Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage 
by Jonny Steinberg.
William Collins, 550 pp., £25, May 2023, 978 0 00 835378 0
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Imade​ my first trip to South Africa towards the end of 1988. I had just become the Africa editor of Libération after years as a regional correspondent in West Africa. I went to visit Emmanuel Lafont, a French Catholic priest who was one of the very few white people living in the vast black township of Soweto, outside Johannesburg. I sat with Lafont in his ill-lit office at the back of St Philip Neri, his parish church. The adjacent bedroom had been turned into a drop-in dormitory for young boys and as the night drew on it filled up. At regular intervals the office door would be pushed ajar and a bashful face would appear. A few words would be exchanged in Zulu or Sotho – Lafont spoke both – and a frail figure in torn shorts and a grubby singlet would slip past.

Lafont, a worker-priest inspired by the French variant of liberation theology, had been the chaplain to the Young Christian Workers organisation in Tours. He was in his early forties and had lived for six years in Soweto, where he was known as senatla, ‘the tough man’. I must have waxed lyrical about the ANC’s armed struggle, the insurrection in black townships across the country that had achieved its aim of ‘rendering South Africa ungovernable’ and the surely imminent end of apartheid. Lafont stood up and asked: ‘Do you want to see Winnie Mandela?’ I couldn’t think at that moment of anything I wanted more.

We walked to a large house nearby, entering through the basement. A group of young men were drinking and smoking. They nodded us through, and we made our way to a TV room where a slasher movie flickered in front of an array of bottles and bodies. A young woman was lying in the arms of a man, who, like several others in the room, wore a Mandela United Football Club tracksuit. She gestured to Lafont: ‘Mum’s upstairs.’ I learned later that this was Zindzi (short for Zindziswa), the younger of the two Mandela daughters. She was 28; her lover at the time was Sizwe Sithole. Weeks later, he killed a fellow member of the football club (he died in police detention a short time before Mandela’s release from prison). The rooms upstairs were brightly lit, but no one seemed to be around. In a small living room we found Winnie Mandela, curled up on a sofa with a young man, apparently in a drunken stupor. We tiptoed out again.

Over the years, I met Winnie in professional settings, but also through Alain Guénon and Jean-Yves Ollivier, two wealthy, well-connected French commodity traders. In the late 1980s, they were transitioning, like South Africa itself, away from the apartheid regime to what they anticipated would become an ANC state awash with comrades in the business sector. With Mandela still in prison, Winnie seemed the person to cultivate. She was notoriously difficult and expensive to deal with, but had impeccable township credentials and, as everyone knew, held the key to Nelson’s heart.

When she was sober and had the measure of herself, she was an asset on any occasion. Her visits to South Africa’s poorest slums – stepping out of her Mercedes in high heels, a designer dress and colourful turban – were rightly regarded as a display of dignity and defiance. Winnie made a point of calling Guénon her ‘French lover’ (she cut him loose after Mandela’s release in 1990; Guénon bowed out elegantly, writing her a last cheque for the equivalent of £26,000, a good sum at the time). Ollivier never fell from grace. Her ‘dear friend’ until Winnie died, and a dear friend only, he once joked with her about her many affairs. ‘You know, Jean-Yves,’ she said with a laugh, ‘I’m not just Mandela’s wife. I’m the “Mother of the Nation”.’

I never saw Winnie and Nelson together in private. But along with the rest of the media, I attended the press conference Mandela held on 13 April 1992 at the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg. He sat in front of us, flanked by Walter Sisulu, his political godfather, and Oliver Tambo, who had been his partner in the law firm they set up in the 1950s and was the ANC’s longstanding president in exile. His delivery, always monotone, was flatter than usual as he read a short statement announcing his separation from Comrade Nomzamo (Winnie’s Xhosa first name, meaning ‘fighter’). He spoke of ‘the life [we] have tried to share’ and his ‘undiminished love’ for her. And then the abrupt conclusion: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you will appreciate the pain I have gone through and I now end this interview.’ The troika of ANC leaders pushed back their chairs and left in silence.

Jonny Steinberg’s Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage makes clear how political their partnership was. The break-up announced in 1992 should not have been regarded as a solely private matter. It revealed deep differences within the ANC. At the time I thought that the movement was torn between those, like Mandela, who believed that forgiveness was the key to liberation, and others, like his wife, who had battled at close range with the system and were reluctant to forgive. I argued that, despite audible dissent and anger in the ranks of the ANC, the side that believed in reconciliation had prevailed. But for Steinberg this rift never closed. Winnie’s funeral in 2018 drove home the point: half of the packed stadium in Soweto paraded the black, green and gold colours of the ANC, the movement she once embodied, by then an entrenched and corrupt ruling party; the other half wore the blood-red colours of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a populist breakaway party calling for a new liberation struggle to finish the revolution.

Steinberg’s book gives a detailed account of South Africa’s history over the century from Mandela’s birth in 1918 to his wife’s death. It is admirably researched and written, and quietly subversive. It asks how much deceit – and how much self-deception on the part of the global anti-apartheid movement – might be revealed by a closer look at the liberation struggle and the dawn of the ‘New South Africa’. Quite a lot, it turns out. Outsiders have been eager to find a moral lesson in the journey from apartheid to liberation, via the ANC’s armed struggle, international sanctions and the towering figure of the jailed Mandela, an ‘African Gandhi’, even as the story fizzles out in scandal and corruption. Steinberg, a South African who teaches at Yale, resists the wishful thinking that turns narrative arcs into rainbows.

According to the orthodox view, the birth of the New South Africa goes roughly as follows. In the summer of 1957, Nelson Mandela, a 38-year-old lawyer and rising political star, fell in love with a charismatic 20-year-old social worker called Winifred Madikizela. Fifteen months later, they married and moved into his ‘matchbox’ house in Soweto. In rapid succession, two girls were born. But in 1964, Mandela, the first leader of the ANC’s armed wing, was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. His wife became head of a household buffeted by the ignominies of apartheid; she was arrested again and again, tortured, held in solitary confinement for months, and banished for eight years to Brandfort, an Afrikaner dorp far from family and community. Despite all this, she became the icon of an uprising that began in 1976 in Soweto and, after enough exiled youngsters had trickled back into South Africa as trained freedom fighters, set the townships ablaze in the mid-1980s. Barely three months after the end of the Cold War, in February 1990, Mandela walked out of prison hand in hand with Comrade Nomzamo.

Mandela, by then in his early seventies, was an old-fashioned gentleman, shaped by the rigorous self-discipline he had learned during 27 years in detention; he wanted dinner on the table and the comforts of the marriage bed, but Winnie was unwilling to comply. ‘I was forced to mature on my own,’ she wrote to him in 1970, after being detained at Pretoria Central Prison for more than a year. ‘Your formidable shadow which eclipsed me left me naked and exposed to the bitter world of a young “political widow”. I knew this was a crown of thorns for me, but I also knew I said “I do” for better or worse. In marrying you I was marrying the struggle of my people.’ One consequence of Winnie’s self-preservation through long years of suffering was her emancipation. She didn’t want to play the dutiful wife as Mandela became the first freely and fairly elected president of South Africa.

This is the story Steinberg questions. From the start of their relationship, Steinberg shows, Winnie was assertive and independent. She had been dating Barney Sampson, a stylish office worker closer to her own age, for more than two years when she went on her first date with Mandela. He was still married to his first wife, Evelyn Mase, with whom he had three children. Winnie would always call him Tata, ‘father’. At the end of 1957, she told Sampson she had chosen Mandela. He took an overdose (he survived). Six months later, she married Mandela.

When their second daughter was born in December 1960, Mandela, by his own telling, allayed his initial doubts about her paternity by calling the girl Zindziswa – the name given by the Xhosa poet Samuel Mqhayi to his own daughter after similar misgivings. When he went underground, Mandela asked a distant relative, 26-year-old Brian Somana, ‘to be Winnie’s infrastructure’ in his absence. By August 1962, when Mandela was arrested, Somana had become her lover. By the time Mandela declared in front of the South African Supreme Court in April 1964 that ‘if needs be’ a democratic South Africa with equal opportunities for all was ‘an ideal for which I am prepared to die’, Somana had moved into the house in Soweto. During the trial, he and Winnie were seen driving across the township in her car, ‘a two-tone Fiat with a silver body and a black roof … adorned on its side by a picture of Mickey Mouse’, the emblem Somana had chosen for his confectionary business.

Over the next decades, other men served as Winnie’s providers, as surrogate fathers for her daughters and as bodyguards. They included a Rastafarian artist, a white doctor, a law student and several members of her football club. Most were young. Only a few made the decision to leave her – one who tried, Matthews Malefane, was assaulted at night by Winnie and two hard men, equipped with an axe and a crowbar. ‘Kill the dog!’ she spurred them on, though Malefane managed to get away. On 10 February 1990, the day before Mandela’s release from prison, Winnie was hours late arriving in Cape Town. She finally appeared with her latest lover, Dali Mpofu, a student activist whose age – 27 years – matched the duration of her husband’s incarceration. Mandela lived with his young rival (‘that boy’) for eleven months before abandoning, as Steinberg puts it, ‘those ruins that had once been home’. But, as the leader of the ANC and then as head of state, he stuck by Winnie unconditionally.

During Mandela’s imprisonment, Winnie’s alcoholism and increasingly erratic behaviour had exposed the ANC to the apartheid authorities, which infiltrated her network of lovers, henchmen and factotums. These relationships posed a security risk to the movement and to Winnie herself, as did her habit of resorting to violence, which she acquired at the hands of her apartheid tormentors. This is the subtext to the many crimes of Mandela United, carried out in her name and sometimes in her presence: extortion, assault and battery, arson, rape, murder. Most of her misdeeds became public at the end of the 1980s, just before Mandela’s release. In the New South Africa, Winnie, who had spent decades at the mercy of a rogue dictatorship that could detain or banish her at will, was never fully exposed to the rigours of the law. She was sentenced to six years in jail in 1991 on charges of kidnapping and assault, but this was replaced on appeal with a fine equivalent to £4000 today – a paltry price for the dozen killings she aided, abetted and may well have ordered. One of those was the murder by Jerry Richardson, a Mandela United coach, of the 14-year-old activist Stompie Moeketsi, on the suspicion that he was an informer. ‘I slaughtered him like a goat,’ Richardson testified in court. ‘I put garden shears through his neck … and I made some cutting motion.’

Richardson, it turned out, was an apartheid snitch. The police had recruited him in 1988, a year after Winnie put him in charge of her homelessness-cum-football programme for street kids. Mandela United provided her security detail as well as a pool of eligible young men. As Steinberg demonstrates, Winnie’s entourage was a gift to the security forces. Somana was trading information with the police, and members of the ANC who were caught and convicted on his say-so hurled their anger at Mandela when they arrived on Robben Island. Mandela told his daughter Zenani that he believed he had been arrested in 1962 after Winnie and Somana let slip that he was scheduled to attend a clandestine meeting in Durban.

Steinberg quotes at length from Mandela’s prison conversations, which were recorded in secret by his guards, transcribed and handed to the apartheid-era justice minister, Kobie Coetsee. They only emerged in 2014, fourteen years after Coetsee’s death. They reveal Mandela’s anger at Winnie’s affairs and lack of self-control. But to the outside world, she remained her husband’s representative. She often used the plural ‘we’ when responding to questions from journalists, eliding the movement, Mandela and herself. After she was banished to Brandfort in 1977, Winnie recruited young men and sent them to ANC training camps in neighbouring frontline states. In early 1979, when vetted by the ANC, ten out of the twelve recruits she had sent to Lesotho turned out to be police plants. A decade later, when warned that a member of her football club was an informer, she turned on the woman who had told her – not in defence of the man’s loyalty but because her informant had also slept with him.

Steinberg details ‘the sheer number of norms’ Winnie transgressed, but Mandela himself was far from perfect. He is alleged to have had two illegitimate children, including a girl conceived around the same time as Zindzi. An ‘angry man’, in his own words, during his first eleven years as a prisoner on Robben Island, Mandela subsequently turned extreme privation into a heroic test of willpower. When he finally emerged from decades of isolation, not much remained of the young, energetic freedom fighter, full of conviction and appetite. Barbara Masekela, Mandela’s chief of staff from 1990 to 1995, described him as ‘an actor’. He allowed her to watch him ‘primping just before some delegation or person came to talk to him. You could actually see him becoming this Nelson Mandela, the great forgiver.’ In private, she said that Mandela was ‘one of the saddest human beings’ she had known.

In Steinberg’s view, Mandela was just as responsible as Winnie for the inadequacies of the post-apartheid order. Both believed that their ravaged lives were the price they paid for standing up against apartheid, and that the New South Africa owed them for their sacrifice – an idea shared by many in the ANC and one that has led to ‘state capture’ by the former liberation movement. Steinberg is intrigued by the complicity between these two figures of immense power, both institutional and symbolic, and the unresolved character of the New South Africa they embody. He is also insistent that Mandela was not as benign as he appeared to the world on his release from prison, not least in his ‘bulldozing’ initiatives on his wife’s behalf.

In July 1990, with the ANC unbanned, a ballot was held to appoint the executive committee of a local branch in Soweto. The crimes of Mandela United were much discussed, and Winnie failed to win a seat on the committee. Mandela’s response was to put together a posse of ANC comrades, commandeer a car and go from house to house to raise the support that would allow him, in Steinberg’s words, to ‘conjure from nothing a second branch’ for Winnie ‘to claim as her own’. When one of his colleagues said, ‘What you have asked us to do is not right, Madiba,’ Mandela rounded on him. Not long afterwards, when Winnie was standing for a regional position, Mandela and ‘a phalanx of bodyguards’ mounted the stage in the hall where a show of hands would decide the results. It was an act of pure intimidation. Winnie now held executive positions at branch and regional level.

She was then appointed to a national role as head of the ANC’s welfare department (mostly resettling returning exiles). There was uproar from the branch memberships and ‘letters of complaint poured in,’ Steinberg writes, but they were ignored. The following month, after a long investigation into the football club and much prevarication, it was announced that Winnie would stand trial for kidnapping (four counts) and serious assault (four counts). Mandela’s lawyer approached the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF) – a London-based organisation which had been raising money for the legal costs of anti-apartheid activists since the 1950s and had bankrolled Mandela’s defence during the Rivonia trial in the 1960s – and asked it to cover her legal costs. The IDAF decided it could not fund a criminal trial, as opposed to a political case. Mandela called the organisation in London to pile on the pressure, while the EEC applied pressure in the opposite direction, threatening to slash its generous support for the IDAF if it went near the case. Not long after this news had been transmitted to Mandela, two representatives of the Coca-Cola Company pitched up at the IDAF’s offices offering to pay Winnie’s costs as long as the source of the money remained undisclosed. The IDAF board reluctantly agreed, whereupon Mandela made another phone call, insisting that the Coca-Cola funds be transferred direct to the Mandela Family Trust. Again, Steinberg tells us, the board complied.

The trial was due to begin in February 1991. In the days before, four of Winnie’s fellow defendants went missing, then a witness for the prosecution disappeared. As a consequence, two other young victims who had been beaten and tortured were too scared to take the stand. The trial was now in jeopardy. Her co-defendants, it turned out, had been spirited away along the ANC’s time-honoured routes to anti-apartheid regimes in nearby states: three were in Botswana, the fourth in Angola. The witness for the defence, it later transpired, had also been exfiltrated to Botswana. Steinberg argues that although Mandela didn’t have a direct hand in these disappearances, they bear his imprimatur: he had delegated ‘the political management of his wife’ to two senior ANC stalwarts, Tokyo Sexwale and Chris Hani, whom Winnie much admired and who understood Mandela’s wish that his wife should be spared a criminal conviction at any price.

This, of course, is the way a ‘gentleman’ from another era – the role in which Steinberg often casts Mandela, partly in parody, partly in earnest – is expected to behave. A future president, however, would be wise not to ride roughshod over his movement’s democratic structures, its foreign funders or the judicial process of the state he is trying to build. Steinberg finds it understandable but unforgivable. On occasion, he argues, Mandela acted just as high-handedly to serve his own interests, as, for instance, when he asked a friendly businessman to build him a home in Qunu, his native village (tellingly, the house is a replica of his last place of detention, a cottage at Victor Verster Prison). After the ANC gained power in 1994, he had a habit of presenting the state’s new institutions with faits accomplis. ‘We wondered whether we had created a monster,’ an unnamed ANC leader told Steinberg in 2018. ‘Inventing the figure of Nelson Mandela was among the most effective political strategies in modern history. Now it was on the brink of bringing the house down on our heads.’

Mandela believed​ that the two greatest threats to a peaceful outcome of negotiations were the ‘curdling’ into murderous violence of white counter-revolutionary sentiment and unmanageable insurrection by the disenfranchised majority. He played his strongest suit against the rise of white minority extremism and adjourned the revolution for another day. In her last years, after his death in 2013, Winnie became the advocate of this unfinished business, the guiding light of the township citizens who would have wanted to see the struggle taken to the bitter end. Part of their grievance, as Steinberg describes it, was the disparity between the gleaming cities built on gold and expendable labour, and the neighbourhoods where the dispossessed eked out their lives.

Young South Africans – the ‘born free generation’ – are inclined to dismiss Mandela-style reconciliation as a fool’s bargain. The saintly status that Mandela acquired, and his marmoreal presence in every South African shopping mall, have become suspect. So has the comfortable idea that Winnie stood for the regrettable side of the struggle, while Mandela remained above the fray. The EFF believes he was groomed by the white minority to pull off the ‘miracle’ of forgiveness that let them off the hook for a crime against humanity and deprived the majority of a better future. Its fellow-travellers agree. In 2017, four years after Mandela’s death, the South African poet Koleka Putuma wrote:

I want someone who is going to look at me
and love me
the way that white people look at
and love

And this is one of the many residues of slavery:
being loved like Mandela.

Mandela, who in his final years suffered from dementia, asked for Winnie on his deathbed (he no longer recognised his third wife, Grace Machel). They were alone together when he died. The New South Africa was turning away from Mandela towards the Mother of the Nation. Forgiveness – not a moral position, but a strategy devised by Mandela to avert a bloodbath – had run its course. Winnie had finally come out on top. Once Mandela was dead, Steinberg claims, the idea that his ‘confusion lay in his separation from Winnie … began to take hold’. She died in 2018, with little or nothing to atone for in the eyes of her followers.

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