New book describes how Mother of the Nation was no saint


Truth, Lies and Alibis – a Winnie Mandela story, by Fred Bridgland (Tafelberg)

truth lies and alibisThere was an immense outpouring of grief when Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died earlier this year. The Mother of the Nation was gone, it was the end of the Mandela era.

Much was said and written about her suffering – and she did suffer – at the hands of the apartheid government and its various agents. Her internal exile, her solitary imprisonment, her single motherhood, her devotion to her jailed husband, the fact she became the face of the Struggle during the years when the liberation movements were banned and its leaders were in prison, meant she was venerated by millions.

Few had the gall or possible poor taste to point out that she had often been anything but a saint. Now barely five months after her death in April, a veteran foreign correspondent has brought it all up again in a new book, and it isn’t a pretty story.

There will be people who see Fred Bridgland, who covered South Africa for UK newspapers in the apartheid years, and who reported for the old Argus Group newspapers in South Africa too, as a bitter old white man who is rudely rehashing a past many would prefer to forget.

And yet Bridgland asks some pertinent and uncomfortable questions. Did Madikizela-Mandela get away with murder? Did Chief Justice Michael Corbett, under immense pressure from the old white government and the ANC, defeat the ends of justice by ensuring Madikizela-Mandela did not go to jail?

Bridgland concludes they did.

I had forgotten that the deaths of Stompie Seipei and Soweto doctor Abu-Bakr Asvat, and the controversies around the Mandela United Football Club, happened just a year before FW De Klerk unbanned the liberation movements and freed political prisoners, including NelsonMandela.

Seipei, who was just 14, was kidnapped and beaten to death on New Year’s Eve 1988. Madikizela-Mandela’s GP, Dr Asvat, who was called to her house to treat the dying boy and who told her to get him to hospital, was shot dead in his surgery two months later.

In September 1990 Mandela accompanied his wife to Soweto’s Protea Regional Court where she appeared, with seven others, on charges of kidnapping and assaulting Stompie and another three youths. The eight accused were released on bail of R500 and the case was postponed to February 1991in the Supreme Court.

So Madikizela-Mandela’s legal woes took place place against a background of the political dance that led, after many stops and starts, to the first democratic elections in April 1994.

Bridgland refers to an article by the British journalist John Carlin in which he said apartheid justice minister Kobie Coetzee, in partnership with Niël Barnard, the old government’s National Intelligence Service chief, told him they had “conveyed a message” to the “relevant members of the judiciary to show Winnie leniency”.

And the reason was to keep the negotiations on track.

But, Bridgland concludes, that by putting Madikizela-Mandela “above the law, for political reasons, in the saga of the Mandela United Football Club and the murdered Stompie (Seipei) Moeketsi, Abu-Baker Asvat and others, the old order in its dying convulsions gave a stamp of approval to the perversion of justice in the new democratic South Africa…

“The worst of the old infected the new. Key political figures remained above the law, both before and after the end of apartheid, and the current generation is paying the price of this expedience.”

This is a sobering and frequently uncomfortable book to read. I suspect many of us have forgotten, or managed to avoid ever knowing, some of the horrors and murders perpetrated by the Mandela United Football Club, almost certainly at the behest of Madikizela-Mandela.

She was never charged with murder, yet much of the story came out during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, where she was found, in the final report, to have committed gross violations of human rights. Later she referred to chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “Tutu and his cretins”.

It is not only Madikizela Mandela who doesn’t come out of this book well. Apart from Judge Corbett, revered advocate George Bizos and members of the Mandela Crisis Committee  (which was established in 1988 with the still imprisoned Mandela’s approval to rein in Madikizela-Mandela and her football team, and included Cyril Ramaphosa, Sydney Mufamadi and the Rev Frank Chikane) are less than shining lights.

This is an utterly gripping book.

  • For this and other reviews by Vivien Horler, see her website




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