Janet Smith and Noni Mokati debate whether Madiba was right to leave his former wife out of his will.
Nelson Mandela took the stand, straight, tall and sombre. He was obliged to tell the court where he stood, and there was silence from the dozens packed side by side in the benches. Television cameras held his gaze. Journalists kept their pens poised above their notebooks.
It was 1996, and the Rand Supreme Court in Joburg was hearing the world’s most fascinating divorce case: the beloved South African statesman was severing bonds with his wife of 38 years. And she was no ordinary woman, minutes away from being cast out of a legendary union.
She was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, one of history’s most revolutionary women. Magnetic, uncompromising, she was for 27 years the image of black South Africa’s defiance of apartheid. She was the proxy for the great man. She was a symbol of all they had to fear for white racists, who saw her as the figurehead on the insurgent prow.
But Nelson Mandela, who had once composed stirring words of love from behind bars for a woman he adored, had no kindness left when he addressed Judge Frikkie Eloff. A devastating letter, apparently from Madikizela-Mandela to her young lover, the lawyer Dali Mpofu, had appeared in the Sunday Times. In it, Mpofu was accused of having abandoned their relationship to have another affair.
It is this kind of history, those old, painful scandals, which played out again this week when Mandela’s will was read out. Madikizela-Mandela’s exclusion immediately became controversial. And despite the events of their divorce, which had celebrated Mandela and condemned Madikizela-Mandela, even some of her detractors felt affronted.
What had she done to deserve that? Wasn’t she the redeemed and loving ex-wife who had appeared in portraits of Mandela with Graca Machel? Hadn’t she shown her devotion by spending time at Mandela’s sickbed when he was in hospital last year? Hadn’t she assumed the status of some kind of revolutionary elder?
The sympathetic view seemed to dominate: she had never really had a husband, even though she had carried all the consequences of Mandela’s name: tortured, detained, arrested, banned and later cast out into effective political isolation. They had, after all, only properly experienced life as man and wife for four years.
This week, those unique complications and the concomitant pain which has coloured our impressions of their relationship, somehow allowed us to take sides.
Yet, it’s compelling to go back and read the stories about the divorce again. Yes, theirs was much like any ordinary one. At its essence, there was guilt, recrimination, regret and anger. Only theirs unfolded in front of the world, with the wife having already lost the moral high ground.
Madikizela-Mandela had been found guilty of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault in the Stompie Seipei murder just a year before Mandela filed for divorce. There were unrelated rumours of fraud. She had contradicted her husband in public. She was not filled with the reconciliation that distinguishes Mandela’s legacy. She was said to be rebellious within ANC structures.
In other words, she had been a problem for Mandela. And then, there was Mpofu.
It’s important to remember that Mandela had no apparent tenderness left when he addressed the divorce court, saying: “If the entire universe persuaded me to reconcile with the defendant, I would not.”
At that time, Madikizela-Mandela’s contestation of the divorce showed that she believed his assets to be around $5 million. She wanted half. We don't know what the ultimate outcome was, but the most recent evidence we have that it might have been unsatisfactory came from their daughter, Zindzi, when she defended her mother on Twitter this week.
Her tweets carried one vitally cutting remark: “Why would she expect to be maintained after his passing when she was never maintained during his lifetime?”
And so the mystery around Madikizela-Mandela’s position remains.
But, more important, the abiding mystery around what really went on between them assumed centre stage again this week.
Mandela’s description of his desolation over the six years after his release from prison is still very moving: “I was the loneliest man during the period I stayed with her.” Winnie would later say: “I had so little time to love him.”
All we know is that she has not lost her power to involve us. We care what happens because she and Mandela were our great emissaries of freedom, in their very different ways. Not only that, but their compelling love story profoundly endures. The truth, on the other hand, is probably nowhere near as interesting.
Militant and defiant. A noble woman who held her husband’s hand as they walked side by side and punched their fists in the air. This was the perfect picture Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and her husband Nelson Mandela presented, displaying a love that seemed to conquer even the harshest prison sentence. That was 1990.
Fast forward to 2014. Nothing. Nought. These were words used this week alongside Madikizela-Mandela’s name.
Social networks went berserk with a great debate on all platforms about how the mother of the nation’s late ex-husband left her zilch in his will.
“You forgave your oppressors but failed to forgive the only person who stood by your side when no one else was there… the very person who helped build your legacy.
“The person who stood her ground when most cowards (men) backed down and skipped the country. One day the real history will be told.”
While this quote was attributed to Madikizela-Mandela it was not clear who really was the author. It’s message however is loud and clear.
These words solicited questions about who the real Madiba was. Was he that unforgiving to not leave a single cent to the mother of his children? Had he truly forgiven Winnie for all of her indiscretions?
As the debate raged, a photograph of Madikizela-Mandela kissing Julius Malema outside the South Gauteng High Court in 2011 after testifying on his behalf surfaced on Facebook.
“Perhaps this is why Tata didn’t leave you a cent,” a person posted.
After all has been said and done this question remains: was Mandela wrong for leaving Madikizela-Mandela out of his will? I don’t think so.
In his book eight years ago Mandela’s friend George Bizos spoke of how not long after Mandela’s release from Robben Island he confided that his relationship with Winnie was strained, not only on a personal level but because of her public behaviour. Bizos explained how she (Winnie) contradicted him while they were on a platform in Germany; how she repudiated his call to people of KwaZulu-Natal to throw their weapons into the sea. When he called for reconciliation she instead advocated the continuation of the armed struggle.
It also emerged that Madikizela-Mandela had a flame, Dali Mpofu, who she saw during the latter part of Mandela’s imprisonment – and following his release.
Bizos said Mandela had never expected Winnie to be celibate while he was in prison, only that she be discreet. He couldn’t accept that the relationship continued so openly after his release.
Later, from the witness box in the divorce proceedings, Mandela described this as the loneliest period of his life.
Even during his imprisonment Mandela’s image was dragged through mud by his spouse who, instead of preserving their reputation, brought notoriety through her dealings with the Mandela Football Club. The same wife turned around and demanded a large sum of money to settle their divorce.
Yes, Winnie played an integral part in the ANC and in Mandela’s life during the struggle era. This was what was required of a noble woman.
A noble woman seeks to find solutions where there aren’t any. A noble woman refrains from bringing her household into disrepute.
Was Madikizela-Mandela noble in her acts? Was it acceptable for a woman who became known as the Mother of the Nation to be attributed with such deeds? No.
The fact remains: what we sow is what we reap. Madikizela-Mandela did exactly that.
So Mandela’s will is done. Let us respect that.