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Winnie Mandela: Devil or Angel?

Either way, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela’s wife has grass-roots support.

African National Congress, ANC, Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela

African National Congress (ANC) president's wife Winnie Mandela participates in a mass rally addressed by Nelson Mandela, in Mmabatho on March 15th, 1994.

WALTER DHLADHLA/AFP/Getty

Today South Africa Is A free country – a country whose fight for freedom became synonymous with the name Mandela. For nearly 30 years, Winnie Mandela was the human face that dra-matized the injustice of apartheid to the outside world. Arguably one of the most controversial women in the world, Nelson Mandela’s wife campaigned for her hus-band while he was imprisoned in South Africa: She was the fatal thorn in the white-minority governments side. In the United States, Winnie Mandela was a pinup for young Americans opposed to apartheid, occupying hearts and walls in college dorms across the country. Today the great injustice is over, and at 60, she is a member of the South African parlia-ment, as outspoken as ever but estranged from the husband for whose liberation she struggled and waited.

Nelson Mandela arrives in the United States in October for his first official state visit, and the spirit of Winnie Mandela will be hovering close by. Although her legion of admirers in America sees her as a heroine who undertook an odyssey while her husband waited, her detractors paint an almost Nixonian portrait of a woman undone by iconoclasm and rage, as Nixon was undone by his own inner faults. In South Africa she represents an unrivaled grass-roots base, a significant portion of the South African electorate. Her support comes predominantly from the young and the poor who see themselves in her. Those in power might shun her, but she undeniably has the touch of the people.

Most South African whites remain highly suspicious of Mandela, and some despise her. But her grass-roots support among blacks is so strong that some observers believe she could be the next president of South Africa. Although she brushes off that idea, it is clear she has a solid political base – perhaps, in sheer numbers, the largest in the country other than her husband’s.

I managed to catch up with Winnie Mandela in a hot, humid garden selected by her and her security people. She says it is the first interview she has given to any-one since the last time we spoke, four years ago, when I came to South Africa to cover her husband’s release from prison and the official end of apartheid.

It hasn’t been long since Winnie Mandela voted in a certified national election for the first time in her life, and she is radiant. She recalls the last time she and I met “We hardly imagined that this day would come,” she says. “When it actually came, you can’t describe the emotion.”

It is not one emotion, she says, but several: “You can-not be altogether ecstatic. When I put that cross [on the ballot] next to the [African National Congress Party] and Comrade [Nelson] Mandela, I remem-bered that man had sacrificed his own life.” She remembers friends who died before they could vote in a free South Africa, “and the pain of their not being there with us is not easy to get rid of.”

But the voting is only the first step; governing will come next, and it will be much more difficult. “My fears are that the task is too gigantic for us in apartheid-ravaged South Africa,” Mandela says. “We’ve made great promises, and we’ve got to fulfill them. One of the greatest things I fear is letting down my people. I wouldn’t live with that type of conscience, of having let down my people after they’ve been bru-talized for so long.”

Winnie Mandela has a reputation for toughness and temper. Like most larger-than-life figures, she has become a target for people’s imaginations: Is she a social worker (as she claims) or a rab-ble-rouser, a leftist or a Leninist, a passive wife or a fiery feminist, anti-apartheid or anti-white?

While she often invites controversy, the most disturbing moment in Mandela’s career was her apparent involvement in the kidnapping and death of a young boy. Nelson Mandela stood by his wife as she claimed to be innocent, but signs of her probable guilt in the affair are seen in the way the leadership of the ANC ostracized her long before formal charges were filed and advised a separation of husband and wife.

Winnie Mandela continues to protest her innocence and warn that the leadership of the ANC has become too much a part of the power elite, losing touch with rank-and-file South African blacks. She takes full advantage of her parliamentary privileges, speaking with-out prior clearance from the government, much more freely than she would speak if she were a member of her husband’s cabinet.

During our interview, the brash, outspoken Winnie Mandela is soft-spoken, even coquettish. When she says, “I never talk about my private life,” she puts a hand on my knee. She’s dressed in a European-cut navy blue suit with a brightly striped blouse, about as far from the South African firebrand as she can get; she’s a career woman, proud of her children. She seems no more threat-ening than a Sunday-school teacher. But that is very likely what she intends.

Probably no other figure in South African politics today understands the United States – and its media – as well as Winnie Mandela. Her message is that her American friends can continue to support her: She’s still here, she’s not a monster, and with support, her politics can now be practiced.

When I mention her many advocates in the United States, Mandela demurs modestly and laughs. But this is a con-stituency she recognizes and depends upon. “We know that the American peo-ple have always been one with us,” she says. “We know of the campaigns they have led to support our struggle. We know that country was one of the leading nations that led the campaign [and] sanctions [against] this country. And we know .that if we didn’t have so many friends in that country, we might not have reached this goal as quickly as we did. We owe it to millions of Americans.”

Winifred Nomzamo Madizekela was born in 1934 in the rural village of Bizana, in the Pondoland region of the Eastern Cape province. The first black in South Africa to have a degree in social work, she was married in 1958 to Nelson Mandela, an older, more sophisticated political activist. The couple had two daughters, Zenani, born in 1959, and Zindziwe, born in 1960. In discussing her past, Winnie Mandela tries to make a point about wisdom and suffering under apartheid. She emphasizes the transition from innocence to awareness, even though I suspect she has always been supremely aware of almost everything.

From the start, Nelson Mandela was seldom home – he was either working to end apartheid or “on the run with a price on his head,” she recalls, stressing the ways apartheid deprived her of a normal home life. “I couldn’t even really handle the question of [raising two] small children without any income. Earlier, every possession I had, had been repossessed by the furniture people we had bought it from, and those were pains a young bride found it difficult to cope with.”

As difficult as those early days were, the worst was yet to come. In 1964, Nelson Mandela and his colleagues in the leadership of the ANC were sentenced to life in prison.

“I was not ready at that stage for what lay ahead of me,” Winnie Mandela says. “And I was feeling a sense of despair, not only for myself but for my organi-zation as well. It did cross my mind that with the sentencing of the leadership to life imprisonment, wasn’t this the end to our struggle?”

But the struggle taught her strength and endurance. “It dawned on me then that you either had to survive apartheid or you had to perish with it,” she says. “And I decided to survive.” Looking back now she says, “I am one of those who were made by the Nationalists them-selves,” speaking of the white-minority party that devised and implemented apartheid for four decades. “They so brutalized and harassed me that they made me the politician I [might] have never been.” They also made her bitter, according to many South African observers, and that bitterness continues to infuse her politics and her personality.

At 28, Winnie Mandela began to function as a political force. “I realized that unless I kept [Nelson’s] name alive, I feared his extinction politically,” she says. “I feared that the racist apartheid regime was so vicious that it would’ve been the end of the African National Congress, and half of them would perish in prison.” During the 27 years of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, Winnie Mandela campaigned tirelessly for his release and at the same time for an end to the apartheid system. She herself was frequently jailed and even “banned,” forbidden to meet or speak with more than one person at a time. “The brutality of apartheid drains you of that emotion of fear,” she says simply, “if you have gone through everything you can be put through in the process of harassment.”

Today, there are frequent rumors of a reconciliation between Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Winnie taking her place as South Africa’s first black first lady. Despite the controversies, she could be a remarkable asset. “Of all [ANC] leadership,” she says, “I have been closest to the ground. I have worked with squatter camps, I have worked with the youth, I have worked with the women, and I am well versed with all the layers of our society.”

While Mandela insists her efforts are more social work than politics, she acknowledges that social work can be now, politically useful. I’ve always worked with the people on the ground,” she says. “I know what they expect of a black government I know how they translate liberation. To them, voting for Comrade Mandela is voting for jobs, it’s voting for houses, it’s voting for better health conditions, it’s voting for better education for their children – it’s voting for the upliftment of their lives.”

As head of the ANC Women’s League, Winnie Mandela realized during the election campaign that there was a lot of uplifting to do. She found herself “making promises to my people,” she says. “And I was saying to myself, ‘Please, God, give us the strength to fulfill those promises, give us the resources to do so, the courage to do so.'”

Mandela believes the task is great because expectations are so high. It entails not only improving the physical conditions for millions of South Africans but also bringing home the political and psychological benefits of black-majority rule. South Africa has the potential to be the only sub-Saharan superpower – but black South Africans must first under-stand that they can seize the potential.

“In order for us to be able to move one inch, we have to empower our people,” Mandela says. “We have to restore the dignity of a nation that has been so brutalized that they lack self-respect.”

Winnie Mandela understands South African needs. Her vision for the country hearkens to the South Africans’ “relationship with the soil, with the land they have fought for so muck” She emphasizes: “The struggle was all about the land; the struggle is related to the acquisition of land.” Although she believes some redistribution will be necessary in a country where the white minority controls an estimated 87 percent of the land, she insists the land must not be grabbed from whites. Instead, she says, there must be a smooth transition, “even if it is a question of the government buying the land back from those who have it I am not in favor of anything that would in any way reintroduce violence in our society.”

Nevertheless, ownership of land is essential to the restoration of black South African self-respect. “If you get that land,” she says, “you mix that soil with water and cement, you make your bricks, you build your own world, you build your own house – that restores your manhood.”

Listening to Mandela, I’m struck by her language. English is not her first language, but she speaks it extremely well, and her word choice is never casual. When she speaks of “the people on the ground” or “masses on the ground,” she refers to the poorest levels of South African society. When she calls her husband Comrade Mandela, is she reflecting Communist influence or ideology? By no means, she is quick to respond. “To us, that means a comrade in arms, a colleague, someone you can rely on – it hasn’t the Communist connotation,” she says, and then the natural politician in her adds: “Not that we have anything against communism as such. They have a right to their ideological belief.”

During the long struggle against apartheid, the multiracial Communist Party was closely allied with Nelson Mandela’s outlawed ANC, and Winnie Mandela was often accused of being a communist, manifesto-spouting revolutionary. While neither Mandela now admits too close a connection, neither Mandela is ready to denounce the old allies.

Americans might be surprised, Winnie Mandela says, by the appeal Marxism has for black South Africans. “[The Communists] spoke a language we understood,” she says. “They talked about our hunger pangs and described them in a manner we understood. They talked about the rights of workers in a language that appeals to the masses on the ground.”

Winnie Mandela is clearly eager to reassure her listeners (and, in this case, perhaps especially white Americans) that life in the new South Africa will be better for everybody, not just blacks. This is a message that President Nelson Mandela will also be spreading when he comes to the United States this fall, because without foreign investment – without U.S. dollars – the experiment in peaceful plurality must fail.

In covering the new South Africa, I often am reminded of the civil-rights struggle in the American South, when I was assigned to cover Martin Luther King Jr. for CBS News, and I ask her if she has felt inclined these days to say, Free at last.”

Winnie Mandela speaks of her admiration for Dr. King and says that despite the contrast between his philosophy of nonviolence and the extremely violent struggle in South Africa, “I drew a lot of inspiration from some of his writings,” especially those that touched on themes of all races working together in equality, freedom and harmony.

“As a result of that,” she goes on, “one of my greatest ambitions is to pool our different racial groups together in this country, and I think the success of this country depends a great deal on our coexistence. We can never go it alone. We have to acknowledge that South Africa is what it is.” That is, a multiracial society.

“Together, we will build this country to be what we want it to be,” says Mandela. “And indeed, we can then say together, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God, we are free at last.’ But only if we say that in unison can it truly have any meaning.”

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