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Why Nelson and Winnie got divorced

Picture: Independent Media Archives

Picture: Independent Media Archives

Published May 22, 2007


George Bizos looks at the Mandelas' strained relationship in this extract from his book 

Odyssey to Freedom.

Not long after Nelson's release he confided that his relationship with Winnie was strained, not only on a personal level but because of her public behaviour.

She contradicted him while they were on a platform in Germany; she repudiated his call that the people of KwaZulu-Natal throw their weapons into the sea.

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He called for reconciliation but she advocated the continuation of the armed struggle. She refused to co-operate with or even acknowledge the ANC leadership. These matters weighed heavily on his mind, particularly since he had requested that she head the ANC's social welfare desk.

Matters were brought to a head before his release when the UDF accused her of abducting five young men from the home of a Methodist minister, Paul Verryn, later a bishop of that church.

She contended that Verryn had sexually molested the youths and that she removed them for their own protection.

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This removal had been carried out by the coach and members of a soccer team, the Mandela United Football Club, who had attached themselves to her.

The youths were subsequently kept in an outhouse at the back of her home.

There were allegations that the young men had been assaulted on her property and in her presence - which she denied - and one of the five, 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, was later found murdered.

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All of this added to Nelson's anxiety. Winnie had distanced herself from me when her conflict began with Nelson and the high-powered committee he had asked to help her.

I did not want to participate in a spat between her and the leaders of the UDF.

But when the UDF issued a statement that no democratic lawyer should act for her regarding the allegations of abduction and assault, I felt compelled to contact her. I disagreed with the UDF and I invited her for a consultation.

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She chose the middle of the afternoon and arrived overdressed, accompanied by a number of guards. This defiant gesture was for the benefit of members of the Bar in the lobby who would assume she was coming to see me. The reason I called her was partly to let Nelson know that, true to my undertaking at the end of the Rivonia trial, I had not abandoned her.

Also I thought it wrong for some of my friends to declare that anyone was not worthy of being defended by a lawyer of her choice.

After Nelson's release she would have nothing to do with any of those who had criticised her.

He, ever a loyal and disciplined member of the ANC, was working closely with them. She believed her husband had done enough.

Now he belonged to her and their two children. She expected him to make her enemies his enemies.

Instead, he invited them to meetings, let them keep his diary and organise his security. All this she found intolerable.

Reminding her of an admission to her German biographer that she would listen only to Nelson and George Bizos, I jokingly told her that she should follow the example of Prince Philip and not Evita.

The Duke of Edinburgh always walked at least one step behind the queen. She laughed, and my advice fell on deaf ears.

The media continued to harangue the police and the deputy attorney general to charge her with kidnapping, assault and even the murder of Stompie, of which the coach of her football club had by now been convicted. When she was charged with assault and abduction (she was never charged with Stompie' s murder), Nelson called me.

Would I lead a team to defend her? Despite the seriously strained relationship between them, he wanted me involved as I had defended her so often in the past.

In addition, because of the friendship between us, the public perception that he was supporting her would be strengthened. He already knew from their children that she wanted me to defend her, but that she was too proud to ask him for help.

I took on the case at once. Two other counsel were appointed to work with me - Durban advocate Pius Langa, a man who had pulled himself up by his own shoestrings to become a successful member of the Bar, and his colleague from Pretoria, Dikgang Moseneke, imprisoned on Robben Island for 12 years when he was a mere 15-year-old schoolboy. They are now chief justice and deputy chief justice respectively.

The matter was heard in the Johannesburg High Court and Nelson attended the trial regularly, accompanied by leading members of the ANC.

He arrived with her every morning, silently followed the proceedings and emerged with her at lunch time, as though they were a loving couple.

He left with her in the afternoons while many hundreds of enthusiastic supporters applauded tumultuously and television cameras from throughout the world filmed his every gesture.

He drew the line at attending our consultations, primarily because these meetings were also attended by the young lawyer, Dali Mpofu, her lover during the latter part of Nelson's imprisonment and after he was released.

He 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, he described this as the loneliest period of his life.

Three of the young men who had been abducted by the Mandela Football Club had given evidence against the coach, Jerry Richardson.

My colleagues had gone carefully through the record and prepared notes for me to use in cross-examining the three youths.

We wanted to establish whether the record showed any contradictions, improbabilities and behaviour inconsistent with their allegations of being assaulted in Mrs Mandela's presence and held at her house against their will.

They said that it was a common practice for the priest to sleep in the same bed with young men, and that it had happened before with one of the witnesses.

He said Verryn had "prickled" his lower back, which he found offensive and his complaints had reached Mrs Mandela.

This prompted her co-accused, Verryn's housekeeper Xoliswa Falati, to remove them with the help of the football club to the Mandela house in Winnie's absence.

The witnesses fared so badly that the judge found he could not believe they were assaulted in Winnie's presence.

However, he found her an accessory after the fact of the assault - an outcome which the Court of Appeal set aside.

We led irrefutable evidence that she was in Brandfort when the assaults were carried out, and the trial judge could not reject this alibi.

But she knew they were being held at her Soweto house against their will and thus was guilty of kidnapping. The Court of Appeal let this conviction stand, but qualified their findings in her favour.

The trial judge did not accept that she believed the youths were being molested.

The appeal judges said there was evidence that had led her to the apprehension that they were in danger.

Vital to this finding on appeal was that Winnie had approached Frank Chikane, secretary of the South African Council of Churches, some months before the event. Chikane, in turn, spoke to Verryn's bishop, Peter Storey, about the situation.

The judges were persuaded that this chain of complaints indicated that Winnie had taken the allegations seriously, and had acted on them. In the light of this finding, the appeal judges set aside the six-year jail term. Instead she was given a fine and a suspended sentence.

In my view the media were hardly fair to Winnie Mandela in their coverage of the trial and the appeal.

Their headlines spoke of "The Stompie trial" and did not clarify that she faced no charges in connection with his death. In addition, they raised other allegations, details of which were published without regard for the sub judice rule.

The gay community and some editors accused us of mounting a homophobic defence.

I believe our defence was justified by the finding of Chief Justice Michael Corbett and his four Appeal Court colleagues.

And suppose Verryn had shared a bed with young women who had sought refuge in his house, what accusation would then have been made against us?

Later, Mrs Madikizela Mandela (as she was now known) appeared at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission before Archbishop Tutu.

The accumulated allegations against her were discussed - allegations she categorically denied. This was not a judicial process. She could be neither convicted nor exculpated.

The opportunities for cross-examination, calling witnesses, producing documents and arguing for and against were limited. The evidence of the three witnesses who gave evidence against Richardson at his trial was clear and unambiguous: Richardson and another inflicted serious injuries on Stompie at a time that Winnie was not in Soweto but in Brandfort. Belated attempts by Richardson and Falati to implicate her were too self-serving to be given credence.

Some speculated that I refused to appear for her before the commission. The truth is that I was not asked to do so.

* Odyssey to Freedom by George Bizos, published by Random House, goes on sale May 23, 2007

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