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Revealed: Why Nelson Mandela never forgave ex-wife, Winnie

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Mandela and winieNelson Mandela was laid to rest on 15th Dec 2013. John Carlin in his new book ‘Knowing Mandela,’ reveals why he never forgave the former wife who has featured through out the 10 day mourning period and even in the official programme.
TWO weeks before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990 I went to see his wife, Winnie, at her home in Diepkloof Extension, the posh neighbourhood of Soweto where the handful of black people who had contrived to make a little money resided. It was known as Baverly Hills to Soweto’s other presidents.
Winnie’s home, funded by foreign benefactors, was a two-floor, three-bedroom house with a garden and a small swimming pool. The height of extravagance by black standards, it would have more or less met the aspirations of the average white, middle-class South African
Zindzi, Winnie’s slim and attractive second daughter, was 29 but looked younger in a yellow T-shirt and denim dungarees. It was 9.30 a.m. and she was in the kitchen frying eggs. She invited me in and started chatting as if we were old friends. The truth was that I had not scheduled an interview with Winnie. I had just dropped in to try my luck. But Zindzi saw nothing wrong in me giving it a shot.
Mum, she said, was still upstairs and would probably be a while. As I hovered about waiting (and, as it turned out, waiting, and waiting friends of Zindzi wandered in for coffee and a chat. Completing the South African middle-class picture, a small, wizened maid in blue overalls padded inscrutably around.





Finally, Winnie made her entrance, Taller than I had expected, very much the grande dame, she displayed neither surprise nor irritation at my presence in her home. When I said I would like to interview her, she responded with a sigh, a knowing smile and a glance at her watch. I said all I would need was half an hour. She thought a moment, shrugged her shoulders and said: “OK. But you will have to give me a little time.” She still had to put the finishing touches to her morning toilette.
The picture presented to me by mother, daughter, friends and cleaning lady was of a domesticity so stable and relaxed that, had I not been better informed, I would never have imagined the depths of trauma that lucked beneath.
Winnie had been continually persecuted by agents of the apartheid state during the 1970s and 1980s; she had borne the anguish of hearing her two small daughters screaming as the police broke into her home and carted her off to jail; she had spent more than a year in solitary confinement. Trusting that her confused and stricken children would be cared for by friends; she had been banished and placed under house arrest far away. But she was back, her circumstances altered dramatically for the better now that Mandela’s release was imminent.
One hour after her first entrance, she majestically reappeared, Cleopatra still needed her morning coffee, and motioned me to wait in her study while she withdrew into the kitchen. I had five minutes to take in the surroundings.
On a bookshelf there was a row of framed family portraits, a Christmas card and a birthday card. Only a month had passed since Christmas, but nearly four since Winnie had turned 53. I could not resist taking a closer look.
I opened the Christmas card, which was enormous, and immediately recognised Nelson Mandela’s large, spidery handwriting. “Darling, I love you. Madiba,” It said. Madiba was the tribal name by which he liked to be known to those close to him. On the birthday card he had written the same words.





If I had not known better I might have imagined the cards had been sent by an infatuated teenager. Once we began our interview. Winnie took on just such a role, playing the tremulous bride-to-be, convincing me she was in a state of nervous excitement at the prospect of rekindling her life’s great love.
Close up she had, like her husband, the charisma of the vastly self-confident, and there was a coquettish, eye-fluttering sensuality about her. It was not hard to imagine how the young woman who met Mandela one rainy evening in 1957 had struck him, as he would later confess, like a thunderbolt.
The Mandela the world saw wore a mask that disguised his private feelings, presenting himself as a fearless hero, immune to ordinary human weakness. His effectiveness as a leader hung, he believed, on keeping that public mask from cracking. Winnie offered the greatest test to his resolve. During the following years the mask cracked only twice. She was the cause both times.
The first was in May 1991. She had just been convicted at Johannesburg’s Rand Supreme Court of assault and accessory to kidnapping a 14-year-old black boy called Stomple Moeketsi, whom her driver had subsequently murdered. Winnie had been led to believe, falsely as it turned out, that the boy had been working as a spy for the apartheid state.
Winnie and Mandela walked together down the steps of the grand court building. Once again the actress, she swaggered to the street, right fist raised in triumph. It was not clear what she could possibly have been celebrating, except perhaps the perplexing straight off to jail and would remain free pending an appeal.
Mandela had a different grasp of the situation. His face was grey, his eyes were downcast.
The second and last time was nearly a year later. The setting was an evening press conference hastily summoned at the drab headquarters of the ANC. He shuffled into the room, sat down at a table and read from a piece of paper, beginning by paying tribute to his wife.
“During the two decades I spent on Robben Island she was an indispensable pillar of support and comfort… My love for her remains undiminished.” There was a general intake of breath. Then he continued: “We have mutually agreed that a separation would be the best for each of us… I part from my wife with no recriminations. I embrace her with all the love and affection I have nursed for her inside and outside prison from the moment I first met her.”





He rose to his feet. “Ladies and gentlemen. I hope you ‘ll appreciate the pain I have gone through and I now end this interview.”
He exited the room, head-bowed, amid total silence.
Mandela’s love for Winnie had been, like many great loves, a kind of madness, all the more so in his case as it was founded more on a fantasy that he had kept alive for 27 years in prison than on the brief time they had actually spent together. The demands of his political life before he was imprisoned were such that they had next to no experience of married life, as Winnie herself would confess to me that morning.
“I have never lived with Mandela,” she said. “I have never known what it was to have a close family where you sat around the table with husband and children. I have no such dear memories. When I gave birth to my children he was never there, even though he was not in jail at the time.”
It seemed that Winnie, who was 22 to his 38 when they met, had cast a spell on him. Or maybe he cast a spell on himself, needing to reconstruct those fleeting memories of her into a fantasy of tranquility where he sought refuge from the loneliness of prison life.
His letters to her from Robben Island revealed romantic, sensual side to his nature that no one but Winnie then knew. He recalled “the electric current” that “flushed” through his blood as he looked at her photograph and imagined their caresses.
The truth was that Winnie had had several lovers during Mandela’s long absence. In the months before his release, she had been having an affair with Dali Mpofu, a lawyer 30 years her junior and a member of her defence team. She carried on with the affair after Mandela left prison. ANC members close to Mandela knew that was going on, as they did about her frequent bouts of drunkenness. I tried asking them why they did not talk to Mandela about her waywardness, but I was always met by frosty stares. Winnie became a taboo subject within the ANC during the two years after Mandela left prison. Confronting him with the truth was a step too far for the freedom fighters of the ANC.
His impeccably courteous public persona acted as a coat of armour protecting the sorrowing man within. But there came a point when Mandela could deceive himself, or the public, no longer. Details of the affair with Mpofu were made luridly public in a newspaper report two weeks before the separation announcement.
The article was a devastating, irrefutable expose of Winnie’s affair. It was based on a letter she had written to Mpofu that revealed he had recently had a child with a woman whom she referred to as “a white hag.” Winnie accused Mpofu of “running around f***** at the slightest emotional excuse … Before I am through with you, you are going to learn a bit of honesty and sincerity and know what betrayal of one’s love means to a woman … Remember always how much you have hurt and humiliated me … I keep telling you the situation is deteriorating at home, you are not bothered because you are satisfying yourself every night with a woman. I won’t be your bloody fool, Dali.”





In private, Mandela had already endured quite enough conjugal torture. I learnt of one especially hurtful episode from a friend of Mandela some years later. Not long after the end of her trial, Winnie was due to fly to America on ANC-related business. She wanted to take Mpofu with her, and Mandela said she should not, Winnie agreed not to, but went with him anyway. Mandela phoned her at her hotel room in New York, and Mpofu answered the phone.
On the face of it, Mandela was a man more sinned against than sinning, but he did not see it that way. It was his belief that the original sin was to have put his political cause before his family.
Despite everything, Mandela believed when he left prison that he would find a way to reconcile political and family life. Some years after his separation from Winnie, I interviewed his close friend Amina Cashalia, who had known him since before he met Winnie.” His one great wish,” she told me, “was that he would come out of prison, and have a family life again with his wife and the children. Because he’s a great family man and I think he really wanted that more than anything else and he couldn’t have it.”
His fallout with Winnie only deepened the catastrophe, contaminating his relationships with other family members, among them his daughter Zindzi. She was a far more complicated character than I had imagined when I chatted with her cheerfully in her mother’s kitchen over fried eggs. At that very moment, in late January 1990, her current lover, the father of her third child, was in a prison cell. Five days later he hanged himself.
Zindzi was very much her mother’s daughter, inheriting her capacity to dissemble as well as her strength of personality. The unhappiness and sheer chaos that she would endure in her own private life, a mirror of her mother’s, found expression in a succession of tense episodes with her father after he was set free.
One of them took place before friends and family on the day of her marriage to the father of her fourth child, six months after her parents’ separation. It was a glittering occasion at Johannesburg’s swankiest hotel, with Zindzi radiant in a magnificent pearl and sequin bridal dress. It seemed to be a joyous celebration; in truth, it provided further evidence of the Mandela family’s dysfunctions.
One of the guests seated near the top table was Helen Suzman, the white liberal politician and good friend of Mandela. She told me that he went through the ceremonial motions with all the propriety one would have expected. He joined in the cutting of the wedding cake and played his part when the time came to give his speech, declaring, “She’s not mine now,” as fathers are supposed to do. He did not, however, mention Winnie in the speech. When he sat down, he looked silent and cheerless.





Maybe he had had time to reflect in the intervening six months on the depth of Winnie’s betrayal. For more details had emerged of her love affairs and of the crimes of the gang of young men “Winnie’s boys,” as they were known in Soweto – who played the role of both bodyguards and courtly retinue. They had killed at least three young black men, beaten up Winnie’s perceived enemies and raped ;young girls.
Whether Mandela chose to realise it at the time, he was the reason that Winnie never ended up going to jail. Some years later, the minister of justice and the chief of national intelligence admitted to me that they had conveyed a message to the relevant members of the judiciary to show Winnie leniency.
Mandela’s mental and emotional wellbeing were essential to the success of the negotiations between the government and the ANC; for him to bow out of the process could have had catastrophic consequences for the country as a whole. Jailing Winnie would be too grave a risk.
Bizarrely, one of the guests at Zindzi’s wedding, prominently positioned near the top table, was the “white hag” Winnie had derided in her letter to Mpofu, and she was sitting next to a man I know to be another former lover of Winnie’s.
It also would have been difficult for Mandela to miss the menacing glances Winnie cast towards the “hag” although I hope he missed the moment when Winnie brushed past her and hissed at her former lover: “Go on! Take her ! Take her!”
When the band struck up and the newly married couple got up to dance, Mandela, who had been standing up, turned his back on Winnie and returned stiffly to the top table. Grim-faced for the rest of the night, he treated Winnie as if she did not exist. At one point, Suzman passed him a note. “Smile, Nelson,” it said.
In October 1994, five months after Mandela had become president, I spoke to a friend of his, one of the few people in whom he confided the details of his marital difficulties. The friend leant over to me and said: “It’s amazing. He has forgiven all his political enemies, but he cannot forgive her.”
During their divorce proceedings a year and a half later, he made his feelings towards Winnie public at the Rand Supreme Court, where he had accompanied and supported Winnie during her trial in 1991.
As his lawyer would tell me later, he was arbitrarily generous about sharing his estate, giving Winnie what was more than fair. But he made his feelings bluntly known in the divorce hearing. Standing a few feet away from her, he addressed the judge, saying: “Can I put it simply, my lord? If the entire universe tried to persuade me to reconcile with the defendant. I would not … I am determined to get rid of this marriage.”





He did not shirk from describing before the court the disappointment and misery of married life after he returned from prison. Winnie, he explained, did not share his bed once in the two years after their reunion. “I was the loneliest man,” he said.
The Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough wrote about the “terrible notions of duty” that boost the public figure but can stunt the private man. It is impossible to avoid concluding that Mandela was far less at ease in private than in public life. In the harsh world of South African politics he had his bearing; in the family sphere he often seemed baffled and lost.
Happily for his country, one did not drain energy from the other. Thanks to a kind of self-imposed apartheid of the mind, personal anguish and the political drive inhabited separate compartments and ran along parallel lines.
As out of control as she could be in her personal affairs, she possessed a lucid political intelligence and a mature understanding of where her husband’s priorities lay, even if she was deluded in attributing some of his qualities to herself.
“When you lead the kind of life we lead, if you are involved in a revolutionary situation, you cease to think in terms of self,” she said. “The question of personal feelings and reactions dues not even arise, because you are in a position where you think solely in terms of the nation, the people who have come first all your life.”
•Courtesy: Sunday Times
Extracted from Knowing Mandela by John Carlin

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Comment(36)

  1. The road to freedom is full of ups and downs.Winnie did her best to keep ANC party till the return of her husband. As a human being she was exposed to earthly desires for 27 year but she had the choice to disengage after the release of her husband and beg for forgiveness.

    1. I concur fully Bernadette. Sadly Winnie chose not to and this a serious flaw that culminated in decision by Mr Mandela to end their marriage.

  2. Yeah… Most of the time when you try to lead a nation or any group of people towards a greater course. Family will always be the one to suffer.

  3. We can understand why Mandela could not forgive Winnie, and this must remind us that we are all human. What happened to them could have happened to any of us. I am truly humbled by this family tragedy.

  4. When your animal instinct over come you, you behave as such. And Winnie couldn’t control that. She unitised franchise Mandela very well but she forgot to pay the right price.

  5. The late Madiba was not a Saint but, I think he should have forgiven Madam Winnie. Truly, I think and know Lady Winnie was not and shall not become a Saint. She stood by Madiba and the ANC party till the release of Madiba.
    Clearly, if Mandela had such a large and strong heart to forgive the murderous apartheid rulers why could he not have a small space to accomodate LadyWinnie!

    1. only if she stopped cheatting after he got out of jail. The problem I see is that she continued having more than one affair.

    2. I think he forgave her but did not want to be in marriage with her and that does not mean he continually had grudges with her.

  6. I believe Madiba knew the life Winnie lived while he was in prison and forgave her. But to continue commit ting adultery while living with her husband, Winnie had gone too far in disrespecting Madiba. She no longer loved him and thank God Madiba ended the marriage without violence. Which man would tolerate that type of behaviour. Let the Lord bless Winnie in her life.

  7. Oouwh bouy!!
    I can only but imagine the loneliness and frustration Winnie must have been going through for all those years of not only waiting for the uncertain outcome of the husband’s imprisonment, but the torture from the same apartheid regime that had been torturing her husband, dismantled her family and greatly divided many black families and left women to raise their families all by themselves.
    Must have been a lot of trauma with Dali promising her the love he couldn’t be loyal too. In a nutshell, they did not only manage to separate them during imprisonment, but obviously rushed to publish her dirty laundry for the world to see which obviously took a toll on Madiba and bam! Her dream family was now obsolete.
    The lady lived an extraordinary life. Wasn’t easy.
    But come to think of it, can’t blame Madiba either, clearly wanted something beyong political strength and courage in her. He wanted integrity and loyalty in his wife. I bet he was a lover. A true one.

  8. Mandela was able to forgive his political enemies but not his wife, Winnie. That speak volumes of words and l can really watch the whole film as l read this article.

  9. In this life struggles u cant keep everything or everyone some will stay some will be lost, its opportunity cost

  10. If your wife cheats or husband that relationship is over ,how long will you live with it in your heart , they won’t be no trust so I can’t blame Madiba .

  11. We must realise that love is the strongest feeing in any animal, including human beings. Wild animals fight to death for love or is it, sex. Therefore both they behaviours overtly show how difficult it is to overcome the deeper anger invoked by the strongest feeling of love. Even forgiveness is dwarfed by anger and hatrade resulting from love.

  12. One thing we need to have in mind is our past relationship will determine our stability today especially if we aim for the top and greater responsibility. The personalities involve is the issue. Greed leading to blackmail can bring about unsteadiness leading to unaccomplishment and the enemy can use the past against us. Sometimes the question of integrity sets in and especially in the African setting, friends and family would not take the issue of sexual immorality lightly when it is coming especially from a married woman. The past definitely impacts the future positively or negatively, try as much as possible to do the right thing even when it is not convenient. This is not the time to trade blame but a lesson for us all.

  13. Mandela forgave Winnie. Forgiveness neither removes the pain nor does it make you forget. He found peace with Graca Machel.

  14. The great leader he was, You can not change anyone in life you live them and carry on, but mom should have realised was time to change, love is blind they say

  15. What a interesting piece!!! While Madiba was shining in public, it is unfortunate that he was dying within feel your pains my hero though you are gone. Can’t blame Winnie that much though, the space was too wide and the years was a lot–She’s a human too. I wonder how Madiba felt when he heard the voice of Dali at the other end of the line in New York after telling his wife not to accommodate the guy on the trip…betrayal is a lesser word, but again Love, as it is often said, is blind. and so Winnie was in Love and never took note of how she was hurting her husband. This is so sad. But can anyone(journalist) in South Africa please try to interview Lady Winnie to get some of these thoughts and regrets out of her?? I think she has a lot to share with the rest of the World, even about the other sides of Madiba, that no one knows better than her. S/A Journalists please wake up. Nelson was a man with good heart

  16. You guys are missing a very important point. It is far easier to forgive a traitor or even a menacing adversary than it is to forgive a wife who spits on your honour by giving away her body to others.

  17. Madiba did the right thing, yes she is a human being but after Mandela was released then she should have stopped the affairs already. However she continued and l think its wrong.

  18. God find it even difficult to forgive those who spit on their husband honour by committing adultery or infidelity scene in marriage, since he God Almighty warned earlier to desist from it, that is a painful end. Winnie left Gods warning and mandela warning, cause he warned her to stop since he his back from prison, Mandela blinked the white light to let her know he his aware of all her romantic and formication affairs with toddlers, hence she stop. She refused, went for pleasurable trip with hubby known to Mandela that they are into extra marrital affairs with other, he warned. Don’t blame mandela: God warned and Mandela warned her too that now he is back too, she should. She should forgiveness from God not Mandela, though if Mandela can do it, it will be a fast lane for God to do so, knowing him and crediting is humbled and kind heart. If Mandela will not do that, leave God to do it cause God warned the consequence and what winnie received. Though is difficult to make woman a man, God made they so weak, we can’t recreate but we can create path to goodness and discipline. Winnie should have done that, however i must say Winnie tried but she ate the adultery game like a badly who litters all her mouth with food dropping. That is why Mandela find difficult to forgive her. Thanks for write up

  19. Your comment …I’m deeply moved with the write-up . Winne tried as wife but eventually allowed flesh to take over her. Despite this she is agreat woman . Mandela also tried as a husband to have knowledge of her affair but wanted her to stop but she refused …. Thier separation is painful after such horrible years of waiting .

  20. Considering that Madiba was already aging,things of the world should not make any meanings(i mean vanity) to him anymore. Winnie had been with him through out the struggle,si her misdemeanor should have been over looked and be forgiven.at that stage in life,divorce shouldn’t have been the best option for Mandela

  21. This story is so touching. I believe there could be a reason why Winnie failed to emotionally and sexually attach herself to her husband. With the torture mandela went through in prison, maybe the ENGINE was not functional and Winnie opted to continue finding sexual comfort in boyfriends. Let some journalists interview Winnie and get more from her side. If this wasn’t the case however, Winnie should have stopped all are extramarital affairs and concentrate on Mandela.

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