Even after her fall, Winnie Mandela inspires fear


SOWETO, South Africa -- Winnie Mandela has fallen from power, but they're still afraid to talk about her openly in the township where she held powerful sway.

Once referred to as the "Mother of the Nation," some whisper bitterly that she would more accurately be described as the "Mugger of the Nation."

It's the other side of the story for the woman once revered as the symbol of the struggle against apartheid, the woman who said in a television interview last weekend that she came to the cause in the 1950s as "a little countryside girl from the back veld of Pondoland."

The stories now emerging about the once-celebrated Mrs. Mandela are hair-raising tales that shatter the image she once enjoyed as the wife of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's legendary black leader.

Here in Soweto, where she returned to live in 1985 after nine years of banishment by the government, many people express hatred and fear.

"Winnie is a psychopath. She needs to get help," said the owner of a shebeen, or township tavern, not far from Mrs. Mandela's home. "How else could she do the things she did?"

A powerful figure destroyed

Once she was a powerful figure in Soweto, the sprawling black township where 3 million people live outside Johannesburg. But this month she lost her most important source of power: her marriage to Mr. Mandela, president of the African National Congress.

Describing her life in a Sunday television interview, Mrs. Mandela said that imprisonment "brutalized me so much, that I knew what it is to hate for the first time."

"It was a very traumatic kind of life. It bruises you. You bleed a lot. That state of mind is enough to damage you emotionally and psychologically so that it becomes difficult for [people] to be retrieved," she added.

Since her downfall, people here have begun to talk about her.

"There are a lot of children who were beaten up by Winnie's people -- even killed," said a woman who said her nephew was a victim of Mrs. Mandela's notorious "football club," a gang of young thugs who lived in her house and acted as her bodyguards after she returned to Soweto.

"They were just thrown in the veld [the field], and left for dead," she said, "like Stompie," the teen-ager whose death in 1988 started the decline of Mrs. Mandela's power.

The woman, who lives near the Mandela home, would speak only after repeated assurances that she would not be identified.

"We are afraid of Winnie," she said.

The woman said her nephew went to live at the Mandela house, as many youngsters did in those days, because Mrs. Mandela promised to get him into a school. Education did not exist in Soweto in the middle and late 1980s because students boycotted schools as part of the township uprising against apartheid.

Mrs. Mandela had access to money, which came pouring in from international supporters of the anti-apartheid struggle, and she could use it to help her suffering black neighbors. She helped many teen-age boys on the run from the authorities.

"She collected boys from all over the country," said the woman whose nephew was beaten. She said her family did not know at the time that Mrs. Mandela's boys were responsible for a spree of beatings, rapes and murders throughout the community -- what Sowetans called the "reign of terror."

Since those days, Mrs. Mandela has increasingly been linked to the brutality inflicted on Sowetans by the Mandela United Football Club, a gang that styled itself a soccer team but never had time for soccer.

Jerry Richardson, the club's "coach" and Mrs. Mandela's chief bodyguard, was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, a 14-year-old activist. Mrs. Mandela and seven others were charged with kidnapping and assaulting four young men, including Stompie. She and two others were convicted.

In recent weeks, two of her co-defendants have turned on Mrs. Mandela, saying they lied to protect her when they testified that she was out of town at the time. They changed their story after Mrs. Mandela withdrew assistance she was providing for their appeal.

"They are telling the truth now. They were lying for Winnie because she gave them money," said Nomavenda Matiani, a former journalist who wrote the first stories linking the football club to violence in the township. "Those are the kind of people she surrounded herself with. They were birds of a feather."

Mrs. Matiani's view is that Mrs.Mandela was never suitable to the exalted role that the anti-apartheid movement bestowed on her. She sees Mrs. Mandela as a greedy, abusive, imperious woman who was given too much money, and thus too much power, by foreign benefactors.

She said Mrs. Mandela's followers were radical youths with no discipline and no commitment to their community. "They only followed Winnie because she had money and cars and access to guns."

"Terrible things were done in the name of fighting apartheid," said Mrs. Matiani, who recalled that she received constant threats and moved from house to house over a three-year period after she wrote stories critical of Mrs. Mandela.

She is bitter about other black reporters who she says shielded Mrs. Mandela by covering up the atrocities while Mrs. Mandela basked in her international celebrity.

But others say that criticism of Mrs. Mandela in those days would have played into the hands of the white regime, which represented the greater evil.

There is a more sympathetic interpretation of Mrs. Mandela, one that takes into account all the years she was harassed by the government while her husband was South Arica's most famous political prisoner.

"She was very young"

"She was a very young woman when he went to prison," said Fatima Meer, Mr. Mandela's official biographer. "Throughout those years she shouldered a tremendous responsibility."

Mrs. Meer, a university professor who lives in Durban, said she has known Mrs. Mandela for more than 30 years and does not believe she could have committed the crimes she's accused of.

But she added that Mrs. Mandela's weakness is that she was completely loyal to her friends. "Once Winnie takes someone under her wing, she will not listen to any criticism of that person."

She said this might explain Mrs. Mandela's blind spot when it came to the football club.

Whatever Mrs. Mandela became, few people doubt that a contributing factor was the constant harassment and abuse she received from the government -- at first because she was Nelson Mandela's wife and later because authorities resented the way she always fought back.

She had been married for only five years and had two small children when Mr. Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1963 for his activities against the apartheid government. She was repeatedly banned by the government, which meant she could not work and could not have visitors outside her family.

Between 1966 and 1969, she was detained for 491 days for violating her banning orders. Much of that time she spent in solitary confinement. Between 1970 and 1978, she was charged three more times and imprisoned for six months. In 1977, she was banished to the small conservative town of Brandfort in the Orange Free State, far from her family and friends.

During her exile, men came bursting into her home on several occasions. Once they tried to strangle her in bed.

A large, strong woman who as a girl plowed the fields alongside her father in rural Transkei, Mrs. Mandela always put up a spirited fight against her tormentors. She became known for her courage and fearlessness and gained a following of her own among young black radicals.

After Mr. Mandela was arrested in 1962, she said: "I always knew I would be on my own, but the degree of harassment I did not anticipate -- the volume of hostility.

"It taught me to understand what it is to hate. I still don't hate our oppressors as much as they hate us."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad