Nelson Mandela, left, and his wife Winnie, raise clenched fists as they walk hand-in-hand from the Victor Verster prison near Cape Town, South Africa on Feb. 11, 1990.

'Winnie and Nelson': A new book explores a fraught political partnership

Author Jonny Steinberg’s new book, "Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage," explores the complex relationship between Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, two of the world’s best-known freedom fighters. Steinberg joined The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss the fraught political partnership of these iconic revolutionaries.

The World
Black and white portrait photo of Nelson and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Nelson and Winnie, in 1958, likely shortly before their wedding. 


Courtesy of Eli Weinberg/UWC-Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives 

It was a larger-than-life love story: the partnership between Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.  

Their relationship was not just a marriage of iconic freedom fighters – the couple was also one of the most valuable and complex assets of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.

Revered as Africa's husband and wife revolutionaries, their love story also became a saga of betrayal and estrangement. 

South African author Jonny Steinberg explores this in his new book "Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage," out this week, and joins The World's Marco Werman to talk more about it.

Marco Werman: Let's start with how they meet. It’s 1957 [and] Nelson's first marriage is falling apart. He's not yet 40. Winnie is barely 21, and a social worker living in this hostel for young women. The age difference is something I'd forgotten. Why does he fall for her? Why does she fall for him?
Jonny Steinberg: You know, the story they tell is a classic, old gendered story. He was 38 years old. He was famous. He was powerful. He was a top lawyer. She was unknown, young and beautiful. He was driving his car and saw her at a bus stop and said that he was so smitten that he nearly turned his car around, but instead, he tracked down her phone number and called her. [It’s] an old story of the seduction of how a beautiful young woman by a powerful man begins. But I think there's a more complicated and interesting story, one that they were reluctant to tell – that they were two of the only people at the time who really understood the political power of what they looked like together; this really stunning-looking Black couple in the middle of apartheid in South Africa. They were both pretty hungry to be public figures, pretty hungry for power. And I think that from the beginning, they understood the potency of their marriage.
They get married and, for about two or three years, begin to build a life together. But Nelson Mandela's political activism made them an obvious target, and he was forced underground into hiding in 1961. Now, Winnie shares the political spotlight. She was also breaking conventional norms for a woman in that era. Tell us about that, Johnny.
When Nelson went into hiding and then to prison, much of the journalism around her was quite chauvinist. It was, "Here’s this beautiful young woman; is she going to be chaste? Is she going to be faithful to him?" Nelson is famously on trial for his life. He could hang. And months before the verdict, when much of Black South Africa thinks he may die, Winnie invites a lover to come and live with her in the house she and Nelson shared. A man named Brian Somana. And it scandalized her movement. The movement demanded that she leave him immediately. And she says, "No." She says, "You don't tell me what to do," and stubbornly remains with him. What she did then almost ruined her politically. She just, just pulled through in the end.
Nelson Mandela is sentenced to life in prison, leaving Winnie a single mother of two. Winnie increasingly steps forward to represent Nelson Mandela on the political stage. You could say that the apartheid regime in South Africa essentially went to war over how Winnie came off the bench when Nelson was in prison. Explain that.
The apartheid state didn't understand what an enormously powerful and inspired performer Winnie was and what courage she had. Their greatest mistake was to exile her, to banish her [from Soweto] in 1977 to Brandtfort, the middle of nowhere. They've done that to many people, and it usually crushed the person; they thought it would crush Winnie. But instead, it made her into a global figure. She ensured that it made her into a global figure.
Winnie in Brandfort with Fatima Meer talking on the phone at a post office

Winnie in Brandfort with Fatima Meer, whose own banning order had recently expired, 1983. Winnie visited the Brandfort post office at a scheduled time every morning and afternoon to receive calls on the public phone, a party line. 


Courtesy of Steven Linde 

Winnie becomes especially controversial in the years leading up to Nelson Mandela's 1990 release from prison. She's got this group of bodyguards that terrorized Soweto, nicknamed the Mandela United Football Club. When that fateful day happens, and Nelson Mandela walks out of jail, Winnie is there holding his hand. But over the next two years, the partnership unravels. Winnie’s movement of bodyguard gangsters killed and injured a lot of innocent South Africans. Ultimately, Winnie is found guilty of kidnapping and assault. Her property was a site of the crimes by her bodyguards against activists suspected of informing on them to the apartheid security services. How do you make sense of it?
While Nelson was in prison, Winnie’s politics drifted from his enormously. The older he got, the more desperate he was for a peaceful settlement. Winnie went the opposite way. She believed that unless the end of apartheid was violence, unless there was an armed mass uprising, it wouldn't be a proper end to apartheid. And behind Nelson's back, while playing the loyal wife, she tried to organize an armed insurrection. She founded this football club in Soweto in the middle of a very volatile insurrectionary situation, and she lost control over it and lost control of her own actions.
Nelson Mandela, center left, and his wife Winnie, center right, raise clenched fists as they arrive at a welcoming rally in Soweto.

In this Feb. 13, 1990 file photo, Nelson Mandela, center left, and his wife Winnie, center right, raise clenched fists as they arrive at a welcoming rally in Soweto two days after Mandela's release from prison in Cape Town, South Africa. Mandela's fight for freedom and human rights makes him the most influential person among Africa's youth, according to a survey conducted across the continent.


Udo Weitz/AP/File

In 1997, Winnie apologized to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission for her role in political violence. Was that a forced apology or sincere regret, do you think?
No, I think she was really showing that she was not apologizing. She was doing the opposite. In so many words, she would say a couple of years later that what we’ve done in the apartheid years, we should never apologize for. That non-apology of hers became a symbol of a rejection of the settlements by a radical populist movement.​​
On his 80th birthday, Nelson Mandela married Mozambican stateswoman Graça Machel. He stepped down from office in 1999, and died in 2013. Winnie was at his bedside when he passed. Winnie died five years later, in 2018. How will history remember this marriage, this partnership between Nelson and Winnie?
The political and philosophical questions the marriage embodies are timeless. Questions such as, what does one do with the past? Do you forgive what's happened there? Do you seek retribution and vengeance of the people who hurt you? Or do you live with them? If so, on what terms? Those are the fundamental questions that divided Nelson and Winnie, and they'll never go away, and in that sense, I think the marriage will live on in memory and legend.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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