'I don't bear any grudges, even against my torturers' – Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 2013 interview

2018-04-03 10:59
PHOTO: Gallo images/ Getty images

PHOTO: Gallo images/ Getty images

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The name Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela always elicits a strong reaction.

The sometimes controversial struggle icon is revered by many and loathed by others, almost in equal measure. She has many titles – mother of the nation, activist, devoted mother, and even "torturer" in some quarters.

She was detained for the first time on 12 May 1969, held in a prison cell in a Pretoria women's jail for nine months without being charged.

In a 2013 interview with DRUM, the struggle veteran opened up about her time in prison and her thoughts about her oppressors.

"When we were detained we were not allowed to communicate with our families. Our defence lawyers were the only visitors we had and they told us that the cells where we met with them were bugged.

"David Soggot, an advocate who was working with George Bizos, my lawyer at the time, warned me not to say anything incriminating and urged me to start writing down everything that happened during my imprisonment.

"He would give me paper and a pen, and during the time that he consulted with the other prisoners, I wrote," she said.

"I wrote about the abuse, the torture, the conditions we faced and how we were treated. I was only able to write for the duration of the consultation and I handed him these pieces of paper when he left. If they had been found on me, I shudder to think what they would have done to me."

David Soggot and his wife, Greta, fled the country immediately after the 22 prisoners who were detained with Winnie were re-arrested. They were afraid for their lives. As Mama Winnie explains, "David and the other attorneys faced grave danger by representing us. They really took risks in smuggling out those papers. So many had perished in the liberation war, they were killed just for associating with me."

Soggot took her papers with him to England, and on his deathbed some years later he begged his wife to make sure they were returned to their rightful owner. Mama Winnie is visibly shaken when she describes the moment when she received the manuscript comprising the documents which Greta Soggot brought back.

"When I received the manuscript, I could not read it," she says in a sombre tone. "The pain was so overwhelming. It hit me so hard, the memory of that pain. It's a raw wound."

Emotional catharsis

Her book 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 provides an insight into the level of degradation that Mama Winnie and many of the detainees suffered under the apartheid government.  It is a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the mind of one of South Africa's most controversial characters.

"Writing was an emotional catharsis," she says with a grimace. "It was the only way to release what was happening within. It was a way of trying to understand what was happening inside me. To try and explain a hurt that could not be explained."

When she talks about the arrest her voice is matter of fact, but the undertone of deep sadness is palpable.

"When I was arrested, I had my two little girls Zindzi and Zenani with me and they clung onto my clothes, wailing, 'Mommy, please don't go'," she recalls.

"The last time I saw them in that 16-month period was when they were ripped away from me. It was the cruellest thing the security branch could have done." Though she says she has dealt with the pain of being away from her children for so long, Mam' Winnie is racked with guilt about the fact that they were deprived of a normal childhood.

"They accepted that I chose the country before them," she says. "Still, I can't stop feeling the guilt. They never said how much it hurt them and I haven't asked."

"It was difficult enough for both of them to grow up without a father, but to have both parents in prison must have been incredibly painful for them," she adds.

"All of us parents who went through what we did had to come to terms with the fact that the kids ultimately paid the price."

Faith and forgiveness

She says the only thing that helped her through the indescribable torture of being in prison and away from her children was her absolute faith.

"I don't know how people who don't believe [in God] coped with solitary confinement," she says with a serene smile. "I was brought up in the Methodist Church to trust in my maker. I firmly believe there is a supernatural power that is weaving the tapestry of my life and that's how I managed to survive.

"You need to have the faith of a two-year-old, who when you throw her up in the air, giggles because she knows that you will catch her." It's the same spiritual certainty that's enabled Mama Winnie to forgive those who made her life a misery.

"I don't bear any grudges, even against my torturers," she says.

"The worst thing God did was to allow them to pass on before the new dispensation. I wanted them to live to see the transformation and what we had fought for."

"This freedom was won with blood. Our Constitution is written in blood and this generation of young people needs to learn from that so we don't have a repeat of those times."

Besides the lessons she hoped to impart to the youth, she wanted to set the record straight about that turbulent time during the early 1980s.

She is disillusioned with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (TRC) process and its outcomes, and feels she was not given a sufficient hearing.

"The TRC, like many political institutions, was not used for what it was meant," she says. "I felt like it was a retrial for me. No commissioner asked what happened to my children. They did not ask to what extent I was abused and tortured."

Her famous fiery temper surfaces when she is asked about the issues over which she is most often criticised.

"Do you mean my brand of struggle?" she explodes. "I was recruiting soldiers for the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe. I sent children to Lusaka, Angola. "Some of them are generals today. My house was a transit camp. The so-called notorious Mandela United was rubbish concocted by the police state. There was no such thing." She strongly denies having ordered the killing of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, and places the blame squarely at the feet of the apartheid government.

"The information is in the amnesty records," she says, becoming more irate as the discussion continues.

"The child was killed by the police in order to tarnish the name of the ANC. Richardson (who testified at the TRC hearings) said I sent him to kill Stompie. "What did I have to gain by ordering the killing of a 14-year-old boy? What would a 14-year-old know that would be worth killing him for?

"Richardson, that self-confessed informer, was planted by the Strategic Communications StratComm) Unit. They had a policy of miscommunication. The theory was to tell 70 % truth and 30 % lies. If you want the full truth, read my book."

*This article was published in DRUM Magazine in 2013.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died at the age of 81, her family confirmed in a statement on Monday.

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