Winnie & Nelson by Jonny Steinberg

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Reviewer: Richard Stengel (The Guardian UK)

On a brisk morning in 1980, Winnie Mandela went to visit her husband on Robben Island. Nelson Mandela had been there since 1964. For years, he had only been allowed to see one visitor every six months. That day, she did not bring her usual packages of food and papers, but a single bundle: their first grandchild, only a few months old. This was a brazen violation of the rules: children or grandchildren had to be at least 16 years old to see a prisoner. The 62-year-old Mandela begged his young Afrikaner guard to let him hold the baby. The guard said he would be fired. But then he took the baby from Winnie and let him hold her. It was the first and only time he saw Mandela cry.

As heartbreaking as that story is, it is also a tale of manipulation and bitterness. Winnie had brought the baby as a peace offering for her husband, who was angry about her very public infidelities, her lack of discipline and her seeming inability to control their daughter Zindzi. Winnie was always able to wound her husband and he was always vulnerable to her guile.

Winnie & Nelson is a beautiful and immensely sad book. The sheer amount of pain they each suffered – and inflicted on each other – is unimaginable. “If calamities had the weight of physical objects,” Nelson wrote to Winnie in 1970, “we should long ago have been crushed down.” Steinberg, a distinguished South African writer and scholar, chronicles that pain, and writes about each of them with insight and empathy. He gently but firmly removes the masks they each carefully constructed, only to find other masks underneath.

The mythology started from the moment they met. The story was that she was the naive girl from the countryside, he the crusading lawyer and freedom fighter. But at the time, Nelson was married with three children and Winnie was having an affair with another man that she continued until the day they married. He was not the last of Winnie’s paramours. From the start, Mandela knew he would probably have to share her with other men, just as she knew that she would have to share him with a nation.

I saw those masks and helped construct that mythology when I was hired to work with Mandela on Long Walk to Freedom after he came out of prison in 1990. Our goal in that book was not to be deceptive, but to construct a narrative for a man who was in the midst of bringing freedom to his people. For Mandela, everything was subordinate to that, even the truth. Educated at elite British-style boarding schools, Mandela was a kind of African Victorian gentleman – he believed in hiding or suppressing his pain, and he mostly succeeded. In so many ways, he eventually became his mask.

Winnie & Nelson is more than a joint biography, as good as it is at that; it’s a deft and operatic interweaving of two outsized characters. In Steinberg’s telling, the pair are like twin planets that exert immense gravitational forces on each other. But the pull between them was not always for the good. Winnie was Nelson’s kryptonite; for her, he scrambled his moral compass and did things that were deeply out of character.

“I was not going… [to] be known as Mandela’s wife,” Winnie said towards the end of her life, and that very often seemed her primary goal. Mandela was a realist; she was a fantasist. Mandela dissembled when he needed to; Winnie dissembled because it was in her nature. Mandela had an extraordinary filter; she often had none. He was in many ways a natural small “c” conservative; she was a rebel who often seemed to want to burn things down rather than change them.

Steinberg quotes extensively from conversations between them when she was visiting Mandela in prison. The quotes are powerful, intimate, disturbing. That troubling feeling comes from the fact that they are taken verbatim from transcripts prison guards secretly made of Mandela’s conversations – transcripts that former justice minister Kobie Coetsee essentially stole and kept in his own possession for more than 20 years, before bequeathing them to the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. Legal scholars call this the fruit from the poisonous tree. These documents belong to the post-apartheid South African national archives.

They are evidence of the wanton cruelty that Winnie and Nelson were subjected to for most of their lives. What comes through on every page of Winnie & Nelson is the deep inhumanity of apartheid and the people who enforced it; the profound carelessness and indifference with which the authorities ruined millions of Black people’s lives. Steinberg quotes the great archbishop Desmond Tutu as saying of Winnie: “Who are we to say how we would have reacted to what she endured?” And, of course, that is true. But the reason he asked that question at all is that Winnie so often behaved badly. Yes, she was constantly harassed. She was imprisoned and held in solitary confinement for longer than her husband ever was. She was banished to the provinces. Nelson reacted to every calamity with a deliberate stoicism; she did not. In fact, at times he thought she had broken. It almost broke him.

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