Winnie Mandela: Neither mother nor monster


Winnie Mandela: Neither mother nor monster

RW Johnson |

11 April 2018

RW Johnson writes on how to understand Winnie’s pattern of behaviour

When Winnie Mandela died on 2 April 2018 there was an outpouring of tributes to her as “Mother of the Nation”, the great heroine of the Struggle and an icon connecting us back to a braver age. Some of the tributes noted that she was “a divisive figure” and that there were always those who would remain critical of her.

Nonetheless, such tributes always continued, Winnie had been very courageous and determined and the overall record was positive. The Archbishop of Cape Town even began his tribute by quoting Winnie’s infamous speech about how “Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country” but then quickly moved from this to saying we were all sinners after all and that generally she was a very good thing. Julius Malema went further still, saying that Winnie should really have been the President of South Africa.

I always found it interesting that Helen Suzman had good words for Winnie, whom she visited in Brandfort. The two women could not have been more different – Helen was self-confident, affluent, upper class Jewish, Winnie a social worker from a rural Xhosa background, with Unity Movement rather than ANC roots. But both of them were the princesses of their movement, both were extremely brave and determined and they were both fighting the same people. This was what Helen responded to and the two women formed a bond which they always thereafter maintained. There were many others who found Winnie charming. De Klerk commended her for “a common humanity”, though he also spoke of “the dark side of her reputation and history, which one does not delve into at a time like this”.

Van Zyl Slabbert also visited Winnie in Brandfort but came back with rather different impressions. “A weird scene”, he told me. “Winnie seems to be sleeping with three or four different men including one of the security police sent to watch her.” Van was no puritan but he saw enough to make him keep his distance from then on. Later, of course, some were repelled by the endless reports of Winnie’s serial adulteries and her reliance on alcohol and Mandrax but often put it down simply to her chaotic and highly stressed lifestyle.


By the 1980s Winnie was running wild in Soweto and anxiety spread through the United Democratic Front at home and the ANC abroad at the thought of things she might get up to that they would find it impossible to defend. Every so often Winnie would go to visit Nelson in jail, invariably accompanied by Ismail Ayob, Nelson’s lawyer. Ayob would keep telling Winnie about things she really ought not to do. Mandela himself was much concerned for he too was getting reports about Winnie’s bad behaviour.

This he put down purely to the fact that he wasn’t there with her to guide her steps. When they met he would give her firm instructions about things she ought to do and what to avoid. Winnie would listen to this without demur. As they walked out of the jail Ayob would point out that Nelson was merely confirming what he had already told Winnie himself. Winnie’s paid not a blind piece of notice to such admonishments.

In effect Winnie had by this time realised that the Mandela name inevitably made her the leading figure in the anti-apartheid struggle and she was beginning to feel her full strength as a result. For it was clear that the apartheid authorities were nervous at the thought of having to detain or arrest her again or prosecute her for the many violent incidents in which she was involved. For she had become a major symbol and any such steps against her would be met with an international outcry.

She also knew that the UDF leaders at home and occasionally even senior ANC leaders abroad were upset by many of her actions (Oliver Tambo had publicly condemned her “matches and necklaces” speech in April 1986), for she observed no movement discipline and was entirely a law unto herself. She was determined to go her own sweet way and thumb her nose at any attempt to rein her in. And she had understood that she could get away with this at least while Nelson remained in jail, provided that Nelson himself did not publicly condemn her actions. It was thus sensible to take Nelson’s private reprimands in silence.

Meanwhile Winnie was using the Mandela name in all manner of money-making schemes, some of them pure scams. For example she sold bottles of soil allegedly taken from the garden of the Mandela house in Soweto – liberated land, as it were. But such malarkey was overshadowed by the far more sinister activities of the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC), in effect her band of hired thugs. Again, Tambo’s explicit instruction to her to dissolve the MUFC went unheeded.


With the ANC’s authority thus being publicly flouted in January 1989 the UDF set up a Mandela Crisis Committee (MCC) including such UDF worthies as Cyril Ramaphosa and Murphy Morobe and various anti-apartheid clerics and activists. Later, one of its members, the Methodist Bishop Peter Storey told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission how the Committee sought to secure the release of four abducted youths. While denying that she had kidnapped the youths, Winnie also refused to hand them over and MCC members were only allowed to see the boys in the presence of the intimidating members of the Football Club. Three of the four boys later alleged that they had been assaulted by Winnie and the MUFC while the fourth, 14 year old Stompie Sepei was later murdered with one witness, Katiza Cebekhulu, claiming to have seen Winnie knife him to death.

Storey related how the MCC had visited Nelson Mandela in jail to relate their findings. He had then asked Winnie to hold a press conference at which she should publicly apologise for the kidnappings. Naturally, Winnie did no such thing. It was not until 1992 that Winnie was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to six years in jail which, of course, she never served – the sentence quickly being reduced to a derisory fine, for the judiciary were clearly quite unwilling to risk her wrath by putting her behind bars again.

Similarly, Bishop Storey related how concerned the MCC had been to suppress and hide the extent of Winnie’s misdemeanours for fear of political damage though already many people were simply scared of Winnie. Peter Godwin, then writing up some of Winnie’s activities for the (London) Sunday Times, told me that it would now be prudent for him to leave town for several weeks. It was generally rumoured at this time that Winnie and the Football Club had murdered at least eight children.

By the time Bishop Storey was giving his testimony in 1997 Winnie stood accused before the TRC of 20 human rights abuses including eight murders and several cases of kidnapping. She refused to apply for amnesty for anything and would not even comment despite the huge litany of complainants testifying how she had been responsible for endless torture, beatings and murders. Indeed, she accused Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders of a campaign of vilification against her.

At the end Archbishop Tutu pleaded with her in the most eulogistic terms, speaking of his “immense admiration” for her and how she was a “great person” and that her “greatness would be enhanced if you said “sorry, things went wrong for me”. Offered this quasi-apology purely in the passive voice which thus avoided any confession of guilt, Winnie at last took it, saying she was “deeply sorry, things went horribly wrong for me”.

Many believed the situation was far worse. At the same time that the MCC was in operation, The Independent’s John Carlin, in an article based on confidences from leading UDF members, reported no less than sixteen murders carried out by Winnie or on her orders. In some cases those killed were alleged informers but in others the victims had merely offended her for purely personal reasons (e.g. rivals in love or simply people who knew too much, like Dr Abu-Baker Asvat).

But she was the first and greatest case of impunity. Both judges and policemen were afraid to hold her responsible so, naturally, everyone else was afraid too. When Winnie became an MP shopkeepers in Cape Town were terrified that she might appear in their shops for it was already well known that she would order large numbers of luxury goods, never pay her debts and threaten anyone who tried to make her pay. Later I once saw Winnie and her entourage sweep into Durban’s up-market Musgrave Centre and saw for myself the panicked reaction of shopkeepers.


My own introduction to the Winnie phenomenon had come in 1988 when I attended a meeting at M.L. Sultan Technikon in Durban addressed by Winnie and her great friend, Fatima Meer. I had known Fatima ever since I was a teenager. She was smart, brave and a determined activist but as she got older her political passions seemed at times almost to have driven her crazy. It was thus with some trepidation that I learned that she had been made head of Phambili School in central Durban, set up by the UDF. The pupils were all young activists and soon enough there were demonstrations and protests against Fatima’s authority. Fatima responded with autocratic fury, expelling pupils, sacking teachers and often peremptorily closing the school down, sometimes for weeks on end. At the time of the meeting this had just happened again.

The meeting got under way before a packed hall. A large bouquet was brought up to the podium. Fatima rose to accept it but then had to sit down again rather quickly since it was, of course, for Winnie. Fatima then spoke first but she had hardly got into her stride when a procession of protesting Phambili children with placards entered the hall, denouncing Fatima for her alleged denial of democracy and for denying the children access to education by closing down the school. Fatima, clearly discomfited, looked across at Winnie who immediately ordered the Football Club to deal with the intruders. The young men of the Club leapt into the aisles and bundled the children out into the foyer where they beat the living hell out of them. Hearing the thumps and screams I went up to the foyer to see the children running for their lives, leaving their banners and placards behind them.


The real question is how to understand Winnie’s pattern of behaviour. The best way into this is provided by Fatima Meer’s Higher than Hope. Rolihlahla We Love You” (1988). Mainly, this is the usual hagiography of Mandela but it includes an interesting portrait of Winnie, who Fatima knew extremely well (and who contributed a foreword to the book). Winnie came from a family of warrior chiefs but her great-grandfather, Chief Mazingi, invited the missionaries in and many of his children became educated and Christianized. However, Seyina, the senior of his 29 wives and Winnie’s grandmother, resisted Christianization and retained all the old Nguni rituals. This created major conflicts with Winnie’s mother who was “a modern woman” (as Fatima refers to her), educated and Christian. Seyina disliked her ways and accused her of preventing her son, Kokani (Winnie’s father) from becoming a chief and a real man by taking more wives.

Winnie loved her grandmother, whom she called Makhulu, and spent much time at her home – a set of twenty rondavels inhabited by a vast spreading network of uncles, aunts and cousins. Makhulu taught her all the traditional skills – making mats and clay pots, brewing beer, the ways of the ancestors, singing, dancing, how to ride horses, milk cows and wear skins and beads. Above all there were endless stories, myths and legends and there were always people, talk and teasing in Makhulu’s kraal.

It was a great deal more fun than life in her own mother’s far smaller kraal, especially since her mother insisted on neatness and on her children being immaculately turned out for church. Winnie was acutely aware of the tensions between the two women and how she might be chastised by one side or the other, no matter how she behaved. This flowed over into racial matters. Winnie’s mother respected and copied “European” ways but Makhulu made it very clear that she neither liked nor trusted white people. Even white doctors were thieves and traditional healers were greatly to be preferred.

Winnie’s mother and maternal grandmother were both devout Christians and insisted that Winnie accompany them to church every Sunday – tremendously expressive occasions with much singing, breast-beating, screaming and weeping. Winnie, conscious of Makhulu’s contempt for the church, felt alienated and bored by it. Worse, she was aware that her mother had wanted a boy, not a girl, that she was thus a somewhat unwanted child. Her sisters were admired for their fair skins but not her. When they visited the Minister’s house, the Reverend’s wife admired her sisters but then asked “what is the name of your little boy?” - meaning Winnie. Winnie was furious and vowed she would become a boy, playing only with the boys and learning to fight with sticks, lay snares, climb trees and light fires.

Her mother was distressed at this tomboy behaviour so Winnie found herself in a double-bind whichever way she turned. Her mother had wanted a boy but when Winnie behaved like one, she didn’t like it. Her mother would strictly enforce her church attendance which her grandmother would denounce. So she got punished if she did and punished if she didn’t. She felt keenly the fact that her mother seemed to prefer her sisters, to see Winnie mainly as a problem and, if the children quarrelled, Winnie was the child singled out for a smacking.

But Winnie was tall and strong and learnt to beat most of the boys at stick fighting. When provoked by her younger sister, Nonalithi, Winnie made a knuckle duster out of a baking powder tin with a nail through the middle. When they next fought Winnie used the knuckle-duster to brutal effect, the nail piercing the inside of Nonalithi’s mouth, causing her to be taken off to the white doctor in Bizana for stitching. For this Winnie received the most severe beating of her life, a trauma she never forgot.

Despite this Winnie still loved her mother and was shattered when she was ten and her mother at last had the longed-for son, for her mother fell ill and never recovered. “It was as if she had been living just to give birth to this precious son”, said Winnie bitterly. Winnie nursed her mother, lying for hours and days with her and the new baby. When her mother died the baby, still on her breast, cried inconsolably and Winnie had to nurse him for many days and nights thereafter. It was unutterably awful - “it was as if our sorrow would never end”.

Winnie drew ever closer to her father. Before long a Miss Jane Zithutha joined the local school as a teacher. She was very kind to Winnie, who stayed with her, and Winnie’s father also seemed attracted to her. Naturally, Makhulu disapproved and showed her anger quite openly at the liaison. Then one day Makhulu warned of a coming storm and told Winnie to herd the cattle to safety. A lightning bolt hit the tree outside Miss Zithutha’s rondavel, the tree fell on the hut and it and Miss Zithutha were entirely consumed by the flames. It seemed to show the power of the old magic. Winnie’s father was not to remarry until she was eighteen. Inevitably, he married another teacher and Makhulu furiously disapproved, calling her “that old hag” and refused to slaughter the usual goat in celebration. Again, Winnie was caught in between.

Fatima makes no bones about the fact that this was a deeply conflicted and troubled childhood, just as she speaks of Winnie’s daughter Zindzi being overwhelmed by problems and depression. There is no doubt that any psychiatrist would see material here a-plenty to explain Winnie’s deeply disturbed personality and her wild, often brutal behaviour. But of course her dreadful torture and sufferings while in detention and her continuous harassment by the Security Police over many years also had powerful psychological effects, further distorting and accentuating those character traits.

Fatima often refers to how, from the very earliest age, Winnie was engaged in fierce fighting with other children, often handing them out severe beatings. This was to become a recurrent theme in her life. In Soweto of the 1980s she always surrounded herself with children, with the young men of the Football Club and with what were known as “com-tsotsis” (young comrade criminals) – and she both handed out severe beatings to many of them or ordered them to beat others, often under pain of being beaten themselves. One member of the Football Club, testifying against Winnie, spoke of how she would sjambok children for as long as five hours at a time. To the very end of her life Winnie’s greatest affinity was with wild young people, latterly with Julius Malema and his cohort.

What all this means is that it might be best to avoid the dichotomy between Winnie the monster and Winnie as the Mother of the Nation, the heroine of the liberation. These are not really either/or’s. She was both and she was a deeply disturbed person affected by serious pathological disorders. Like so many deeply damaged people, she was also terribly damaging. She didn’t really need to go to jail or appear before the TRC; she needed psychological treatment.

This was actually a much broader theme in the liberation movement than is much spoken of. Many people were damaged by apartheid, or by the struggle, or by exile, or by the liberation movement itself. Depression, alcoholism, drug use, continuous relationship disorders, brutality even towards one’s comrades, delinquent behaviour of every kind – it’s all there in so many liberation biographies. And before even they got involved in such matters many, like Winnie, had come from troubled or disturbed childhoods.

The struggle, apart from its obvious objectives, was a far more complicated phenomenon than is often realised. Particularly in the earlier years there was a strong element of self-selection by people who were socially marginal to begin with.

Throwing yourself into an all-engrossing cause was a good way to submerge all manner of personal problems. Many of these people were very brave, though it should be realised that a struggle hero was not necessarily a good person in other ways. But becoming a committed militant not only provided a means of venting one’s feelings and turning one’s frustrations and anger to serve a noble cause.

It also provided a close set of comrades on which one became socially and emotionally dependent and, as the ANC’s resources grew, it could provide scholarships, per diems and foreign travel as well as jobs in a number of allied and front organizations. So the movement was also a family and a patronage network.

There was a great amount of psychological reinforcement: comrades would often sit around discussing the manifold wickednesses of die Boere – these were really hate sessions on classical Orwellian lines. But the consciousness of serving a noble cause also gave militants a tremendous sense of self-righteousness. This was a very double-edged thing. On the one hand it provided a euphoric elevation of feeling which enabled many, many militants to show a quite remarkable courage and determination, even when facing torture or death.

But an overweening sense of self-righteousness is also what powered the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition. And, after all, Winnie was hardly alone in the brutalities she inflicted. There were many more brutalised comrades in the ANC camps willing to beat, torture and sometimes kill other comrades. All great struggles have always served these multiple purposes. They are not unilinear affairs. Even when they achieve their objectives the way in which they distort and often ruin lives is part of their terrible sadness as are the awful anti-climaxes which disfigure even their triumphs.

RW Johnson