I discovered only too soon how quickly . . . you just fizzled into being his appendage. . . . Mandela’s wife. Mandela’s child. Mandela’s niece. Thriving in his glory was the simplest cocoon to shield in from the glaring public, or to boost your extinct ego. I vowed that none of this would apply to me. Winnie Mandela, in “Higher Than Hope”
On a summer’s day in 1958, a dashing black lawyer named Nelson Mandela pulled his car over to the roadside and proposed marriage to the shy, doe-eyed 23-year-old at his side.
Winnie Madikizela should have been worried that her husband-to-be was on trial for treason. That he was 16 years her senior. And that his sophisticated friends regarded her as a flighty damsel too beautiful to be a revolutionary’s wife.
Years later, writing to Winnie from prison, Nelson Mandela admitted that he agonized over having “abandoned this young and inexperienced woman in a pitiless desert, literally throwing her into the hands of highwaymen.”
Stronger Than Believed
Winnie Mandela turned out to be made of stronger fiber than anyone guessed.
She raised two daughters and supported her husband’s cause throughout relentless police raids, detentions, trials, interrogations, banning orders and banishment. And in time even her husband’s colleagues replaced their disdain for her with respect.
Today, however, she and her young bodyguards have been linked to the killing of a teen-aged black activist and the abduction and beating of three others. She has been ostracized by anti-apartheid leaders and publicly criticized by her husband’s exiled movement, the African National Congress.
Some figure that Winnie Mandela was numbed by adoring sycophants and consumed by her own towering ego. Others say she was deceived by the hard-luck stories of wayward teen-agers and too naive to believe that they were using the Mandela name to terrorize other blacks.
Part Flint, Part Flower
The truth is somewhere in between. Winnie Mandela is and always has been part flint and part flower--combative, stubborn, willful and quick to anger, but also trusting, generous and charming, according to her closest friends and neighbors in Soweto as well as political analysts and senior figures in the anti-apartheid movement.
But her supporters and detractors agree on one thing: The same streak of independence that earned her worldwide admiration also got her into trouble here at home with her fellow activists, who have always tried to protect the venerable name of Mandela.
“That is Winnie; even in the early years, you would give advice to her and she’d listen, but then she’d do her own thing,” said Fatima Meer, a University of Natal sociology professor and a friend of Winnie Mandela for 30 years. “That’s how she survived the state’s attacks on her--by taking decisions on her own.”
Even as a child, Nomzamo Winnifred Madikizela had a reputation for being headstrong, and many sibling quarrels ended with a spanking for Winnie. Born 54 years ago, she was the fourth daughter in a family that desperately wanted a son, and she was taller and stronger than other children her age.
After high school, Winnie went to Johannesburg to study, with the aim of going into social work. Among the other girls she was often called “Lady Tarzan” because “I solved problems the simple way, using physical force, as I had done way back in my childhood, when I defended myself against older boys who came marauding into our mealie (corn) fields at harvest time,” she recalled in “Higher Than Hope,” a 1988 biography of her husband.
She had just landed her first job in social work when she met Mandela. His friends found her charming but too young and politically inexperienced for someone of Mandela’s stature in the black liberation movement.
“She was very vivacious, very bright-eyed,” one of Mandela’s friends remembered recently. “But we didn’t take her seriously at all.”
Four years after the marriage, Mandela was convicted of sabotage and sent to prison for life. Over the next 15 years, his wife spent 17 months in solitary confinement, six years under banning orders that prevented her from talking with more than three people at a time and four years under house arrest.
She grew more defiant and was frequently charged with violating her banning orders. In an attempt to silence her, the authorities banished her in 1977 to a three-room shack in the Orange Free State, the most conservative province in the country.
It was there, 300 miles from the fires of political activity in Soweto, that Winnie Mandela’s independence and generosity transformed her into an international liberation figure in her own right.
She staged a one-woman resistance campaign, to the dismay of the white authorities, by using stores, restaurants and public toilets that had been declared whites-only. At the same time, she provided bread and soup for hungry black children, started a community garden and turned her house into a medical clinic.
Foreign diplomats and politicians traveled to see her. She was honored with doctoral degrees and gifts from America and Europe.
In 1985, eight years after her banishment, she defied the government and returned to Soweto. The authorities forcibly evicted her, but she returned the next day. They arrested her again and again before a court ruled that she could stay.
Back in Soweto, the township of 2.2 million outside Johannesburg, she opened an office and launched a project to send blacks to college.
She also opened her home to young political activists. They called her “Mama,” and she treated them like her children, cooking for them, clothing them and sending them to school.
When “her boys,” as she called them, wanted to form a soccer club, she got local Soweto businesses to chip in for uniforms and equipment. The uniforms carried the colors of the outlawed African National Congress.
The Mandela United football club, as it came to be known, did not play many soccer matches. But its two dozen uniformed members accompanied Winnie Mandela to rallies, political funerals and news conferences, usually making a grand entrance shortly after the proceedings began.
She began to enjoy having the retinue--one anti-apartheid activist called it the “queen’s guard"--and being the center of attention.
“Winnie has a feeling of self-importance, but it’s not a false feeling,” a friend said recently. “She is very important.”
Friends Loyal to Her
The soccer club, and other people who stayed at the Mandela home, were obsequiously loyal. Even her relatives would leap nervously to their feet and bow their heads when she entered a room. Those dependent on her for their prestige as well as their next meal never dared disagree with Mama.
“She was placed on a pedestal, and no one could tell her what to do,” said a senior black activist who is under a banning order that prevents his being quoted by name. “She was surrounded by ‘yes’ people, and that distorted her judgment. She couldn’t take people who said ‘no.’ ”
When out of her sight, members of the soccer club basked in the reflected glory of the “mother of the nation.” They demanded free entry to a Soweto discotheque and swaggered around the township beating up people they didn’t like.
Neighbors complained about the team, and anti-apartheid leaders urged Winnie Mandela to disband it. She would listen and often agree. But she never took action.
Winnie Mandela had felt no strong links to the country’s anti-apartheid organizations when she returned to Soweto, even though most opponents of apartheid look to her imprisoned 70-year-old husband as the country’s true leader.
Hollywood was making movies about her. A 1985 autobiography called “Part of My Soul Went With Him” was a best-seller. She had become an industry. Last year, she agreed to allow a black American public relations man to market the Mandela name, but her husband canceled the deal.
Winnie Mandela’s independence struck many in the anti-apartheid movement as, at best, conduct unbecoming the wife of so important a leader--and, at worst, plain arrogance.
In 1986, for example, she built a $250,000 home amid the shacks of Soweto, an ostentatious display that gave the government ammunition in its effort to undermine the credibility of the ANC. The house remains vacant.
“She’s a very unstable person with delusions of grandeur,” said Mark Swilling, a professor at the Center for Policy Studies who has had Winnie Mandela as a political science student. She is working on an undergraduate degree in politics and social work.
But others think she may have been manipulated by the soccer club.
“She takes in people. She won’t question them. She will take them at face value,” said Meer, the sociology professor who compiled “Higher Than Hope.”
Last year, the Mandela home was burned down by youths allegedly provoked by a Mandela United assault on a schoolgirl. Another community delegation pleaded with Winnie Mandela to get the team out of her house.
“We went to Winnie, but her attitude was that no one would tell her what to do,” a senior anti-apartheid leader said. “That’s been her attitude all along. Had she been less individualistic, she wouldn’t find herself in this position today.”
Police contend that members of the Mandela soccer club and others of her friends abducted four young activists at a Methodist church hostel in Soweto on Dec. 29 and drove to the house where Winnie Mandela now stays.
In their affidavits, according to sources who have seen them, three of the four say that Winnie Mandela arrived and began beating the four. The sworn statements say the attack was taken over by the Mandela bodyguards and that one of the four, 14-year-old Stompie Mokhetsi Seipei, was severely beaten. His body, identified by fingerprints, was found Jan. 7, the police said.
Winnie Mandela denies that she or her bodyguards were involved in the beatings. She says the youths were abducted to protect them from a church pastor who had been sexually abusing them. The pastor and the church have denied this allegation.
In the old days, Winnie Mandela did what she wanted, when she wanted, the white government be damned. She still does what she wants, when she wants. But these days, that means ignoring advice from her husband’s most ardent supporters in the anti-apartheid movement.
“We aren’t jealous of Winnie,” said one of the liberation leaders responsible for shunning her. “But we’re jealous for her name--Mandela. It is being used to deprive people of life and liberty, which is against everything we’re in business for.”
Winnie Mandela, meanwhile, remains loyal to her boys. Only a few days ago, she was in her office on the telephone, busily hiring attorneys for the eight people arrested so far in the case and insisting on their innocence.
“She can be terribly exasperating,” Meer said. “But she’s not what they say she is.”