My biggest surprise in reading ‘A Long Walk To Freedom’ is how it has changed my opinion of Winnie. I am now an admirer.
Winnie’s portrayal in the South African media after Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990 was brutal, and still is. And when Nelson Mandela filed divorce proceedings against her in 1992, it was open season on the fallen hero. I was one of those who took pot-shots at her, and delighted in her downfall. I apologize for that, not because she didn’t do what they said she did, but because I took a one-sided view of her. In my haste to condemn her wrong-doing, I conveniently ignored thirty years of magnificent right-doing.
THE SOCIAL WORKER
Winnie was no tough-cookie to start with. She was a soft-hearted social worker when Mandela first met her – the first black social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. It was love at first sight for him. He told her on their first date that he wanted to marry her:
“Her spirit, her passion, her courage, her wilfulness – I felt all of these things the moment I first saw her.”
Such was her character reference from the supreme character of the 20th century.
When the Treason Trial destroyed Mandela’s successful law practice, it was on her small salary as a social worker that they survived and got married:
“Winnie understood, and said she was prepared to take the risk and throw in her lot with me.”
Winnie’s father’s advice to her on the day of their wedding was prophetic. Speaking of Mandela’s 1st love being the struggle, he said:
“If your man is a wizard, you must become a witch!”
Winnie was Mandela’s strength in the trying times that lay ahead as the Treason Trial dragged on. He says of her:
“The wife of a freedom fighter is often like a widow, even when her husband is not in prison. Though I was on trial for treason, Winnie gave me cause for hope. I felt as though I had a new and second chance at life. My love for her gave me added strength for the struggles that lay ahead.”
However she was not content to only be a passive support to her husbands external trials, but she was determined to share in them with him. When the Women’s Pass Protest was proposed, Mandela advised Winnie not to participate. She ignored him, and was happy to be arrested. This was the first of many such arrests, before and after Mandela’s imprisonment on Robben Island.
Nelson Mandela had found in Winnie an equal partner in the struggle. She had heeded her father’s advice, and had lain the foundation to her future as the Witch behind the Wizard.