/ 7 August 2013

The Mandelas’ prison years – a journal

Nelson Mandela married Winnie Madikizela in 1958. They had two children together.
Nelson Mandela married Winnie Madikizela in 1958. They had two children together.

Winne Madikizela-Mandela's more recent years have left her image tainted. But in her new book, a collection of letters and diary entries from her 491 days in prison, is a powerful reminder of what she was best known for. A single mother, forced to raise her children alone after Nelson Mandela was sent to prison, she faced hunger and constant threats from the apartheid regime.

The book, 491 Days: Prisoner number 1323/69, is based on diary entries she made while in solitary confinement, awaiting trial for alleged acts of terrorism. This was in 1969. She was never convicted and throughout says the regime was holding her and fellow prisoners to try break their will, rather than to convict them. It contains letters sent between her and Madiba – although many were lost or delayed by many months. These give a gripping insight into a family trying to survive under an onslaught from the regime.

The two were married in a "shabby little back veld church in Pondoland" in front of a huge congregation. That was 1958. Winnie was 21 or 23, but she still does not know her real date of birth. In a prison letter to Madiba she says: "I recalled with all emotions and affection your reassuring and firm grip as you slipped the ring on my finger." She was also five months pregnant.

Soon after this, Madiba was arrested and put on trial. During this time he would wake very early each morning to commute from their home in Soweto to Pretoria for proceedings. The result was prison and Madikizela-Mandela was left to raise two young daughters alone. "I was forced to mature on my own. Your formidable shadow which eclipsed me left me naked and exposed to the bitter world of a young ‘political widow"," she wrote.

In the introduction, Ahmed Kathrada, a close family friend, says: "Winnie's life was virtually that of a single parent" while her children had an "occasional father".

One letter a month
At the beginning of his prison sentence, Madiba was held at The Fort – the prison next to what is now Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. In one letter, Winnie reveals that there was an offer to break him out of prison if she paid the money up front. She refused, worried that it was a plot to have him killed while trying to escape.

In this early stages she would visit Madiba and send him cards as often as was allowed – each prisoner could write and receive one letter a month.

But in 1969 the Security Branch broke into the family's Soweto house and took her to prison. Her nine- and 10-year-old daughters were left alone in the house, along with an illicit biography of Trotsky that she has been reading before bed.

The cell she was put in was bare. In her journal, she noted in bullet points what she was allowed to have: two sisal mats, a filthy plastic bottle for drinking water, a sanitary bucket, soap, four blankets that she would put on the "bitterly cold" cement floor to make a bed. The blankets were soaked in blood, and there were hastily-scrubbed splatters on the floor and walls. "Whoever scrubbed it used a lot of Vim, the hands must have been shaking badly or trembling for some reason, it's very untidily scrubbed."

The cell light was on all day, and she was only allowed out for 10 minutes twice a week. Her first priority was a calendar so that she did not lose track of time. Each day would start at 6am with a ringing bell. Breakfast, a cold porridge with maggots, came first before she brushed her teeth and washed in her bucket. She would only use the bucket as a toilet after this – it was cleaned once a day and she trained her stomach to only go once a day. Lunch was a mielie, and supper was porridge again.

But the experience drew her closer to Madiba. "Eating what you were eating and sleeping on what you slept on gave me that psychological satisfaction of being with you," she says in a letter.

'We cannot possibly go on like this'
With both of them in prison, getting letters across was nearly impossible. Each successive one is filled with angst about how the other partner is because it has been months without news. In one she writes: "We cannot possibly go on like this. It is not enough that we are both in prison and our children deprived of both of us. It was enough of a blow to them to be without a father and all the struggle I've gone through trying to maintain them without employment."

Madiba's letters reveal the importance of his family in keeping him sane. In his first letter to her while she was in prison, he wrote that her arrest had left him "cold" and "lonely". He bemoanes the "string of useless visitors" who cannot tell him anything about his wife and children.

His biggest treasures were two pictures of the family in his cell, and the first letter Winnie wrote to him when he was in prison. "I turned instinctively to your letter as I have always done in the past whenever my resolution flagged or whenever I wanted to take away my mind from nagging problems." In his advice he said her first priority should be a photograph, "This is everything".

Each letter ends with, "Good luck, my darling. A million kisses and tons and tons of love." He signs off with "Dalinbunga", his initiation name.

In letters to his daughters, he tries to tell them about what was happening. In each one he sees a day when the family will be reunited. "One day Mummy and Daddy will return and you will no longer be orphans without a home. Then we will also live peacefully and happily as all normal families do." Here he signs off, "Yours affectionately, Daddy."

?The journal ends when Winnie was released from prison. For the next 13 years she would be under banning orders for all but 10 months. These saw her banished to the rural town of Brandfort in the Free State.

The last letters show a desperate Madiba reaching out to try to make the state protect his family because he could not. He appeals to the minister of justice to give his wife a firearm permit so she can defend herself. He also asks for a police guard at the house after people broke into the house and smothered her with a cloth. She fought back in the dark and survived, but there are numerous similar attacks. "I consider it dangerous for a woman and detrimental to her health to live alone in a rough city like Johannesburg."

But in the journal and the letters, the couple's fierce resistance burns through. They rail against the state, sure that they are being targeted. "Physical suffering is nothing compared to the trampling down of those tender bonds that form the basis of the institutions of marriage and the family that unite man and wife," wrote Madiba.

491 Days: Prisoner number 1323/69 will be launched on Thursday at Constitution Hill.