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Book reviews

Reviews

WINNIE: MILITANT MARTYR SAINT OR MURDEROUS 'MUGGER OF AFRICA'?

Bibliographic details: The Lady: the life and times of Winnie Mandela, by Emma Gilbey. London: Vintage, 1994. ISBN 0 09 938801 4, AUD$17.95, £7.99. (Biography)

Book review by Giles Hugo:

WINNIE Mandela evokes all kinds of responses in South Africa - love and adoration, fear and loathing. While her husband Nelson and other major ANC leaders spent most of the '60s, '70s and '80s in Robben Island prison, she was the living, breathing spirit and mouthpiece of the banned African National Congress - unbelievably defiant, outspoken and courageous.

Although she was continually watched and spied on by the security police, harassed, raided, banned, detained without trial and banished, she maintained her rage against apartheid. She inspired generations of young black people to resist The System. However, such was her stature, even in the minds of her security police foes, that she survived the apartheid apocalypse. I suspect that although there may have been thoughts of terminating her with extreme prejudice, even the most ruthless elements of the laager security forces were afraid to do so. Her death - like that of Nelson Mandela - would have sparked vengeful violence on an unimaginable scale. And she knew it.

As I write this, she has just been sacked from her position as junior minister for arts, science and culture in the first ANC-led South African government. She is facing allegations of influence peddling, corruption and questions about the alleged disappearance of foreign aid funds. And she still meets her detractors - many within the ANC - with defiance and anger.

It is ironic that her fall from iconic grace has come after the resolution of the war against apartheid. And there are many who would argue that she is either innocent of all charges, or that she should be excused lapses because of her long and courageous part in the struggle.

So far, biographies of Winnie Mandela have mostly avoided or refused to deal fully or critically with the more controversial aspects of her life. Nancy Harrison's Mother of a Nation (Grafton, 1986) was a light-weight paean, while Fatima Meer's fuller and more authoritative Higher than Hope (Madiba Publishers, 1990) also shied away from the single darkest accusation against the 'Mother of Africa', namely that she was directly responsible for ordering the abduction, torture and murder of Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, a young Soweto activist who Winnie had alleged was a police informer.

Emma Gilbey's The Lady which is a biography centred around this very issue is a fascinating examination of the events which most damaged Winnie's reputation and led some to cynically change her Mother of Africa title to Mugger of Africa.

I had left South Africa in 1986 to migrate to Australia. Even then there were those who believed that Winnie was a less-than-perfect human being. There were rumours in journalistic circles that she had had affairs, that she drank, that she could be incredibly charming at one moment and unbelievably arrogant and abusive the next. Nobody dared cross her.

The death of Stompie Seipei happened in late 1988, and I could only follow the unfolding drama through disjointed news reports. But by the time I returned to Johannesburg for a visit in 1990, there were many cracks in the icon and even ANC members were openly critical of her. While they might be able forgive her being unfaithful to Nelson, the accusations about her involvement in Seipei's death were the most unsettling.

One thing that hadn't changed since I was last in Johannesburg was the darkness of political humour - many jokes were a kind of Rorschach inkblot test of the nation's cynical psyche. In my absence this had become even blacker, more vicious. There was a whole string of jokes about Winnie Mandela. She's just been charged with alleged complicity in the abduction and murder of Stompie. Now, Stompie is Afrikaans slang for a cigarette butt - applied as a nickname to anyone of diminutive stature. The one 'joke' went like this: Nelson Mandela was given a Mercedes-Benz as a gift, but Winnie made him to give it back. Why? Because Stompie wouldn't fit in the
ash-tray.

Sick? Well, actually, that one was told to me by black teacher and trade unionist, Zakes, a committed ANC member who'd done a couple of stints in detention -- paying the usual dues for resistance to The System. Winnie had also just been appointed the head of the ANC's social welfare section, and Zakes' comment was: 'What about Stompie's welfare, hey?'

But, seriously, Gilbey, who has written for the Spectator, New Yorker, New York Times, Independent, Guardian and Sunday Telegraph, and covered Winnie's trial for the Johannesburg Weekly Mail, approaches her task with due sobriety, presenting the evidence from all sides and comparing the conflicting versions of very complex events.

She also fully backgrounds the Stompie affair by sketching Winnie's life and - because, unlike Meer, she is not partisan - showing how Winnie was changed, warped even, by incredible pressures placed on her as the wife of Nelson and the trustee of the Mandela name during his incarceration. By the mid '70s she was a leader in her own right, seen as a militant figurehead by the black Soweto kids who waged the protest campaign against the compulsory use of the hated Afrikaans language for subjects such as maths and science. On June 16, 1976, when police fired on demonstrating children, sparking the Soweto uprising, Winnie was ready and willing to step into the power vacuum and assert her leadership in the name of Nelson and the banned ANC.

Gilbey writes: 'With the foundation of the Black Parents Association, Winnie became officially involved. It was the first time she had been given a leadership position in a political organisation solely in her own right. But she was loved by Soweto students far less for being Nelson Mandela's wife than for echoing their own position against the system. For the first time, she, as a leader, perfectly reflected the mood of the masses... Its dynamics finally crystallised Winnie's political position and gave her a blue print for future activism ...She was a unique combination of parent and radical, admired by the students for saying whatever they wished her to say with no fear. Her courage - especially towards the police - won her many fans. She marched in and out of police stations, shouting and throwing things, accusing the police of murder, issuing long lists of demands. Unflagging in her efforts to help, she organised meetings, drove people about, and pressured others into offering their services.'

How was it, then, that a decade later she and her informal bodyguards, the euphemistically named Mandela United soccer club, had, according to many, become a force of terror in Soweto? And how did their bullying and arrogant violence end in the death of Stompie, and perhaps others?

Gilbey believes that the radicalisation was exacerbated by the decades of harassment by security police - 'Winnie never forgot that there was a point to all this, that the attention the police gave to her over the years had a purpose. She rationalised the threat that she posed to the authorities. Their relentless pursuit of her must in some way be a measure of the extent of her power. If they were threatened, she must be threatening - and if she was threatening, she must be powerful. It was not a hard logic for her to accept.'

Gilbey contends that Winnie became radically changed by two major events - a period of detention during which she was 'broken' and suffered a nervous breakdown, and her banishment by the government in May 1977 to the small town of Brandfort, over four hours' drive from Soweto in the conservative Afrikaner heartland of the Orange Free State. There the local black population spoke a different language, and were continually warned by police not to associate with the dangerous radical. It was during these years of extreme frustration and isolation from the youth of Soweto that Winnie allegedly began drinking heavily and acting violently towards other blacks who annoyed or thwarted her.

Although Winnie was extremely paranoid - with good reason - at various times her sense of power and relative invulnerability as the wife of Nelson made her trust the wrong people. One was John Horak, a journalist. When I worked on the black edition of the Rand Daily Mail in '76 and '77, I was warned by black reporters that Horak was one of those people who was not to be trusted - an 'impimpi', a police informer. Yet Winnie had been very close to him - in spite of similar warnings - even entrusting her daughters Zinzi and Zeni to his care and insisting only he drive them to and from school in Swaziland when there had been kidnap threats against the girls. Horak later admitted his role as a police informer.

The other person she should never have trusted - and used - was 40-year-old Jerry Richardson, the coach of the Mandela United soccer club, which by late 1988 had abandoned its sporting activities and had become a force of terror in the townships. Gilbey explains that their use of beatings and torture on suspected police informers and others who might annoy them or Winnie, was in imitation of the treatment many of them had suffered at the hands of the security police.

Gilbey observes: 'In its treatment of young black children... the State had become an abusive parent. So had the Mother of the Nation. Acting in her name, Winnie's boys would burst into a house with much clamour and show of force, before compelling an intended victim into a vehicle and driving him off to the place of interrogation - Winnie's house. Once there, a mutated form of police questioning would occur, with verbal abuse, kicking, punching, whipping, beating and slapping. Instead of mock executions at gunpoint, victims would be hung from the ceiling; instead of being hooded and blindfolded, they would have plastic bags placed over their head, and have their faces shoved in buckets of water. Instead of electric shocks, their flesh would be carve and, as cited in one case, battery acid would be smeared into the wounds. And instead of being dangled out of a window by their ankles they would be thrown up in the air and left to hit the floor - a practice known as "breakdown".'

The last few years of the '80s saw the most violent oppression yet unleashed by the police and security forces - under the cloak of the state of emergency declared in 1986 upwards of 30,000 were detained without trial, organisations, individuals and publications were banned and thousands died in random violence and terror.

This helps explain the descent of Winnie and her followers into paranoia and violence against their Soweto neighbours and anyone who aroused her suspicions of betrayal. Her erratic behaviour unnerved many in the resistance leadership and there were attempts to curb her - but most were too intimidated by her status and her ability to strike back at those that thwarted her to act effectively.

Gilbey describes Richardson as of low intellect and unable to
cope with stress, and it is alleged that on at least one occasion
he had acted directly as a police informer, and he was spoken of in the community as a suspect because of some of his activities and relationships. Once again, Winnie had trusted a tainted person. Was her judgement of people simply suspect or did her arrogance allow her to be easily conned?

Then Stompie was kidnapped, tortured, savagely beaten and finally killed by Richardson.

There were two more victims of the murderous savagery of the 40-year-old man who called Winnie 'Mummy': Lerotodi Ikaneng, who was stabbed and had his throat slashed with a pair of garden shears - left for dead, he survived to tell his story; and Dr Abu-Baker Asvat, who had examined Stompie before his death , and who was shot dead in his own surgery after having been visited by Richardson the day before.

Gilbey's examination of the investigation and court drama that followed gives a detailed account of a complex and confusing case. But what emerges is damning of Winnie Mandela. Her 'alibi' for the day Stompie was killed looks very flimsy and the apparent motive for Dr Asvat's murder is clear - he knew too much and had to be eliminated.

She also points out that Winnie Mandela's trial and appeal were seriously flawed - crucial witnesses were never called or disappeared, and the state did not lead certain evidence that would have made a stronger case against her. Nevertheless, it was finally found that she had authorised the kidnapping of Stompie and three other youths, but had been absent on the night of the final assault. She was given a suspended sentence and a fine. Richardson had been tried separately and sentenced to death (later commuted to life).

Apologists for Winnie might say that Richardson was used as an agent provocateur, or that the whole thing was a complete set-up by the security police. However, there seems to be solid evidence that Winnie participated in the assaults, and that Richardson was so much under her spell that he would have done anything for her - including murder and lying about it at his own trial to minimise Winnie's possible role in ordering the brutal atrocity. There are even those who would say that, under the circumstances prevailing in South Africa at the time, even suspicion that Stompie might have been an informer were justification enough for elimination him so as not to endanger the 'comrades' in the struggle.

Gilbey ends her account with an observation that may come to haunt the ANC: 'In late January 1994, overriding some internal objections, the ANC waived its internal rules and put Winnie on its list of nominees to stand for Parliament. having been convicted of a nonpolitical crime she was technically ineligible, but after her strong showing among delegates the congress decided it was in the best interests of Democracy for the 1988 kidnapping to be ruled political. If, said Mandela, the masses decided that in spite of a "so-called criminal record she should be elected, then the ANC had to accept that. As she increased her power base and positioned herself for the future, Winnie had one indisputable advantage over her seventy five year old husband. She was nearly twenty five years younger than him.'

by Giles Hugo