Terror and beauty

Did you have an idea what was in store for you when, as a stripling, stunningly beautiful girl of 23, you fell in love with this famous, handsome boxer and politician, Nelson? You, the girl of Bizana who as a child, it is said, kept the company of boys, playing their games, fighting with sticks, pummelling a face with fists, tearing the face of a sibling with a vicious weapon of your own invention, riding on the bare backs of horses and cattle. Tough and carefree.

We are told you softened when your mother died. That’s when you drew closer to your father, who is said to have maintained an aloofness from his children. Never cuddling them. Never saying a word of endearment. But you grew close to him, nevertheless, when you took on the responsibility in helping to raise your younger siblings.

You began to take care of your siblings. You loved them and disciplined them. You shared whatever you had. It is said that your caring and love for children was clearly evident then, and appears to have made you want to become a social worker. Then you, this girl of Bizana, went to Johannesburg, the City of Gold.

It was there, while you were finding your way through the brutal life of a huge city, that you were thrown headlong into the arms of history.

You met this man who, whenever your eyes or ears took him in, churned the chemistry of your entire being with anticipation. Your imagination, your mind, and your body combined to open up for you a universe of unimaginable futures as innumerable as stars in a constellation. The world in you was a galaxy of endless heavens. No clouds, only stars and boundless openings. Notions of marriage, politics, fame, and power were the cardinal points of your imagined future with him.

Yes, your lover, your friend, your mentor, your father, came into your life and set up a house around you on the pillars of love and authority. Pillars? Some houses are set up on foundations. Others are wrapped around pillars or poles like nomads do. Some houses have both. Yours was a house of pillars. It could be moved around and set up like a tent. Your house was a series of rendezvous; of cars appearing suddenly to pick you up here and drop you there; of gyms where you watched him exercise; of rallies and meetings where you watched him speak; of love nests; of a marriage proposal that was made with the certainty that there would be no hesitation on your part.

‘You know,” he said one day, after pulling the car up on the side of the road, ‘there is a woman, a dressmaker, you must go and see her, she is going to make your wedding-gown. How many bridesmaids would you like to have?” and you said: ‘What time?” The stuff of myth! No specificity of setting, time, or circumstance. Only the focus on essential actions and utterances. The total scene imagined, conjures destiny.

Sally Motlana recalls one evening. ‘I had received a telephone call that a visitor would be coming. The door bell rang at 8pm I almost dropped dead when I saw him standing outside.

‘Do me a favour and fetch Winnie,” he said. And I rushed off to get her. ‘Make yourself as beautiful as you can,” I told her, ‘an important personality wants to see you.” We drove back and I took her to a room at the far end of the house. ‘Do you want to kill me?” she asked jokingly. Then I only heard the happy laughter of the two. We left them alone and dropped Nelson in town around midnight. A life of weaving and ducking. The excitement of intrigue. Hiding. Disguise.

Can you talk about that night, Winnie? Can you talk about it beyond the mythical, the magical, and the mind-fermenting excitement? Everyone got galvanised on your behalf. Tell me, did you make love that night? Of course, I cannot ask such a question and expect you to answer it. You have not joined the ibandla for long enough to share this kind of dipabi, that lovely maize powder from Lesotho that ‘Mannete shared with us the other day. She says Basotho women love to put the powder on their palms and lap it up in tiny bits with their tongues in the course of girlish talk. So, OK, until you are a comfortable member of the ibandla such things are best left to the imagination.

But then, Mummy, I really can’t resist this. Pour some dipabi on my palm. Woman-to-woman, there’s no way you couldn’t have made love that night. Or what? All the laws of nature converged in that ‘room at the far end of the house”. Ntombi, just look at me in the eye and I will know. Sally heard you giggling and laughing. How was he? I wish you were here in flesh and blood for me to see those large twinkling eyes when they reflect naughtiness, and the reluctance to reveal which at the same time heavily suggests confirmation; that laughter of yours which is the only way you tell about your years.

Your years are not in your look. Your look does not have that definitive humility: the look that Aunt Deli told us about yesterday, laden with emotion but reflecting none. Your years are in your laugh. That laugh can mock. It can be sensuous, alluring, spell-weaving. It can be bewitchingly cold and mean. It can say: ‘How can you ask such a silly question?” while continuing to invite you to ask. It can say: ‘Who do you think you are?” It can say: ‘Won’t you leave me alone?” It can say: ‘Come here, sana, let me hug you.” Whatever message your laugh sends forth, you remain ever so beautiful. Mercifully beautiful. Terrifyingly beautiful. Your beauty! It can spell serenity and terror all at once.

Yes, I’ve often thought: Winnie Mandela, you need a mark on your forehead; your own Scarlet Letter. ‘BMB”: ‘Beware of My Beauty”. Signed: Winnie (Winifred) Nomzamo Zanyiwe Mandela. Qaphela!

This passage includes quoted extracts from Part of My Soul Went with Him by Winnie Mandela, edited by Anne Benjamin

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Njabulo Ndebele
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