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The dark side of Winnie Mandela

Nelson and Winnie: “damn bloody bourgeois”. Media24/Gallo Images/Getty

Winnie and Nelson Mandela formed “one of the world’s most famous, most mythical marriages”, says Andrew Harding in the Times Literary Supplement. As a new joint biography reminds us, the beginning of their relationship is striking in itself: Nelson, 40 and already married, glimpsed a “mesmerisingly beautiful” woman about half his age at a bus stop, and turned his car around to go and talk to her. They became a glamorous couple, especially compared to the grey, “Soviet-influenced diktats” of Nelson’s African National Congress. “Damn bloody bourgeois,” one observer remarked, watching the immaculately dressed pair “arrive at another Johannesburg soiree”.

Soon after their wedding, Nelson was forced to go on the run and was eventually locked up by the apartheid government. Winnie, at times “magnificently” heroic, had a dark side. By the 1980s, she was dressing in military fatigues and orchestrating kidnaps and murders, beating up suspected spies herself. It was “a militant rebuke” to those like her husband who “merely wanted to negotiate their way to freedom”. When Nelson was freed in 1990, he ignored her countless affairs and acted “aggressively, even illegally” to protect her from criminal charges – until eventually, “to her shock”, he divorced her. This is, above all, a book about two people’s very different reactions to rage. “One who tried to conceal and control his fury, for what he perceived as the greater good, and another who wielded it, in all her tortured turmoil, like a petrol bomb.”

Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage by Jonny Steinberg is available to buy here.