Nelson's love for Winnie

2009-05-20 20:05
Nelson and Winnie Mandela on their wedding day. (File, AFP)

Nelson and Winnie Mandela on their wedding day. (File, AFP)

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Cape Town - He couldn't say for certain if there was such a thing as love at first sight. But the moment he first glimpsed Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela, he knew he wanted to marry her.

That was how Nelson Mandela in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, described his encounter with the woman who was to become one of South Africa's most contentious figures.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, as she is known today, came from Bizana in Pondoland, not far from where Mandela grew up. "Her given name was Nomzamo, which means one who strives or undergoes trials, a name as prophetic as my own," wrote Mandela.

He first saw the 23-year-old social work student in 1957 as he drove past a bus stop in Soweto. By "curious coincidence" a few weeks later, she visited his legal firm for legal assistance.

Within a day he'd invited her out for lunch. He knew there and then he wanted to marry her and told her so while they were walking past long grass in Eldorado Park, which reminded him of the part of the Eastern Cape where they'd both grown up.

He saw her spirit

"Her spirit, her passion, her youth, her courage, her wilfulness: I felt all of these things the moment I saw her," wrote Mandela.

As he courted her, Mandela also made her more politically aware. Her father CK Madikizela, at their wedding on 14 June 1958, referred to Mandela's "dangerous career as a politician".

His first response when his daughter told her who she was marrying was "but you're marrying a jailbird!"

His wedding message to his daughter was: "If your man's a wizard, you must become a witch", meaning she should follow her man on whatever path he took. For the politically naïve Winnie, this was to become (ominously) true.

Though he was on trial for his political activities, Winnie gave him hope. "I felt as though I had a new and second chance at life," he said.

Their first child, Zenani, was born in Soweto on 4 February 1959. Mandela also told of his attempts shortly afterwards to teach Winnie to drive a car. When he abandoned a lesson because she was being "headstrong", she drove around the township for an hour on her own.

"Married life and motherhood was an adjustment for Winnie. She was then a young woman of 25 who had yet to form her own character completely. I was already formed and rather stubborn. I knew that others often saw her as Mandela's wife. It was undoubtedly difficult for her to form her own identity in my shadow. I did my best to let her bloom in her own right, and she soon did so without any help from me."

She was imprisoned too

Barely six years after their wedding, following the Rivonia trial, Mandela was jailed for treason. On Robben Island the first letter he received from Madikizela-Mandela was so heavily censored with black ink, that not much more than the farewell at the end remained.

For her first visit, Madikizela-Mandela had to get special permission from the minister of justice because she was under house arrest for her political activities against the pass laws. She would see him again only two years later.

Meanwhile, the security police grew more and more pernicious: family members were forbidden to live with her; a special branch officer walked into her home in Orlando one day while she was dressing - she pushed him out of the bedroom and was subsequently charged with assault. George Bizos defended her.

Her visits to Mandela were made as unpleasant as possible. "The authorities were clearly trying to humiliate her, and me."

Mandela could see that the constant tormenting and tension was taking its toll. She lost her second job as a social worker after being arrested and was sent to jail for a year because she hadn't filled in certain forms after visiting him.

In 1969 Madikizela-Mandela was taken into custody and held without being charged. She was kept in solitary confinement for six months, during which time she was subjected to continuous and brutal interrogation.


In 1977, Mandela used the metaphor of a tomato to explain to his wife that sometimes there is nothing one could do "to save something that must die".

He had coaxed the plant from a tender seedling to a robust plant that produced deep red fruit - but suddenly it began to wither and decline. Nothing that Mandela did could bring it back to health.

Although he did not want their relationship to go the way of that plant, "I felt that I had been unable to nourish some of my most important relationships of my life."

Paradoxically, his release in 1990 was very difficult for Madikizela-Mandela: "She had married a man who soon left her. That man had become a myth: and then that myth came home and he was after all just a man, Mandela wrote.

He was convinced that her life was more difficult than his own (10 000 days) in prison.

On 13 April 1992, Mandela announced his divorce from Madikizela-Mandela and said his love for her remained the same. She was an irreplaceable pillar of support and comfort. But there were irreconcilable differences between them.

They were divorced in 1996.

Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  winnie madikizela-mandela

RIP Nelson Mandela

2013-12-06 08:36

RIP Nelson Mandela

2013-12-06 08:36

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