela United thugs were accused of the kidnap and murder of Stompie Seipie.
In 1992 her heartbroken husband, newly out of prison, told the world that he was divorcing her because of her infidelity. In 2003 she was convicted of fraud and theft and given a six-month prison sentence.
“All the accusations against me were done to tarnish the ANC and the Mandela name,” she said. “It was utter rubbish. Many of the so-called thugs I recruited are today senior officers in the police and army.”
Not any kind of answer to the accusations, but Winnie was never going to go into detail. She would not allow me further questions or expressions of doubt, despite irrefutable evidence from dozens of witnesses.
It was hard for me to listen to her flying in the face of the truth, but I was there to hear this strong-headed woman speak, not to enter a debate with her. Those were her terms, made clear from the start.
Years earlier she had renounced the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “We should have sent the apartheid monsters to jail, not let them off with an amnesty,” she said.
Appearing in front of the Commission to answer the many charges against her, she had refused to speak until the chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu wept and begged her to at least agree that ‘horrible things happened’. Yes, she then said in a grand manner, ‘horrible things did happen’.
But in her back garden in June 2013, she had an urgent duty to fulfil. She stood up and told me we were going into the township.
“The people want to know about my husband’s illness, they think he is dying,” she said, still owning her relationship with Nelson Mandela despite their years apart since divorce in 1996. “They need to see me, they need to know there is still hope.”
We went in a convoy of cars, bodyguards at the wheel, blue lights flashing. The arrival of Winnie brought the Soweto traffic to a standstill. We parked in Vilikazi Street, near the tiny box-like house where she and Nelson once lived and which is now a museum.
I had been swallowed up in excitable crowds before but not like this. To hurry along close to Winnie Mandela was to be swamped in a sea of chanting and singing, dancing and jostling. They adored Mama Winnie and they parted spontaneously and actually fell silent as she walked up to the front door, turned round and addressed them.
“Tata is well, he’s going to be fine,” she told them. Tata is the Xhosa word for ‘father’, their name for Mandela.
“We must pray for him and I will tell him you love him and want him to come home.”
She knew that in the minds of these thousands of Africans, the thought of a dying Mandela might mean the end of their dreams.
She told me her marriage fell apart not because of her infidelity but because she lost respect for her husband when his peaceful negotiations with the apartheid government meant concessions Winnie herself would never have made.
“He underestimated the greed and cruelty and selfishness of white South Africans who never intended to give up their wealth or privilege,” she said.
“He ignored the possibility that some of his own African comrades had been in the fight all along for their own sakes, for their own personal enrichment once our war was won. I did not underestimate those things and ignore those possibilities. I continued to live in the real world while my husband was living an ordered life in a prison cell.”
She looked angry and sad at the same time, saying their love had been the noblest imaginable.
“But my disappointment and anger boiled up when I saw him making those concessions, letting our persecutors go free, leaving the economy in the hands of white businessmen. Later, when Nelson told me he wanted to share the Nobel Peace Prize with the apartheid president F.W. de Klerk, something inside me died. It was all this that gnawed at our love and led to divorce, nothing else.”
Winne knew better than anyone that in the 1970s, the dormant days of the African National Congress when anti-apartheid politics were banned and the leader of the revolution was in prison, it was she who kept the flame burning.
Even when she was banished to the remote Afrikaans town of Brandfort for nine years and forced to live in a one-room shack with no running water or electricity, Winnie kept the Mandela name alive.
A neighbour there, Nora Nomafu, remembered how the security police warned locals not to speak to her, not to acknowledge her.
Winnie, a social worker by training, showed kindness to local children and eventually started a small nursery and a clinic.
It was burnt down one night by the police who were watching her house, and Nora went in tears to comfort Winnie. ‘She didn’t need comforting,’ she said. ‘She was as strong as ever. She just said “Don’t let these dogs see you upset. I know them. They can kill you any time.” ’
On one of the last occasions I saw her, at the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg where she insisted we met, the staff at reception literally fell back when a car arrived and Mama Winnie exited from the back seat.
We sat in the book-lined lounge and coffee cups rattled as she banged on the table to emphasise her anger and bitterness at the failure of years of revolution to win decent lives for her people. ‘Those years when my strong courageous husband was on the run from the police, accused of treason, abandoning me and our little daughters. Was that for nothing?’ she railed.
“And the utter hell I suffered during night-time raids on my house, the children screaming and me roughly hauled off to prison – believing it was worth it for our dream of freedom. Was that also for nothing?”
She said she would gladly pick up her AK rifle again to continue the fight to its true end.
That was the Winnie Mandela I remember. Still able to fire up a crowd. Still shouting Amandla! Power to the People! Still not giving a damn what we think of her.