My travels with the Spear of the Nation
There is nothing like a spell of travel to get to know someone. People drop their guard when they are far away from home. Journalist Sylvia Vollenhoven’s journeys with Mama Winnie went to places as diverse as Lusaka, Stockholm and Beijing, passing by Dar es Salaam along the way. She shares some of her insights.
This article first appeared in City Press.
Winnie Mandela slaps an imaginary pistol on the table. The smack of her flat hand on the wood reverberates across the empty Chinese restaurant. “I would shoot her as she walks through the door,” she says. I flinch as if a gunshot has been fired. The conversation becomes one of those things I do not write about, especially as she is referring to Zindzi.
But the context for the conversation about shooting her beloved younger daughter is all important. How did we get to imaginings of filicide on an autumn afternoon in Beijing? Even in death Winnie Madikizela-Mandela stands tall on a mountain of complexity. So, if we wish to understand her we have to explore the many layers.
I explore Ma Winnie in the ways I know best. My own experiences, others who knew her, books and photographs.
Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela was born in the spring of 1936 in the village of Bizana in the Transkei. It is an upbringing that puts in place the basic building blocks of her formidable personality.
By the time I meet Winnie I feel I know her although I’ve read hardly anything about her in the mainstream media. Several of my activist friends are the sons and daughters of the political elite of the Eastern Cape. They tell me endless stories about her. The tougher the official blackout on news about her, the faster the legends of her bravery spread.
I am a foreign correspondent seeking her out soon after her return from her banishment to Brandfort in the mid 1980s. One day there is a contingent of journalists following her as she drives to her home in Soweto where she has not been allowed to live for almost a decade. A police car blocks the way. She gets out, shouts at the police, punches a cop and continues driving to her home. The stuff of legend.
Compared to the media frenzy of subsequent decades there are relatively few journalists following her around in the mid 80s. Some of us develop a relationship with her that is underpinned by the common experience of bearing the brunt of apartheid. A cosiness we don’t care to discuss much.
By the time Nelson Mandela is released in 1990 Winnie and I have built up a trust that gives me unparalleled access to her husband. His attitude at the time is; “Any friend of Winnie’s…”
After his release the little house in Vilakazi Street becomes a media hub. On Madiba’s very first night home I leave the house late. He has long since gone to bed and Winnie is holding court.
The next day one of my colleagues who has been doing the obligatory stakeout all night for hungry foreign news outlets tells me Dali Mpofu, Winnie’s lover at the time, left at around 2am.
“And… Winnie left with him,” she says.
We decide that is not a story for now.
On their first trip overseas a few weeks later an airline ground stewardess assumes I am a relative and sells me the seat next to the Mandelas. I have found out that the flight starts in sleepy Lilongwe in Malawi so I begin my journey there. When the couple join the flight in Dar es Salaam I am already on board.
Seeing me Winnie says:
“How on earth did you manage to be on this plane ahead of us? Only you could do something like this.” She turns to her husband who has been waving at the crowds, “Look who’s here. What a pleasant surprise.”
For a while there is such fussing about Madiba from the KLM staff that we don’t say much to each other. She is sitting next to the window and I am on the aisle seat with Madiba between us.
Later the three of us talk for a while. Then Madiba asks for a second blanket, puts in his ear plugs, dons the mask from the goodie bag and does the genteel first class recline.
I get ready to sleep but Winnie wants to carry on the conversation. I am uncomfortable because she has to raise her voice above the hum of the engines.
“Where did you board this plane? How did you manage to get a seat next to us?”
I answer tersely then point at Madiba, with a gesture of discomfort.
“Oh don’t mind him, he sleeps through anything.”
The dismissive wave of the hand helps me get over my hero worship. A few days later in Stockholm — Madiba is making a point of first visiting the nations who supported most strongly our struggle against apartheid — I am rewarded for keeping her company during the long night.
Madiba’s handlers refuse to agree to an interview for the Stockholm newspaper for which I am a correspondent. The rationale is that as a ‘homegirl’ I can bide my time. Higher up on the media food chain is the TV networks and foreign journalists. Winnie talks with someone (maybe it’s not quite a talk) and a day later I am sitting in the castle where Madiba is living, doing an interview that seems to have no time limits.
We joke about it subsequently as we do the ‘wife of the great man’ tour. Winnie has to visit a pre school and she is not happy. As we enter a class filled with excited 5-year-old kids they break into song.
“Imse vimse spindel / klättra’ upp för trå’n….” The children sing.
I respond instinctively with the English lyrics to the tune: “Itsy bitsy spider / Climbs up the waterspout…”
Winnie takes me one side and whispers: “How come you know their things?”
In that moment her puzzlement at everyone else in the room knowing something so simple makes the middle aged Winnie seem deeply vulnerable. Quite lost.
Only once have I been hesitant about being publicly close to Winnie. In early 1991 during her trial for the kidnapping of James “Stompie” Sepei (aka Moeketsi) she is leaving the Supreme Court. The usual gaggle of reporters and photographers greet her as she walks out with Madiba at her side. She sees me, stops and says loudly before hugging me:
“One of the few comrade journalists.”
My colleagues question me aggressively about what I am writing for the Swedish public. The principle of innocent until proven guilty goes out of the window for many media people after the festive season of 1988 when young Stompie is murdered.
Winnie behaves like a revolutionary no matter how old she becomes. In the early 90s both the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the unbanned ANC have to settle in to the new political scenario in South Africa. The UDF backs down on the understanding that they have been a kind of proxy movement… a political John the Baptist heralding the real deal.
The ANC sends Thabo Mbeki to talk with Winnie Mandela to ask her to rein in her activities and take her cue from the leadership. I am not in her house that night Thabo attempts to call her to order but a friend whom I trust tells me he met the same fate as the cop who tried to stop her on the highway.
Sometime later when I see Thabo I ask him about the alleged punch. He looks shocked. Then with a pained expression he says; “No comment comrade”. A strange thing to say over whisky when you are having an informal conversation. Another story overshadowed by the dramas of the day.
Often her instincts are those of a revolutionary commander in attack mode. When we arrive in Beijing for the Women’s Conference in September of 1995 the airport comes to a standstill. A man rushes to take her trolly. The officials mutter in Mandarin with the name Mandela repeated many times. Not all Winnie’s paper work is in order. She gives a few people hell in English. Soon they wave her along and we make our way to the hotel.
Just outside the city a whole NGO village has been built. When Winnie arrives all the proceedings for the day come to a complete halt. Women flock around her and one Palestinian woman holds up a baby. Soon women with babies are pushing through the crowds, imploring her in Arabic. We are confused.
“They want you to bless their babies,” says a translator.
Winnie picks up the infants one by one, places a hand on each one’s forehead and says a short prayer. I don’t know any revolutionary commanders who could slip so comfortably into such a moment.
The following afternoon, her energy is flagging. Everywhere she goes the crowds jostle her. She asks me to go in search of a place where she can rest. The owner of a nearby restaurant invites her inside. He clears the place.
And so it is that on a cool Autumn afternoon in September 1995 Winnie and I are alone in a Beijing restaurant. We laugh about the night before when with a motley collection of women we sit on her hotel bed gossiping and making fun of all and sundry.
I get it into my head to cash in on her relaxed mood and steer the conversation in the direction of that notorious football club and the child activist murdered by her former bodyguard Jerry Richardson.
I feel a chill creep into the place. Her eyes have a way of bringing down shutters with lightning speed. I expect to be told off for ruining a lovely afternoon. Instead she tells me a story. She talks about being in jail, solitary confinement. She talks about torture that I cannot imagine because the words are too horrible to translate into images. She talks about how she feared becoming a sell out more than anything else.
“It made me hate like I have never hated before. And above all I hated informers, sellouts. You know I carry a gun…”
The reminder that she is a soldier seems so out of place in this restaurant far away from our world.
“And you know how much I love Zindzi. Now, if someone had convinced me then that Zindzi was an impimpi…”
It is at that moment that she takes out an imaginary gun, points it somewhere behind me and slams her hand down on the table for emphasis.
“I would have shot her as she walked through the door!”
In the silence that follows we eat some strange looking Chinese food and never talk about it again. Once more I make that choice… That is not a story for now.
At another time over another meal, sometime in the new Millennium, we are celebrating her birthday. Basil Appollis has offered to make his signature dish. My friend Audrey Brown, Basil and I carry the bowls with steaming lamb curry (her favourite), rice and sambals into her house in Soweto like a trio with offerings.
This week as I watch the outpourings of love and grief I am especially thankful that we have shared so much. That we have broken bread on important occasions. But above all thank you Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela— friend, soldier and spiritual inspiration — for helping me understand how important it is for us to treat with disdain those rules, laws and norms designed to destroy our power.
Hamba kahle mkhonto
Photo with Winnie Mandela and Chris Hani by Rashid Lombard.