Jonny Steinberg focuses his lens on Nelson and Winnie

04 September 2023 - 11:30
By Hannah Botsis
Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage by Jonny Steinberg.
Image: Supplied Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage by Jonny Steinberg.

Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage
Jonny Steinberg
Jonathan Ball Publishers

Jonny Steinberg’s latest book, Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage, is exquisitely and carefully written.

In South African literature about our past the moral poles are often pedantically pointed out. Steinberg, in this account of Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s marriage, doesn’t tell you what to think about the revelations he is sharing with you. This is refreshing and challenging. It forces one to grapple with the questions of whether we are continuously ourselves, or if our conditions are what ultimately make us who we are. There is no easy answer to this question. Instead, in his rendering of our country’s history through the lens of the interior of our most famous couple, we see the painful, and at times haphazard, nature of life play out.

We all know the story: glamorous beauty meets political stud. Both clever, self-conscious, and committed, they throw themselves into the struggle to free their people. Nelson is incarcerated, and Winnie is left on the outside, where a war is raging. Both realities are staggeringly painful. In their long marriage they spend hardly any time together, and soon after Nelson’s release, they get divorced.

But what binds them together over the decades? What do they understand of each other’s worlds? Their very identities seem overdetermined, imposed from the outside, made of other people’s desires. They play their parts well, but behind closed doors they are left isolated and broken-hearted.

Steinberg helps us enter the psychic life of the struggle, complicating issues of causality and culpability, but not letting anyone off the hook. Through his analysis of this one, and important, couple, we also come to see how we were all formed in this time. How, in the words of Gramsci, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters”.

Is Steinberg too hard on Winnie and too easy on Nelson? Ultimately both come off as damaged people, having had to endure so much. Is it any wonder we are damaged as a nation?

It feels as if we have entered a new epoch of history-making and storytelling as a nation. Until now, it was too recent, too painful to look beyond racial, social and material analyses of our condition. Now, with some distance, we can examine our scars, and admit no-one had a monopoly on good or evil, it was all so much messier than the story we told about our rainbow nation.

Read this book for a gripping, painful and sensitive retelling of one story from our past.