Nelson Mandela: Ex-wife Winnie tells Mark Austin of pain watching former president struggle to stay alive
Winnie Mandela is dressed in black as she shows me around her large Soweto home hidden behind high walls, electric gates and massive security.
I was there at her invitation to talk about her ex-husband, who she had just been visiting in hospital.
Nelson Mandela, the world’s most famous political prisoner who become its most revered statesman, still lies critically ill in hospital in Pretoria. And Winnie – the strong-willed, outspoken, township activist and revolutionary – is both saddened and seething.
She can’t bear that some people in South Africa are already talking about him in the past tense. “It is so cruel,” she tells me, dabbing away tears. “It is painful enough to see him struggling so hard. And then they speak of him as if he has already gone.”
Winnie divorced the former president in 1996, but there is no question she still has strong feelings for him. Inside her large two-storey home is a room that is virtually a shrine to her ex-husband and their life together.
It is dominated by a huge image of Mandela and is full of framed photos, paintings and statues of the iconic former president. There are also numerous pictures of her. “That one was his favourite”, she says, pointing to a picture of her young self in traditional African headdress.
Love her or loathe her, and she divides opinion still, Winnie Mandela, now 76, was an undeniably beautiful woman when she was younger. “That was the first photo I ever gave him”, she tells me. “It was the only one they allowed him to put up in his cell when he was on Robben island.”
It is a reminder that their life together was actually a life apart. For 27 of their 38 years of marriage Mandela was in prison – and for much of the rest of the time he was on the run from the apartheid-era security police.
Winnie is the woman who claims to know Mandela best and despite the long periods of enforced separation she is probably right. So when we talk it is a fascinating encounter.
Seated in the garden next to Zindzi, the youngest of her two daughters with Mandela, she speaks first of the hospital visits to her ailing ex-husband and the pain of seeing him breathing through an oxygen mask.
“Of course it’s difficult, but he is still very much with us,” she says.
Zindzi tells me how she strokes his hand as she talks to him of family matters and the news. Sometimes he opens his eyes or smiles.
And they speak of their anger at stories that the family elders were meeting to discuss whether to “let Madiba go”. It is hurtful and cruel, says Winnie.
She then gives a wonderful insight into the extraordinary relationship between her and Mr Mandela’s present wife Graca Machel. “Like sisters,” she says.
“With very strong bonds, like an extended family.” She talks of how they spend time together at the hospital bedside. “We call him our husband.”
Winnie Mandela sees herself very much as the matriarch of a family riven by quarrels and division. The latest feud centres on Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Mandla, who moved the bodies of three of the former President’s children to a tourist centre he is building. He hoped Mandela himself would be buried there too.
Family members accuse him of trying to cash in on the Mandela name. Police have now exhumed the bodies.
Winnie is aghast at the dispute and Zindzi tells me: “All families have fights, but we have to be very careful not to compromise my father’s position and the family name.” Her mother nods in agreement.
It is difficult to believe that the emotional, reflective grandmother sitting in front of me was the controversial, fiery activist of the Eighties. But, to this day, Winnie Mandela is both revered and reviled in South Africa.
Revered by the millions of township poor who still see her as the “Mother Of The Nation”, the voice of the dispossessed who fights as an ANC MP for the basic services they still so desperately need.
But reviled by others who remember how she ruled by fear in the Soweto of the apartheid era and how she seemed to endorse the practice of “necklacing”, the burning alive of opponents using tyres filled with petrol.
Her infamous rhetoric when she said “with our matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country” may have enthused her radical supporters, but it damaged her reputation among many.
She has also failed to shake off allegations of kidnap, assault and the murder of the 14-year-old ANC activist Stompie Moeketsi.
The last time I spoke to Winnie was almost 20 years ago. It was an awkward time, with her marriage to the man about to become the first black president of South Africa under great strain, but with her also campaigning passionately for the ANC.
Allegations of violence involving members of the Mandela United Football Club, who acted as her bodyguards but also like a private army in Soweto, were stalking her again.
She denies the allegations now as vehemently as she did then, but the suspicions about her murky past inevitably persist.
But what is clear is how popular she remains among blacks still struggling in what is now a South Africa split by an economic apartheid. The gulf between rich and poor is wider than ever – and that spells problems ahead for the ANC government.
Winnie tells me she has no doubt that her ex-husband will be bitterly disappointed at how the new South Africa is turning out. And I think it is true.
Just after he became President I interviewed Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg.
It was 1994 and he told me he hoped things would be much better “in 20 years or so”.
Well that 20 years is almost up and millions of blacks still live in sub-standard housing, many in shacks with no electricity and no proper sanitation.
“The ANC has failed to address the problems of the black majority quickly enough,” Winnie tells me. “And the old man knows that.”
She predicts a bleak future for South Africa if more is not done. And on this she is probably right. Winnie Mandela is older and, who knows, even wiser. But she is still forthright, still controversial and, above all, still unrepentant.
She remains politically active and there is no sign of her slowing down. “There is too much that still needs to be done,” she says. During our interview she becomes most emotional when taking about the divorce from Mandela.
“It was traumatic and very painful,” she says. But she adds that “every cloud has a silver lining”. It allowed her, she says, to stay in politics and stay influential.
“The life of the President’s First Lady would not have been for me,” she says. “And I don’t know how I would have been as a housewife.”
- Mark Austin is the ITV News at Ten anchorman.