Married to Mandela: 'Life with him was life without him'

Theirs was a passionate and ultimately tragic love forged in struggle

08 April 2018 - 00:01 By NADINE DREYER
Former president Nelson Mandela and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Picture: Gallo Images/Media24 Archives)
Former president Nelson Mandela and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Picture: Gallo Images/Media24 Archives)

It was a love affair for the ages and featured passion, danger, martyrdom, sacrifice. It ended in tragedy and farce.

The male protagonist was a giant of a man: good-looking, fearless; principled - a legend with the looks of a matinee idol, equally at home in a boxing ring and fighting against a venal and tyrannical state.

The female was a breathtaking beauty 16 years his junior, who was also feisty, glamorous and clever.

Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela was 22 when Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela spotted her standing at a bus stop in Soweto. Thus started one of the 20th century's most famous romances. The fact that he was married with three kids didn't prevent this legendary ladies' man from securing a lunch date with her.

"The next day I got a phone call," Winnie recalled. "I would be picked up after work. Nelson, a fitness fanatic, was there in the car in gym attire. I was taken to the gym, to watch him sweat! That became the pattern of my life. One moment, I was watching him. Then he would dash off to meetings, with just time to drop me off at the hostel. Even at that stage, life with him was a life without him."

The human rights champion was brought to his knees by this young woman. The couple fell deeply in love and married on June 14 1958, as soon as Mandela could divorce his first wife, Evelyn,

Winnie was already politicised when she met Nelson. She had her first conscious experience of racial discrimination in 1945 at end of World War 2 when she was nine years old. Celebrations were scheduled at the town hall in Bizana but her family had to remain outside as the festivities were for whites only.

Winnie had completed her degree in social work top of her class in 1955, after she moved to Johannesburg. When she met Nelson she was working at Baragwanath, the first black social worker at the hospital. She became interested in politics and shared a dormitory with Adelaide Sisulu.

The wedding took place in Bizana. In a letter to him 12 years later, she recalled the "trembling little girl of 23 in a shabby little back veld church in Pondoland saying 'I do'" and his reassuring and firm grip as he slipped the ring on her finger.

"It was not to you only that I said, 'I do'. It was to you and all what you stand for. The one without the other would have been incomplete for me," she wrote to him.

Even on their wedding day they were victimised by the state. After the wedding, the guests were rounded up and questioned. "In the words of my late grandfather, 'Has the time come when the white man must determine who our children should marry and where?'" she wrote to Mandela in 1970 when they were both in jail, he on Robben Island and she in Pretoria Central prison.

The couple had precious little time together. Mandela left home in April 1961 when their daughters Zenani and Zindzi were two years old and three months, respectively. For Winnie this was the beginning of life as a political widow.

"We were hardly a year together when history deprived me of you. I was forced to mature on my own. Your formidable shadow which eclipsed me left me naked and exposed to the bitter world of a young 'political widow'. I knew this was a crown of thorns for me but I also knew I said 'I do' for better or worse. In marrying you I was marrying the struggle of my people," she wrote in the same letter.

The apartheid state did its utmost to break the spirit of the wife of the most prominent anti-apartheid activist.

Nelson had been in prison for seven years on the night of May 11 1969 when Winnie and her two daughters were eating supper. It was a couple of days after the girls had returned from school. Zindzi burst out at the table, "I want my daddy" and cried herself to sleep, little knowing that a couple of hours later security police would storm their Soweto home and take her mother away. Winnie's daughters clung to her skirt, crying: "Mummy, Mummy don't go." They were nine and 10 at the time.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and family visiting husband Nelson Mandela at Victor Verster prison in 1988. Dullah Omar is on the left in a light coat.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and family visiting husband Nelson Mandela at Victor Verster prison in 1988. Dullah Omar is on the left in a light coat.
Image: Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive

Winnie was held for 18 months, most of the time in solitary confinement. In a diary she described this hell. "You are imprisoned in this little cell. When you stretch your hands you touch the walls. You are reduced to a nobody, a non-value. It is like killing you alive. You are alive because you breathe. You are deprived of everything - your dignity, your everything."

During one interrogation she was questioned continuously for five sleepless days and nights. The porridge had maggots in it. Her mat and the walls of the cell were covered in the blood of a former inmate. She became extremely ill during her 491-day stay in prison and was admitted to hospital several times. At one stage she contemplated suicide.

When Nelson heard of Winnie's ordeal he was frantic. Both parents were in jail and did not know who was taking care of Zindzi and Zenani, or if they were going to school. Meanwhile the state intensified its cruel game of cat and mouse. Letters to each other were held back or did not arrive at all. Permission for prison visits was granted and then withdrawn. They were cut off from their relatives and each other.

On July 16 1969, less than a year after his beloved mother died, Mandela was told in a terse telegram that his son Thembi had been killed: "Please advise Nelson Mandela his son Thembekile passed away 13th instant result motor accident in Cape Town." He was 24 years old.

Mandela had regarded Thembi as an intimate friend. During the Rivonia Trial he had sat behind his father one day. "I kept looking back, nodding to him and giving him a broad smile. At the time it was generally believed that we would certainly be given the supreme penalty and this was clearly written across his face. Though he nodded back as many times as I did to him, not once did he return the smile. I never dreamt that I would never see him again," he wrote to Winnie.

As with the death of his mother, Mandela was refused permission to attend the funeral of his firstborn.

In a letter dated August 1 1970 to Winnie, Mandela wrote of his agony and his feeling of helplessness at not being able to comfort her: "I feel as if I have been soaked in gall, every part of me, my flesh, bloodstream, bone and soul, so bitter am I to be completely powerless to help you in the rough and fierce ordeals you are going through. What a world of difference to your failing health and to your spirit, darling, to my own anxiety and the strain that I cannot shake off, if only we could meet; if I could be on your side and squeeze you, or if I could but catch a glimpse of your outline through the thick wire netting that would inevitably separate us."

On hearing of her release from Pretoria Central he became more frantic to see her: "I want to see you badly... When will you come? How I wish I could have a contact visit, where I could hug you, feel the warmth of your blood, smile straight into your eyes, chat to you normally without having to shout before I could be heard...

"I long to see you in a peaceful and decent atmosphere, as a man and wife should when discussing tender domestic affairs after a separation of almost two years."

Winnie had written to him earlier: "Yes my love at the moment there is nothing we can do but swallow the cup of bitterness but one day we shall swallow it no more and that is the day whose dawn I have seen. One day we shall have a normal family unit too for no man with any manhood in himself can lead a normal life in an abnormal society."

Former president Nelson Mandela and his then wife Winnie raise fists upon his release from Victor Verster prison on February 11, 1990 in Paarl.
Former president Nelson Mandela and his then wife Winnie raise fists upon his release from Victor Verster prison on February 11, 1990 in Paarl.

But when Mandela was released on Sunday February 11 1990, he walked into a marital storm. Winnie had been linked to the brutal murder and torture of a young activist, Stompie Seipei, and sordid details of her affair with a young lawyer had been leaked. An intimate letter from Winnie to her lover appeared in newspapers.

In 60 years of Friendship, his close friend George Bizos describes the pain Mandela suffered the day he announced their separation.

"I had only ever seen him wear so grave an expression once before: 28 years earlier as he waited to hear if he and his comrades had been condemned to death," Bizos writes.

Back in the 1970s Mandela had written to Winnie: "Those who bear the cross ought never to squeal if the going is uphill, and I shan't."

They had walked the long walk together but dreams of a normal family life would never come true.

Nonetheless, Winnie was by Nelson's side when he died on December 5 2013.

After Winnie's death on Monday, her granddaughter Zoleka Mandela jokingly spoke about a conversation they had had about finding her a partner.

She asked her grandmother what her type was and Winnie replied: "Darling, just look at your grandfather. That's my type."