Graham Boynton

From she-devil to heroine – Winnie Mandela’s surprising metamorphosis

Jonny Steinberg describes Nelson and Winnie’s doomed marriage, and how their posthumous reputations have undergone a startling reversal

Nelson Mandela with his wife Winnie in 1990, soon after his release and two years before they separated. [Alamy]

Apartheid South Africa created many heroes and villains, and in the heat of battle for the soul of that country it was sometimes difficult to tell which was which. For decades, Nelson Mandela represented righteous liberation for a society enchained by the grim political philosophy of apartheid. Throughout most of this time, his wife Winnie embodied fearless defiance and radical resistance to the system, a charismatic beauty who howled with rage: according to Lord Hain, ‘a quasi-revolutionary to Mandela’s reformism’.

A complex Shakespearian tale unfolds of two charismatic figures thrown together by apartheid

Today, as South Africa lurches from one crisis to the next, the legacy of the Mandelas is up for grabs. While history will mark Winnie down as an accessory to murder, a psychopath who oversaw the kidnap and torture of young men, an embezzler, an unblushing and unprincipled liar, today’s young black radicals of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Forum party hold her in the highest regard as the true voice of liberation. Equally, historians argue that Nelson’s calm pragmatism on his release from prison saved the country from descending into civil war. But as his ruling ANC party stumbles through corruption scandals and the chronic mismanagement of the economy, his legacy becomes increasingly tarnished.

So, although Jonny Steinberg’s detailed and beautifully written biography of the couple is billed as a portrait of a marriage, it is much more than that. By tracing the lives of these two charismatic individuals – one a social worker, the other a Thembu prince – from the pre-apartheid days through to their inevitably sad ending, he is telling the bigger story: of a country in transition and at war with its own people. As a South African and Oxford academic, Steinberg fully understands the nuances and double entendres that course through the nation’s body politic.

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