‘What it is to hate’

Stephen W. Smith remembers Winnie Mandela

In apartheid South Africa, ‘the enemy’ was ever present, day and night, from the public toilets you couldn’t use to the neighbourhood you couldn’t live in, by way of police raids at first light to check on your bedfellows, or simply to keep you terrified. When Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – who died on 2 April at the age of 81 – spoke of ‘the enemy’, the words had an intimate ring.

I met her for the first time in 1988, when a French worker-priest, one of the few white people living in Soweto, took me to her house. It was late in the evening, but we just walked in. I remember the blaring TV, the flicker on the walls of a slasher movie, bottles all over, young men slouched on sofas. They were members of her vigilante gang, the so-called Mandela United Football Club. In a drunken stupor, Winnie was lying among them.

That was the period when 14-year-old James Moeketsi Seipei - nicknamed Stompie, ‘cigarette butt’, for his small size – was clobbered for days in her house, sometimes in her presence. Suspected of being a police informant, he eventually had his throat cut. In 1991, while the sunset clauses of apartheid were under negotiation, Winnie’s chief bodyguard was convicted of murder, and the ‘mother of the nation’ was sentenced to six years for kidnapping, reduced to a fine on appeal. In 2003, she was convicted of fraud and theft while holding public office, for which she received a five-year sentence, suspended on appeal.

It was in prison, decades earlier, that she had learned ‘what it is to hate’. She was arrested for the first time in 1969, kept in solitary confinement for thirteen months, raped and tortured. ‘I reached a threshold where the body could not take the pain any more, and I would faint,’ she told me in 2012, in an interview for the documentary Plot for Peace. ‘But even at that state, I will not give in. They can rather take my life, I don’t care. But I will fight to the last drop of my blood.’

In the 1970s and 1980s, the name Mandela would not have been kept alive without her. But on the ground, the struggle was ugly. At the height of the state of emergency in 1986, Winnie told a rally: ‘Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we will liberate this country.’ (The ‘necklaces’ in question were tyres that were doused in petrol, placed on the shoulders of ‘traitors’ and set fire to.) Four years later, Nelson’s release and the historic compromise he made with the apartheid regime pulled the nation back from the brink of self-destruction.

On 11 February 1990, Winnie accompanied Nelson on his walk to freedom from his jail cell. Perhaps, as Njabulo Ndebele suggested in his 2004 novel The Cry of Winnie Mandela, it would have been a more truthful symbolic moment if he had left the prison on his own and she had been waiting for him outside, standing her ground.

‘I was both courting her and politicising her,’ Nelson wrote later of the 22-year-old woman, 16 years younger than him, whom he had met and married in 1958. He was already standing trial, and needed the court’s permission to attend his wedding in Transkei. He went underground three days later. He shared neither his life nor his political dream with his second wife.

In 1996, he ended their 38-year marriage, testifying in court that she was having an affair with Dali Mpofu, today a prominent member of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. They are now playing with fire. Can they credibly claim, as Winnie Mandela did, to be ‘the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy’? That cloud is hanging over South Africa’s future.