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03/04/2018 14:16 SAST | Updated 03/04/2018 14:26 SAST

Mama Winnie And Madiba: A Love Crushed By Apartheid

"I think its fair to say that she remained a great love in his life and ultimately, they did find reconciliation."

Beeld/ Archives

This is a transcribed interview with Verne Harris, Director of Archive and Dialogue at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, he was Mandela's archivist from 2004 to 2013.

Q: What is your take on the relationship between Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's and Tata Nelson Mandela?

A: Arguably the most significant thing about the trajectories they followed (both as individual activists, and freedom fighters, but also as human beings who married their fortunes together) is that Madiba and his generation of leadership escaped the full brutality of the Apartheid system as it was unleashed from the mid-60s onwards.

So, he wasn't tortured for example, whereas she was and she was part then of a generation which was exposed to things that were deeply damaging and we have to always factor this in.

Beeld / Archived Images

There is an incredible letter that Madiba wrote to her when she was in prison as well, in which he talked about being in a prison cell (both of them) and inviting her to reflect on what one could learn as a prisoner about oneself and how one could reckon with human weakness in a way that is really not possible outside of that kind of intense, raw experience. That is for me a really vital element of context.

She had a leadership position through the 80s, she was a member of underground structures, she was in the spotlight in terms of media attention and that placed an enormous strain on her as an individual and ultimately an enormous strain on her relationship with Madiba.

Benny Gool

Benny Gool

Those would be really important elements from my perspective. Their relationship fell apart in the early-90s (that's on record), I think it's fair to say that she remained a great love in his life and ultimately, they did find reconciliation.

Q: How important was the role of letters in maintaining a relationship between the two of them, as a useful way to navigate love but also perhaps as a historical account of maintaining communication considering the circumstances they found themselves in?

A: In the first period of his incarceration he was only able to see her once every six months and he was only able to write one letter every six months... Also, those letters - as extraordinary as they are in terms of intimacy - he knew that censors would be reading them and so the prison letter as a genre is a very particular one.

Q: George Bizos in an interview by John Carlin, mentions that Mandela was lonely, how heavy did the separation from Mama Winnie weigh on him?

A: He moved into the Houghton house in 1992 after the separation and yes, he was very lonely - some of the grandchildren came to live with him to give him company and a sense of home.

But you know it wasn't too long after that, that he started dating Mam'Graca.

Q: From an archivist's view what is your take on Mama Winnie's resolve to always remain her own person?

A: I think for me she represents a generation of radical leadership, hardened in battle in a way that Madiba's generation was not. And that same tradition - from a perspective of today - I would argue represents an imperative for deep transformative change in our country.

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Looking at the deep failures of implementation and transformation - whether it be around land or whether it be around education, it doesn't matter where you put your finger. She represents that tradition that for me is calling us again - more powerfully than ever - to not only fix things that are broken but to finally transform them.