Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage by Jonny Steinberg - review by R W Johnson

R W Johnson

Heroism & Homicide

Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage


William Collins 576pp £25 order from our bookshop

Under apartheid, aspiring South African writers frequently marketed themselves to the world as committed and heroic anti-apartheid activists. The enormous success of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (fifteen million copies sold and counting) showed the way, though 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 invariably flopped. Under the new government, the only South African 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 has been 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, not only in the archives but on the ground too, seeking out and interviewing many minor actors. He has also exploited a major but little-known source: the fifteen thousand pages that form the Coetsee Collection, the papers of the apartheid justice minister Kobie Coetsee, who not only taped countless conversations with Nelson Mandela over ten years but also bugged Mandela’s discussions with many others. Steinberg denounces Coetsee for this but many historians will thank him.

The book is purportedly a portrait of a marriage but it is really a new and excellent double biography of Nelson and Winnie. Steinberg is sensitive and imaginative and has a mature and insightful appreciation of the many painful emotional strains within the marriage, which was always under enormous political pressure. Indeed, it wasn’t much of a marriage at all: in the early years Nelson was away a great deal of the time, then he was on trial, on the run and in jail. When he re-emerged twenty-seven 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 having been almost a nymphomaniac. 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. She even took her latest lover with her on the trip to Cape Town. He can be seen in photos almost next to Nelson.

The Mandelas’ 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 all this somehow until one night Winnie returned from a tryst much the worse for drink and drugs and defecated in their bed. At this, Nelson left home and the marriage.

Subsequently, 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 fourteen-year-old Stompie Seipei in 1989. Nelson helped to rig Winnie’s trial by arranging for many of her co-accused and prosecution witnesses to be kidnapped and taken to Botswana or Zambia. Two prosecution witnesses said they feared for their lives if they spoke a word. The African National Congress (ANC) effectively took charge of the courtroom and cleared the front two rows of the gallery so that the party leadership could sit there intimidatingly, 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 a pattern set by 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 ended in the mid-1990s they remained close thereafter.

The book has two other problems. First, Steinberg, whose approach to Nelson is often reverential, glosses over important issues. Perhaps because he is aiming the book at an American readership, he plays down Nelson’s involvement in the communist movement, saying only that he probably joined the South African Communist Party (SACP) ‘for a brief time in 1960’. This is ridiculous. For years before that, Nelson was extremely close to Michael Harmel, the SACP’s effective leader, and with the 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. It seems virtually certain that by then Nelson was already a secret SACP member.

Moreover, Nelson was not just an SACP member; he was also on its central committee. And when Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was launched to conduct an armed struggle against the apartheid government, it was 100 per cent an SACP operation. The ANC only adopted MK as its own sometime later. Yet from the first, Nelson was installed as leader of MK. There was no way in the world that the SACP would have done this unless it knew that Nelson was a committed communist.

Nelson, of course, always denied his membership of the party and continued to lie about this, even to his biographer, Anthony Sampson, and to the ghostwriter 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 behaviour meant that nobody believed him. They should have.

The second problem is Steinberg’s depiction of Winnie’s character. He rightly says that she lied about almost everything, including her childhood. Fatima Meer, who knew her best, described 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 ran through her life. In 1983 she nearly killed two nine-year-olds who were playing outside her house simply because her little grandchild had accused them of theft. 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 this way, though the real figure might be double that. I personally saw Winnie instruct 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.

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. Today I live amid 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. My own conclusion is that he never fully understood what his own movement was capable of. He was riding a tiger without ever realising that it was a tiger.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Art of Darkness

Cambridge, Shakespeare

Follow Literary Review on Twitter