My husband and I have just crossed Africa. On the final leg of our journey we had finally come to South Africa – a place that now went hand in hand with the name Mandela.
My husband had been reluctant to come here but then he had followed his instinct and it had brought us to the Soweto door of the mystifying Winnie Mandela, a much celebrated and reviled woman of our times.
Looking out at her garden, I wondered how long we would have to wait to see her. We were in a stronghold of sorts, with high enclosing walls and electronic gates which were controlled from inside a bunker-like guardhouse. There were tall muscular men dressed in black who casually appeared and disappeared.
In the late Eighties, Winnie’s thuggish bodyguards, the Mandela United Football Club, terrorized Soweto. Club “captain” was Jerry Richardson, who died in prison last year while serving life for the murder of Stompie Moeketsi, a 14-year-old who was kidnapped with three other boys and beaten in the home where we would soon sit, sipping coffee. Winnie was sentenced to six years for kidnap, which was reduced to a fine on appeal.
Members of the gang would later testify to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Winnie had ordered the torture, murder and kidnap of her own people, and even participated directly.
Winnie used to live, before she was famous, down one of the narrow, congested streets with small brick and iron sheet houses. Soweto is still a predominately black township: tourists come in buses to gawp at the streets linked to freedom, apartheid and Mandela.
Winnie now has an imposing fortress on the hill. The garden is full of trees and well-manicured shrubs. We walked straight into a small cluttered hallway. It was full of the man: Mandela. He was everywhere. Presents, portraits, honorary degrees and letters covering every empty space on the walls.
There was an air of expectancy as we entered. Our fixer had arranged this meeting with Winnie (or Mama Mandela, her township name) through her confidant and admirer. He is a young man in his early forties who is a well-known television presenter here and clearly an ardent devotee.
He sat us down and talked softly about her. The politics of his generation, he said, had been defined by this woman. Her courage, her fire and her sheer stubbornness had made them men. They saw how unafraid she was and the risks and humiliations she was willing to absorb. These humiliations had not ended with apartheid. She was discarded, demonized and betrayed, he said.
My nerves were playing up: my husband does not like to be kept waiting at the best of times. He is punctilious and has been known to walk away from a delayed meeting, leaving me to deal with the fallout.
It was at that moment she appeared, tall, carefully attired in soft grey, wearing her signature wig. She held Vidia’s outstretched hand and asked him to sit next to her. She flashed a smile in my direction. The air was electrified by her presence.
I did what was expected of me. I asked her if she was happy with the way things had panned out in South Africa. Winnie looked at my husband. Did he wish for the truth? She had heard of him. He pursued the truth or the closest he could get to it.
No, she was not happy. And she had her reasons. “I kept the movement alive,” she began. “You have been in the township. You have seen how bleak it still is. Well, it was here where we flung the first stone. It was here where we shed so much blood. Nothing could have been achieved without the sacrifice of the people. Black people.”
She looked at Vidia expecting another question. He said nothing, but his dark hooded eyes shone and she carried on with her eyes firmly locked onto his face. “The ANC was in exile. The entire leadership was on the run or in jail. And there was no one to remind these people, black people, of the horror of their daily reality; when something so abnormal as apartheid becomes a daily reality. It was our reality. And four generations had lived with it – as non-people.”
As she spoke, I looked at her thinking she was, at 73, as her reputation promised, quite extraordinary. The ANC had needed this passionate revolutionary. Without her, the fire would have been so easily extinguished and she had used everything and anything to stoke it. While some still refer to her as Mother of the Nation, she is decried by many because of her links to the Stompie murder and other violent crimes during the apartheid era, and a conviction for fraud.
“Were you not afraid?” I asked instinctively, but then I regretted this foolish query.
She looked towards my chair. Her grey glasses focused on my face. “Yes, I was afraid in the beginning. But then there is only so much they can do to you. After that it is only death. They can only kill you, and as you see, I am still here.”
I knew that the apartheid enforcers had done everything in their power to break this woman. She had suffered every indignity a person could bear. They had picked her up in the night and placed her under house arrest in Brandfort, a border town in Orange Free State, 300 miles from Soweto. “It was exile,” she said, “when everything else had failed.”
At this remote outpost, where she spent nine years, she had recruited young men for the party. “Right under their noses,” she said to Vidia, laughing with the memory of it. “The only worry or pain I had was for my daughters. Never really knowing what was happening to them. I feel they have really suffered in all this. Not me or Mandela,” she said.