/ 14 June 2023

Winnie and Nelson Mandela: The politics of parenting from prison

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela's wedding photo. Today marks their 65th anniversary. (Photo by Gallo Images / Avusa)

In August 1987, Winnie and Zindzi came to see him together. Zindzi’s studies at Wits were, predictably, not going well, and Nelson picked a fight with her. Winnie, as had become her wont, intervened to protect Zindzi from her father’s anger. 

“We cannot discuss these difficulties here,” Winnie said, interrupting Nelson’s interrogation of his daughter. “They have to be discussed!” Nelson snapped. “There should be no reason whatsoever.” 

“I don’t think you have an idea of the problems,” Winnie interjected. “We can’t discuss them here. I think it is best for [Zindzi] to see you with an attorney … so that they can explain to you in a privileged visit.” 

“No, no, no. I don’t even want to listen to that,” Nelson shot back. “Zindzi must explain to me why she has persistently refused to stay at varsity because I insisted that she stay … Whatever the problem is, it has been complicated by her refusal to carry out my recommendation.”

He turned to Zindzi now. “You must explain to me why you are not at varsity.” Zindzi was mute … “I do not know how to put it to you,” Zindzi finally replied, “without being very careless in things I have to disclose here, now.”

Zinzi Mandela (l), daughter Nelson Mandela, wearing Xhosa traditional outfit, and her father Nelson in Soweto, after Zinzi married Zweli Hlongwane. (Photo by WALTER DHLADHLA/ AFP)

“No, no, don’t,” Winnie said, intervening. “Let me explain to Tata,” Zindzi continued, “that I took up the cause of our people, something which I feel very strongly about, because of my background. You have seen in the papers we have a shortage of manpower and I am needed because of certain skills I have.” 

“No, no, no. I take strong exception to that,” Nelson shot back. “You should have come to discuss the matter with me because I have told you that your education is first.” 

“I could not foresee the various crises we would be in now,” Zindzi replied. “Our manpower reduced drastically.” 

“Don’t tell me about that! I am in the struggle here. Your mother is in the struggle. There is no reason for that at all. I have told you that your first priority is education.” 

“I wish sometimes people who bring instructions to us had access to you,” Winnie said. “I had problems when this sort of thing happened  and when I had direct difficulties with those people they had angry comments to me … These people made statements no parent can take … I foresaw what was going to happen as a mother.” 

“No, no, no! I asked you that Zindzi should go back to varsity and I told you to send me a telegram to confirm this!” He turned to Zindzi. “What are you going to do now?” There was a long silence. Then Zindzi began to weep … “I asked you what you are going to do!” Nelson shouted … 

“Zindzi, you are not going to break down here,” Winnie said. “Please don’t do that here. I told you at home you are not going to do that here.” 

Now she turned to Nelson. “I wish,” she said, “there was a way to make children look forward to visits here with you.” It was the most vicious blow. “This is so unfortunate,” she continued, getting up to go. “Come, Zindzi.” Mother and daughter left the room, and the 13-year-old Mandla, who had been waiting outside, came in. Nelson chatted with the boy for a few minutes and as he was saying goodbye asked the warder to call Zindzi back in.


“You know, darling,” he said, once she was settled, “for you to leave like this is going to make my whole life miserable. I love you. You must appreciate as a parent I would like to see you equipped for life. My interest in the family is foremost. The question of you being in varsity has been an obsession with me. It would have been better if you had indicated to me why you left but I had to find out this way. I was given drips of information which are not coherent … What do you expect me to do?” 

His question prompted her to begin to weep again. “Darling, why won’t you talk to me?” “I am hurt,” she replied. “Come sit here. Come sit on my lap. You are a strong person. You must talk to me. What use can I be to the nation if I cannot take interest in my own child? You must talk to me.” 

She was still weeping and the warder transcribing the conversation could not make out everything she said in reply. “I am going to be charged  and I am going to jail,” is all he managed to hear. 

“You can still go back to varsity. If you can, go and tell people that I insist. If they object, tell them to send a suitable person to be accompanied by an attorney to come and see and discuss this with me. If they want to charge you, let them charge you while you are at varsity. This is why I wanted you in Cape Town. I knew this was going to happen. 

“I love you and you are close to my heart. This is the one thing that can kill me more than anything else. I faced the last 25 years and nothing could break me. This could. If anyone can send me to the grave early, it is you. I want you to go back otherwise I will be very hurt indeed. Please go back. Be strong. Don’t break down when you come here. […] Next time come alone and see me. Please, wipe your tears and know that I am here. The friendship between us must be maintained. So next time come alone. Okay, darling. Goodbye.” 

She did not return his farewell; she got up and left.

Winnie & Nelson : Portrait of a Marriage by Jonny Steinberg, Jonathan Ball Publishers, R360.