“Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage” by Jonny Steinberg – Review

By: Angie Haddock

One of the most celebrated political leaders of a century, Nelson Mandela has been written about by many biographers and historians. But in one crucial area, his life remains largely untold: his marriage to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. During his years in prison, Nelson grew ever more in love with an idealized version of his wife, courting her in his letters as if they were young lovers frozen in time. But Winnie, every bit his political equal, found herself increasingly estranged from her jailed husband’s politics. Behind his back, she was trying to orchestrate an armed seizure of power, a path he feared would lead to an endless civil war.


Growing up in the 80s & 90s, I had been aware of Nelson Mandela. But of course, what I had read back then was the children’s version of his story – and it was also a story that was not yet complete. So I thought it was about time I read a grown-up version of events. I had also been unaware of his wife’s story up until now.

And both of them had crazy and convoluted life stories!

Nelson was quite a bit older than Winnie. He was married with children already when they started dating – and she was also dating someone else at the time. Their romantic escapades with others did not stop after they got married, either.

They had two children together, both girls. The couple only really lived together for a few years before Nelson first went into hiding… then, eventually, prison. He ultimately remained in state custody for 27 years, which did curtail his philandering (but not Winnie’s).

During that time, not only did Winnie have other men around… she often had volatile relationships with thugs and informers, including some that were (eventually) half her age. In fact, after a few years of being banished to another part of the country from where she had been living with Nelson, she seemed to encourage and orchestrate violence as a means to resist apartheid. She was an advocate of armed struggle. Nelson had once believed in this, too, but his aims softened over time. She believed that he did not see things accurately while he was being taken care of in jail.

The state was always keeping an eye on her, though, which muddles the story. She led a “team” of young men who enacted a lot of threats and actual violence in the late 80s. But, a few of them were actually plants/informers. So, when the group kidnapped four young men from a nearby home, and eventually killed one, there was some difference in opinion on whether to hold Winnie accountable. Since some of the men involved were informers… did Winnie order these actions, or was she framed by the state?

She and Nelson did divorce after his release, as they had grown too far apart. Initially, he used his considerable reputation to fund her legal defense and appoint her to high positions. But they truly saw things differently, and did not stay together. Nelson eventually did remarry, to a former first lady from a neighboring African country whose first husband had passed away.

This story was full of conflict, and really made my head spin at times! The public persona of Nelson Mandela – at least here, so far away in another continent – is one of patience, of sacrificing so many years for the good of his people. The children’s version of the story I remembered was akin to those of our own Civil Rights leaders here, like Martin Luther King, Jr. So firstly, it shocked me to learn that his last name – as carried around in Johannesburg by Winnie and her “team” of gangsters – was more often associated with violence during the 1980s.

And then, it shocked me again to find that many black people in South Africa today identify more with Winnie! Because there is still much poverty, some find that not enough has changed since the supposed end of apartheid – basically feeling that it ended in name only. So they see Nelson as just a puppet, a symbol, and notsomuch an actual change-maker.

This one was definitely challenging. But, as I said, there is also a lot of action. If you’re interested in world history or politics, or haven’t studied South Africa much, it’s a eye-opening read. It came out this week, and I was able to read ahead on NetGalley and the publisher, Knopf Doubleday.

Success! You're on the list.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: