Sunday Times E-Edition

What if things had gone differently for Nelson and Winnie?

Jonny Steinberg’s new book about South Africa’s most famous couple

It is always a shock to see what three decades have done to a person. The strapping, rambunctious man in the photographs — a man about to throw an arm around you and grin in your face — had long vanished when Nelson Mandela stepped back into the world. Within days, that face had donned an extraordinary assortment of masks: the wooden patriarch, the charming host, the delighted old man. That mouth would grimace as if it had not smiled in 70 years before opening into a Buddha-like glow.

The more recognisable the face became, the deeper the spirit beneath it seemed to hide.

This opacity was perhaps inevitable in a man who had ascended into myth. On his first full day out of prison he arrived in Johannesburg, which had long ago been his home, and what he brought came more from the realm of magic than from the mundane world.

Much of Soweto simply did not turn up for work. Nor did people stay at home. They converged on the streets in their hundreds of thousands to celebrate on an epic scale. This author, 19 years old, was in that endless crowd, unconcerned that he had lost his bearings and knew not where he was, for everywhere on this unworldly day was home.

Hours before Mandela’s plane touched down, and a full day before he was scheduled to speak, rumours swirled that he had arrived at Orlando Stadium and was about to address the crowds. Around the township, people dropped what they were doing and ran. By midafternoon, some 50,000 had gathered outside the stadium gates, Mandela still a thousand miles away.

He spoke at Soccer City the following afternoon, just six miles from his home. In an arena designed to seat 80,000, almost double that number filled the stands: people jammed the aisles, squeezed two to a seat; people climbed the stadium walls. Not a single uniformed official of the state was there, the vast crowd’s only shepherd a group of marshals assembled in haste. It did not seem remotely unsafe. That lives may be lost on a day like this, even by accident, seemed incongruous.

You could barely make him out as he walked into the stadium, a flash of silver hair way down on the pitch below; a few beats passed before the crowd clocked that it was him. And then a whistling arose. Within moments it had quickened into a deafening, alien, scarcely human sound, both shrill and unfathomably deep. It chopped up human movement, as if we were under a strobe. So electrically intense, so eerily out of body, it seemed to radiate from that single man below.

I had been to a hundred rallies over the previous couple of years, had absorbed the spirit of a hundred crowds. Nothing had come close to what happened in that moment — the suspension of time, the sheer density of energy, the sense that we were someplace outside our lives.

As the whistling died, the spirit left, quickly, unexpectedly, and everyone seemed suddenly alone. So much blood had spilled in the vicinity of this very stadium, month upon month, year upon year. The moment that collective feeling ebbed, one wondered whether it had existed at all.

Nelson had been told of Winnie’s lover during his final months in prison; he had written to her demanding that she get “that boy” out of the house. His name was Dali Mpofu, a prominent student activist and a trainee lawyer. He was also two generations younger than Nelson; his time on this earth coincided, almost exactly, with Nelson’s time in prison.

Mpofu and Winnie had apparently drawn close in the early months of 1989, precisely when Johannes Mabotha had vanished into the clutches of the police. The timing is no surprise. All her adult life Winnie had skirted solitude, her relation to another at a necessary fever pitch. And, as in so many of her previous relationships, this one involved another; Mpofu’s lover, the Wits University academic Teresa Oakley-Smith, was pregnant with Mpofu’s child. The upset that followed was another recurring feature of Winnie’s life.

Nelson knew that Winnie and Mpofu were still together shortly after he was released. When she arrived at Victor Verster those many hours late, her lover was in tow; he was among the group standing behind Nelson that evening on Cape Town’s Grand Parade.

Winnie had sent her husband the starkest message: she was no Penelope waiting for Odysseus to return.

Upon arriving in Johannesburg, Nelson and Winnie had planned to go directly to Soweto, a grand homecoming for the township’s most famous son. But by late morning, the crowd at their house had swelled to thousands and concerns were raised about whether it was safe. An alternative was hastily arranged: a family near the private airport where their flight would land was asked to vacate their house. Nelson, Winnie, Zindzi and two grandchildren would sleep there the night.

By evening, the house was teeming with people: Nelson, Winnie, Zindzi and her children; Walter and Albertina Sisulu; various members of the reception committee that had been assembled to manage Nelson’s release.

The mood in the modest living room was tense. Among the members of the reception committee present that evening were Azhar Cachalia, Murphy Morobe, Sydney Mufamadi — men Winnie now regarded as mortal enemies. Nelson, some of those in that room recalled, was grimly silent.

Walter came to sit next to Nelson, and the two old men held hands. The spectacle of their intimacy imprinted itself in the memory of one of those present that evening: here was a deep, old friendship, of unabashed brotherly love, in a room filling with ill will.

Winnie kept demanding to go home. She did not want to sleep in the suburbs, she said; she wanted, at the very least, to change her clothes. But from Soweto the messages kept coming that the crowd was still swelling, their homecoming unsafe.

Eventually, Winnie upped and left, and Zindzi and her children followed her. Nelson now worked with members of the reception committee on the speech he would give the following day. And then, one by one, they left, and the Sisulus, too, returned to Soweto, leaving Nelson to spend the night alone.





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