It’s not easy being married to a martyr. But for most of the 27 years that black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela languished in South African prisons, his wife, Winnie, filled that role with rare determination and skill. By her staunch resistance to government authority and her tireless condemnation of apartheid, Winnie eventually became nearly her husband’s equal as a symbol of black South Africa’s struggle. Despite resentment over her sometimes high-handed ways, she was widely credited with sustaining Nelson’s influence at a time when it was a jailing offense to quote his old speeches or even to speak his name in public. When Mandela was released from prison eight months ago, Winnie stood at his side, sharing the victory.
But last week, as the Mandelas entered a courtroom in Soweto together, the prevailing mood had shifted from triumphal to tragic. With Nelson, 72, sitting stony-faced in the first row, Winnie, 56, stepped forward to face formal charges that nearly two years ago she and a gang of toughs kidnapped and assaulted four young black men. One of the victims, Stompie Seipei, 14, who was last seen alive in Winnie’s house on New Years Day 1989, was later found in a Soweto field with his throat cut. There was speculation that he had been killed because he was believed to be a police spy. Though accusations had long been swirling, the prospect of Winnie’s being put on trial added an explosive new element to the country’s volatile politics. While some of her followers welcomed the chance for Winnie to defend herself—”It’s important that she be charged.” said her sister, Nobantu Mniki, “so she will be able to clear her name”—Nelson angrily accused the government of fabricating the allegations against his wife in order to appease whites.
Certainly Winnie has long been hounded by police. Married to Nelson in 1958, when she was 23 years old and a social worker, she found herself thrust into the unfamiliar role of political activist. (One of Nelson’s friends in those days scorned the attractive Winnie, the divorced Mandela’s second wife, calling her “too seductive” to be a revolutionary.) Within three years Nelson went underground, which limited their contacts to quick visits in safe houses.
After Mandela’s 1962 arrest and his conviction two years later on charges of treason and sabotage, the police began a campaign of intimidation against Winnie. Banned from moving freely in Soweto, she lost her job. Friends were arrested and detained merely for associating with her. In 1969 she was arrested and jailed for 17 months, most of that spent in solitary confinement, on suspicion that she was helping the outlawed African National Congress. When she finally got out, things were scarcely better for her or her two daughters by Nelson, Zeni, now 31, and Zindzi, 29. “Our life was total harassment from day to day,” she told PEOPLE in 1988. “The security forces literally took over the running of our home. We would be woken up at all sorts of hours, and we were subject to daily raids.”
Her courage, personal warmth and enthusiasm made her the leading light of the antiapartheid cause, and she was saluted by young township residents as Mother of the Nation. When the government banished her in 1977 to the dusty little town of Brandfort, 300 miles from Soweto, she showed her defiance by ignoring the town’s WHITES ONLY signs in shops and cafés and wearing the forbidden black, green and gold colors of the ANC. “Everyone was surprised, especially the government, that she turned out to be such a tough fighter,” says Ntato Motlana, the Mandela family doctor. As an indication of Winnie’s prominence, she was the target of several apparent assassination attempts, including two bomb attacks on her Brandfort home.
In time, Winnie began showing signs of extremism. In a notorious 1986 speech, she declared her approval of necklacing, the gruesome practice favored by certain black militants of putting gasoline-filled tires around the necks of suspected police informers and setting them alight. A year later she drew sharp criticism when it turned out that she had used donated foreign funds to build a luxurious home in the midst of Soweto’s squalor.
But nothing created a greater furor than her association with the so-called Mandela United Football Club. Formed in 1985, ostensibly to get homeless youngsters off the streets, the club’s 30 or so young toughs rarely set foot on the soccer field and spent most of their time acting as Winnie’s bodyguards. They excelled at terrorizing black neighborhoods—Football Club members were accused of everything from rape to robbery to torturing people they suspected of collaborating with the Pretoria government—and administering street justice to anyone who opposed them. The club quickly became feared and despised by many residents of Soweto, who held Winnie responsible for the gang’s excesses.
It is unclear why she refused to crack down on the club. Some people who know Winnie believe that heavy drinking, brought on perhaps by the long separation from her husband, may have clouded her judgment. Others suggest that years of brutal treatment at the hands of the police may have hardened her and brought out a dark side. “The world has been very harsh to Winnie.” says one friend, “and now she gives some of that harshness back.”
Whatever the case, even many of Winnie’s supporters are troubled by the evidence gathered against her now. Jerry Richardson, the 42-year-old former coach of the Mandela Football Club, has already been convicted of murdering Stompie Seipei. At Richardson’s trial last May, Kenneth Kgase, 31, who was one of those abducted, testified in vivid detail concerning what happened in a back room of Winnie’s home in late December 1988. He said that after a friend of Winnie’s had finished denouncing the four captives for various offenses, Winnie herself had stepped forward, proclaimed them “unfit to live” and begun to beat each of them with her fists and a leather whip. According to Kgase, club members continued the assault for the next several hours, lifting their victims in the air and hurling them to the floor. Winnie denies having anything to do with harming the victims.
Her trial, which is scheduled to begin next February, seems destined to become a major event in South Africa’s slow and bitter struggle toward racial conciliation. Nelson Mandela has already accused the government of fomenting the recent outbreak of black-on-black violence that has claimed the lives of nearly 800 people. The most horrific bloodletting occurred two weeks ago when 26 commuters were shot and stabbed by a gang of marauding blacks on a train from Johannesburg. As Mandela sees it, a hidden hand of right-wing white military officers is operating in South Africa, manipulating black rivalries in an attempt to derail the antiapartheid movement.
If Winnie is convicted and imprisoned, it could enrage young black radicals and poison the working relationship between her husband and South African President Frederick de Klerk, the key figures in negotiations over the country’s political and social future. It is an ironic and potentially tragic role for Winnie, who once said, “It is any wife’s dream to lead a normal life with her family. You build dreams, you build castles in the air, and you hope that at least part of that will be realized, even under apartheid.”
—Bill Hewitt, Susan Hack in Johannesburg