Fire and Forgiveness: How Apartheid Left Its Mark on Winnie and Nelson Mandela

One burned for revolutions, while the other tried to end them

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Alexander Joe / AFP / Getty Images

ANC leader Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie raise fists upon his release from Victor Verster prison, Feb. 11. 1990.

Brandfort, South Africa – In 1977, the apartheid authorities banished Nelson Mandela’s wife Winnie to Brandfort, a small, remote town in South Africa’s Afrikaner heartland. Worried by how she was keeping the African National Congress (ANC) alive while her husband was in jail, the white supremacist regime restricted her movements to a tiny three-roomed hut with no electricity, no running water and no indoor toilet in the black township on Brandfort’s outskirts.

Winnie’s hut – actually half a hut – was #802. In #806 was Nora Nomafu. Now 71, I found Nora outside Winnie’s old house on a recent visit, where she and three other old comrades were conducting a ceremony in remembrance of Mandela, who died last week at the age of 95.

“We were not even allowed to speak to her,” said Nora. “The women who worked in town had told their children, ‘Don’t go near this certain communist woman. She was very dangerous.’ So when she called to the children, they ran away and screamed.” Winnie’s isolation offended Nora. “So I asked my little boy to help her fetch her water. And then Winnie got ill and her lawyer got permission for me to help her, and it was then that we discussed so many things.”

With her resources in the ANC, Winnie was able to bring food, blankets and clothes to Brandfort’s township, and later a clinic and a nursery.  The clinic was burned down by authorities and stands derelict to this day. “Winnie was not even angry,” said Nora. “She was so strong. She would just say: ‘I know these dogs. Be careful: they can kill you any time.’”

Nora suspected her friend was secretly bitter, though, noting Winnie was only 21 when she married Mandela and 27 when he was sentenced to life. “They took Madiba from her when she was still young with that burning love.” But, said Nora, “she did not show her suffering. She would say she needed us to be strong so as to face the Boers. Madiba was forgiveness and reconciliation. Winnie was strength. She liked to provoke the Boers.”

In a letter to his wife after she was first imprisoned by the apartheid authorities in 1970, Mandela wrote about the virtues of isolation. “You may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the processes of your own mind and feelings… The cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Never forget that a saint is a sinner that keeps on trying.”

It was an unusual reaction to privation and suffering, and showed that the angry commander of an African liberation force was mellowing, which would allow him to emerge from 27 years of prison in 1990 with a message of forgiveness and reconciliation for his persecutors. Freedom was meaningless without peace, he said. It is for that extraordinary about-turn that, in the nine days since his death, the world has honored Mandela in such unprecedented manner.

But as he himself acknowledged, it was not a message with which many of his comrades agreed. They argued that without justice, punishment and restitution – without giving full vent to their righteous anger – even peaceful freedom would be meaningless. Perhaps the most outspoken of those comrades was Winnie, with whom Mandela walked out of prison in 1990 but from whom he separated soon afterwards.

In 2010, Winnie gave an interview to the writer V.S. Naipaul and his wife Nadira – one which she subsequently claimed never happened, prompting Nadira to prove it did by producing photographs of the group together – in which she said: “Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. So many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded. Mandela was not the only man who suffered. There were many others, hundreds who languished in prison and died. Mandela did go to prison and he went in there as a burning young revolutionary. But look what came out.

Winnie’s fire could be alternately terrific and terrible. “She kept the ANC alive from Brandfort,” said Charmaine Albert, 52, who moved to Brandfort in 1993. “The world came to see her here. That was not Nelson Mandela.”

But even today, Winnie is haunted by the murders of several suspected black police informers in the 1980s by the Mandela Football Club, a kind of militia she kept around her once she returned to Soweto. Two bodies of the dead were unearthed for re-examination earlier this year. “With our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country,” she told a crowd in 1986, referring to “necklacing,” the practice of burning people alive with petrol.

If Winnie burned for revolution, Mandela tried to end all revolutions, said Albert. Her farm contains several monuments to South Africa’s past wars. One records where the Afrikaner settlers defeated the Basotho tribe in 1868. Two cemeteries commemorate where the British interned thousands of whites and blacks in concentrations camps during the second Boer War of 1899-1902. It was out of the Afrikaners’ suffering at the hands of the British – and their resentment of blacks, who helped the British — that apartheid was created, Albert said. Mandela was trying to end this cycle of violence. “You have to be a very special person to do what Mandela did,” she said. “Whites think all blacks are bad and murderers. Blacks look at us and see oppressors. You have to be able to look through everything.” It is, as the world has been acknowledging these past days, something only the exceptional can do.