Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

100 Times More

Dec 04, 2022 by Marlene Wagman-Geller



Moses and Mandela famously had to endure long walks to freedom through the wilderness- the Desert of Sinai and the desert of Apartheid.  But what is less known is that as they each gave their rallying cry, “Let my people go!” they were both supported by women in the wings: the biblical prophet helped by his wife Zipporah, the contemporary leader through his own helpmeet, part Mother Teresa, part Lucrezia Borgia.

The one who was to stand behind the future emancipator of her country knew oppression from the start. Winifred Madikizela was born September 26, 1936, in the village of Bizana. Perhaps her fate was ordained when she was named Nomzamo, “she who will go through trials and tribulations,” Winifred Madikizela.  She started life with a rusty spoon, rather than silver: her parents were devastated with her birth-a sixth daughter when they desperately had hoped for a male. Not only did she face sexism, she also had to endure the South African government-sanctioned racism. 

       Winifred did not own shoes until she entered school. A gifted student, she ended up in Johannesburg and as a witness to the horrors inflicted on the black majority by the white minority, refused a scholarship to America, “I’m needed here.” Against formidable odds, she became the first black female social worker in Soweto, a black township bordering Johannesburg. It was there the girl from an impoverished village met the man who was to make her life assume the dimensions of a Shakespearean drama.

    Based on contemporary pictures and YouTube snippets- which depict Mandela as frail and Winnie as matronly-it is easy to forget the couple were once extremely good-looking, a South African township equivalent of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She was twenty-two and standing at a bus stop when Mandela, an attorney in his late thirties, drove by. He was thunderstruck at her regal beauty and resisted the urge to stop his car.

In a nod to serendipity, a short time later they were introduced by a mutual friend. Winnie was taken aback at the attention from the successful attorney who was a rising hero among black South Africans.  He invited her to an Indian restaurant where for the first time she experienced curry--and a passionate kiss. Winnie was stunned at the attention of the man renowned as the Black Pimpernel., so named as a daring freedom fighter committed to rescuing his people. In later years, he stated he had no idea whether such a thing as love at first sight existed, but he admitted after their first date he wanted her as his wife. At the time he was in a decade long marriage to Eveline, a devout Jehovah Witness, mother of his three children. His first wife did not stand a chance.

     In Winnie’s 1984 memoir Part of my Soul Went With Him, she recounted Mandela’s own brand of proposal. “One day Nelson just pulled up on the side if the road and said, “You know, there is a woman who is a dressmaker. You must go and see her. She is going to make your wedding gown. How many bridesmaids would you like to have?” She replied, “What time?” Winnie was ecstatic; Eveline less so, who had learned of her divorce through a newspaper. On the day of their June 14, 1958, wedding, the bride’s father cautioned his daughter -whom he had tried to dissuade from the marriage. “If your man is a wizard then you must become a witch.”          

         Mandela had received the name Nelson by a British schoolteacher; his tribal one Rolihlahla meant “one who brings trouble on himself.” (In given names, Winnie and Nelson were indeed a perfect match.) Rather than live a comfortable life as an attorney, Nelson joined the African National Congress, an organization devoted to replacing the racist regime of South Africa with a multi-racial democracy. He was gone so often, often taking refuge in hidden houses, his wife stated, “Life with him was life without him.” He understood her great sacrifices and wrote, “The wife of a freedom fighter is often like a widow. Winnie gave me cause for hope. My love for her gave me added strength for the struggle that lay ahead.”

When passive resistance failed to bring about reform, in a nod to desperate times call for desperate measures, the ANC embarked on extremist measures. Shortly after their marriage, Nelson was forced underground after he had launched a series of bombings on power plants and rail lines. He was captured and stood trial in a Pretoria courtroom. Winnie attended clad head to foot in a beaded headdress and ankle-length skirt. Mandela entered the dock wearing a lion skin, the traditional garb of a native chief. He raised a clenched fist and cried “Amandla!” (Power!) and everyone in the galley, including the media, rose as one. The authorities were far from impressed with the Mandelas display of African nationalism. Nelson received a life sentence of imprisonment in Robben Island, a craggy windblown Alcatraz. His wife mourned that part of her soul went with him. 

        On average, usually every two years, Winnie could visit her husband for thirty minutes. They were not allowed to touch-merely stand with palms pressed against a glass partition. In his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom Mandela included words from a letter, “My dearest Winnie, your beautiful photo still stands about two feet above my left shoulder as I write this note. I dust it carefully every morning, for to do so gives me the pleasant feeling that I’m caressing you as in the old days. I even touch your nose with mine to recapture the electric current that used to flush through my blood whenever I did so.”

She quickly discovered the truth it is not easy being the wife of a martyr. A wife-turned-semi-widow, Winnie was left to raise two infant daughters, Zeni and Zindzi, hampered by the infamy of the name Mandela. His imprisonment had made him a martyr to his black South Africans, a dangerous demagogue to its whites. Had she chosen to retreat into obscurity she may have been able to survive with a modicum of peace, but then again she would not have been true to her name of Nomzamo..

         Instead, Nelson’s imprisonment was his wife’s call to arms, and she became the face of the ANC., proudly clad in its colors of black, green, yellow. She also became the target of the government which she was dedicated to annihilate.  Retaliation was swift but her defiance of arrests, banning orders, (government enforced restrictions against potential enemies of state which, among others things, prevented their travelling without state approval,) and daily police harassment served to keep the Mandela name in the international press at a time when her husband had been effectively silenced. If it had not been for her intrepid acts, the world would not have seen the modern-day Gandhi that Nelson Mandela was to become.

       Intent on destroying the galvanizing force, in 1969 Winnie was apprehended under the Suppression of Terrorism Act and dragged from her house to the accompaniment of her children’s screams. She endured seventeen months in solitary confinement as Prisoner 1323, during which times she was subjugated to torture.  She ate off a sanitary bucket that was returned to her un-rinsed from the night before. Her blanket was covered with urine, vomit, and bugs. She contemplated suicide but desisted, remembering her husband and her children. Upon release, she remained unbroken and resurrected her struggle to liberate her beloved country. In appreciation, her grateful people, and husband, praised her as “Mama Wethu,” “Mother of the Nation.” But behind the public façade was a lonely woman and the First Lady of South Africa’s liberation movement took a young lover.

 In the vein of Henry II’s quote about thorn-in-his-side Thomas Becket, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” the South African president’s next tactic was banishment. Mrs. Mandela was removed to the fly-blown Afrikaans town of Brandfort, deep in sheep country where the black population lived impoverished in dilapidated homes of corrugated tin. It was an exile designed to silence her voice; she did not speak the local African dialect and the white townspeople were ultra conservative Afrikaners Once again, their tactics backfired. She thumbed her nose at the authorities by ignoring WHITES ONLY signs in shops and cafes and wearing the forbidden ANC colors.  In exile in Brandfort, she still managed to galvanize the native population and a procession of influential people, such as Richard Attenborough and Ted Kennedy came to call, trailed by a host of journalists. Tragically, it was also in Brandfort Winnie begun to unravel. She began to drink heavily, so much so that her half-her-age lover had to turn a hose on her before the arrival of the Kennedy entourage.

        By the mid-Eighties the South African government realized their tactics against Mrs. Mandela were only making her a martyr and in deference to the imprisoned Nelson’s wish, they allowed Winnie to return from exile. It turned out to be a fateful request. His wife continued to be the great man’s blind-spot. Although so prescient of politics, he failed to see what she had become-an embittered woman who had strayed from the high road he had learned to walk. Although the ANC declared she was out of control, Nelson, in jail and in declining health refused to believe ill of his wife.  This was a time of anarchy in the township, and in the ensuing lawlessness Winnie, the archetypal victim, became victimizer. She assembled a thuggish neighborhood mafia, the Mandela United Football Club-whose agenda was far from any innocuous sport. It became the instrument of her brand of neighborhood justice. She made incendiary remarks, “We have no guns-we have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol. Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.” Necklacing meant an agonizing death by placing an oil-soaked burning tire around a perceived traitor’s neck. Of her metamorphosis, Winnie stated, “I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy.”

The most heinous act attributed to her orders was the abduction of a fourteen-year-old boy, Stompie Moeketsi, whose throat was slit on the grounds he was an informant. Her spree as vigilante endorsed the brand of black-on-black violence which played into the hands of the hated regime. Like her name, her father’s words came to pass-“you must become a witch.”

       In 1990, in a photograph that left an indelible mark on the world, Nelson walked out of prison, a man freed by his very captors, the Apartheid government. Winnie was there at the prison door for this long-awaited moment. The Mandelas, who had not touched in twenty-seven years, made their walk to freedom holding the other’s hand, their fists raised in solidarity. If the script of their lives were in the hands of Disney, they would have spent their remaining years basking in their long-denied love, in a country which no longer wept.   Unfortunately, the ensuing scenario was more akin to pages from the Grimm brothers.

     The marriage, which had been kept alive in brief visits and lengthy letters soon felt the strain of reality. Three decades ago, they had been on the same page, and were now on different ones. After all, Nelson had left a man and had returned a mythical hero. In the years at Robben, Mandela had learned the Lovelace lesson, “Stone walls do not a prison make.” Nelson had adopted the peaceful resistance stance of his civil rights predecessor thirty years prior and halfway across the world, Martin Luther King, Jr. Winnie’s views were more akin to the violent protesting of Malcolm X.  Although he publically supported Winnie in her trial for her role in Stompie Moeketsis’ kidnapping and murder, as she had in his, privately he condemned her actions.

Another crushing blow for the man who had been nourished by the photograph of his wife was his discovery of her adultery. He viewed this as an “Et tu, Brute.” However, history might forgive her for taking some comfort for herself during that dark time, in the light of all she had endured for her husband. It was likely hard enough playing the role of Mother of the Nation without also playing Mother Teresa.

     But Nelson did not apply his national approach to peaceful reconciliation to his errant, long-suffering wife. In 1996, their acrimonious divorce played out in public as Mandela took the stand in the Supreme Court of Johannesburg and went on record saying, “I was the loneliest man during the period I stayed with her. Ever since I came back from prison, not once has the defendant ever entered our bedroom while I was awake. If the entire universe persuaded me to reconcile I would not. I am determined to get rid of this marriage.” He never stopped loving Winnie, but no longer could continue their marital charade.’ Later he gave a softened view of the breakdown of his relationship, “I part from my wife with no recrimination. I embrace her with all the love and affection I have nursed for her inside and outside prison from the moment I first met her.”

     Although the South African love story between the leader and the country’s First Lady dissolved, Winnie, just like she did at his trial a half century before, was a constant presence during Nelson’s final illness. Witnesses to his passing understood that despite their unfortunate split, they remained the love of each other’s lives. Like his beloved people, Nelson never truly was willing to cut the apron springs of the Mother of the Nation.

     Winnie remains a sphinx, shrouded in secrecy: did she really try to be an avenging angel for her people, or did she become intoxicated with personal power? Perhaps the best insight into her soul came when a journalist asked if she would do it all again. She nodded, “100 times more.”