For years now, I have held a place in the world of forgotten anti-apartheid women. I have been a conduit, collecting letters, documents and stories from these lost women – old, lonely women – stuck in nursing homes and low income flats. I have lived in the language of these women’s words, and although writing it down in a novel, in “fiction”, was supposed to have been my catharsis, this has not happened as yet. I am still there, honoured to have these stories, but I have had my losses as well because I chose activism over domesticity.

An unexpected visitor

I was born on a sugar cane plantation. My great grandfather had been brought to South Africa as an indentured labourer, and the Moreland Estate, where I was born, was the first place that he, as a boy of eighteen, worked on the sugar cane fields. In the years to follow, it was my grandfather, and then my father, who eventually saved up enough money to buy ten acres of the plantation, and this is where I grew up.

My childhood house had a large thorn tree that was there since the time of the indentured labourers, and it was tradition for the people of the Moreland Plantation to gather to discuss social and political matters. This was a tradition called “panchayat,” which roughly translates to gossip.

When I was eight years old, I clearly recall my mother telling me of one such “panchayat.” Ordinarily, women and children were allowed to linger on the fringes of the circle of men who discussed important matters with my grandfather, informally designated as the leader of this gathering. But on this particular day, the children and most especially the women were told to remain indoors, and not listen in.

My mother says she stole away from the women in the kitchen and went to stare at the thorn tree through a fine lace curtain that hung in the front room of our house.

All she remembers seeing was the gathering of men from my village, and there, towering above them all was a man she had never seen before. His stature struck her, his posture astounded her, but even though she could hear nothing of what he was saying, his animated hands waving wildly in the air is an image that will always remain with her. This man was Nelson Mandela.

Many years later, my father persists in repeating this story.

He said that this tall man was running away from the white police. He had come to our village because of its remoteness, asking to be hidden away so he could avoid arrest. My father hid his face from me when I, now an adult woman, asked him why the women were instructed to stay indoors and not listen to the discussion. I still don’t know the answer to this. But I feel that in all my writings, and in all my research, this is the one answer I am searching for.

Nelson Mandela, then a dangerous fugitive, with a death penalty of terrorism hanging over his head, was given a job at a petrol filling station in our village, where he hid his face behind a large cap, filling up petrol for the heavy tractors that carried burnt sugar cane to the sugar mill. My father also told me, with deep embarrassment in his eyes, that it was one of the men who had been present at the gathering under the thorn tree who had eventually informed the Apartheid Special Branch, of the whereabouts of Nelson Mandela. Upon hearing that he had been found out, Mandela was given a vehicle from the village but he was apprehended by the police on a bridge an hour away from my home town. He was charged under the Terrorism Act Number 83 of 1967, during the infamous Rivonia Trial and sentenced to life imprisonment, on May 27, 1963. He was sent to Robben Island with two other comrades, the founding fathers of the African National Congress – Ahmed Kathrada, and Walter Sisulu.

A charismatic man

A year or so after he was released from prison on February 11, 1990, an imprisonment of 27 years, Nelson Mandela visited my home town of Tongaat. It was one of the first places he wanted to visit. This time he did not have to speak under a thorn tree. This time, he was given a red-carpeted welcome at our Town Hall. My mother insisted on going and took me along. I was seventeen. She knew that she did not have to hide herself or her daughter behind the silence of lace curtains and closed windows any longer.

The looming threat of me being a girl who was pushing herself into active political awareness instead of preparing for an unwanted marriage, no longer bothered the elder men of my family. The marriage was non-negotiable, but in my mother’s final act of freeing her daughter, she took me to this event. I saw Nelson Mandela for the first time that evening. He was beautiful – one of the most handsome men I had ever seen. He was a man in his early seventies, and to a girl of seventeen, he was still beautiful.

But, somehow, when I think about that evening, I don’t remember him as much as I do my mother. She had dressed resplendently for the event, as if she would be given an audience with him. While he spoke on stage, her eyes shone brighter than I’d ever remembered.

My mother could not contain her tears. Neither could I. When he was leaving the hall, many bodies blocked us from trying to reach him. But my mother swears to this very day, that she did indeed touch his blue shirtsleeve. I believe her.

And because I believe the fairy tale that my mother touched his sleeve, I believe in the absolute seduction of Winnie Mandela. If just seeing him could make a seventeen-year-old girl cry, and a forty-five-year-old woman behave like a seventeen-year-old, Winnie Madikizela didn’t stand a chance.

I do not want to speak about Nelson Mandela. Much has been said about him and the brotherhood of the African National Congress in articles and books ad infinitum. I want to talk about the Silent Sisterhood of the Struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. Much has also been written about the women of the struggle but there is also much has not been written, much that has not been said.

An apolitical social worker

Winnie Madikizela was born in Bizana, a town in the Transkei area of South Africa. Her father, named Columbus, taught in a “bush school” which is basically a school for every single age, or grade, under a tree. And like his namesake Columbus, the daughter of this one went in search of one thing, but ended up finding something else. Winnie went in search of love, but she founded a sisterhood of warriors.

Her mother died when she was only eight, and Winnie grew into a woman, never having a mother to teach her about being one. Strangely, the hand of fate saw Winnie and Nelson Mandela’s daughters also grow up without a mother. But their mother was not dead, she was just as close to it as possible for most of their childhood.

Winnie trained to become a social worker, and was an exemplary student. She completed her social work degree in 1955 and was awarded a prestigious scholarship to study in the United States. She turned down this opportunity, and remained as a social worker in an extremely challenging environment – the first black social worker at a horrible government hospital, called Baragwanath Hospital in Johannnesburg.

Winnie Madikizela was not politically inclined. As a young woman, and a very beautiful one at that, she has admitted to spending more time looking at fashion than politics. But while conducting her research dissertation, she began to look deeply into infant mortality rates amongst people of colour. She realised, to her horror, that for every 1000 live births, there were ten infant deaths.

She began digging deeper, but on finding herself in controversial waters with the apartheid system, she stopped her research with the threat of losing her licence.

But Winnie’s stars had aligned a direction for her, one that she was too young to take but grabbed at anyway. When Winnie Madikizela, a shy yet astoundingly beautiful social worker met Nelson, a handsome, (in)famous lawyer, neither of them stood a chance. It is often said that there was no force on heaven or earth that could separate them, once they laid eyes on each other at a bus stop. But neither heaven nor earth were necessary. It was hell that separated them.

A brief honeymoon

Nelson Mandela married Winnie Madikizela on June 19, 1958. Their marriage sustained a very short honeymoon period, during which time two daughters, Zenani and Zinzi, were born in quick succession. Zenani was barely three, and Zinzi just eighteen months old when their father, Nelson, had to leave Winnie and their little home in Soweto to go into hiding. Often, Winnie would soothe her crying babies, wondering which part of the world her husband was in, or whether he was alive or dead. She had only enjoyed two years of normal domesticity before losing her husband to a mistress – the Struggle.

After Nelson was sentenced and imprisoned, Winnie was suddenly thrust into a spotlight she was ill- equipped to handle. She was a very shy woman, often looking through demure lashes into camera lenses and giggling with a hand over her stunning smile. She retreated, she mourned the marriage that any young woman in love deeply craves, and she protected her children.

But, it was not in her stars to remain cloistered. The country was baying for a face – someone who would take the place of Nelson Mandela, who would show their clout to the advancing apartheid authorities that celebrated his arrest at sunset cocktail hour on a croquet lawn.

Winnie’s beautiful face became this poster – cameras flashed in her face and people sang songs of praise that they had had found the “Mother of the Nation.” She smiled broadly in a photograph that caught her off guard as hoards of people gathered outside her house in Vilakazi Street, Soweto. People criticised this unguarded smile. They wondered how she could smile when her husband was rotting in prison. The gossip mill has begun and little did she realise how rapidly this smile would be snuffed out.

An easy target

It was probably the day she was photographed with her fist stuck into the air (the symbol of Amandla...or Power), that she became a target. The shy wife was slapped with an arrest warrant under the Suppression of Communism Act 44 of 1950. She was asleep in her marital home, her two slumbering daughters clinging to her, when the Apartheid Police barged into her bedroom and dragged her from her bed. Her pretty pink silk nightclothes were ridiculed and tugged at as they asked her which man she had worn the lingerie for. They ogled at and prodded her before leaving her with warnings that she would pay for what her husband was doing.

Winnie found herself being banished to a small town in the then purely white province of the Orange Free State, and placed under constant surveillance and house arrest at Brandford, a dusty dirty town. She immediately set to work, organising a crèche and school, but was rapidly stopped. She was allowed to return to Soweto, but it didn’t end there.

Desperate to break Nelson, the Apartheid Special Branch attacked Winnie again. They dragged her away from her home in the middle of the night. Zinzi, screaming and grabbing onto her baby sister, ran to a neighbour’s house. Winnie screamed for “Ubuntu” (an African phrase that says – what is mine is yours), and the neighbour grabbed the two baby girls, and took them into her care. The two children held onto her skirts, screaming “Mummy Mummy, don’t leave us.”

Winnie Mandela was detained without a warrant, in solitary confinement for 491 days, and violently tortured. These are details which I find difficult to talk about. She was Prisoner Number 1323/69 in the Pretoria State Prison, constantly watched over by a host of wardens, the scariest of them being a woman named Brigadier Aucamp (Winnie called her Brig). In a 15 by 15 foot cell with grey walls, a grey floor and grey ceiling, she spent 491 days. She was refused medication for an existing heart condition and began to black out and develop low blood pressure. She constantly thought of suicide but, as she wrote in her journal:

“I have decide I should commit suicide but to do it slowly to spare Nelson and the children the pains of knowing I did not have courage.”

Brig, as Winnie called her constantly taunted her inside the tiny cell, where the bright naked light bulb was never switched off, so that Winnie didn’t know if it was day or night. Brig would tell Winnie how well Nelson was doing, how he was putting on weight. The screams of her daughters taunted her too, as she was reminded of them each day by the wardens. They described horrors that the little girls were allegedly enduring and hounded Winnie to believe that is was all Nelson’s fault. Winnie spoke of how she saw scrawled into the walls: “Joyce was here, Nondwe was here, Shanti was here.” These were all sister fighters, her comrades who had been in that miserable 15 by 15 foot coffin before her. Their names gave her courage.

A changed woman

Of course, I have to mention that Winnie Mandela still carries much shadow and controversy. She came out of prison an angry woman, a changed woman. Yes, she came out in rage. She went wildly against the slow and peaceful advance of the African National Congress, was accused of murdering the young alleged police informant, Stompie Seipei, and had a torrid and much publicised affair with a much younger man, Dali Mpofu, while Nelson Mandela was in prison. She advocated burning the white man to the ground. She disappointed Nelson, she was shunned by the ANC, and although she held his hand when he was released from prison and walked through the gates with him, their marriage was over. Nelson and Winnie Mandela divorced in March 1996.

Winnie never remarried. Her name was conspicuously absent from his will after his death on December 5, 2013, and when she tried to return to their ancestral home, she was barred from entering it. She continued to reside in Soweto and became an alcoholic, lashing out in national newspapers that the “ANC is wrapping themselves in silk sheets.”

She became a Evita-like figure in Soweto, arriving in Mercedes Benz’s , wearing expensive shoes and bright patterned headscarves. She took young lovers on trips on a Concorde to Paris, she shouted, she howled and she raged. She was openly compared to the other wives of the struggle, the silent graceful ones, like Albertina Sisulu who had borne their marital separation with poise. Whilst they were called graceful, Winnie was called wild.

Forty years after she was released from prison, a package arrived from London at Winnie’s door, brought by an English lawyer she didn’t know. It was a stack of documents Winnie had forgotten ever existed – her journal. The one she kept while in prison, once they allowed her use of paper and pen. She was seventy-five years old and the memories and horror returned to the somewhat false peace her soul had found.

She couldn’t look at the documents. She could not bear to touch them. But when her granddaughter suddenly died in a car accident, a torrent was unleashed. Winnie attacked the journals, pawed through them, and finally, at the age of seventy-five, the words began to flow, the book began to write itself. Her autobiography, 491 days/ Prisoner Number 1323/69, was published in 2013. The world now came to know her.

Letters of a marriage

I came to read a collection of her unpublished correspondence. I love letters. I write them to many people, even myself, and the nectar of letters from Winnie to Nelson and from Nelson to Winnie was too sweet for me to resist.

I begin with citing a letter that Nelson wrote to Winnie, on the day she was released from her months in solitary confinement, and later from imprisonment itself (although she remained under constant state watch and interference):

My dearest Winnie

I had to wait two weeks before I could send you my warmest congratulations for serving 491...and still emerge the lively girl you are, in high spirits.

From your beloved Nelson (October 1, 1976)

In her response to him, Winnie writes:

My darling,

In a way, during the past two years, I have felt closer to you. Eating what you were eating, and sleeping on what you sleep gave me the satisfaction of being with you. (October 26, 1970)

Below are a few excerpts of the letters between Nelson and Winnie, in their apparent chronology. Because one must remember that letters were written, but often remained with the Special Branch, screened, words blacked out in thick ink, and they often were returned to sender. If they did reach the hungry recipient, it was always a hodgepodge of dates, a pastiche made even more confusing with the confusion of whether it was day or night, winter or summer, birthday or death-day:

Dear Winnie

Most people don’t realise that your physical presence would have meant nothing to me if the ideals for which you have dedicated your (our) life have not been realised. Nothing can be as valuable as being part of a parcel of the formation of history of a country.

Devotedly, Dalibunga (August 5, 1969)

(Dalibunga was Nelson Mandela’s clan name, given to him after initiation into adulthood, a practice common to Xhosa males)

My darling Nelson

I have learned from you. How I laughed when I recalled the medical student we know. Remember the horrible green car? It refused to start. Remember the funny story of the Evangelists?

Love, Winnie (November 11, 1969)

Dear Winnie,

We stand in a relationship now, not as husband and wife, but as sister and brother. In the past, I have addressed you in affectionate terms, for then I was speaking to a wife. But now, in the Freedom Struggle we are all equal, and your responsibility is as great as mine.

Hugs and kisses to the girls. Nelson (November 16, 1969)

There are hundreds of letters between Nelson and Winnie, many of which I am quite certain will never be found. But, the striking thing is that in the few letters that I have read, Nelson’s voice is asking a wife to become a sister, a comrade of the struggle.

Winnie sat alone in her house, surrounded by two children who grabbed at her, surrounded by a desperate country that grabbed at her. She received no comfort that a wife craved from a husband. So she decided that the way to Nelson’s heart was through his mind. She wanted to win his love. She wanted letters of undying love, affection, mounting passion. Perhaps it was censorship, perhaps he just could not say it inside his loneliness, but slowly, Winnie began to realise...she was no longer a wife. Not even a widow. Now, as a comrade of the struggle, she had become Nelson Mandela’s sister-wife.

This was the worst place for a woman to be. Most especially a woman who was brimming with repressed passion for a man she just could not get a hold of. Even in letters, even in blacked out sentences, she just could not get hold of him.

Dear Nelson,

I still cannot believe that at last I have heard from you, my darling. In my handwriting you will notice the hypnotising effect your letters have on my soul. All I have needed is a natural drug after all. We were hardly a year together when history deprived me of you. Your formidable shadow, which eclipsed me, left me naked – a young political widow.

I looked in the mirror. My hair is white, there are bags under my eyes. At age thirty six!

When I visited you at the Fort, do you remember, you said, “this is not the beauty I married. You have become ugly.” Then you sent me a magazine on the Reigning Beauties of the World – The Women and the Power behind politically successful men. I was furious. I had taken such a lot of trouble to look nice for you that day.

Winnie Mandela (October 26th, 1970)

Winnie loved her husband and she lost him. She stopped being Nelson Mandela’s wife, and when they walked together, holding hands, out of the prison gates the day Nelson Mandela was freed, it was already too late. Now, a brother and a sister, who stood with their backs together against an ugly world suddenly turned towards each other, and saw that their love was over

A broken heart

Winnie was a woman of great and intense passion. This passion blazed from her eyes. But, in her one and only love, she believed that her passion was unrequited. There is no doubt that she committed atrocities, alleged murders, incited a country to burn and kill, had a public extra-marital affair, and descended into alcoholism and drug abuse. My plea for Winnie Mandela, is not and never will be academic. My plea for Winnie Mandela is a plea to recognise Nomzamo Mama Winnie as a broken-hearted lady who hated becoming a sister-wife.

In the closing chapter to her autobiography, Mama Winnie writes a prophetic warning to a South Africa that is now burning to the ground:

I felt strongly that this journal and these letters needed to be published in this way, exactly as they were written at the time, so that my children and my grandchildren and whoever else reads them should please see to it that the country never ever degenerates to levels such as those. It is for their future. Right now, people like myself who come from that era become petrified when we see us sliding and becoming more and more like our oppressive masters. To me, that is exactly what is happening and that is what scares me.

On April 2, 2018, the family of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela announced that she had passed away peacefully in her sleep. The nation was shocked. No one had seen this coming, no one believed that the Iron Woman, The Mother of the Nation would go. But, with the shock and tears, the controversy begins. And I find myself carried by this tide too.

A conflicted mourning

What is this furtive mourning I am doing? Why do I find myself actually spending my time defending my right to eulogise a woman who I have spent the greater part of five years researching, writing and speaking about. Because this woman is Winnie Madikizela Mandela, that’s why. And my admiration for her evolved as I grew to know her many facets, through her words.

Social media assaults me. On Facebook I see someone post a well-recognised picture of a young, newly married Winnie, the coy one, with that slightly seductive smile spreading beyond the pixels that a picture can occupy. They caption it: “Rest in Peace Mama.” The comments below are generically “Rest in peace”, but then, there is a reply: “Take one for Stompie.”

And the page erupts, with little akin to eulogies or respect for the dead. I cannot help myself, I plough through Twitter, and find the same contradictions there. But, at some point as the night wears on, I stop myself, and simply breathe in the fact that a strong, wonderful human being, a woman is no more. It is as simple as that.

Somewhere in the many years of a marriage that had to be continuously consummated by ink on paper, there came a fracture. Winnie stopped regaling Nelson with love notes and matched his tone with that of the political machine that she had morphed into. She accepted his congratulatory note when she wass released from the horrors of solitary confinement. She saw that one simple photograph of her standing outside her home in Vilakazi Street, Soweto with her fist stuck in the air wielded more power over the people on the ground than the men in jail who were fast being forgotten. They were the myths that the people cannot see and she was the reality that could make the world see.

Winnie Mandela’s role as a fierce fighter against the apartheid regime has and will be talked about for years to come. Her eulogies will include the good, the bad and the ugly. I have simply made a choice, and my choice is based on the lens of my own subjectivity. I believe that Winnie Mandela was a heartbroken woman, and within the loneliness and splintering of her own identity, she fought wilder and harder because not only had the apartheid regime deprived black people of their rights and dignity, she saw it as having deprived her of her life as a wife and a mother.

At eighty-one, she silently slipped away, and Winnie was not a woman to silently do anything. She had never been a woman who patiently waited for freedom and democracy. She was a woman who made a day happen. The woman your mother warns you never to become, but applauds you when you defiantly do. She was a woman who believed in speaking her mind, and even in her later years, she always did. She was a vociferous voice who spoke out about the state of South Africa as it currently stands and expressed her heartbreak at how the legacy of the ANC had been sold.

In my thoughts on Winnie Mandela, I have refused deliberately to think about her controversies. These have been dissected by the world far too many times. I simply wish to remember Mama Winnie in the frame of my own reference. I will always look at that curving hand, writing letters by candlelight – of love in a time of burning.

Rest Mama Winnie. We’ll take it from here.