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Winnie and Mandela biography: a masterful tale of South Africa’s troubled, iconic power couple

Jonny Steinberg’s splendid 550-page biography, Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage, ends on a note of pathos with a poignant tale from Nelson Mandela’s deathbed.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela, a day after he was released from prison in 1990. Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images


Lecturer, Culture and Media department, Birkbeck, University of London

A new book on South African liberation struggle icons Nelson and Winnie Mandela is a masterful biography of the pair. It’s a work of scholarship involving an immense body of primary and secondary research, written with flair and panache but in an easy and compelling style, making it accessible to anyone with an interest in politics, power and South Africa and looks set to become the definitive work on them.

Jonny Steinberg’s splendid 550-page biography, Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage, ends on a note of pathos with a poignant tale from Nelson Mandela’s deathbed.

Four days from death in December 2013, Nelson is in an advanced state of dementia and refuses to eat. Graça Machel, his third wife, invites his estranged second wife, Winnie, to be with him, noting that she was “Nelson’s great love”, and it’s Winnie who feeds him. Winnie remarks to a friend:

First he decided to leave me; now he won’t eat without me.

In a sense, their story came full circle. The estranged power couple couldn’t quite keep apart all the way to the end, and there is something of the nation’s id (instinctive inner nature) and superego (moral standards) reflected in their contradictory roles.

Nelson emerges as a man plagued by inner strife and anger, saddened about the fate of his family (including his youngest daughter Zindzi’s inability to separate herself from her volatile mother) and his inability to play his role of patriarch, and yet so keenly aware of what is required that he self-consciously puts on his impassive and sometimes avuncular mask in public. Winnie, on the other hand,

is at once the most commanding figure and a figure of terrible subjection.

Earlier Steinberg uses the adjective “diabolical” to describe her tormented, mercurial mind, which had its full expression in the murders that emerged from her household –

the violence of the world without mirrored the violence of the world within.

The story begins with a tale Steinberg says is “not entirely true” – one Nelson and Winnie spun about their courtship, 57 years earlier: he saw this beautiful young woman at a bus stop, was overwhelmed, and soon swept her off her feet. In reality, Winnie had another lover at the time (who was still on the scene several months into her relationship with Nelson) and, as Nelson reminded her in a 1970 letter from prison, it was she who courted him.

Ambition and expedience

The early Nelson is portrayed as a man consumed by insecurity and ambition. He’s discovered by the wise ANC activist Walter Sisulu, who sees immense potential in this tall, regal-looking young man, draws him into his ANC world, and sets him on his way.

Sometimes ambition and expedience get in the way of altruism and principle. He swings towards Africanism after the ANC Youth League’s launch but veers away from it when offered the leadership of the 1952 Defiance Campaign against apartheid, led by the ANC. He joins the Communist Party, but when the Pan-Africanist Congress takes off, he proposes sidelining whites and dropping the Party.

He’s portrayed as a voracious womaniser during his first marriage to Evelyn (whom he admitted assaulting) and also while with Winnie. This book gives space to just two of his many lovers – the Women’s Federation leaders Lilian Ngoyi and Ruth Mompati.

Book cover shows a man and woman kissing.

Steinberg hints that Winnie’s inner turmoil was rooted in the lack of love in her childhood, and her need to please her overbearing father, even if her long periods of detention, imprisonment and banishment, and her resort to heavy drinking, exacerbated what was already lurking. Other accounts have taken the early influences further. Emma Gilbey’s 1993 biography The Lady portrays a psychopathic Winnie who, while still a teenager, committed a violent assault on a young woman.

Winnie defied convention by having lovers throughout her marriage. One of those was Brian Somana, who emerged as a security police informer. Winnie and Somana remained lovers after his exposure, prompting Nelson’s resolve to divorce her in 1965. However, Sisulu persuaded him against it.

Winnie seemed to have been a soft touch for security police spies. Not only did several of her young lovers emerge in this light, so did several of her friends and associates. One was her aide Jerry Richardson, who on New Year’s day 1989 cut the throat of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei who’d been accused by Winnie of being a spy. Nelson again made moves to divorce her, and once more pulled back.

Nelson and Winnie post-1990

While in prison, he had hid his angst about Winnie, who openly pursued her love affair with the young lawyer Dali Mpofu. It was in his bid to save her after the murder of Seipei that Nelson bared his teeth and emerged in the least favourable light.

First, when Winnie failed to get elected to the executive of her local ANC branch in Soweto, he got his aides to set up a new branch, which duly elected her. Then he used his muscle to get her elected to the regional executive.

Next he prompted the breakup of the International Defence and Aid Fund, cajoling them into helping fund her trial for kidnapping and assault. As Steinberg puts it:

He had corrupted the democratic processes of his organisation; he had wounded a fund to which he, personally, owed an enormous debt; he had received covert money from a private corporation.

The book suggests Nelson approved when a key witness and one of the accused were abducted and taken out of the country until the trial was over. Thus the court accepted Winnie’s false alibi that she was not in Soweto when the assaults on Seipei and others were taking place. In the end, she was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault.

Nelson did all this to save Winnie. And yet finally it all became too much for him. In 1992 he announced their marriage was over, prompting a wave of despair from her.

Four murders

The book directly implicates Winnie in the murders of two young men, Lolo Sono and Siboniso Tshabalala (both falsely accused of being informers, when the real informers were Winnie’s lover Johannes Mabotha and Jerry Richardson). It also strongly implies that she was behind the murder of her doctor Abu Baker Asvat (who’d examined Seipei) but leaves the question open as to whether she’d ordered Seipei’s murder.

Inevitably, with a book on two such immensely significant lives, the author will choose to emphasise some things and leave out others. For instance, there is no mention of her conviction in 2003 on 42 counts of fraud.

It draws to a close by looking at the denigration of Nelson and rehabilitation of Winnie, particularly after her death in 2018, her slate wiped clean by young activists frustrated by the slow pace of post-apartheid change. They came to believe that all the allegations against her were the product of state invention.

The Conversation Africa

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