John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website:


Author: Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob

Publisher: Zebra Press, 2003

Reviewer: John Sibi-Okumu

It bears qualifying, at the outset, that Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrop’s Winnie Mandela: A life takes the reader to the year 2004. Since Winnie Mandela was born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikezela in September 1934, eighteen years after her more famous but now belated husband, Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela, who died in 2013 at the age of 95, her story won’t be over until it’s over. It goes without saying that her existence will forever be inextricably linked to that of her husband and the Republic of South Africa and, doubtless, many more books will be written about her and her place in her country’s history.

Like Zelda la Grange another Afrikaaner who followed her example recently by writing Good Morning, Mr. Mandela a fawning biography of her former boss – she was his personal assistant – du Preez Bezdrop, a white South African, clearly admires Winnie Mandela, a black woman and the great man’s second wife, to whom she refers affectionately as Winnie, throughout. At one point in the narrative, she describes Winnie as the emotional keystone of South Africa’s liberator-in-chief. Earlier, in her preface, she writes that Winnie belongs to (this) unique fraternity of extraordinary women, most of whom will remain forever nameless. However, Winnie Mandela will have no fear of ever fading into oblivion. Hers is a life which will continue to polarise around the intriguing question: ‘Does the analysis of hindsight bestow greatness upon her?’

Du Preez Bezdrop’s overriding sentiment is that Winnie Mandela deserves greatness because she suffered so on behalf of others and, consequently, if she has any faults, they are far outweighed by her strengths as a force for change: She married young, her husband proved more attached to the struggle for liberation than he was to her and their two daughters, both born in his absence. His dedication to the struggle led to 27 years in prison on a windswept island before he emerged to become the first, democratically elected leader of an independent nation. Here again, a verbatim rendering of du Preez Bezdrop’s assessment is in order: ‘In the whirlwind events following (Nelson) Mandela’s release from prison and the start of negotiations designed to ensure a peaceful transition rather than a bloodbath in South Africa, the focus was constantly on him: what he had missed, how he had changed, his expectations of the future, his remarkably conciliatory attitude towards his white oppressors, his hopes and dreams. No one bothered to find out what Winnie needed and wanted, how her life had changed or what her aspirations might be. She had received almost no public credit or acclaim for the personal suffering she had endured, or the damage it had caused, or her phenomenal courage, and from the moment she was implicated in the serious crimes involving the football club, it was as though her entire past had been erased from the public mind.’

These words point to the ‘before, during and after’ images of Winnie Mandela. Before, during and after her husband’s imprisonment, that is: Before Madiba’s imprisonment she received the upbringing of a chief’s daughter in a large family peopled with eccentric characters and the education which made her a pioneer social worker, committed to helping others; a trait which she has seemingly retained. During Madiba’s incarceration she, more than any other person, was responsible for sustaining his memory. The letters Winnie and Nelson Mandela exchanged, published under the title Part of my soul went with him, could vie for number one spot amongst the classics of African romantic literature. She herself spent sporadic spells in prison, punctuated by thirteen months in solitary confinement, amongst the most taxing of human ordeals. She experienced harrowing interrogation, She was banished to far off places to live among alien peoples. She struggled as a single mother. She became increasingly more politicised, gaining an ideological intransigence that eventually superseded that of her husband. Above all, she kept the Mandela flame alive and vibrant in the imagination of the whole world. If, God forbid, Winnie Mandela had been struck dead by lightning at that stage of her life, her saintliness would have been assured. However, the halo began to dim somewhat after Madiba’s release. Not so much because of revelations of infidelity. Men get away with that all the time, without censure, and hers were, admittedly, exceptional sexual circumstances. Not so much because of accusations of financial impropriety. She could well have been out of her depth in the new dispensation and been given poor advice as to the limits of her power. No…. What there are to query are her profound errors of judgment: For example, when her apologist biographer chronicles Winnie’s harbouring of a gang of youths which tortured and killed gullible adolescents, to her knowledge, it gives the reader pause. When du Preez Bezdrop describes how Winnie arrived one hour late at a public rally and then, spurred on by the adulation of the masses, sought to be the centre of televised attention by trying to plant a kiss on a president (Thabo Mbeki) who she knew despised her and whom she herself despised, it gives the reader pause. And when it becomes evident that, unlike her husband, she has found it hard to forgive her oppressors and move on and still seems to be fueled by a lingering anger, it gives the reader pause. Because Madiba, the man she married, for all his faults, had a greater sense of history and acted accordingly. It has been well chronicled that he worked very hard at hiding his shortcomings from public view: He hid his sense of fear. He hid his short temper. He hid his patrician inclination to haughtiness in order to be seen as an accommodating, man of the people. He made much of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Satisfying as it is, Winnie Mandela: a life would have served its author’s agenda a great deal more if du Preez Bezdrop had supplied detailed minutiae to complement the broad, variegated story which she provides. In giving us personal anecdotes from the mouths of those who knew and loved or hated Winnie and, better still, from Winnie herself, rather than relying so heavily on reported speech, she would have pointed more clearly to the complexity of her subject and the times in which she has lived. However, the author must be congratulated on having set an engrossing process in train in 2003, upon which other writers are sure to build. And Winnie is still with us, hopefully for many more years to come. Her story continues.

Last modified on Thursday, 09 July 2015 20:06

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