Johannesburg - Two women are sitting at the bedside of the ailing Nelson Mandela, taking turns to hold his hand and speak softly to him.
His wife Graça, who has been sleeping at the Pretoria hospital to be near him, has formed a close bond with Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela Mandela. They spend hours together talking about “our husband”. Winnie refers to Graça as her younger sister.
Mandela, 94, the world’s best-loved revolutionary, is entering his fourth week in hospital.
In a moving interview, and close to tears, Winnie, 76, spoke about the true state of Madiba’s health and how the family was battling to cope.
She described a moment at his bedside recently when he was struggling to talk through his oxygen mask. She could not hear what he was saying.
“I called a doctor and he listened up close,” she says. “He told me my husband wanted me to sit down. He was so weak but he still cares so much, he is still so concerned for others, and of course he is still telling me what to do.”
Seated next to Zindzi, the youngest of her two daughters with Mandela, in the pretty garden of Winnie’s home in Soweto, she says she is learning to face the reality of Mandela’s plight. “Of course I am also reliving our long life together. I cannot escape it. We were married for more than 30 years and I still love him. I’m the mother of his children.”
She says the family is not discussing switching off Mandela’s life support.
“We are at the hospital every day. We want to give him moral support. The most painful thing is to see him struggling. He is breathing through an oxygen mask and there are drips for nutrition and sedation.
“Most of the time he is comfortable and still very much with us. He often opens his eyes and can squeeze my hand.”
Winnie says that in the Xhosa tradition one cannot speak of an elder’s death in advance, adding: “But realistically, in this case, we have to.”
Dressed in black with leopard trim and a gold waistcoat, Winnie dabbed her eyes as she talked. She has a natural charisma and a forceful clarity of speech – a characteristic that the apartheid-era authorities found hard to ignore.
In 1969, leaving her young daughters behind, she spent 18 months in prison, mostly in solitary confinement. Afterwards, she was banished to the small Afrikaans town of Brandfort in the Orange Free State where she was harassed constantly by the security police.
In 1991, she was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault following the death of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, allegedly at the hands of her bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club. She was sentenced to six years, reduced to a fine on appeal. And in 2003 she was given a six-month suspended sentence for fraud and theft.
Today she says she “doesn’t give a damn” about her convictions. Winnie is proud of her work in recruiting youths to the ANC revolution and would do it all again. “All of the accusations against me were done to tarnish the ANC and the Mandela name.”
But the greatest pain comes with facing the reality of her ex-husband’s illness.
“Words cannot describe our pain and hurt when people talk or write of him as if he had already passed on,” she says. “He has actually shown improvement in the past few days. His doctors are amazing and we are very happy with them. There is no intention whatsoever of discussing intervention by the family. What is happening is God’s wish.”
Zindzi, 53, had a personal touching moment with her father last week. “I was holding his hand and stroking his shoulder and telling him interesting things happening in the country. I told him about President Obama’s visit and his eyes opened and he looked happy. Then I told him about our plans for his 95th birthday on July 18.
“If people love him so much they should avoid rumours about his death. There is a bizarre excitement about all these rumours on Twitter and other sites. It removes all the humanity around him and it hurts us.”
Winnie criticised President Jacob Zuma for recently taking a delegation into Mandela’s home, surrounding him as he sat motionless in an armchair.
Winnie describes the visit as “the most insensitive thing anyone could have done”.
“He was obviously so unwell. Less than a month later he was in hospital. They compromised his dignity and the family’s dignity. It was terrible to see an old man in that state.”
Zindzi says she is afraid about her father’s inevitable death.
“It is so hurtful and insensitive when we hear that people are gathering for his death and funeral, and that worshippers are praying for us to have the strength to let him go. We will not be letting him go – we will be letting God and nature take their course. We are not going to switch off anything or intervene to stop any treatment.
“This is a 94-year-old man who we love, a father and a husband. He is the one choosing to hang around.”
She says it helps the family to see crowds outside the hospital.
“I was so touched to see a small child giving a policeman a cup of coffee one cold evening. That was a small act of compassion and kindness that would have been typical of my father.”
Zindzi, who has her father’s famous smile, had a difficult childhood without him, describing how once, during a 2am raid on their home in Vilakazi Street in Soweto, she hung on to her mother’s skirt as police dragged her away.
After that, with her mother in jail, she was sent to boarding school.
Zindzi was just four-months-old when he was first arrested, and only four-years-old when he was sentenced to life imprisonment. She didn’t meet him on Robben Island until she was 15.
“It was such an important moment, finally seeing the man beyond the myth,” she says. “I finally understood at that moment what charm and humour he had, trying to make me feel better despite the surroundings and the three prison warders. He told me to imagine us all at home, when I once sat on his lap in front of the fire while we had Sunday lunch as a family.
“I embraced the fact that I really did have a father and he really was here.”
Even when Mandela was released in 1990, the family found it hard to live a normal life. By then Zindzi had three children by three different fathers, but Mandela still believed she should be part of his household and under his control.
Zindzi moved into the family home where she lives today with her husband, their children and Winnie. The rooms are cluttered with family photographs and historical mementoes and paintings.
Zindzi recalls her father, after his release, treating her “as if I was still in pigtails and bobby socks”. He tried to impose a curfew if she went out.
When Zindzi’s son Bambatha was five-months-old, the doting grandfather persuaded Zindzi to stop breastfeeding him so that the baby could sleep with him and Winnie in their bed.
Zindzi says: “He wanted to make up his bottle and feed him and change him. He wanted a second chance to be a real dad.”
Bambatha was a confident two-year-old when he answered his grandfather’s phone one day and found himself talking to George Bush snr, then president of the US.
Bush had recently collapsed on a visit to Japan and Bambatha told him: “You must look after yourself better and drink lots of water.”
Bush later sent Bambatha a postcard from the White House thanking him for his concern.
But Winnie says life for the Mandela family was far from normal. “His release had been the greatest moment of my life. I equated it with freedom for everyone.
“Now I was trying to heal myself with a normal husband and father around the dining table. But it wasn’t to be. He was busy morning till night. It was a circus and impossible to have a normal life. We separated in 1991. We were both emotionally brutalised.”
Winnie says Mandela would be disappointed to know about South Africa’s lack of progress in dealing with poverty, and that white people are still in control of most wealth.
“As president he did what he could. He did more than enough. But he was already in his 70s when he became president.”
Winnie says she fears that South Africa is facing a bleak future with massive unemployment among the youth.
“This is not what he fought for,” she says. “Our Freedom Charter declares the land belongs to all of us but our land reform programmes have failed and every day now you read of corruption. Mandela had no magic wand, but better policies. In many ways the ANC is splintered today and needs to go back to the drawing board.”
Zindzi was devastated when her parents separated in 1992. “I went through a period of anger, bitterness and depression, especially at defining moments in my life when I thought my father should have been part of it.”
Winnie says Zindzi suffered badly during those prison years, as she did herself. “I was the most unmarried married woman. My husband was away from me for 27 years.
“But still no one knows me better than him. It is extremely painful to see him now, but I know it is God’s wish.”
She says the family is only able to manage the idea of his death due to the world’s sympathy pouring in through messages, prayers, letters and the crowds outside the hospital and his home in Joburg.
Zindzi says her father still has no real concept of the impact he has made on people. He would be amazed to know of people gathering in their thousands to pray and sing for him.
The Mail on Sunday