I have had a long-standing interest in South Africa, and in 1995 briefly contemplated moving there to work. The country had just had its first multiracial election, and the great Nelson Mandela had been elected president. I was deeply curious to see, at first-hand, what the land and its people would make of their hard-won freedom. In the event, the job I was interested in did not come through. Nonetheless, I continued to closely follow developments in the country and made five trips there, partly to travel and see friends, partly to consult what the archives had to say about an Indian who had once spent two decades in South Africa, Mohandas K Gandhi.

My interest in South Africa and its people was sparked afresh by a book I have been reading recently. This is Jonny Steinberg’s Winnie and Nelson, which uses the story of a single married couple as a window into the complex and conflict-ridden history of that still troubled land. The book begins with their first meeting, in 1957, when Nelson was blown away by Winnie’s beauty and vivaciousness. He was almost two decades older than her, already married and with children, yet this did not deter him from courting her intensely and assiduously. For her part, she was attracted by his personality, and his public standing as a rising star of the African National Congress.

Steinberg’s book is subtitled Portrait of a Marriage. This is both entirely accurate as well as excessively modest. Their relationship as it evolved down the decades is depicted with sensitivity and authority, but always against the backdrop of the political and social history of the time. The characters of Nelson and Winnie come vividly alive, their struggles, sacrifices, anxieties and angularities narrated in depth and detail.

However, Steinberg also presents evocative portraits of many other individuals, among them Nelson’s comrades and rivals in the freedom struggle, Winnie’s friends and acolytes, the stern and sometimes cruel men who manned the apartheid state, and the foreign friends of the anti-apartheid movement (among them the remarkable United Nations official born in South India, Enuga S. Reddy). There is proper attention paid to all of Nelson’s children, whose lives were blighted by the circumstances of their upbringing, with their father largely indifferent to or absent from their lives. Steinberg is unflinching, too, in his account of the infidelities of both Nelson and Winnie.

Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mad­ikizela married in 1958, a year after they first met. They had two children in quick succession; but the father saw little of them while they were growing up. Mandela went underground soon after the birth of Winnie’s second child, and in 1963 he was imprisoned. Even while he was technically a free man, the marriage often took second place to Nelson’s politics; and now Winnie and the children were separated from him altogether.

Steinberg’s book is compellingly readable from the first page to the last, yet the sections which stand out most are those which deal with the 27 years of Mandela’s incarceration. These follow his life in prison and her life in a Johannesburg township, in chunks of a couple of years each, seen alternately from his perspective and hers. On Robben Island, Nelson was planning his future political strategy even while breaking stones and performing other forms of hard labour.

Steinberg carefully describes the different factions in the African National Cong­ress, with Nelson himself uncertainly placed between the violence-loving co­mmunists and those of a more moderate bent. Importantly, in his account of the freedom struggle, Steinberg recognises that the ANC was by no means the only important actor. He writes in some detail of the Pan Africanist Congress and its charismatic leader, Robert Sobukwe. Whereas the ANC opened its arms to whites and Indians, the PAC thought it fit to see Africans alone as authentic residents of the land. Its ideology was articulated with unusual effectiveness by Sobukwe, a man whom Mandela came to see as a rival and even perhaps as a threat.

Winnie’s struggles

Meanwhile, in Soweto, Winnie was seeking not just to pick up the pieces of her life but to mould a public career of her own. Steinberg narrates her struggles in raising her children and in finding a job, and her persecution and periodic jailing by the apartheid state. Meanwhile, with a remarkable daring, she proclaimed herself – by virtue of being the jailed Mandela’s wife – to be a, if not the, leader of the people. Always dressed stylishly, with a flair for the theatrical, she gave many interviews to foreign correspondents which made Nelson Mandela and his struggle better known overseas. Less appealingly, she surrounded herself with a band of thuggish young men, who used their proximity to Winnie to threaten, thrash and, occasionally, even murder those they believed to be inimical to their interests. As Steinberg shows, Winnie herself was not unaware of and, occasionally, complicit in the violence committed in her name by those under her protection.

By the late 1980s, the white rulers of South Africa had belatedly come around to the conclusion that the present system of apartheid was unsustainable. They began conver­sations with Nelson Mandela in prison, seeking a way out of the impasse. Among the interlocutors were two white intelligence officers of the apartheid regime who, after spending a great deal of time with Mandela, wrote in a secret note “that he could be ‘bought’ to betray his loyalty to his organization and his deep-rooted political philosophy is not possible”. They added: “One is struck by his spiritual power; the lack of bitterness, his natural courtesy, as well as his personal integrity.”

To this writer, these words recall the remarks offered by Judge Robert Broomfield when trying Mahatma Gandhi for sedition in Ahmedabad in 1922. “You are in a different category from any person I have ever tried or am likely to have to try,” the colonial judge told Gandhi, adding: “It would be impossible to ignore the fact that, in the eyes of millions of your countrymen, you are a great patriot and a great leader. Even those who differ from you in politics look upon you as a man of high ideals and of noble and of even saintly life.”

While sentencing Gandhi to six years in prison under the law as it prevailed, Broomfield remarked: “I should like to say in doing so that, if the course of events in India should make it possible for the Government to reduce the period and release you, no one will be better pleased than I.”

This, perhaps, was the true mark of greatness in Mandela and Gandhi – that they were able to stoke and evoke the humanity even in the imperialists who oppressed them and their people.

In February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison. With Winnie by his side, he spoke to the press and the world about his hopes for a non-racial and truly democratic South Africa. This image of a long-separated husband and wife now, once again, united in romantic love and shared political values was, however, deceptive. In their years away from one another, their ways had become increasingly irreconcilable.

The knowledge of Winnie’s many affairs hurt Nelson somewhat; what was more damaging was the rift between her and the ANC as a whole. Evidence of the violent acts committed by her gang of adoring youths had become more widely known. Perhaps out of guilt – at leaving her alone for so long – Mandela tried to cover up Winnie’s complicity in these crimes, but in the end this proved impossible. A parting of ways, personal as well as political, became inevitable.

Nelson and Winnie divorced in 1996. The book follows their individual journeys until Nelson’s death in December 2013 and Winnie’s death four-and-a-half years later. A particularly moving touch is Winnie coming to see Nelson during his final illness; a throwback to the years when he wrote her the most tenderly loving letters from prison, quoted in this book.

Rigorously researched and beautifully written, Jonny Steinberg’s Winnie and Nelson is acutely insightful at both the personal and political levels. It is a brilliantly constructed portrait of a marriage, of a people, of a country, of a time. Unclassifiable in terms of genre – the book is at once biography, history, political commentary, and narrative non-fiction – even those with little or no interest in South Africa will be stimulated and richly educated by it.

The updated edition of Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi is now in stores. His email address is ramachandraguha@yahoo.in.

This article first appeared on The Telegraph.