Johannesburg - Winnie Madikizela-Mandela broke down when the soldiers came to take Madiba’s body away.
And then she had to endure seeing him lying in state – in the full glare of the world.
In an exclusive interview to be aired on Britain’s ITV on Friday night, Madikizela-Mandela says the doctors did not expect Nelson Mandela to survive more than a week after he was discharged from hospital earlier this year.
“Tata had been in pain for so long he was actually described by his doctors as a medical miracle. What my little sister, Graça, told me in fact was that when he was discharged from hospital, the doctors were sceptical and… in their view thought it wouldn’t take longer than three days.
“But they assured us all the time he was not in pain, he had enough medication so we never knew exactly when he was in pain because he had so much medical attention,” she tells ITV News’s Mark Austin.
Madikizela-Mandela was with her former husband when he died last Thursday evening. She had been alerted to his condition by her daughter Zindzi in London, so she phoned Mandela’s doctor.
“He said: ‘No, Mama, I think you’d better visit.’ He had never used that word before. When he spoke like that… I knew there was a very serious problem.
“When I got there, I had that heavy feeling that something was wrong. I could sense that perhaps we had reached the end of the road. I got upstairs and the doctors were standing around him. They told me I should move close to him. I went close to him and I noticed he was breathing really slowly. I was holding him trying to feel his temperature and he felt cold.”
Madikizela-Mandela said she kept vigil at Mandela’s bedside for almost four hours.
“Then he drew his last breath and just rested… He was gone.”
Madikizela-Mandela said she had been blessed to be with Mandela at the end.
“I realised that God was very kind to us. He had given us such a long time for us to say goodbye. I realised all along as human beings I honestly could not find myself saying ‘it is time’ but I knew we had reached the end.
“You get this numb feeling. You don’t react to that. I can’t describe that kind of sorrow. Even though he was 95 and had done so much, there was so much that was still not done. I felt in his case he had completed his journey. It was inevitable. It had to come sometime.”
Madikizela-Mandela said she and the family were struggling, but had been buoyed by the outpouring of love and support from the entire nation and from around the world.
“It’s a very difficult time. One never prepares for death. I don’t think it’s possible.”
She couldn’t contain herself when the SANDF soldiers arrived to take her former husband’s body away. “The doctors had done their part and (the soldiers) had to prepare him.
“But when the army came so solemn, so dignified, it was a very moving moment indeed. They went upstairs after the doctors had been with Tata for about two hours preparing him, they went upstairs.
“They saluted. The president was already there with members of the family. They saluted and marched upstairs and they came down so ceremoniously. The whole thing was so official. It struck me then, he was gone, and that was the last journey for him.”
Seeing Madiba lie in state was unbearable, she tells ITV.
“In our African tradition we don’t display the departed. It’s very hard for the family to even share him, even in his death, after sharing with the whole world and our whole country while he was alive.
“He’s still not really just ours, the family; he still belongs to the whole world and we have to share. The moment other families… it’s so private that sometimes it’s just the family. Here we are, the family still having to share him. It was yet another pain… one of those pains. Nothing I could do about it.”
Madikizela-Mandela said she would remember Mandela as he had been, “everything he was to the family. Everything he was to the country. Above all his legacy. At no point did he ever think of himself”.
“We’ve never used ‘I’ in this family, we’ve always been ‘we’. Because of the type of person he was. We shared everything. His whole life belonged to the nation and to the world and that’s how I will remember him. He never thought of himself at any stage. He gave up everything for his nation.”
Their love affair, she said, had been run through letters, rather than physically. “I had very little time to love him and be with him because he was jailed and I didn’t live there with him before then because he was in the treason trial. Then he was in the state of emergency. Then he was jailed. Then he was a black pimpernel. We never had time to love each other as we did theoretically.”
But Madikizela-Mandela has no regrets.
“You wouldn’t have the liberation South Africa has today if I hadn’t done that. I would do that 100 times more. I need to go back to those days. We had to fight that bitter struggle. I would do it all over again. There is no greater reward than the one we both had of a liberated South Africa. He would not have survived in prison if I hadn’t deliberately exposed myself to all that I went for. I violated every law that was passed by an illegitimate government.”
Madikizela-Mandela told ITV she had always supported Graça Machel.
“She has been a little sister to me. Ever since Zindzi put us together when her son, my grandson, was on his journey of manhood. There was a ceremony at home and I was compelled to go there because traditionally we all had to be there and that was the first time we bonded. There has never been any differences between us. We are family. She is just my little sister to me and I will always be her big sister.”
Madikizela-Mandela tells ITV she will remain the most senior member of the Mandela family even though Machel is the widow. “It’s not a case of assuming anything. It’s the traditional right. No one can wish me away as senior head of the family with the elders of course.”
Politically, Madikizela-Mandela will continue to fight for the country.
She tells ITV she will not follow Mandela’s work, but do her own.
“I never followed anybody. I will always follow myself. When I commit myself to my country it isn’t to emulate anybody. I am just me. Always be individual.”
South Africa will survive Mandela’s death, she says.
“The African National Congress is very rich in leadership. It’s one thing God has given to us.
“There is no stage where there has been no leadership in our country.”