frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela
husband & lover

Fatima Meer INTERVIEW EXCERPT

She has been a longtime friend of both Winnie and Nelson Mandela. At Mandela's request, she wrote his authorized biography, Higher Than Hope
I understand that Winnie came to see you before they were married.

That first time that we met Winnie, we didn't think that she was his beloved

... We had a call from Nelson asking us to go to the station and pick up Miss Madikizela. We thought nothing of that request. We thought it must be a relative or somebody whom we have to pick up. At the station we met this absolutely vivacious, beautiful, young woman, and we took her home.

But I must say I was not very impressed with Winnie. I didn't see her as in my league--snobbish or whatever you call it. I handed her over to my niece, who was also staying with us at the time. Winnie spent a week or two weeks--I don't remember exactly how long. But one day I found her perusing through some photographs which she took out of the handbag, and they were the photographs of Nelson in various postures and poses, and the boxing one dominated that portfolio. Then I realized that something was cooking between her and Nelson ...

What was your evaluation at the time?

She was very nice. I mean she was a lovely young person. She was not really politically involved or interested in politics or politically mature. And maybe I misjudged her, because later on when we were working on her autobiography, I realized that as a high school student, she had become involved in non-European unity movement politics, and that her interest in that had continued when she was a student, a social work student at the Jan Hofmeyr school. So I obviously misjudged her.

You knew Nelson. He was a mighty political leader already by this stage ...

He was one of the political leaders ... there were a number of others. Certainly you didn't place him ahead of Chief Luthuli. Not at that stage. But he was very important.

At the time, if you were to be asked to give an honest evaluation, is this girl suitable for Nelson Mandela ...

Well, I don't know. You see the other factors would have entered into it. Not simply her suitability. The fact that we had known Nelson's first wife and she had stayed with us, Evelyn. The fact that now there was this other woman. There were these conflicting approaches in my mind. I would think they were there in my mind at the time. I know that Moses Kotane made a terrible statement when Nelson introduced him to Winnie at the fort where the treason trial was going on, and he said that "Well, such beauty intimidates a revolutionary, does not suit a revolutionary." Nelson had thought that very amusing, and turned round and Winnie hadn't heard. So he turned round and he'd repeated that to Winnie, to tease her. Winnie had been furious and said to him that she didn't appreciate Nelson's sense of humor on that score. You see, Winnie always wanted to be understood and accepted beyond her physical appearance. She wanted to be accepted for herself. She was a very strong personality all along. She gave the appearance of tremendous shyness, and maybe that left me to misjudge her, when I first met her.

Talk to me about her shyness.

Very compatible with her shyness, because it is so compatible with her femininity. She was intensely feminine. Yet, this woman harbors within her a tremendous assertiveness and strength that comes out later at the appropriate time. When she is being courted by Nelson, she is all seductive and shy and vivacious and beautiful. The assertiveness is not there. It comes later as a wife, when she feels challenged by him on many scores.

Talking of challenging ...

Well I think that Winnie now literally felt that she was being driven by Nelson. She makes an interesting comment about this overwhelming, overpowering effect that Nelson had. She felt that you disappeared under Nelson's dominance. She makes that point ... sort of decidedly. And that was what was coming out ... in their marriage, this was part of the problem. She was a social worker. She went back to her social work after she married him. He would have liked her to have just stayed at home. She was a daughter in law because the home did not belong to her ... Nelson's Orlando home, which was presided over by her mother-in-law. She had a very good and a very caring relationship with her mother-in-law, but at the same time, there was this need to assert herself--her own rights, her own personality. It was always there. Always. Even up to now, that is part of Winnie Mandela.

What did Nelson's mother make of Winnie at first?

Aah, I wouldn't know. When I first met Nelson's mother, she was the gracious hostess in his house. Nelson wasn't married and he had separated from Evelyn.

Tell me about Nelson's relationship with his mother in that interim period.

No, I can only say that what I observed. When she prepared the dinner and she laid the table, and she called us to dinner. She didn't join in the conversations, which took place in a part of that front room, that typical Orlando front room which had been equipped as his office with this looming picture of Lenin, with his beard, addressing a large mass. We sat and we talked, and she served us some soft drinks. But she didn't enter into the conversation. Even at table ... it's my recollection she didn't sit and eat with us. She served us. But Nelson's behavior towards her was both full of respect and love.

But a very traditionally African mother son sort of relationship.

Oh yes, I think so. I mean, there wouldn't be all that kissing and embracing that would go on in the more modern young mother son relationship.

Could you talk about ... Nelson teaching Winnie to drive a car ...

Yes. She related it to me ... when they were newly married, Winnie didn't know how to drive a car. Nelson decided ... it was time she learnt how to drive a car. And he volunteered to teach her, never realizing that that lesson would bring out all the fire between them, but in a manner which was different from the fire in the bedroom. So there was this conflict. He found her almost unteachable, and it is ... from that point onwards, this one thing often recurs, when he relates to Winnie ... or he talks of Winnie or about Winnie, or talks about her to her, he often says "you are highly undisciplined.

Did you come into contact at all with Winnie during the Rivonia Trial period?

Telephonically. Very often.

Tell me about what you might recall about her frame of mind.

All I can tell you is that there was another heroic state of mind. Winnie did not at any point curl up and shed tears that her husband had now been arrested. And she was left in this little house with an aging mother-in-law and two very young children. Now that thought never occurred to her. She always placed Nelson ahead of anything else. She was refused permission to go to the trial. They said that she was a tremendous distraction, and they gave her permission on condition that she did not, by her dress or by any action, in any way, upset the crowd.

So she eventually got this permission and she came. But then she was not allowed to talk to him for a while, because they were both banned and as banned persons they were not allowed to talk to each other ... but the very presence of Winnie at that trial brought extra attention to that trial. Winnie Mandela, sitting there, became in herself a focus of attention.

Are you saying that maybe this was the moment that suddenly people became aware of her as a political being? In the public eye ...

In the public image, yes. Yes. I think that it is at that trial that she emerges--this beautiful young woman, totally committed to her husband. This was the image, and it inspired a great deal of respect and love for her. She lived with that image and the press built on that image. Right up to the time that she released herself from Brandfort.

She released herself from Brandfort in the hell of the mid 1980s, when the youth were on an absolute and utter rampage, and when the conflict between the youth and police was at its brutal high. And she entered into that conflict, defied the police, defied her banning order and made that statement [about] the youth were doing it all the time--fighting the government with their matches and their necklaces. And she made that statement and that statement was something that the world just could not identify with. And after that, of course, another image is concocted by the media ...

During the Rivonia trial, at a private level, did she convey fears?

I don't think Winnie believed that he would get the death sentence. She was not overpowered by a sense of losing Nelson. And at that point they were very much in love. There was no sense of her living a life without him. I mean she would live a life without him, but he would be there always, reachable somehow, through letters, visits and so on. The other image of Winnie that came up very strongly at that point was her caring for the very frail mother-in-law. That was the other image. She brought her mother-in-law to the trial, took her to the trial, and there was this very obvious caring and loving relationship with the mother-in-law.

One gets a sense that the two of them were the heroes ... Winnie occupies that same sphere.

More and more after he is imprisoned, she develops this stature and the stature becomes stronger as she goes on. The media helps a great deal to build it, but she herself has enormous charisma. She still has enormous charisma and it is that charisma that carries her through. Even when she is being irrational or unacceptable or whatever, it is this charisma that carries her through. She had this all along. Now, once Nelson is put into prison, the other factor are also, of course, the police. The police also help in this image because they convert her into the victim. The police have now lost Mandela. They can't pursue him. They can't harass him. But there is his wife. So there is a Mandela. And so you find them hovering around her house, harassing her, and this goes on all the time. So the police also help in developing this Mandela, whether you call her a second Mandela or a joint Mandela but there are two Mandelas ...

Nelson and Winnie are in many ways very alike.

Many ways. I'll tell you what the likeness is. Both of them have this common touch. They go down, I mean at any public gathering or public places, they go and meet and touch and shake hands, regardless of whatever bodyguard or whatever the people. So this closeness. I watched Winnie once when she was deputy minister of Arts and Culture, move office from Cape Town to Pretoria. And she hadn't been to the Pretoria office for a long while, and the first person she embraced was the cleaner whom she met at the bottom. When she got to her office, the cleaning ladies were the first people who came up to her, and she embraced them. You see. But I watched this so often in Winnie. And you see the same trend in Nelson. So there is this, which is very common to both of them.

Also very common to both of them, is their ability to live in any circumstances, and appear there to be living as kings and queens. Now when I visited Winnie in Brandfort, in that workers cottage, she was walking around in a kind of an imperious fashion, even in this very humble cottage. When I met Nelson for the first time after 21 or 23 years at Victor Verster, there was the same thing. A kind of a big man, a big statesman, sort of a emperor or somebody totally in control, regardless of whether this was just an ordinary house. But he exuded that kind of presence. Both of them have that kind of presence as well. And you see they can live ... Nelson throughout his escapade in Africa, sought to live in the crummiest of lodgings, even when heads of state would offer him better accommodation, he would say no, he was fine where he was, because in his mind there was always this thought, "Well, we are struggling. People are struggling. I can't be living it up like that." I suppose in his mind he thought that time will come.

Now same with Winnie. She lived like a queen in the Orlando house, which was pretty crummy. And I mean now she lives it up ... well, wherever she is living. But it is also near Orlando, in that same area. But she lives it up. She will dress up to the tee, as Nelson. Both of them are great lovers of beautiful clothes. But both of them can also do ... walking barefoot or doing without much finery or anything like that. In other words, they take advantage of the opportunities as they come, provided they deem the opportunities to be justifiably deserved.

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