“My love for her remains undiminished.” These were the words Nelson Mandela used on April 13, 1992, when he announced to the world his separation from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
A few years later the couple legally divorced.
But it wasn’t the end of a long-lasting love story. When he saw her at a bus stop in 1957, it was love at first sight. Nelson Mandela (aka Madiba, as per his clan name) has always admitted that.
And Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has remained a presence in his life, even after his marriage to Graca Machel in 1998 – on his 80th birthday. In private, Mrs Machel sometimes refers to herself and Winnie as “Madiba’s two wifes”.
To many in the outside world Winnie remains labelled as the anti-apartheid fighter, who, in 1986, said: “With our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.” Necklacing was a brutal practice of “punishing” suspected traitors and apartheid collaborators by burning them alive using tyres and petrol.
But even more, Winnie’s image remains tarnished when she was found guilty of kidnap and assault of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi, whom she and her supporters suspected of being an apartheid informer.
Stompie was found dead in a field in Soweto. Winnie’s six-year jail sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal.
In 2003 Winnie was found guilty of fraud related to a funeral fund. Her five-year sentence was changed to a suspended one of three years and six months.
But these dark pages in Winnie’s life are probably, sadly, hiding a truly deep story of love, affection and commitment. And thus the more accurate, full story of Nomzano Winnie Madikizela is much lesser known. A love story amid the darkest days of South Africa’s apartheid past and into Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom and pension.
Winnie was born on September 26, 1936, in Pondoland, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. A social worker by training, she married Nelson in 1958, three months after Nelson divorced his first wife Evelyn Mase. Nelson had to ask the apartheid government for a six-day reprieve of his banning order to attend his own wedding.
The social worker was thrown into the heart of the anti-apartheid struggle.
The love story grew even stronger as Nelson was sentenced to life and sent to Robben Island. His prison letters are the proof of how he missed his wife and family – Winnie and Nelson had two daughters.
Winnie took over the megaphone of activism and the apartheid government punished her severely for it.
She was detained in solitary confinement between May 12, 1969, and September 14, 1970. And tortured, too. In one instance, although suffering from a heart condition, she was interrogated by the apartheid security police continuously and without a break for five days and five nights.
Winnie faced banning orders, detentions, about a dozen political trials, house arrest, and was banished to a rural town where she did not speak the same language as the local population. Nelson himself, and family friend and co-Robben Island prisoner Ahmed Kathrada said on many occasions how the hardship from prison can never be compared with the brutal suffering of those on the outside. And it hurt Nelson very deeply, as expressed in his prison letters, that he wasn’t there to help, protect, assist Winnie. And hold her, and comfort her. That might well be his deepest regret. How his political activism pushed his family life to the brink of the impossible.
Winnie, still respected in her Soweto community (and beyond) as the Mother of the Nation, is also a solid mother of a big family. A shoulder to cry on for daughters and grandkids. A source of guidance. A pillar of strength.
She had to be treated for shock when her grandchild Zenani (Jr) was killed in a car accident in 2010. She was present all the time when her granddaughter Zoleka went for weekly chemotherapy in 2013. She accompanied her eldest daughter Zenani to the Johannesburg international airport when she left earlier this year to become South Africa’s ambassador to Argentina. And she was at that same airport last week collecting her grandson returning from the US.
That’s her. The mother, grandmother, great-grandmother.
In August 2010, the family gathered at Winnie’s Soweto house to remember little Zenani, who died a month earlier. The end of a traditional mourning period. It was an intimate family lunch gathering… and Nelson was there, too. It was an amazing moment that had all the signs of any family anywhere in the world coming together to think of loss but also salute the family bond.
Winnie has always attended family events and especially Madiba’s birthday on July 18. Be it in his Qunu homestead, be it in his Houghton residence. Graca Machel and Winnie have a good relationship and accept each other’s position in Nelson’s life and in his heart.
When Nelson’s health started to deteriorate in 2011 and he ended up being admitted to hospital, Winnie was there at his bedside, every day. She felt it her duty to their kids, and certainly to the man she loved and still loves so much.
Since their eyes met at that bus stop in 1957, their souls have been interconnected … until eternity.