Sunday Times E-Edition

What might have been?

In a new book about South Africa’s most famous couple, author Jonny Steinberg recounts how Winnie Mandela rose from obscurity to worldwide fame

In the early 1970s, when Winnie Mandela was banned, few people outside South Africa had heard of her. Those who followed the country’s politics assiduously would have remembered her as the wife of the Rivonia trialist who once made a famous speech; and if they were watching the South African scene especially closely, they would have recalled Winnie’s own detention and trial in 1969 and 1970.

But beyond these aficionados, few people knew of Winnie Mandela. Even her more famous husband, Nelson, had slipped from people’s minds; during the first half of the 1970s, his name was mentioned just once in the New York Times.

By June 1977, Winnie Mandela was famous all over the world. Journalists boarded flights for South Africa to meet her. Reporters were winning major awards for describing her life. In the great global newspapers, stories on what she wore and did and said appeared every week, at times every day. Heads of state were jotting down her name as an item for discussion in bilateral talks.

There is a hitherto untold story about why Winnie Mandela became so well known so fast. The evidence is contained in a couple of documents in the South African National Archives. Two men, each in their own separate way, were out to curtail Winnie’s political career. One was Thabo Mbeki, a rising star in the exiled ANC. The other was Jimmy Kruger, apartheid South Africa’s minister of justice. Their respective missions backfired; between them, they made Winnie famous.

In March 1975, the ANC sent Thabo Mbeki to Swaziland to establish an underground presence in South Africa. Three months later, he and his comrade Albert Dhlomo wrote their first in situ report to the executive of their organisation. Among many other matters, they reported that Winnie Mandela, who was then confined to her Orlando West house by a banning order, had made contact.

“We are advising everybody to cut off all links with her,” they wrote. They were stringing her along, giving her “the impression that she is in fact not being cut off”. But this was just a holding operation “for what we feared is beginning to happen, i.e. that she is now insistently asking us for directives. We are of course dilly-dallying in as much as, if we did, that would then serve as justification for her going around claiming to be directly in touch with the executive.”

Why was Mbeki determined to cut off Winnie Mandela? In part it was because the police watched her so closely. An underground operative who made contact with her was thus in grave danger. She was too well known to play an active role in the underground Mbeki envisaged building.

But his concerns appear to have gone deeper than that. At the end of September 1975, the banning order that had been slapped on Winnie five years earlier expired. Renewing it would have been a formality, accomplished at the stroke of a pen. But minister of police, prisons & justice Jimmy Kruger did not renew Winnie’s banning order. He simply let it expire. From out of the blue, she was free to travel, and meet people, and, most crucially, to address crowds.

When he took this decision, Kruger was following advice. The security police were running an informer who managed to speak to Thabo Mbeki in Swaziland. Mbeki, the informer reported, believed that Winnie was talking to the security police; indeed, Mbeki was feeding her false information to see how the police would respond.

What an informer tells their handler is often untrue. But in this case, it is strongly credible. Uncertainty about Winnie went back some time. In 1968, Oliver Tambo, Mbeki’s mentor, confided to the struggle stalwart and future Mandela biographer Mary Benson that he mistrusted Winnie. Indeed, he had set a trap for her to test whether she passed on information to the security police. (Benson’s memo recounting this meeting with Tambo is in Anthony Sampson’s papers in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.)

In any event, the security police took their informer’s intelligence seriously and fed what he had said about Mbeki to Jimmy Kruger’s advisers. They, in turn, persuaded Kruger to let Winnie’s banning order lapse. If she was causing such trouble in her movement, they reasoned, why not let her loose?

Nine months later, on June 16 1976, Soweto’s schoolchildren rose in rebellion. Had Winnie still been banned, she would have played no role. As it was, she became a leading figure during the insurrection. She was militant and unforgiving, to be sure, but her judgment was often sober. Once, she stood on the back of a pickup truck and with a borrowed police megaphone urged thousands of people to abandon a march into the heart of white Johannesburg. She likely saved many lives that day.

It was because Winnie had figured so prominently in the uprisings that the next misjudgment was made. In early 1977, Jimmy Kruger resolved to ban Winnie to Brandfort, a hamlet in the Free State hinterland where she knew not a soul and spoke not a word of the language.

At dawn on May 16 1977, police swooped on Winnie’s house, loaded her, her daughter Zindzi, her clothes and her furniture onto a truck, and dumped her in Brandfort. Within weeks, she was one of the most famous human beings in the world. Her plight was relayed in an endless string of stories in print and on broadcast news. US vice-president Walter Mondale immediately raised the matter of her welfare with prime minister BJ Vorster. She was a colossal embarrassment for the South African government.

It was a coup for the ANC. Its star had been waning. It had played no role in the uprisings of the previous year. All of a sudden, one of its own was on front pages across the globe. And Winnie played her part to perfection. The language she used was simple and honed. Over and again, she said the same thing. There will be majority rule in South Africa. The president will be the ANC’s Nelson Mandela. “We are fighting for a country which can only be led by him.”

What might have happened to Winnie Mandela had Mbeki not broadcast his misgivings about her? Her banning order would have been renewed in the spring of 1975; she would have played no part in the Soweto uprisings; she would not have been banished to Brandfort. That much can be reasonably surmised. But what would have become of her instead?

Counterfactuals are very hard. She was a formidable woman. Her husband was soon to become legendary, irrespective of the role she played in amplifying his name, and she would have become famous as his wife. Her world renown would have been delayed, it would have been slighter, her story far less effective; but she would undoubtedly have found a place on the global stage.

But that is hardly the end of the story. What might have happened to her personally had she not been banished to Brandfort? She was there for seven nightmarish years. Her letters to friends written at that time exude a spirit of despair that is heartbreaking. Several people I have interviewed who knew her then speak of her exuding a sorrow so deep they came away in tears. She began drinking heavily there. She violently attacked a small child there. She did not cope well at all there.

Winnie Mandela was an immensely complicated person; putting down everything that happened next in her life to the pain inflicted by Brandfort is implausible. But what transpired when she returned to insurrectionary Soweto in August 1985 was ghastly and painful beyond words, and it is impossible to disconnect it from her harrowing time in Brandfort.

It is unnerving to think that little contingencies can so profoundly change a life. A young ANC leader speaking too loosely; a justice minister making a poor decision. From these momentary judgments came such hardship and tragedy and such soaring political success.

At dawn on May 16 1977, police swooped on Winnie’s house, loaded her, her daughter Zindzi, her clothes and her furniture onto a truck, and dumped her in Brandfort. Within weeks, she was one of the most famous human beings in the world

Insight | Winnie and Nelson Mandela




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