Writing demands an audience

4 Apr 2018
The Mercury
Charlene Smith
The conscience of a nation that has forgotten apartheid

Winnie Mandela, when I first met her, was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen – tall, imperious, with a gorgeous, deep voice and a low, sexy laugh.

I interviewed her after she had to stop working for a cobbler because security police harassment was so intense that business at the store fell off.

It had been this way for 13 years, ever since the jailing of her husband, Nelson Mandela, in 1963. Now that she has died the clichés about her life are rolling in thick and fast. How eager we are to forget, and in refusing to remember we perpetuate the harm she experienced in life.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 1989 found she played a role in the murders of Stompie Seipei, 13 – evidence suggested she stabbed him twice in the throat – and the deaths of Lolo Sono, and others.

In 1992, she was charged with ordering the death of Dr Abu Baker Asvat. A decade later, she was charged and convicted on multiple counts of fraud and theft, but never served jail time.

And yet she deserves our empathy, and I’ll tell you why.

In the 1970s she was a source of inspiration to many young people, some of whom flocked to her home after the 1976 uprising. Some went into exile, others remained and, coached by her, became leaders of the United Democratic Front.

Winnie was banished to a dusty village, Brandfort, hundreds of miles from her Soweto home, and that, and an incident in 1969, broke her.

In 1969, security branch officers came to her Soweto home at 3am. She was alone with her daughters, aged 10 and 9. Winnie asked to fetch her sister who was one street up so the girls would not be alone. The police refused, she was taken and her children left alone. She spent 18 months in solitary confinement, naked, not allowed to wash, and not allowed out to exercise. She did not know what had become of her girls. When she spoke of this with me, her whole countenance changed.

She was not allowed sanitary towels when she had periods, no water or cloths to clean, and so the blood caked on her. She made friends with cockroaches.

I’ve been in the cell at the Old Fort that she was held in. It is narrow with high, thick walls, it is oppressively dark when the door is closed, as it was for 18 months.

I believe she experienced profound post-traumatic stress. It was never treated; instead, she was expelled to Brandfort. She had a classic four-room house with a biggish yard. Money from mostly American donors saw her build a large bedroom with a quilt on it made by American sympathisers.

She used to wait at the Brandfort post office at around 11am each day for phone calls, or would make phone calls out. People who visited her were arrested and charged.

Winnie was isolated and lonely. It was here that the drinking and drug-taking began, and affairs with younger men, including a dreadlocked film-maker. The conservative black folk of Brandfort township grew to loathe her.

She would receive visiting international dignitaries like Senator Edward Kennedy in 1985, but it deepened the resentment of her.

When she went back to Joburg, in defiance of her banning order, Madiba was already in secret communication with the apartheid government.

She formed the Mandela United Football Club. It became an instrument of torture and murder of young men wrongly accused of being spies.

At the TRC hearings where its activities were recounted, Archbishop Desmond Tutu put his head on the table and cried.

Mandela wrote: “I have often wondered whether any kind of commitment can ever be sufficient excuse for abandoning a young and inexperienced woman in a pitiless desert.”

And so when he came out of jail in 1990, it was with his hand in hers, even though a few Sundays before his release, her explicit love letters to a young lawyer were revealed.

On the night of his return to Soweto, she left the house early in the morning with the lawyer in full view of the world’s media outside.

Zwelakhe Sisulu, who accompanied them to the US, not long after said she would yell at Madiba in hotel rooms. The entourage were not sure how to cope with these outbursts.

Archbishop Tutu said: “Mandela said to me that he was never so unhappy as in the period after he was released until he decided to leave Soweto.”

Winnie was unrepentant, she ran up huge bills on Mandela’s tab, was convicted on multiple counts of theft and fraud, and became an embarrassment.

Lots of false pieties will be said about her now. The truth is that once there was a beautiful, proud woman who studied social work with an older woman, Albertina Sisulu.

Through her she met a handsome, brilliant lawyer called Nelson Mandela. They fell in love. He divorced his first wife to marry her. They had two children. Their marriage was passionate. He adored her. I don’t believe he ever loved anyone else as much. However, their life was never normal because of his political activities, which she embraced.

When Mandela went to jail, he was comparatively safe compared with the perilous life she experienced. The apartheid state punished her because of him, and also because she was an effective conduit for sending young people into exile for military training.

She was a devoted and exceptionally loving mother, grandmother and greatgrandmother. I’m not sure how Zindzi, especially, will cope now.

Because of the poison that is racism she was tortured beyond anything anyone should endure, and because she was so venerated none loved her enough to give the help she needed.

Winnie is the conscience of a nation that has already forgotten the tragedy of apartheid; even in her death, people do not realise how she suffered, how damaged she became and how it hurt her.

South Africa today has one of the worst crime rates in the world. It has millions of damaged people – they are apartheid’s legacy.

It is in remembering and healing a wounded people that we honour the legacy of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Sleep with the angels, Nomzamo.

Previous StoryNext Story

CHARLENE Smith is a multiaward-winning writer, editor, lecturer and management consultant.

An authorised biographer for Nelson Mandela, she teaches writing in the US, UK and South Africa.

She has been profiled twice by Time magazine and every major news network in the world including CNN, CBS 60 Minutes, BBC and Le Monde. She has consulted to the World Economic Forum, Fifa, CocaCola and others. An international public speaker and an expert in HIV/​Aids and gender violence, Smith was instrumental in getting the Centers for Disease Control to research a protocol for Post-Exposure Prophylaxis after Sexual Assault that was released in 2004.

She has a Master’s of Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Arts (Advanced Narrative Non-Fiction) and lives in Massachusetts. She loves art, photography, cooking and gardening.

Please see the events page for new public courses, lectures, speaking engagements, and a photographic exhibition. Contact me using the Contact Form on the Contact Page if you need more information.


Please use the Contact Me form on this site.

April 3 - Nelson Mandela and The Art of Building Bridges, Wellesley Weston Lifetime Learning, Wellesley for more information go to http:/​/​wwllcourses.org

At Goddard College, Vermont I was encouraged to pursue my passion for photography
I was awarded the Goddard College Alumni Arts Award 2015 to assist with the research and writing of my book about sexual violence called, Never a Victim.
I graduated with a Master of Fine Arts: Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College, Vermont in 2014 majoring in Advanced Narrative Non-Fiction and Digital Photography.

Mandela: In Celebration of a Great Life by Charlene Smith (Random House)
Nelson Mandela's lessons about co-operation, reconciliation, and team-building can be applied in daily life.http://www.amazon.com/Mandela-In-Celebration-Great-Life/dp/1928213138/ref=dp_ob_title_bk

Me with a bear on Lightning Mountain, New Hampshire, March 2013. Research for a series of articles on bears.
Don't Feed the Bears (see link below), The Boston Globe Magazine, June 23 2013. It begins:

"Humans are strange animals. They leave out delectable birdseed, chattering free-range chickens, and aromatic garbage, but shoot when bears, encouraged by this plenty, wander closer... 'We underestimate the ability of wild animals and humans to get along,' says New Hampshire environmentalist David L. Eastman. 'But getting along also requires humans to behave.'"

Charlene Smith at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. November 26 with fans of Nelson Mandela
On November 26, Charlene Smith was invited to speak on the Life and Legacy of Nelson Mandela, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Some 350 guests arrived, and a book-signing took place afterward.

Interviewing Nelson Mandela on the third day of his release, and first day back in Soweto
A referee once wrote, “Charlene Smith is a powerful, highly skilled and experienced journalist, author and communications professional. She is adept at finding the right channels for messages. She has immense patience and love for people – no-one is unimportant or undeserving of her time or mentoring.”

As a journalist, an authorized biographer of Nelson Mandela, as well as a speech writer and ghostwriter, I have been privileged to witness the best in the great and had the time to ponder their flaws. I believe that it is in addressing failure, that the exceptional emerges.

Writing is a privileged profession: people allow us into their lives, they reveal their hearts bit-by-bit, they let us scratch through their records, go where they fear, and in the process, they too, rediscover themselves.

Current affairs writers are witnesses to history and so our responsibility to truth-telling and fairness is eternal.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, I covered anti-apartheid resistance in South Africa as a journalist before resigning to become an activist against apartheid. I also worked in Japan and Argentina. Publications I have worked for include the Los Angeles Times, Independent, Guardian, Washington Post, Le Monde, and others. As a television documentary maker I worked with Tony Burman at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Ted Koppel at ABC Nightline, and Ed Bradley at CBS 60 Minutes, and others. That work taught me the importance of visual cues.