Winnie the murderer

Andrew Donaldson interviews Fred Bridgland about his new book "Truth, Lies and Alibis

Fred Bridgland, Truth, Lies and Alibis, Tafelberg, 2018

Sisonke Msimang, The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela, Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2018

“DO you believe she got away with murder?”

It seems an appropriate question to start with, and Fred Bridgland, the Edinburgh-based author of the recently released Truth, Lies and Alibis: A Winnie Mandela Story (Tafelberg), is unequivocal in his response: “Yes.” 

Bridgland’s book returns to the brutal killing almost 30 years ago of the 14-year-old activist Stompie Sepei Moeketsi, and the activities of the Mandela United Football Club, the greatly feared security detail whose reign of terror was carried out from Winnie Mandela’s Soweto home.

The book revisits both the trial in which Mandela was convicted and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for her part in the kidnapping of the boy -- a sentence reduced to a mere R15 000 fine on appeal -- and her truculent appearance before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Its publication comes at a time when Mandela, who passed away in April, appears to be enjoying a posthumous surge in popularity. Johannesburg’s William Nicol Drive, for example, has been earmarked to be renamed Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Drive. 

According to Gauteng transport MEC Ismail Vadi, the renaming should “raise citizens’ awareness of the heroes and heroines that played significant roles in the country’s struggle against apartheid and its people’s freedom”.

Bridgland, who has been reporting on Africa since the mid-1970s, is not surprised at such developments.

“It runs as a theme through the book,” he says. “Regardless of whatever evidence I’ve come up with, the majority of the black population in this country are going to venerate her. That’s just a fact of life, I think. Whether future generations will, well, that’s another question. But at the moment, she’s a heroine.”

Truth, Lies and Alibis has not been without controversy. 

Embarrassingly, its publisher has placed on its back cover quotes about Winnie Mandela that have been lifted from newspaper columns by local writers. While accrediting their authors, and the publications where they appeared, the quotes do appear dressed up as “shout-outs” or endorsements for the book.

For example, we have this from Redi Thlabi: “Winnie was a women of her times, there was a war and she too was a soldier.” 

In a furious, rambling letter to the Reading List, Thlabi pointed out the quote, from a Sunday Times article, was used without her permission. 

She claimed she was appalled at this misappropriation as Bridgland’s book “lacks nuance, empathy, complexity and a sense of history” and “is the antithesis of what I believe and the complexity that I embrace when analysing historical figures”.

This is nonsense, of course. It is difficult to be nuanced when it comes to murder, but it is precisely because history is complex that makes this well-researched book worthy of attention.

As for empathy, Bridgland has stated that it was his intention to recount the stories of the football club’s forgotten victims, “the little and unimportant people who suffered and sometimes died at their hands”, and in that regard he has succeeded.

One such person was 13-year-old Finkie Msomi. She was the niece of Dudu Chili, an organiser for Fedtraw, the United Democratic Front-aligned Federation of Transvaal Women. 

Chili’s “crime”, at least as far as Winnie Mandela was concerned, was that she had refused to allow her three sons to be recruited by the football club. As a result, Chili’s sons were branded “sell-outs” — a potential death sentence at the time — and members of the club, led by a youth, Maxwell Madondo, were despatched to abduct her eldest son, Sibusiso. 

In the confrontation that followed, Sibusiso Chili, cornered and in fear for his life, struck out at Madondo with a pick-axe handle, fatally wounding him. To avenge Madondo’s death, Mandela ordered Chili’s home in Orlando West to be torched. 

On the night of Wednesday, February 22, 1989, it was firebombed and machine-gunned by assassins with AK47s. Finkie was shot in the head, and her body burnt beyond recognition in the blaze that followed.

Chili, who was an ANC MP from July 2012 to May 2014, was greatly angered by those who later defended Winnie Mandela’s actions on the grounds that she was a victim of apartheid.

She told Bridgland, when he interviewed her for a BBC documentary, Winnie Mandela and the Missing Witness: “We are all victims of apartheid. Winnie is not a special exception. Apartheid was a fact. But we still live. We’re still human beings, we’re still proud of our humanity. Her actions were not human.”

This places Chili at odds with Sisonke Msimang, another writer whose quote, taken from a Mail & Guardian piece, appears without permission on the back of Bridgland’s book. It reads, “Hers is a life worth examining for its courage, achievement and complexity.” 

But not by middle-aged reporters who were there at the time, it would appear.

Msimang later tweeted: “It has come to my attention that a new book about #WinnieMandela written by an apartheid apologist has a blurb on the back taken from an article I wrote in the M&G. This is a sneaky marketing effort and I do not endorse the book. I will be writing to the publishers formally.”

Msimang has since apologised to Bridgland for her “unkind and thoughtless” remarks.

“I should not have tweeted this,” she has written. “It was unacceptable. I have apologised because my ire was misdirected and more importantly — in these racially charged times — reckless. I did not hold myself to the standards to which I hold others.”

Msimang, who has not read Bridgland’s book, has her own work to promote: The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela (Jonathan Ball).

It is a slim, if curious book. For a start, apart from its introduction and conclusion, The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela is written entirely in the second person. This is a literary device that helps provide an effective narrative voice in fiction. In non-fiction, however, its use is usually restricted to business writing, technical manuals and self-help books — and not, as this book claims to be, a “biography of survival”.

The result is wince-inducing and awkward. Here, for example, is Msimang on Winnie and Nelson Mandela as the latter walked free from Victor Verster prison:

 “…There you are, against the backdrop of the mountain, wearing a black and white top and a skirt. You are no longer young and today you are no longer stylish. You wear sensible shoes and your middle has spread, and perhaps because the last time we saw you standing next to Nelson you were that young blushing newlywed, now you look tired.

“You are smiling, though. Your afro is large and you could hold up the sky with that mighty fist.”

A more critical biographer would perhaps have mentioned the rumour, as reported by Mondli Makhanya in City Press, that Mandela was in fact hungover at the time, and it was for this reason that she looked tired; her husband’s release that Sunday had been delayed by several hours, it was said, because senior ANC members did not know where she had spent the night and had struggled to locate her.

Msimang does admit she has a problem with her subject: on the one hand, Winnie Mandela is regarded as a revolutionary hero by young black South Africans who “have never known apartheid” but who nevertheless believe their parents’ generation sold them out in the negotiations with the De Klerk government; on the other, she finds it “uncomfortable” to acknowledge Ma Winnie’s involvement in the spate of killings in Soweto in the late 1980s. 

Her dilemma is perhaps resolved, Msimang argues, if Winnie is regarded as a soldier, one at war to the bitter end with a powerful and deadly enemy. She writes:

“There were others in similar circumstances who did not do as she did. While there were many who advocated violence, there were many within the leadership who made different choices, who were uncomfortable with the more brutal aspects of the struggle.

“Still, there is no escaping the fact that Winnie’s actions were premised on the idea that Stompie, and all those children and young men, were enemies rather than children…

“Winnie could credibly claim Stompie, a mere child, was an informer, and given that context, she could assert without having to say so that he was not human. In this sense, Winnie was like thousands of other South Africans who took sides in a war they had not begun. She lost sight of when to stop, or maybe even how to stop…”

* * * * *

As Bridgland’s title suggests, Truth, Lies and Alibis suggests that justice and accountability had been sacrificed for political expediency; Winnie, it seemed, had to be kept out of prison at all costs. 

“I couldn’t say it directly in the book,” he tells me, “but there was clearly an agreement between the top levels of the National Party government and the top levels of the ANC that she would not go to jail. 

“[Former justice minister] Kobie Coetzee, [former National Intelligence Services chief] Niël Barnard… all these guys have given interviews in various places which clearly indicate that they thought that Winnie going to jail would really undermine the negotiations and particularly the morale of Nelson [Mandela]. 

“Therefore, they leaned heavily on the chief justice, [Michael] Corbett, to make sure she didn’t go to jail. I mean, the things that Corbett said in his judgement were frankly ridiculous…”

“It was like something out of Alice in Wonderland.”

Corbett began hearing Winnie Mandela’s appeal on March 17, 1993, and delivered his verdict ten weeks later. Some of his remarks, as Bridgland’s book points out, were indeed bizarre.

It’s worth recounting first, though, the events that led to Mandela’s arrest and criminal trial. Acting on her instructions, “coach” Jerry Richardson and his football club accomplices had abducted Seipei and three other youths from the Johannesburg home of Revered Paul Verryn on December 29, 1988. 

Mandela believed that the popular Methodist minister, based in Orlando West, was sexually abusing the boys. Once inside her home, they were viciously beaten to force an admission that Verryn had slept with them. 

Seipei was further accused of being an informer and a week later his body was found where it had been dumped in a field with stab wounds to the throat.

Commenting on the circumstances surrounding these events, Corbett noted: “The living conditions at number 585 [Mandela’s house and compound] do not appear to have differed much from those at [Verryn’s] manse. And in any case, [the kidnapped boys] were apparently all unemployed and even life at the manse was probably for the most part uneventful and confined largely to church premises.”

This is patently absurd, especially as Corbett had already ruled that the four boys were in fact severely assaulted at Mandela’s home — where life, arguably, was hardly “uneventful”.

Shamefully, according to Bridgland, Corbett went on to describe a “cosy tea-party atmosphere” at the Mandela compound: 

“Apart from the official assaults, and leaving aside the case of Seipei, and apart from being confined, the complainants do not appear to have been maltreated in any way at number 585. Indeed, they seem to have been generally absorbed in the little community which lived in the outside rooms.”

Commentators were dismayed by the Corbett ruling. 

In its editorial, the Star suggested that, as Mandela had never had difficulty in raising cash, her fine could not rank as serious punishment. 

Sunday Times editor Ken Owen noted, “The criminal justice system of apartheid that oppressed her for so long also treated her, in its dying days, with extraordinary gentleness. The sentence imposed on her was, given the horrible circumstances of the case, derisory.” 

Dennis Davis, then director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies of the University of the Witwatersrand, was particularly scornful. “Kidnapping,” he told the Weekly Mail, “is an extremely serious offence and a R15 000 fine hardly seems suitable punishment… The Appellate Division’s decision was politically correct and Stompie is still dead.”

But, Bridgland writes, commentators also suggested that, had Mandela gone to prison, the consequences could have been dire — especially with the townships simmering with rage following the Chris Hani assassination just seven weeks earlier. 

As the Independent’s John Carlin observed: “Mrs Mandela’s perceived martyrdom would almost certainly have unleashed the fury of those small but militant sectors of black township youth who persist in seeing her as a heroine. The South African political centre that Mr Mandela and Mr De Klerk are striving in their separate ways to build would have been endangered once again.”

According to Bridgland, many would argue, in this regard, that Corbett did what was best for the country in both the short and the longer term. 

“But,” he writes, “it was also at the expense of justice and humanity towards the many victims of Winnie Mandela and her Football Club, and it set a terrible precedent for the liberated South Africa yet to come…”

* * * * *

Winnie Mandela had always insisted that she was at Brandfort when Stompie was abducted and fatally assaulted. Her alibi first surfaced during the 1990 murder trial of Jerry Richardson and three other members of the football club.

This was after Pelo Gabriel Mekgwe, one of the youths abducted from Paul Verryn’s manse, told the court that it was Winnie who had first assaulted Stompie Seipei, followed by Richardson. 

It was an assertion repeated by the other abductees, Thabisa Mono and Kenny Kgase, when they testified. 

In each case, Richardson’s advocate, Henti Joubert, suggested that his client would testify that Mandela wasn’t present but was in the Free State. The youths were adamant however that she’d been there, and had taken part in the assaults.

Oddly, a former Brandfort primary school teacher, Nora Moahloli, was called up as a defence witness, and she too insisted that Winnie had been in Brandfort. 

Judge Brian O’Donovan, who dismissed the Brandfort alibi as a falsehood, seemed exasperated by Moahloli’s testimony. “This trial is not about Mrs Mandela,” he complained.

Mandela’s trial, the following year, threatened to collapse into farce as a number of key witnesses mysteriously vanished. 

One of them, Katiza Cebekhulu, a football club member who was prepared to testify that he had witnessed Mandela stab Seipei in the neck, had been abducted by members of the ANC’s Special Operations Unit, and was being held in a Zambian jail. This, allegedly, after a personal request to then Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda from Nelson Mandela.

More intriguingly, Winnie’s Brandfort alibi was now found to be credible, with Judge Michael Stegmann declaring it “reasonably possibly true”. 

Testimony from Kgase and Mono, whose evidence was found to be credible in the Richardson trial, was dismissed by Stegmann as unreliable and unacceptable. 

This after Mandela’s advocate, George Bizos, had accused all the principal prosecution witnesses of lying and argued that his client was either in Brandfort or on the way there when the assaults took place.

That alibi was finally destroyed, however, at the November 1997 TRC hearings into the activities of the Mandela United Football Club. But the matter went no further than that; the commissioners did not subpoena Bizos to explain his role in what Bridgland has described as a “grave deceit”. 

Winnie Mandela was not charged or tried for perjury, although it was within the remit of the TRC to recommend such action. To the end, the Mother of the Nation failed to reveal what had happened at her home, and would insist that everyone who testified against her was a liar.

“By effectively putting Winnie Mandela above the law, for political reasons,” Bridgland writes, “in the saga of the Mandela United Football Club and the murdered Stompie Moeketsi, Abu-Baker Asvat and others, the old order in its dying convulsions gave a stamp of approval to the perversion of justice in the new, democratic South Africa …

“The worst of the old infected the new. Key political figures remained above the law, both before and after the end of apartheid, and the current generation is paying the price of this expedience.”

It is a conclusion borne out by subsequent events. 

Bridgland says he gets “cross-eyed” when thinking about South Africa. While he admits to no illusions about the quality of politicians in power in general, he seems staggered by the wholesale corruption that has tainted our affairs of state.

“I never dreamt that the politics in post-apartheid South Africa would sink to the depths it did under Jacob Zuma,” he says. “It was all very difficult for me to understand, the complexities of the state capture. I think the sad thing was . . . for Zuma and cohorts to have undermined what happened in 1994.

“Really, it’s a crime against the people, isn’t it?”