A UDF activist remembers Winnie
There was a car in Cape Town, where Winnie Madikizela-Mandela would sit in the passenger seat, her sharp gaze watching the city pass by through her window. Under banning orders and separated from her daughters, the city was where Winnie would steal time among friends to laugh and plot as security police stalked her every move.
In the early 1980s, Winnie was living in Brandfort, in the Free State, where she had been banished to by the apartheid regime.
Her then husband, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned in Robben Island and she was allowed conjugal visits to see him.
On those visits to the Cape, she was helped by freedom fighters in the United Democratic Front (UDF)― an anti-apartheid structure that organised against the state while ANC activists were banned from the country and forced into exile or prison.
Nesha Kahn, and her husband, grew to become friends with Winnie. They were her trusted allies in the Cape and grew to know her intimately because their close friend, Dr Ayesha Ahmed, now deceased, was her physician.
Ahmed used to accompany Winnie and drive her around during her Cape Town visits. But soon, it was Nesha’s husband who would become Winnie’s driver and good friend.
It is the first time he is publicly speaking about his encounters with Winnie. In the UDF, he was a disciplined activist who was accustomed to secrecy around his activities. Even after all these years, he has maintained that confidentiality to the point where he still wishes to keep his identity hidden.
“The secrecy that one needed to practice and the discipline that you needed to implement during the time of her banning was just the done thing. You don’t talk about it. Even afterward, the job had been done, democracy came about and that’s it,” he says.
Even now, there are things about Winnie he won’t talk about. Nesha and him are in their home in Athlone. During the struggle years, this was a house where UDF leaders would hide from security police.
Winnie never visited here, she was prohibited from doing so, but she knew their lives. She would ask after the Kahns’ children, and her daughters, Zindzi and Zenani, would spend time with the family while their mother was banished.
The first time they met Winnie was at Ahmed’s house in Elsies River. But the most memorable meeting was in Brandfort where Winnie was banished to in 1977, as the apartheid regime struggled to control her.
During a roadtrip across the country before 1980, the Kahn family and Ahmed stopped at the Brandfort house. Ahmed, being Winnie’s physician, had official papers that would allow her into the house to see Winnie. The rest of the family stayed outside in the car.
“After about 10 minutes, Ayesha came out and she said we must go to the post office,” Nesha remembers.
Winnie was allowed one visitor a day at the house, but she was also permitted one trip to the local post office. With her devotion to annoy the security police, Winnie had a little mischief brewing on that fateful day as the Kahns and Ahmed waited outside the post office.
“She came down the road with a blanket under her arm, threw it on the pavement, and we had cool drinks right there like a picnic” Nesha remembers, with a laugh.
These encounters with Winnie, would encourage Ahmed to suggest that Kahn be Winnie’s driver when she visited the Cape. In one year, in the early 1980s, he got his first instruction to pick Winnie up from the airport.
“The first time I saw her she came out in a kaftan with her head-dress. She was stunning,” Kahn said.
They made their way from inside the airport to Kahn’s blue Datsun 1200. Winnie sat in the passenger seat, as two security policemen watched from a distance behind in their own car.
From there, with the security cops following, they took the shortest route to Caledon Square, the Security Branch headquarters near the city centre, where Winnie would have to check in with police.
Only then, would she be allowed to go to the Robben Island ferry, to see Mandela.
But thing didn’t always go smoothly. Winnie would often make sure the security cops knew just who they were dealing with.
It is her rebellious nature that Kahn remembers, as he recounts a day when an outraged Winnie publicly shouted at a junior security policeman.
“She came out of Caledon Square and she was screaming on the pavement at the top of her lungs at someone inside. She must’ve had an altercation and she was basically taking it to the street. She was livid― she was shaking when she got into the car,” he recalls.
“She never shut up. Whenever she went to the island and she had her conjugal time with Nelson, it was also to disseminate information which she then had give to the UDF,” Kahn says.
During the ANC’s banning and Mandela’s imprisonment, Winnie kept the ANC and Mandela names alive, and continued to frustrate the apartheid regime. She would take the information delivered to her from inside Robben Island and spread it to underground structures in the country who were facing off against the regime.
“She was the mouthpiece unofficially for whatever was happening inside [Robben Island],” he says.
She was also someone who was easy to befriend, Kahn remembers. During the drives, the two bonded, kindling a friendship that grew from their mischief and duties to rebel against apartheid and their conversations about family and struggle.
Kahn chuckles at the memories.
“Sometimes, I used to play games with the security police and go over the red robot. I used to time it and watch the robot go from green to amber to red. When it went amber, I would shoot over,” he said.
When Winnie was unbanned in 1986, the games would stop, and the passenger seat of his car would once again be empty of her presence, as if she was never there.
There would be one or two run-ins at Ahmed’s house, where they would laugh and dine among friends, but for the most part the two seldom saw one another.
In the later years of apartheid, Winnie would make a speech about tyres and matches, and there would be talk of a teenage boy, Stompie Seipei, whose body had been found tortured and murdered.
One year, in the late eighties, Kahn was at the airport to greet his brother who was leaving for pilgrimage in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. Winnie arrived from Khayelitsha or Gugulethu, Kahn can’t remember which township it was exactly, where she had just spoken to a crowd of supporters.
When Kahn had first became friends with her, her militancy was obvious in her attitude — in her commitment to doing almost everything it would take to end apartheid. But in those early years of their drives, she would still dress in kaftans and skirts. Now, at the Cape Town airport, she wore military fatigues.
In that speech that day, Winnie had alluded to necklacing in front of the crowd, Kahn says. But when she saw him at the airport, the warm-hearted disarming Winnie spread her arms out to him.
“Lo and behold we were all standing at the airport and she sees him and she hugs him,” Nesha says.
“And the hujjaj’s [pilgrims] eyes are popping!,” she says, referring to some traditions where Muslim men and women who are not family maintain physical distance during religious gatherings.
“She was very fond of him,” Nesha says with a smile.
There are still some in the UDF, however, who focus on Stompie’s killing and Winnie’s utterances of burning tyres. In 1989, at a time when the ANC, under Oliver Tambo, had attempted to counsel Winnie on her Mandela Football Club, the Mass Democratic Movement, which included the UDF, publicly distanced itself from Winnie.
“She refused to heed even advice from (ANC president in exile) Comrade Oliver Tambo and Comrade Nelson Mandela,” Murphey Morobe, the UDF’s former publicity secretary, told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
One UDF activist in Cape Town, spoke angrily to the Mail & Guardian of the young boy’s murder, outraged that Winnie could be called a freedom fighter.
These opinions are what Winnie’s close friend and mentee Julius Malema spoke of in his fiery speech at Winnie’s funeral in Soweto, Johannesburg: “Mama, the UDF cabal is here, The cabal that rejected you and disowned you and sent you to the brutal apartheid regime here… Mama, you never told me how to treat them when they get here. I am waiting for a signal, mama,” Malema said.
Winnie was never convicted for murder, and for the Kahns, her legacy remains one of struggle.
“She really suffered. If you can imagine being a woman, leaving her two babies, not knowing what happened to them, and yet they can only think of the worst mistakes in her life. They can never think of her suffering, it’s just wiped out, which I feel is very unfair,” Nesha says.
On Saturday, Winnie was buried in a state funeral. It was an honour Kahn hoped she would be bestown after he heard of her death.
Now, the official period of mourning is over. But there are still those who carry memories of Winnie and who still fiercely protect her legacy.
“It is what she deserves,” Kahn says.