The resurrection of Winnie Mandela: 'You have always been a leader, and a brave sort of woman'

The resurrection of Winnie Mandela by Sisonke Mismang (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
The resurrection of Winnie Mandela by Sisonke Mismang (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

On 12 June 1964 Nelson and his co-accused are sentenced to life imprisonment. On the day of the sentencing you hold the girls tightly while they wave their father goodbye. You squeeze them so you have something to grasp, even if it is fat little thighs and squishy tummies. You hold on and you wonder how you will breathe without him.

By this time you are a subject of interest to the Security Branch – you are the wife of the most well-known black terrorist in the country, and someone who has spoken eloquently in his defence, and they have already begun their campaign of harassing you. So in this moment of loss, when the idea that you may never see your husband again as a free man threatens to pull you down, in the midst of the singing and the tears and the noise, someone grabs you by the arm. You turn to see a member of the Security Branch. He shouts above the crowd, ‘Remember your permit! You must be back in Johannesburg by 12 o’clock.’

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You are a banned person and so you cannot stay in the city past a certain hour. Even if your husband has just been sentenced to life in prison, the petty rules are the petty rules.

You look at this small, silly white man and, without saying a word, you kick him. Then you turn back and continue to look for Nelson’s face in the crowd.

There will be many more times this will happen and you will never back down against an officer of the racist apartheid state. Every single time you cross a cop, in every year that is to come, you will be repulsed. You will treat every single one of them with the contempt they deserve.

                                                                                        * * *

Nelson has this way of knowing what is coming. When you see him, just before they ship him off to Robben Island, he gives you a sad, formal little speech. You can tell he has thought deeply about it and wants you to feel better than you are feeling, given the circumstances. Years and years stretch out ahead of you both. He says, ‘You are young, and life without a husband is full of all kinds of insults. I expect you to live up to my expectations.’

There is so much meaning in these words. What he doesn’t say also hangs heavily in the room. He is older, and if life will be full of insults for you, it will be full of sadness for him. These two truths meet one another in that moment of saying goodbye. Nelson has a way of articulating all the feelings in the world, of thinking of you when really he should be thinking of himself.

As for his expectations, you are well aware that he is talking about your role as the head of the house and as the carrier of his name. He is placing a heavy crown on your head, but you are firm in your belief that you can carry it.


The first six months without him are the hardest. ‘Solitude, loneliness, is worse than fear – the most wretchedly painful illness the body and mind could be subjected to ... You keep looking forward to that love which you cannot enjoy.’ In that lonely period when you have to accept that he is gone, and will not turn up in a funny outfit or knock on the door in the middle of the night, you are ‘... the most unmarried married woman’.

Nelson is allowed only one thirty-minute visit a year. When you see him there is no contact allowed – just your fingers on thick glass and his hand up as though to touch yours. It will be years before you can feel his skin again. There are always guards listening. Afterwards you try not to forget a thing he said and to remember how he looked.

His absence is a gaping wound, even as his love continues to be a salve. His love lifts you and anchors you. Your love does the same for him. Nelson gives you courage. You have always been a leader, and a brave sort of woman. But Nelson never seems too worried about his own feelings. Danger does not seem to scare him. But you know it is not as it seems.

At first, Nelson’s access to letters is restricted but you can see that as much as his words mean to you, your words matter to him. You pour your heart and soul into your letters. You know the censors will read them and that they may snigger and laugh at the feelings you share but you do not care.

Your letters are the only way Nelson can know what is in your heart, so you write yourself into them as fully as you can. You write so he can remember how clear and funny and outrageous you are. You write to remind him of your fine mind and the depths of your heart. ‘I find living in hope the most wonderful thing,’ you write to him. ‘...I have grown to love you more than I ever did before... Nothing can be as valuable as being part and parcel of the formation of the history of a country.’

He memorises all your letters – it is the only way to ensure they are not destroyed. Knowing this, you tell him the truth as only you can put it, because you know it will inspire him, and that it will make him fall in love with you a little bit more. You know this is what he needs to survive.

He needs your love to accompany him, just as you need his to remind you that you are not alone – that your sacrifices are shared.

This is the most profound solidarity there is: to fall in love; and then, in the service of freedom, to be prevented from fulfilling that love.

* This extract was taken from The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela by Sisonke Msimang, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

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