The Write Stuff: Flaws of a secular saint

Nelson Mandela accompanied by his wife Winnie, walks out of the Victor Verster prison, near Cape Town, on 11 February 1990. Picture: Reuters
Nelson Mandela accompanied by his wife Winnie, walks out of the Victor Verster prison, near Cape Town, on 11 February 1990. Picture: Reuters
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Veteran foreign correspondent and author Fred Bridgland reported for The Scotsman on Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Here, he recalls the moment and reveals some of Mandela’s triumphs and misjudgments on his journey to become president of South Africa

A few days after 11 February 1990, when Nelson Mandela walked hand-in-hand with his then wife Winnie through prison gates as a free man after 27 years of incarceration, I went in search of a new angle on the biggest good news story of modern times.

I travelled to the small settlement of Cofimvaba in the black homeland of Transkei, set among rolling hills overlooking the Indian Ocean. There I knocked on the front door of the home of Evelyn Ntoko Mase Mandela, Nelson’s little known first wife who had borne him four children.

Evelyn had refused all interviews with reporters about her life with Nelson, so I was apprehensive when she opened her door, appraising me through the thick Coca-Cola bottle bottom lenses of her horn-rimmed spectacles.

I hardly dared to draw breath as Evelyn, who ran a small store and had become a Christian missionary, opened the door wider and gestured for me to enter and make myself comfortable on her plastic-covered sofa. At first, as I began asking questions tentatively, I kept my notebook in my pocket: I did not want to alarm Evelyn into changing her mind. And then – I do not know how we got there – she was describing to me how, as a young trainee nurse new to the big city of Johannesburg from a rural area in 1943, Nelson had seduced her. I slid my notebook and pen gingerly from my top pocket and asked her what he was like. “He was beautiful,” the then 69-year-old Evelyn sighed.

I knew I had the beginnings of a great story, a new angle on a man being saluted as some kind of saint, as undoubtedly he will be portrayed by many now that he has died. But what was really fascinating about Mandela, I came to realise, was that he had – and admitted to – real human frailties that in the final analysis made him a greater man than was grasped by the armies of his hagiographers and idolaters.

Evelyn gave me insights that became part of an incessant juggling between perceptions of Mandela the legend and Mandela the man with ordinary human foibles. Evelyn, who divorced Nelson in 1957 and won custody of their children but still wore her wedding ring, told me: “I loved Nelson very much, and I felt he loved me in those days. But things do change.”

What changed, she said, was that Nelson began bringing back pretty office secretaries to the Mandela bedroom in the family’s small Soweto matchbox house. Evelyn threatened to pour boiling water over Nelson and his lovers if he continued taking them to the marital bed. It spelt the end of their relationship. Years later Nelson revealed that Evelyn had threatened him with a red-hot poker, but he admitted he had treated her badly.

At the end of our meeting, Evelyn, remarking on statements by ANC leaders comparing Nelson’s release from prison to the second coming of Christ, said: “How can a man who has committed adultery and left his children be Christ? The whole world worships Nelson too much. He is only a man.”

Some man. I had travelled to Cofimvaba from Cape Town, where I reported on Nelson’s sweet walk to freedom.

As an idealistic youngster I had been a member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and my rather limited litmus test of anyone’s political ethics concerned where he or she stood on apartheid and Mandela’s imprisonment. By the time of Mandela’s release I was a seasoned and sceptical foreign correspondent: nevertheless, I was thrilled to be covering one of the greatest political events of modern times as Nelson walked with Winnie from Victor Verster Prison.

Little did we know that day that Winnie, acting publicly as a loving spouse, would refuse to sleep with her husband, the world’s greatest hero, who had left Evelyn for the beautiful Nomzamo Winfreda Zanyiwe Madikizela: the sad reality was to emerge only years later in dramatic fashion. For the moment, it was all a real-life fairy tale.

Logistics were the main problem on the day of Mandela’s release. In the pre-computer era, the tightly packed media centre in Cape Town was 40 miles from Paarl, a small town in the winelands where Mandela walked through the gates of Victor Verster Prison a free man. I cut a deal with a colleague. She would stand outside the prison and watch Winnie and Nelson emerge and phone information to me as I hammered out thousands of words in the media centre for The Scotsman and my Sunday paper. We were all fascinated to see what Mandela would look like, so many years after the last photo of him had been seen.

Near the media centre thousands of ecstatically happy people packed the square outside Cape Town’s City Hall waiting for Mandela to arrive to give his first public speech since the early 1960s. They knew that his freedom meant that apartheid itself would soon die.

Mandela, however, was not entirely free that first day. ANC bigwigs argued furiously among themselves about what their leader should be allowed to say in his speech from the City Hall balcony. His first words were decided by committee and were consequently disappointingly dull.

But there was plenty to divert journalists’ attention as he began speaking, hours behind schedule. As the waiting crowds grew tetchy in the intense heat, gangs of black youths went on a rampage that was dubbed by wits as “affirmative shopping” in the streets surrounding City Hall. They smashed store windows and looted goods. As Mandela attempted to be heard from the balcony, the police were firing bullets and buckshot. Some looters died, at least one in the square itself with a bullet through his forehead. Some journalists were wounded with buckshot.

Mandela ended his speech by quoting the words he had used from the dock in 1963, before being sentenced to life imprisonment: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela spent his first night in freedom at Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s official residence on the slopes of Table Mountain. Then he flew to Johannesburg and spent the first day there in Soweto. Mandela lived for his first few weeks in Johannesburg in the luxury home of his friend, Soweto millionaire Richard Maponya, then South Africa’s richest black businessman, running an empire that included a BMW franchise.

Just a few weeks before Mandela’s release, I had gone to talk with Maponya, who had just visited the ANC leader in prison and who gave me a remarkable scoop. As a black servant poured tea and we gazed beyond Mr Maponya’s huge floodlit swimming pool, lined with faux Roman pillars, towards a floodlit tennis court, he told me: “The message Mr Mandela wanted me to take away from Victor Verster [Prison] was his belief that the economy is the backbone of the nation.

“Madiba [Mr Mandela’s familiar clan name] said he does not believe in nationalisation because it is clear that such a policy runs counter to the need to keep the South African economy growing – to provide jobs so that we can generate resources for training our young people.”

Maponya also said Mandela wanted black children – who had been urged by ANC activists to boycott classes and chant “liberation before education” – to return to their schools and their studies.

Mandela’s observations, as I reported them quoting Maponya, caused a sensation. Here was the leader of the ANC and one of the main authors of the movement’s 1955 Freedom Charter, which called for the nationalisation of mines, banks and “monopoly industry,” renouncing the central plank of ANC policy.

Mandela responded rapidly and pointedly from prison to his colleagues on a scrap of paper, dated 15 January 1990, which began: “Give this statement the widest publicity.” It appeared in its original form in Mandela’s handwriting in newspapers in South Africa and overseas. It affirmed that nationalisation of the banks, mines and monopoly industries was ANC policy and “a change or modification in our views is inconceivable … State control of certain sectors of the economy is unavoidable.” Mandela signed off: “Regards, Madiba.”

I returned to Maponya to ask him about this Mandela knuckle-rap. He said I had reported accurately what Mandela had said, but that the political situation was too sensitive for him to comment any further. But I smiled wryly when, after Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994, he rose in parliament and publicly laid to rest the Freedom Charter’s nationalisation clauses that he had privately buried in his heart years earlier. “Privatisation is the fundamental policy of the ANC, and it is going to be implemented. Call me a Thatcherite, if you will,” Mandela told his fellow parliamentarians.

Later, Mandela would refute a much more serious allegation I made against him.

Meanwhile I watched and reported as he embarked upon a remarkable journey to try to reconcile all South Africa’s disparate peoples and to assure the white minority that they would still have their place in the sun. His commitment to reconciliation and compromise, when he must have been tempted to let loose the dogs of war after spending the best decades of his life in prison, surely saved South Africa from the most terrible conflict in which everyone would have been losers.

Mandela began, as he was released from prison, by agreeing to enter negotiations with the last white president of South Africa, Mr FW de Klerk, to create a “New South Africa” in which all of its adult citizens would, for the first time, have the right to vote in an all-race democratic election. It was fascinating to watch the development of the relationship between the one-time hardline white supremacist and the former black prisoner who had been denounced as a Communist terrorist. They were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Their partnership was vital during the four years of talks that followed Mandela’s release until his inauguration as state president in Pretoria on 10 May 1994. De Klerk – who had announced on 2 February 1990 that he had decided to release Mandela from prison, to unban the ANC and scrap a whole raft of apartheid laws – said in subsequent interviews that the white minority would have been able to maintain control, through military and police crackdowns, for many years. “But it would have been under increasingly grim and unacceptable circumstances,” said De Klerk. “Worse still, the prospects for a satisfactory negotiated settlement would have diminished with each successive cycle of revolution and repression. I knew South Africa had to be changed for ever.”

The roller-coaster ride of those four years of negotiation were among the most exhilarating I experienced as a foreign correspondent. While there was hope of a bright new future, there were also some huge and bloody hiccups along the way. There was terrible black-on-black violence, mainly between ANC activists and followers of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party, with the frequent use of ‘necklaces’, petrol-filled car tyres, to burn opponents to death: there was white-on-black violence perpetrated by shadowy hit squads of the old apartheid state with unlikely names, such as the Civil Cooperation Bureau; there was black-on-white violence, perpetrated particularly by rival groups to the ANC such as the Pan African Congress and the Azanian People’s Organisation.

Some of the hiccups resulted in angry words between Mandela and De Klerk, but, miraculously, each bloody eruption led to a new step forward in the negotiating process. Each outbreak of violence led to private talks, often at the residence of British Ambassador Sir Robin Renwick, to secure progress rather than a retreat into intensified bloodshed.

Through it all Mandela wove his blend of diplomatic wizardry, dubbed “Madiba Magic” by his admirers, as he and De Klerk steered their troubled land towards what some saw as an enchanted peace. In those frenetic days Mandela was an itinerant preacher of reconciliation, touring the country delivering homily after homily, seducing the white Afrikaners who were his jailers and admonishing ANC followers when they resorted to violence. Addressing an ANC crowd baying for revenge against an Inkatha attack in August 1993 in the grim township of Katlehong, near Johannesburg, he said: “If you have no discipline, you are not freedom fighters and we do not want you in our organisation. If you are going to kill innocent people and old men, you do not belong in the ANC. I am your leader. If you don’t want me, tell me to go and rest. As long as I am your leader, I will tell you where you are wrong. Your task is reconciliation.” He stared his angry supporters down. They shuffled home abashed.

Many ANC supporters felt Mandela took reconciliation too far, as when he hosted a lunch for Percy Yutar, the ambitious apartheid-era prosecutor who argued for Mandela to be hanged by the neck in the 1963-64 Rivonia sabotage trial and who subsequently aired his grievance when Mandela was only jailed for life. He paid a call on Betsy Verwoerd, the frail 94-year-old widow of the notorious architect of grand apartheid, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, whose legislation had led to the banning of the ANC and Mandela’s imprisonment. Verwoerd was reputed to have prided himself on never having shaken a black man’s hand. And yet there was his widow giving Mandela coffee and koeksusters [treacly Afrikaner cakes] and glancing at him with approval as he helped her read out a statement of greeting in Afrikaans.

When Mandela was on song, it looked and felt as though Africa at last had a leader who really did stand for all that was good about that vibrant continent. As a corrective to the cynicism of western politics, he had an aura that enabled him to tear up the old rule book of government.

Remarkably, he steered this transition while coping with the disintegration of his marriage to Winnie in the most harrowing of circumstances. When Mrs Mandela – who was in relationships with several men younger than herself – refused to sleep with him after he was released from imprisonment, she was facing the possibility of trial for the murder of 14-year-old Stompei Seipei Moeketsi. She had kidnapped Stompie and four other youths from the manse of a popular white Methodist minister of religion, Paul Verryn, who lived in Soweto and gave shelter to youths on the run from the apartheid police. Before the trial began five witnesses and co-accused went “missing”, including a Zulu youth, Katiza Cebekhulu, who some newspapers said would give devastating evidence against Mrs Mandela.

Mrs Mandela accused Stompie and the others of having sex with the Reverend Verryn and being “sell-outs” to the apartheid authorities. When they denied her charges, she and her Football Club members assaulted the youths with immense savagery. In a complex chain of events, Stompie’s body was subsequently found on waste ground and Mrs Mandela’s personal doctor, Abu-Baker Asvat, who had ordered Mrs Mandela to take the injured Stompie to hospital, was shot dead by assassins who, South Africa’s 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard, were hired by Winnie.

It was all like some Greek tragedy, and I became wrapped up, in combination with Nelson Mandela, in an unforeseen way that continued until the day of his death and will go on beyond.

Extraordinarily – many people believed – Winnie Mandela was not charged with Stompie Moeketsi’s murder, but with kidnapping and assaulting him. Finding her guilty, the judge sentenced her to six years imprisonment [subsequently reduced on appeal to a fine] and said: “Mrs Mandela showed herself on a number of occasions to be a calm, composed, unblushing liar … vague, evasive and lacking in candour.” She had “played fast and loose with the liberty of others” and deliberately “fudged” replies to prevent the prosecution from proving her answers false. She was an accessory to the fact of the assault. “To imagine that all this took place without [Mrs] Mandela as one of the moving spirits would be like imagining Hamlet without the Prince,” said the judge.

Nelson Mandela swept to his wife’s side as soon as the judge adjourned the court. He embraced and kissed her and asked: “My darling, how are you?” It was surely a charade for public consumption. The second person to step forward and embrace her was one of her lovers, a young lawyer named Dali Mpofu: he also kissed her. The following year, Nelson separated from Winnie, and when their divorce proceedings began he cited her adultery, which he said had left him humiliated and lonely; her “hypocritical” expressions of affection for him at public gatherings; and her lavish spending on make-up, clothes and parties she could not afford. “It appears,” he said, “that she earns some ZAR 16,000 per month but leads a luxurious lifestyle which costs ZAR 107,000 per month.”

In perhaps the most painful revelation of his life, Mandela said that following his release from prison in 1990 his wife had not once entered their bedroom while he was still awake. “I was the loneliest man during the period I stayed with her,” he said at the divorce hearing. “If the entire universe persuaded me to reconcile I would not.”

Newspapers said Nelson had been physically attacked by Winnie several times between 1990 and 1992 before he finally left her. A “family member” told one newspaper, the widely read City Press, that Winnie had assaulted him more than once after he moved in with her following his release from prison. “A bodyguard stepped in on one occasion and drew a firearm, saying he would not allow Mr Mandela to be humiliated,” City Press quoted the family member as saying.

Towards the end of 1991, I was in Zambia for that country’s first multi-racial election in more than two decades. On my travels I met Frederick Chiluba, the challenger to the incumbent President Kenneth Kaunda, and told him that I thought on the basis of all I had seen and heard that he would win. There were vague rumours that Katiza Cebekhulu, the main “missing witness” from Mrs Mandela’s trial, might have been kidnapped to Zambia and imprisoned there. Chiluba won the election and I got a message to him telling him about the Cebekhulu/Winnie Mandela hearsay. The new head of state ordered a search of Zambia’s grim prisons. Quickly Chiluba, to his and my surprise, found Cebekhulu who said he had watched Winnie Mandela stab Stompie Moeketsi to death. Cebekhulu said he had been kidnapped to Zambia by an ANC Special Operations Unit and put without charge or trial in prison where he was meant to die.

After protracted negotiations, Cebekhulu was permitted entry with me into Britain. I worked with him in a caravan on a Devon clifftop for a critical biography of Winnie Mandela and a subsequent BBC TV documentary. While making the documentary I interviewed Kenneth Kaunda, by then a former head of state, and asked him on whose instructions he had imprisoned Cebekhulu. “Nelson Mandela,” Kaunda replied on film to my astonishment. And he was sure that the directive had come from Mandela? “Exactly,” said Kaunda, to the mortification of his aides who tried unsuccessfully to confiscate our film cassette.

Nelson Mandela subsequently issued a statement through his spokesman denying that he had issued the order for the kidnap and imprisonment of Cebekhulu, living in Britain to this day.

In current research for a new book and film on Winnie Mandela, I further allege Mr Mandela’s involvement in the destruction of the London-based International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF), set up to fund the legal defence of victims of apartheid justice, when he demanded that its money be used to finance Mrs Mandela’s defence. When the European Union realised IDAF funds were being used for defence in a criminal rather than a political trial, it withdrew its million euro a year funding and IDAF collapsed. And so, my own journey with Mandela, the slightest of rides compared with his, will go on beyond his death.

Mandela was in many ways a Victorian gentleman, with exquisite manners and fine sense of etiquette and of the ridiculous. I suspect he felt guilty for having left Winnie and their daughters for 27 years to cope alone with oppression and humiliation under the apartheid police: at one stage, Winnie was imprisoned in solitary confinement for six months. Torn by love and guilt, Nelson decided to back her to the hilt during her trial. Once it was over, he wanted out of his failed marriage.

The end of the Winnie affair freed him to return to the quest for political and racial reconciliation.

For many years the South African rugby union Springbok team had been isolated from international competition as the result of a sporting boycott, used by the ANC to bludgeon the white government and its supporters. Rugby was almost the national religion of the Afrikaners, so there was excitement when the Boks were readmitted into world rugby and the national team reached the World Cup final in 1995 at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium against New Zealand. Mandela had attended the opening ceremony of the cup, contested by 16 nations, including Scotland, and not many of the tens of thousands of Afrikaners in the crowd could sing the new national anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ i-Afrika [God Bless Africa].

In a masterstroke, Mandela, the former ‘terrorist’ and prisoner number 46664, arrived on final day wearing the green-and-gold Springbok jersey with the number 6 on it of the captain, François Pienaar. As Mandela pumped his fists in the air when South Africa’s Joel Stransky kicked the winning points, the world watched in astonishment at seeing the old pariah state breaking the mould. As Mandela handed the gleaming Webb Ellis Cup to Pienaar, cries of “Nelson, Nelson” rang around the stadium, largely populated by Afrikaners. Mandela said: “François, thank you for what you have done for our country.” Pienaar replied: “No, Mr President. Thank you for what you have done.”

That day, Mandela – the world’s last secular saint, albeit with flaws, who changed history for the better – really did sprinkle ‘Madiba magic’ big time.