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Meeting the former wife of Nelson Mandela

Reporter Bev Creagh with her article on Winnie Mandela

Reporter Bev Creagh with her article on Winnie Mandela

Her face has been a masque of grief this past week as she mourns her former husband Nelson Mandela.

One-time firebrand Winnie Madikizela Mandela – who took on South Africa’s hated apartheid regime while he was incarcerated on Robben Island – appears bowed by his loss.

It is in stark contrast to the woman I met in 1986.

The Mother of the Nation was walking slowly across the manicured lawns of Cape Town’s gracious Mount Nelson hotel to address a press conference. It was in open defiance of the banning order which restricted her to a remote area of the country and stipulated she could not attend or address a meeting of more than one person.

She exuded an aura of almost regal dignity, a striking figure in flowing national dress, hair beaded and plaited, tribal bangles at both wrists.

We met again in her lawyer’s office in Johannesburg a week later and her words have never left me.

She said: “I am the most unmarried married woman” – Nelson had been imprisoned for 24 years of their then 28 year mnarriage – “but I went into this marriage with the knowledge I was marrying a cause and not just a man.”

I came away immensely impressed by her courage and charisma and was deeply saddened by her subsequent fall from grace, facing charges on a number of serious issues.

But Winnie, 77, is still held in high regard in South Africa. She received the biggest cheer at Nelson’s memorial service and will always be regarded with admiration and gratitude for her role in the fight for freedom.

 

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