Nelson and Winnie

RW Johnson reviews Jonny Steinberg's biography of their marriage

Jonny Steinberg, Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage, Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2023

Under apartheid aspiring South African writers frequently marketed themselves to the world as anti-apartheid activists, committed and sometimes heroic intellectuals. The enormous success of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country (15 million copies sold – and counting) had shown the way and Paton was the real McCoy, a committed liberal who suffered for his beliefs.

The end of apartheid put paid to this. A number of anti-apartheid films were made but they invariably flopped. Under the new dispensation the only books with any hope of international success were about the globally famous Nelson or, less frequently, Winnie Mandela. As a result, these horses have been flogged to death and much dross produced.

Jonny Steinberg’s new book is something of an exception. He is a talented writer and there is much that is new here. He has done a great deal of painstaking research on the ground, not only archivally but seeking out and interviewing many key minor actors. He has also exploited a major but little-known source, the 15,000 pages of the Coetsee Collection, the legacy of the apartheid Justice Minister, Kobie Coetsee, who not only taped countless conversations with Nelson Mandela over ten years but also bugged Nelson’s discussions with many others. Steinberg denounces Coetsee for this but many historians will bless him.

The book is purportedly a portrait of a marriage but is really a new and excellent biography of Nelson and Winnie. Steinberg is sensitive and imaginative and has a mature and insightful appreciation of the many painful emotional strains within a marriage which was always under enormous political pressure. Though it wasn’t much of a marriage: in the early years Nelson was away a great deal of the time, then he was on trial, on the run or in jail and when he re-emerged 27 years later things rapidly fell apart.

Both Nelson and Winnie had endless affairs – Steinberg refers to Nelson as “famously philandering” but Winnie comes across as close to nymphomania. Even when she was courting Nelson and agreeing to marry him, she was sleeping with someone else.

And when the climactic moment of triumph finally came and Winnie was summoned to greet Nelson on his final release from jail, she had to be dug out from her usual haze of drink and drugs and she took her latest lover with her on the trip to Cape Town. He can be seen in photos almost next to Nelson.

The Mandela’s “married life” after Nelson’s release was nightmarish. Winnie continued on her merry way with several lovers at once, often returning home in a narcotic haze, sometimes without her underclothes. Nelson bore with this somehow until one night Winnie returned from such trysts much the worse from drink and drugs and then defecated in their bed. At this, Nelson left home and the marriage.

Meanwhile Winnie faced trial for her involvement in the infamous crimes of the Mandela United Football Club – the gang of young thugs she kept around her – notably the murder of the 14 year old Stompie Moeketsi in 1989.

Nelson helped to rig Winnie’s trial by arranging for many of her co-accused and prosecution witnesses against her to be kidnapped and taken to Botswana or Zambia. Two other prosecution witnesses said they feared for their lives if they spoke a word.

The ANC effectively took charge of the courtroom and cleared the front two rows of the gallery so that the ANC leadership could sit there as an intimidating presence, giving clenched fist salutes and making it plain that it was an ANC imperative that Winnie not be jailed. She wasn’t.

Steinberg effectively finishes his tale with the ANC’s victory in the 1994 election. In this he follows Mark Gevisser whose biography of Thabo Mbeki omits Mbeki’s presidency, by far the most consequential part of Mbeki’s life. In the case of the Mandelas drawing the curtain in 1994 omits a great deal – Nelson only died in 2013 and Winnie in 2018, and while their marriage had ended they always remained close.

There are three problems. Steinberg’s approach to Nelson is often reverential and, perhaps because he is aiming at an American readership, he plays down the Communist issue., for example only describing the Congress of the People in 1955 in the way that ANC loyalists do. There is no mention of the fact that the Liberals, who had initially supported the Congress, pulled out when they found that it was wholly controlled by the SACP. Similarly, Steinberg says only that Nelson probably joined the Party “for a brief time in 1960”.

This is ridiculous. For years before that Nelson was extremely close to Mick Harmel, the SACP’s effective leader, and with SACP’s rising star, Joe Slovo and his wife, Ruth First. When the Mandelas got married in 1958 the Harmels, Slovo and First were among the few invitees, signifying that they were really close friends.

It seems virtually certain that by then Nelson was already a secret Party member. Steinberg also fails to mention that at the Rivonia Trial one of the documents produced by the prosecution was Nelson’s own essay, “How to be a Good Communist”.

Moreover, Nelson was not just a Party member, he was (as the SACP now boasts) on its Central Committee. And when Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was launched to conduct the armed struggle, it was a 100% SACP operation – the ANC only adopted MK as its own some time later. Yet from the first Nelson was installed as the leader of MK. There was no way in the world that the Party would have done this unless it knew that Nelson was a committed Communist.

Nelson clearly drifted away from the Party over time and always denied that he had ever been a Party member. He continued to lie about this even to his biographer, Anthony Sampson, and to the ghost-writer of his own autobiography. In the same way he steadfastly denied he’d ever had an affair with Ruth Mompati though everyone knew he had and she had borne him a son who looked exactly like him. Nelson himself used to insist to his admirers that he was a fallible man like anyone else though his heroism and his often noble nature meant that nobody believed him. They should have.

What does emerge is how hopeless were the tactics embraced by Mandela and the ANC. As Steinberg shows, the supposedly non-violent Defiance Campaign ended in utter disaster when a riot in the Eastern Cape saw up to 200 people killed and a white nurse hacked limb from limb, an event whose memory, Steinberg says, the ANC has always repressed.

The armed struggle also became a complete disaster – although Mandela had been warned by the Algerian FLN that an armed struggle alone could never win. Even initiatives like the three day stayaway called in 1960 were flops.

The common factor was always a huge over-estimation by the ANC of its own capabilities. Steinberg does not say so, but during the 1960 stayaway Mandela was reduced to demanding of the Liberal lawyer, Ernie Wentzel, that the Liberals should back the stayaway – because at that time they had a bigger organisation in Soweto than the ANC. The ANC triumphed in the end despite all these tactical follies was determined in large part by the higher demographic growth of the black population.

Secondly, Steinberg records that the British consul-general in Joburg told George Bizos well in advance of the sentencing at the Rivonia Trial exactly what the sentences would be – life sentences, not hanging, for Mandela and the others and acquittal for Lionel Bernstein. This confirms Anthony Sampson’s report that the British embassy knew the results of the trial well in advance.

Steinberg leaves it at that – but one can’t do that. Of course, the ANC took the line that Mandela and his lawyers, especially Bram Fischer, had made fools of the prosecution. But the fact that the British knew the trial’s outcome well in advance can only mean that the trial was in a sense rigged.

The British (and perhaps the Americans) had lobbied Verwoerd strongly not to hang the accused and Verwoerd had clearly decided that maintaining British goodwill was vital: Britain could veto UN resolutions, it could stand out against sanctions and it had influence with the Americans.

So Verwoerd must have given the word that the prosecution must not seek the death penalty – and there may even have been pressure exerted on the judge. Certainly, Pretoria was so confident of the outcome in advance that it felt able to give Britain firm assurances of how the trial would go. And the British were so certain of it that they leaked the news to Bizos and others. The clear implication is that it was the British and Verwoerd who saved Mandela and the rest from hanging, a most uncomfortable fact for the SACP and ANC.

And this must be why the court accepted Mandela’s claim that he wasn’t a Communist despite the fact that the evidence for that was pretty clear. But Verwoerd knew that his own National Party backbenchers felt strongly that anyone who launched armed struggle against the government was guilty of treason and that traitors must hang. It would not be easy to convince them that a life sentence was punishment enough.

If, on top of that, Mandela was found to be a Communist – this in a country given to anti-Communist hysteria - the clamour for the death penalty would be almost irresistible. So better to avoid that. The Party had instructed all its members to deny their membership and, ironically, it suited Verwoerd to collude with that.

It is hard to see how such a conclusion can be resisted, though it considerably changes the received view of a key event in South African history.

Thirdly, Winnie’s character. Steinberg rightly says that she lied about almost everything including her childhood. But Fatima Meer, who knew her best, wrote of Winnie as a tomboy who from an early age would beat up other children. Winnie was clearly psychologically disturbed – there was mental illness in her family – and she was horribly abused by the apartheid regime.

But the theme of beating up children runs through her life. In 1983 she nearly killed two nine year olds who were playing outside her house simply on the say-so of her little grandchild. No sane parent couold have done such a thing. Once her “football team” was formed, many children were kidnapped, brought to Winnie’s house, accused of being apartheid spies and beaten on her orders.

Those who have most closely studied the matter say that at a minimum eight children were killed that way, though the real figure might be double that. In addition, she was clearly guilty of the murder of Dr. Abu Asvat, an utterly blameless community doctor.

I personally saw Winnie order the football team to beat up children, an order they instantly and viciously carried out. There is no doubt that Winnie was a murderer though she should have been in a psychiatric ward, not a prison. Nelson himself, long before the end, believed she had lost her mind.

Again, possibly for the sake of his American audience, Steinberg lays out some of the evidence about Winnie but avoids any conclusive judgement. The fact that he ceases his narrative where he does also means that he omits Winnie’s scandalous behaviour over her last quarter century. Had the courts and police not been too frightened to touch her she might easily have spent most of that time in jail.

In 1961 I was one of the very few whites at a meeting Nelson addressed – I guess I am one of the few now alive who heard him speak before he was jailed. Now I live amidst the utter failure of the entire African nationalist project, for the ANC has looted and wrecked South Africa. Nelson helped unleash this huge tide of destruction, yet he was an honourable man who had no intention of doing this.

It was a classic tragedy of history that black liberation was at once essential and yet also pregnant with such dire possibilities. My own conclusion is that, ironically, Nelson Mandela never fully understood what his own movement was capable of. He was riding a tiger without ever realising that it was a tiger.

R.W. Johnson