frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela
husband & lover

Fikile Bam INTERVIEW EXCERPT

He spent ten years on Robben Island with Mandela.
The authorities tried to get at Nelson through Winnie. There was one particular incident when newspaper cuttings concerning Winnie were put on his bed.

While we were in prison, the system tried very hard to break Mandela's married life and also to be bringing a lot of obstacles between the relationship of Mandela and Winnie. Quite early on ... around '65-'66, we heard through the grapevine that Winnie had been a co-respondent in a divorce case, in which a man known as Brian Somane was being divorced by his wife, Mrs. Somane, and that in the divorce proceedings, Winnie had been cited as co-respondent. In other words, as the woman who was breaking up the Somane's marriage.

Now that story was carried among other newspapers, by the Sunday Times. Now, normally, the Sunday Times didn't reach prison at all because most of the warders read Afrikaans newspapers ... but on this particular occasion, [they] put it almost on Nelson's desk where he couldn't miss seeing it, was this headline of this particular divorce case in English, and it became clear to us that, although it had been made to look as if someone had just slipped it there, that it had deliberately been put there so that Nelson could see it, and so that it would hurt him, and that possibly the whole thing would demoralize him, and demoralize his marriage. It was a constant effort on the part of the system to break that marriage.

Did that particular Sunday Times cutting have that impact on Mandela? Did you see how he responded to it?

He responded very well to it. He knew exactly what was happening. He stood by his wife Winnie, and didn't move an inch. I think in fact his relationship with his wife became stronger during that period, when she was being attacked from all sorts of fronts, from the outside. And that actually built the relationship rather than the reverse.

Did you ever talk to Mandela about this.

No, I didn't myself talk about it. He used to initiate it himself, and just say, "Winnie is having a hard time," and be all for Winnie, and if he talked it quite openly to me ... but I never sort of asked him questions.

Did he ever, in prison, express regret at the classic dilemma that a politically committed man like him had sacrificed his family for the cause?

Yes ... he often talked about it and said that one of his sacrifices was the fact that he hasn't been able to bring up his own children, that he hasn't had a relationship, a meaningful relationship, with his wife Winnie. That they had met when she was very young; yet, she had never had much of him because he was either underground or in prison. He talked about all this. In fact, one of the things which I appreciated from both Nelson and Walter, in particular, was that they treated the younger of us as if they would treat their own sons. In a way, they were compensating precisely because they hadn't got up their own sons. They were particularly careful on making sure that we learned the lessons which we should have learned from our own fathers. And we appreciated that a great deal.

What did you make of that day when he announced this separation from Winnie?

When Nelson announced his separation from Winnie, I wasn't surprised at all. I had seen it coming, and I was sad in a way for him, because he had kept up the relationship. Then he tried to keep it together for so long, and stood by Winnie over the Stompie affair and all that ... I also had occasion to go and complain to him about Winnie, because when I got arrested it was through Winnie. I got arrested in Winnie's car, and when I got to the island I talked to him about Winnie, very strongly, to say that I didn't think that she did the right thing by me, that she exposed me to the police, and by associating with someone whom she ought to have known was an informer, because that's how I got arrested. But at that stage, he had said that he is sorry about this and he will certainly try and make amends about it. When we have the time I must come and try and make my peace with Winnie. And this is what we tried to do on that first few occasions. It sort of worked for a while, but all the time I still personally didn't feel that Winnie was playing the game the way that he was playing it towards her and that perhaps even at his age it would be if it came to that ... to a separation, then it should and it probably would mean a better and more dignified life for him. So I was expecting it and it didn't shock me and in the end it's what ought to have happened a long time ago, and he should have met Graca or someone much earlier.

...

When you were in prison, Winnie increasingly became the person who carried the Mandela name, who kept Nelson Mandela alive outside prison. What was the perception of the prisoners of Winnie.

Well, when I was in prison, and despite the unpleasant experience I had involving Winnie, I have to admit that as far as she became the person who was really caring and representing Nelson in the outside world, she began to earn my respect. She also earned the respect of other prisoners, both those who knew her, and particularly, those who had no knowledge of her in a personal sort of way. They had a greater respect for her and for the role she was playing at the time. I've got to admit that because the system appeared to be really focusing on her and punishing her, deporting her to Brandfort and she was fighting with all she had against that, and doing it very impressively and I built up a lot of respect for her, which I still have that she really was a fighter. She obviously now, in retrospect, one is aware of the horrendous errors that she made and the misjudgments and a whole lot of other things. But as a fighter, she still has a lot of my respect, and as a person who also kept the Mandela image alive she obviously still has a lot of respect.

How important was she to Mandela when he was a prisoner?

Winnie Mandela was just a very important element in Nelson's life when he was in prison. In fact, she was the center of his entire life. He never stopped talking about her. He was absolutely in love with her and openly said how he regretted that he could not have actually lived with her in a normal sort of family situation as man and wife, and certainly his emotional life was centered around Winnie and I think he pictured that whatever his future life would be, it would be with Winnie.

Is that why he stuck by her so loyally and so long?

Well, the impression I got when I was in prison with Nelson is that it was something more than just loyalty to Winnie. He was, in fact, deeply committed and deeply in love with Winnie. And that he had a tremendous admiration for her and for her strength, being alone ... you've got to understand that Winnie had never been in politics in the same way that Nelson himself had been, and in the same way that the Walter's had been. She only came into politics as a result of her marriage to Nelson, and so was really a rookie in a lot of political things, of political theory and so on. Also, her politics, if any, were really more of the marshal kind of politics. They were not necessarily ideologically based. She knew the oppression was there, but her way of being an activist was literally to be on the stage on to be lifting the fist and to be involved in the rhetoric of the struggle. And because she had not grown up in it and she just met up with the struggle when she met Nelson. And for her to have been able as it were without the help of or the mentorship of the Nelsons and the Walters, still imbibed enough to be able to withstand the kind of pressure she was subjected to. I think Nelson really admired her for that and appreciated her for being able to do that.

...

Can you remember a moment when Nelson might have returned from a visit from Winnie and where he would report back what she had said to the group ...

One of the moments I remember most vividly is whenever Winnie had come to visit Nelson, it was something which just set up the whole section alight because it would excite us, just the prospect of it even before her visit was to come, just knowing that Winnie was about to come brought such a change over Nelson to start with and it then flowed over to the rest of us. We would look forward to the visit, and we were never disappointed. Every visit of Winnie's had something. She had information which she gave to Nelson, which he in turn would come and give to us. About all sorts of things. About political things, about personal things, about other families who were involved and what they were doing. And Nelson would literally come back glowing from a visit from Winnie, glowing because it excited him to have seen her, and also glowing because of course she would always have something, some information, which was exciting. This was not made up at all. You could just see it from his face or he really doted on Winnie. I think by and large, he did feel sad and sorry whenever Winnie was being pressurized or being banned. But I think he also had this confidence in her that she was strong and she was powerful and that they could never break her, and so apart from the love he also had a very deep admiration of her strength in dealing with issues, and must have been looking forward on his release to really spending the rest of his life with Winnie.

What would he do before a visit from Winnie?

He'd just be bright. He would be all smiles. He would be all jokes and he would be really happy. He would be a happy man before the time and after, and I suppose specially during the time. In a way, one admired that, and just the depth of feeling that he had for her, and one hoped that, she was reciprocating in kind, but about that, I really don't know.

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