Did Winnie’s crimes open Nelson’s eyes?

The courtroom revelations about his wife’s murderous gang may have helped the future President Mandela to promote reconciliation

Neil Darbyshire


At the height of the global campaign for Nelson Mandela’s release from Robben Island prison, his family home in the Soweto township of Orlando West was mysteriously destroyed by fire. It was July, 1988, just a few weeks after a billion people had tuned in to watch a spectacular gala concert at Wembley, to honour the Madiba’s 70th birthday. The African National Congress was on an inexorable march to power and its king over the water was the world’s favourite cause célèbre. So who could be so cold-blooded and so brazen as to torch his house in broad daylight?

Naturally, suspicion fell on the vindictive white state. After all, it had a long track record of harassing Mandela’s wife Winnie, who lived in the house with her two daughters (and who died last month at the age of 81).

Her previous home at Brandfort — the drab Orange Free State town to which she was exiled for eight years — had also been gutted in a petrol bomb attack. Needless to say, the perpetrators were never found.

To get to the root of this latest outrage, a crisis committee was formed of Soweto’s great and good. But as they soon discovered, the truth was very different from the speculation.

They discovered that, far from being an act of state-sponsored aggression, the attack was carried out by children from a local school — and it had nothing to do with politics. This was a desperate act of self-preservation.

A crowd had gathered around the burning house but not one person tried to douse the flames. Even when the local fire brigade finally turned up, they found they had no water in their tanks and left again. They only returned, tanks replenished, when it was clear nothing of the house could be salvaged.

The reason soon became apparent. To the liberal elite, Winnie may have been a secular saint. In this part of Soweto, she and her henchmen were regarded as pure poison.

For the previous two years, a group of young thugs had exerted a reign of terror from an annexe in the Orlando West house. Ferociously loyal to Mrs Mandela — who they referred to as “Mummy” — they acted as both personal bodyguard and political enforcers.

Soweto — not a single entity but a conglomeration of 27 townships to the south-west of Johannesburg — was in chaos at this time. Its two million residents were living under a state of emergency and the police and security forces were viewed as the enemy. “Civic justice”, the township name for violent vigilantism, was the only law and Winnie was an enthusiastic practitioner.

Her band of toughs was known as the Mandela United Football Club and were kitted out with natty gold track suits (bought with aid money, of course). But there is no record of them ever having played a match. Between 1987 and 1989, they were implicated in more than a dozen murders and many more kidnaps and rapes. Other recorded incidents included throwing grenades into a shebeen, blowing up houses and carving “Viva ANC” into the flesh of two teenagers, then pouring battery acid on the wounds.

Winnie’s participation in these crimes was never proved. But the idea she was not aware of them — or indeed didn’t encourage them — is risible. The football club was her creation and a crucial part of her power base.

But there was one particularly savage killing, just after Christmas 1988, for which she couldn’t dodge responsibility. It was so pitiless that, for once, witnesses were prepared to talk to the authorities.

Two years later, she was arraigned for kidnap and assault. On February 4, 1991 — a year after her husband’s release — she was brought to trial.

I watched that morning as an exuberant and carefully-choreographed cavalcade swept through downtown Johannesburg with Nelson Mandela at its head. A phalanx of township “lions” danced behind him, with their familiar bent-arm, clenched-fist salutes and defiant roar of “Amandla Awethu” (Power to the People). Ululating women, resplendent in ethnic robes of black, green and gold, chanted “Viva ANC” and “Viva Winnie”. Many had brought their children, who waved and cheered wildly on the sidelines. Soweto had come to the city.

Around Mr Mandela were gathered some of the heroes of the struggle; Joe Slovo, Alfred Nzo, the doomed Chris Hani. At his side, holding his hand, was Winnie, by this time an international celebrity in her own right. Despite having made an infamous speech supporting the “necklacing” of political opponents (placing petrol-filled tyres around their necks and burning them alive), she was venerated in the West as “the Mother of the Nation”.

The police were out in numbers but did little to interrupt the proceedings. The apartheid state was in its death rattle and they were hardly about to set their dogs on the man most likely to be their next president.

The destination of the excitable throng was the Rand Supreme Court, where Winnie was due to stand trial for kidnapping and assaulting four boys, one of whom, 14-year-old James “Stompie” Moeketsi Seipei, had been horribly murdered and his body casually dumped on waste ground.

As the Mandelas entered, Winnie’s ebullient lawyer George Bizos denounced the charges against her as a pack of lies. It was nothing more than a tawdry show trial, he said, intended to smear the Mandela name. But over the next few hours a truly chilling story unfolded — a story of torture and brutality, orchestrated by Mrs Mandela at her Soweto home.

The post mortem on Stompie’s broken body revealed a hideous catalogue of injuries. Just 4ft 6ins tall and of slight build, he had been beaten so badly that there was severe bruising over his face, back, buttocks, legs and torso. He had a cracked rib, haemorrhaging to the brain and collapsed lungs.

These injuries alone would have been enough to kill him but in a final coup de grace he had been stabbed in the throat with a pair of shears. The blades had sliced so deeply that they penetrated the chest cavity leading to blood flowing directly into his stomach. The only shred of consolation in this horror story was that at least the boy was probably unconscious as he bled to death, discarded and alone.

The last time Stompie had been seen alive was during a violent interrogation at Winnie’s Soweto house. He and the three other boys were accused of having homosexual relations with a local white priest and “touting” information to the police. In 1980s Soweto, these were capital crimes.

Mrs Mandela was said to have led the questioning, humming, singing and dancing a jig to her own tune as she beat the boys with a sjambok (the hide whip much favoured by the South African police) whenever they came up with answers that displeased her. This was the portrait of a psychopath.

The court heard that the fatally injured Stompie was eventually driven away from the house by a man named Jerry Richardson — “manager” of Mandela United — and summarily dispatched. Sitting a few feet away from Mr Mandela, I watched his expression darken as the witnesses gave their shocking testimony.  He must have known the broad outline of charges against his wife but clearly had been spared the grim, forensic detail. He left court a deeply troubled man. His shoulders had dropped and he looked all of his 72 years.

He returned to court a couple of times over the next few weeks but you could tell his heart wasn’t really in it. Though the formal separation would not come for several months, their marriage was over.

I believe Mr Mandela’s remarkable commitment to peace and reconciliation in building post-apartheid South Africa was cemented that day. At the Rand Supreme Court, he had looked into the abyss and recoiled.

The trial lasted four months, as witnesses and defendants periodically went missing, changed their testimony or suddenly suffered an attack of amnesia. But Winnie was eventually convicted of kidnap and assault. (Strangely, she was not charged with conspiracy to murder.)

Justice Michael Stegmann said she had been “brazenly untruthful” in her denials of involvement and described her in his closing statement as “an unblushing and unprincipled liar”. He sentenced her to six years in prison. But of course the political sensitivity of the times meant that she never served a day.

A woman of poise and charm when she chose to use it, Winnie still wielded considerable power within the ANC, becoming president of its Women’s League in 1993. She represented the radical Africanist wing of the party, which was unimpressed by Mr Mandela’s policy of reconciliation and his vision of a rainbow nation. They were impatient for change and their idea of the new South Africa was black supremacy with instant redistribution of land and wealth. They had more in common with Robert Mugabe than their own party leader.

But after the assassination in 1993 of the charismatic Chris Hani, her great friend and political ally, Mrs Mandela’s influence slowly waned. In the late 1990s and early 2000s she became mired in a series of sleaze and corruption allegations and was ever after held at arm’s length by the ANC leadership.

There’s no doubt Winnie Mandela was a product of the apar-theid state. Deprived of her husband and left with two small children at a young age, harassed and hounded by the security forces, banned, exiled, imprisoned and oppressed, it’s perhaps no surprise she never forgave the white state. But unlike Nelson Mandela, she thirsted for vengeance and had no qualms about using violence and terror to get her way — against black as well as white.

Post-apartheid South Africa still has many deep-rooted problems, but one thing is certain. If Winnie Mandela had managed to get her hands on the levers of power, they would be infinitely worse.

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