frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela
husband & lover

Amina Cachalia & Rica Hodgson INTERVIEW EXCERPT

Both women have known Nelson Mandela and Winnie for decades; when he was underground, Hodgson sometimes took Winnie to be with Nelson. [Note: The first part of this interview is with Cachalia; Hodgson joins it later.]
Regarding Winnie ... do you recall that incident when the house burnt down in Soweto ...

her full interviewYes, I remember that very well ... I got into the car and drove out to the house. When I got there everything was in cinders, just blackened out. Dozens of papers were burnt and photographs ...

She wasn't around at all. I asked where she was and they told me they'd take me to see her. We got back into the car and went off to some part of Soweto ... Winnie was sitting in a chair looking absolutely ghastly, as though she was in a different world. I said to her, "Winnie, what on earth has happened." She said, "I don't know. I don't know what's happening in my life. I don't know" ...

Did you ever get any sense of what Nelson Mandela's response was to the burning of his house?

No, I never got a response from him as such, but I do know that he was very upset and very worried. Soon after that burning of the house, there were so many other things happening.

I think the Stompie issue then came to the fore as well, and various other things was happening. That is the time that he had written a little note to me to say I must come to see him immediately. I had a feeling all along that he might have wanted me to tell him about what was happening in Johannesburg with Winnie and all the rumors and what the press was saying, and I didn't know anything further than what I read in the press. Yusuf and I discussed it, and I thought if I was going to get permission to see him, then I must know what to tell him.

I asked some of the "Committee of Ten" to come and see me ... Albertina and Sister Bernard came along, and I showed them the note and I said, "Look, I don't know what this is all about. But I have a feeling Nelson wants to know what's going on here. He feels, perhaps, I'll be the one to tell him the correct things, and I don't know anything about what's happening to Winnie. So you tell me and I can tell him." And Albertina said to me, "Ask him to tell Winnie to get out of the country for a while, because she is just making a lot of difficulties and a lot of trouble here, and she must go away. She must be away from this country for some time, and she'll only listen if he tells her."

I said, "All right, do you think what is happening ... is Winnie really involved?" They said, "Yes. She's terribly involved in [every]thing, and she's making a lot of difficulties for them in the township, and she must go. She must get out of the country." I said, "Okay. If I do go and see him, I'll tell him that." Well, I never got to see him, because they turned me down. I never told him that. I didn't put that in the telegram that I sent to him. I just said, "I'm unable to come and see you. But we'll continue to try and come."

When Mandela got out of prison did people tell him this sort of thing ...

I'm sure they must have told him. But I gathered ... people were afraid to tell Nelson the truth at times. They were afraid to upset him or to burden him more, or what the reason was I'm not quite sure, but a lot of people, even till this day, will not confront him or tell him things that he should know about the truth, in a sense. They don't mean to be telling him untruths, I'm sure, but I think they feel that they don't want to burden him ... and tell him things that they should not really be telling him.

Do you think that he himself deliberately turned a blind eye?

I don't think he deliberately turned a blind eye, but I do think that he believed so in Winnie that she could never have done what the press and people were saying at the time. He believed in her thoroughly, he believed in her innocence for a long time. Subsequently, he realized that she wasn't so innocent, but all along at that period, he did believe in her. He asked people to go to court to show support for her, at the time, too. In a sort of round about way he asked me to court, also. He didn't say outright, "I want you to come to court and give her support," but he did in a very round about way. Anyway a lot of people did go to court. I just didn't go because I felt it wasn't a political trial. It was a criminal trial and I wasn't going to go either in support of Winnie or not in support of Winnie. I just didn't feel I should go.

Were there people who came to tell him he really should separate from this woman ...

I don't know if there were people that told him that. At that time, he probably realized himself that he couldn't carry on living with Winnie under the same roof. He had been treated very harshly by her, in the sense that she never went to bed unless he was asleep, and she woke up while he was still asleep, or she was asleep and he would wake up, so he felt that she never wanted confrontation. She never wanted him to talk to her about anything. She never gave him the chance to ... He still loved her tremendously, even at that time. But I think it became unbearable for him to live under the same roof and not being able to be honest and straightforward and talk to her.

What is so fascinating here is what is going through Mandela's mind before he finally made the decision to separate. Did he confide in anybody at all?

No, I don't think he confided. Nelson is a strange man in many ways. He likes to keep a lot to himself. Because I heard that he was going to leave his home from members of his staff and so on, that he was moving out and he was going to live elsewhere. And he came home one afternoon for lunch, there was a meeting at my house ... some of the ANC fellows and he was there. I said to him, "I want to talk to you for a moment," and I took him to my bedroom. I said, "What's this I hear you going to leave your home and going to live elsewhere?" He said, "Who told you this?" I said, "Everybody's telling me this." He said, "No, not true. I'm still gonna live there. I'm still living there. I still share the home with Winnie and I share the bedroom with Winnie." But about two weeks later he left the house. So either he didn't confide in people and me or at that point he hadn't really decided yet. I don't know.

Did you ever see him really crushed and vulnerable during that period, talking about Winnie or was he just too careful?

He was very careful. He controlled his feelings magnificently. He really did. I remember when he separated from her, and he looked so absolutely sad on the television, and I phoned him, and I couldn't get hold of him. One of his secretaries said that he had left already ... I think it was Jessie who said, "Auntie Amina, you must phone him. He's really down and out. He's feeling very bad. You must phone him and talk to him." But I couldn't get hold of him at that time. I talked to him days afterwards only, but he must have felt very pained all that time. He looked very pained.

Do you think there was any particular incident which might have precipitated this decision finally to separate?

There were many incidents that prompted that, but I also think, when she was going abroad to the States and he asked her not to go. She was then taking a friend with her, Dali ... and he specifically asked her not to do that. She said she wouldn't. But that's the story I got, whether that was true or not, I'm not sure. But she did take Dali with her, and I was told when he phoned her one night, Dali answered the telephone and ... I don't know if that broke the camel's back, but that was one of the incidents I think that upset him tremendously. She didn't listen to him.

In the '80s, before the whole football club thing blew up, Winnie was his alter ego outside of prison. She played an important political role, and you were friendly with her. Can you capture that?

Undoubtedly she played a very wonderful political role because she was the contact that we all relied on. Back and forth from days that he was on the island even. Winnie believed then that she was the person to help the country through the difficult times, and bring us to perhaps liberation. She changed tremendously over those few years. She would be very arrogant to some people. She would talk to you if she wanted to talk to you and if she didn't want to, she didn't think anything of just leaving you standing there.

I never visited her in Brandfort. First of all, because I was banned for many years before, but by that time she had already decided she wasn't going to live in Brandfort anymore, so she'd made excursions into Johannesburg quite often. She was ill a couple of times and was also in nursing homes here. Then, finally, she decided she wasn't going to go back there. I remember Helen Joseph phoning me one day to say that she's at one of the nursing homes, and we should go and see her. So I took some food and I went to visit her, and she wasn't terribly ill, but she was there for some investigation or whatever. And she just looked so different to me. She wasn't the same woman I had known years before. She talked differently. She was absolutely hostile to press people and everybody else. Then she decided she was going to go back to Brandfort for a little while and come back, and she was never going to go back there again. She was just going to get some stuff and come back, and that's what she did, finally.

But subsequently she was one day taken from hospital to Ismail Ayob's house. She wrote me a little note after that and said, "I hate being here." She said, "If I have to choose between Section 6 [prison] and the Ayob's ... I choose Section 6 to be under." I don't know what that was all about. But that was Winnie, you know, she minced no words, and then she just didn't go back to Brandfort.

I remember going with her to Sandton Hotel. One of the American television journalists, one of the famous ones, came down, I forget his name now, wanted an interview with her, and she went there. She said to me to bring some Indian food ... I took her some food and she was having it there ... Winnie was wonderful when she was talking in front of the camera, but before she went to talk, we were in a little room by ourselves, she was lashing at just about everybody. Talking ill of everybody around there, and then I heard the interview, and she was perfect. Winnie has such a strange mind. She can switch on and off at will, and she gave a wonderful interview.

Maybe that is one thing that she has in common with Mandela--the great political self control ...

I don't know if she ever had any thorough discussions politically with him, because she tried to see as little as possible of him since he was out of prison, for that period that they were living together. He had people every day of his life that he had to see and meetings to attend and setting up everything else. So there wasn't very much time that they little time they had they ... she kept well away from topics that would have been confrontational.

Here was Mandela going through something terribly sad and traumatic, he had attached so much hope to her during his years in prison, and in a way she sustained him emotionally. Despite the terrible stuff in his private life, he still continued with his political goal and it seemed as if he was completely unfazed by that ...

Yes, he always gave that impression. He was completely unfazed by his private difficulties when it came to his political life it was absolutely the way he wanted it done, and the way he put himself forward. He was brilliant at that ... he never allowed his private life to unfaze him ... even a teeny weeny bit. He's always absolutely in control of his emotions. But his one great wish was that he would come out of prison, and have a family life again with his wife and the children. Because he's a great family man and I think he really wanted that more than anything else and he couldn't have it.

You say that Winnie changed ...

... Winnie could be so wonderful one moment, and the next moment she could be real witch in a way ... she had these conflicts in her own character. I don't know what the cause of it was. I think along the line when she was in Brandfort, things were very difficult for her, and something along the line might have snapped. She became very difficult. I was told she had turned to alcohol. I had never seen her drunk, but there were all kinds of stories at that time. But most certainly she behaved differently, on many occasions, from the woman I had known all the years before.

Tell us about the woman you had known all the years before.

I first met her when he brought her to the treason trial one day. At the old Drill Hall. They weren't married yet. She was a beautiful young woman and he brought her and introduced her to everybody there. We sat listening to the proceedings and then when he married her, we were invited to the wedding in the Transkei, but we couldn't go. A few days later, when they came back, he brought her to my flat to introduce her again to Yusuf and me. She was so different from the Winnie I knew afterwards. She was wonderfully shy and sort of coy in a way. Beautiful, and didn't have much to say for herself, and Nelson did a lot of the talking.

She carried on like that for some time, until she became politically active. After his sentence, she really became politically active, and we worked together in the Federation of South African Women. She was a very able and very wonderful woman all along. She did everything correctly. She was outspoken. She was a wonderful speaker when she addressed the crowds. She could whip up a lot of emotion. She was still a very beautiful young woman, and very easy to talk to and get along with. That sort of thing didn't happen in the '80s ... after that, it was difficult to understand Winnie and her whole manner of life then was completely different.

During those first years, she was something of a blushing bride, maybe a bit of a wide eyed country girl in the big city. Would that be an exaggeration?

Well, that might have been it, but she was a very able young bride also. But she learned very quickly the ways of life of the city. She also got into political life very easily, and realized what she had to do, what commitment she had to make, and she did. She did that very ably. But I think the banishment in Brandfort had a lot to do with her complete change within herself ... it was a very harsh period for her. Something went wrong along the way.

You said Mandela dreamed of resuming a family life, but he'd had enough run-ins with Winnie, even when she came to visit him in prison beforehand, to have had a whiff of what was going on ...

Well, I'm sure he may have had those doubts a little bit, but I also think that he felt once he's out of prison, he would get the family together and things would come right again. He always sort of blamed himself for Winnie's ways ... the forays that she went into and so on. He felt that he was never there to guide her, never there to be with her, and she never had any guidance from him, and he felt responsible for that. All along, even when the trial took place, he still felt that he was to blame for whatever she had done wrong.

Which in a way may be paternalistic.

Ja, well, I think that is the chauvinistic traits in African men and Indian men, for that matter. You always want to take control of your household and the women there and so on. But I have a feeling that he so wanted to just get his children and his wife in a home, and continue his political career with her, but have this wonderful home life that he dreamt of all the years in prison.

Do you think that he was right to blame himself?

I don't know, perhaps, he could blame himself to an extent, but I don't think ... I mean there were so many other women in the political movement whose husbands spent years and years in prison, and they came out unscathed from their difficulties, didn't get into enormous difficulty as Winnie found herself in. So Nelson is being a little bit too blaming ... as far as he is concerned and he takes the blame far too much. Winnie, in some cases, knew exactly what she wanted, and sometimes Winnie felt that Nelson was never going to be out of prison, and that she was going to be the leader of South Africa. I think she really had those ideas, perhaps, tucked away somewhere. She threw all caution to the wind sometimes, precisely because she felt that she would be the person to lead South Africa.

You said that Winnie had the sense, before Mandela's release, that she was going to be the leader of South Africa ...

Oh yes, I mean she must have been very happy that he had been released from jail, but also it seemed to have dampened her wishes to be the leader, the queen bee, in a sense. She definitely had ideas that she was the woman to lead South Africa to a new life, and to be the head of the government, perhaps. She didn't think that Nelson, at the age that he was coming out, would be able to do that. She was happy that he was out, undoubtedly, but I think it dampened her ideas a little bit.

Was she surprised when Nelson [separated from her]?

I don't know. I didn't meet her during that period at all. We haven't been good friends for a long time ... I don't know if she was shocked, surprised or hurt. He was very pained to make that statement, but I don't know how she took it ... I know later on, a lot of people, friends of hers, used to say that they must get together again ... when he is going to be the leader of South Africa, the president of South Africa, we must have a first lady, and only Winnie can be that first lady. A lot of friends kept saying so. In fact, I was told at one of the ANC conferences ... when they greeted each other on the stage, there was such a roar from a section of the public, that gave the impression that they should get together again. I think Winnie, perhaps, deep down or secretly, hoped that they would. That's my impression. I don't know if she did, but I think she secretly did hope that they should get together, because she realized that he was going to be the president of South Africa, and the man that the whole country wanted to be the ...

Knowing Mandela well, did you think that was a possibility that after the separation announcement that he might have gone back on it?

I don't know. He never really spoke about it afterwards. I mean, he lived down in Houghton. He was quite happy and he realized that there was no getting back with Winnie. But it was strange, I personally thought that at some stage they might still get together, because I knew how much he loved her always, and it was very difficult for that love just to be wiped away. I also thought that perhaps they would get together at some stage.

But the day we went to see the old woman, Betsy Verwoerd, we were coming back from there ... by car ... and he was sitting very quietly and almost snoozing and I said to him, "Are you tired?" He said, "No I'm not tired. I'm just thinking" ... and two days later he announced that he was going to divorce her. I just felt that he was making up his mind at that time or before, that he was thinking about the divorce and what he was going to do.

There you were in the car, he was thinking about it, it was the perfect opportunity [for him] just to let go ...

I don't know. He didn't say anything at all about that to me. But somehow I felt I could read his thoughts, in a way, and soon after that he announced his divorce. But that is Mandela ... there's a wall that he's built between him and everybody. Sometimes he lets slip something along the way, but in most cases he's so controlled about his feelings that it's difficult to penetrate that wall.

It's fascinating that you should say that. Even with an old chum like you ... is that maybe what makes him most different from other people ...

Yes, I think it does ... he's different, he can joke and be just like ordinary people are and yet, when it comes to a very personal thing, one would imagine that with your friends, or with your very close relation, you would let go, and talk about these things. But he doesn't.

RICA HODGSON joins the interview ...

Winnie and Nelson, together in the early days, do you remember seeing them together?

Hodgson: Oh, absolutely. Yes. I remember very clearly, shortly after they got married, and they must have both been at my house for a meal, and I said to Nelson, "I've never eaten a real African meal. I would like to eat a real African meal." He said, "Okay, you're invited. Come to my home next Sunday and have lunch with us." So we duly went, and what was prepared for lunch--roast chicken and roast potatoes, and peas, and tinned peaches and cream. I mean, the same lunch that I would have given them almost. So I said, "So where's the African food?" Nelson said, "What do you want me to do? Go and grub for roots for you? What do you want me to give you?" They were very happy together, and I mean those occasions when I used to take Winnie to be with him, that they could have time alone together, they were really very, very deeply in love. I mean, he yearned so much for her. I felt very sorry for her and later too, as I thought it's terrible for a young and beautiful woman to be deprived like that ...

...

Hodgson: I think one instance that strikes me is when Winnie was on trial, and she was at that stage with this man Dali, who was also her legal advisor. Nelson was going to the court one day, and we met in the lift and he said, "When are you going to go to court?" I said, "No, I don't think I want to go to court." So he said, "You must. Please Rica, you must come to court and give support to Winnie." Now I mean really, she was so blatant with this man. I went and regretted it. I never went again. But that was the kind of man that Nelson was. Yes, absolutely different. Where would another man have cared, you know.

You mean above and beyond the call of duty.

Hodgson: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, why did he single me out that I should go? I regretted, really regretted having gone, because the way she was behaving with this young man in front of Nelson. I just thought it was too terrible. But he is such a forgiving guy ... I mean yes, there may be the political angles, there are, of course, but he is a very forgiving person, and a loving person, and a warm person.

Hodgson: He is loving and warm and joking and has charmed all of us in different ways. Yet, he does seem to inhabit a different sort of dimension.

Cachalia: He is a loner. He's intensely protective of his inner thoughts and ideas, that he will not divulge. And his personal life he is very protective of. He now and again lets slip something, but on the whole, he'll never let that wall crack.

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