Read an excerpt from her prison journal, published in 2013, 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69:
491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela; Edited by Swati Dlamini and Sahm Venter
About the book:
On a freezing winter’s night, a few hours before dawn on 12 May 1969, security police stormed the Soweto home of Winnie Mandela and detained her in the presence of her two young daughters, then aged nine and ten.
Rounded up in a group of other anti-apartheid activists under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act, designed for the security police to hold and interrogate people for as long as they wanted, she was taken away. She had no idea where they were taking her or what would happen to her children. For Winnie Mandela this was the start of a 491-day period of detention and two trials.
Forty-one years after Winnie’s release on 14 September 1970, Greta Soggot, the widow of David Soggot, one of Winnie Mandela’s advocates during the 1969–70 trials, handed her a stack of papers that included a journal and notes that she had written in detention. Their arrival brought back vivid and horrifying memories and uncovered a unique and personal slice of South Africa’s history.
491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 shares with the world Winnie Mandela’s moving and compelling journal as well as some of the letters written between affected parties at the time, including Winnie and Nelson Mandela, who by then had been in prison for nearly seven years.
Readers gain insight into the brutality she experienced, her depths of despair as well as her resilience and defiance under extreme pressure. This young wife and mother emerged after 491 days in detention unbowed and determined to continue the struggle for freedom.
Read an excerpt:
Solitary confinement is worse than hard labour. When you do hard labour you are with other prisoners, you can tolerate it because you all dig together, you communicate and you are alive. Solitary confinement is meant to kill you alive. It is the most vicious punishment that you could wish on your worst enemy. You are imprisoned in this little cell. When you stretch your hands you touch the walls. You are reduced to a nobody, a non-value. It is like killing you alive. You are alive because you breathe. You are deprived of everything—your dignity, your everything.
We were held incommunicado. We were not allowed to even see a lawyer. In those days we were completely at their mercy. Some families never knew that their loved ones died after they were detained. We were lucky to be alive and it was purely because of my name that I survived because the easiest thing for them at the time would have been to kill me, which they threatened every day. ‘Oh you’re still alive?’ They would come in every day and say, ‘You’re still alive? We don’t know if you will be alive tomorrow.’
They honestly believed that it was impossible for a black woman to have this kind of stamina, to be this stubborn. Because they were meant to break us and they could not believe that anyone would resist them like that?
When we were released the first time I had red lips from pellagra and my skin was peeling because even when you tried to eat you brought up because you were very, very hungry. We were supposed to be awaiting-trial prisoners but they did not treat us as such. Our lawyers had to make an application to the Supreme Court for us to be brought food and then when they brought this food if it was bread they would break the bread. They were searching to see if there was anything hidden in it. They would break the fruit open so you got your food in pieces—just to humiliate you and to show that you are a nobody. They reduced you to such levels.
They still searched you in your cell despite the fact that you had nothing other than the clothes you were wearing, two blankets and a mat. We had a plastic bottle with two-and-a-half litres of water for the whole day. That was your ration for the day and you drank from the bottle—there was no glass, you drank from that. Then you wiped your face with that and you just wiped your armpits and yourself. One of our lawyers, George Bizos, had to apply for us to wash. An application had to be brought before the Supreme Court for months to allow us to wash properly.
Solitary confinement was designed to kill you so slowly that you were long dead before you died. By the time you died, you were nobody. You had no soul anymore and a body without a soul is a corpse anyway. It is unbelievable that you survived all that. When I was told that most of my torturers were dead, I was so heartbroken. I wanted them to see the dawn of freedom. I wanted them to see how they lost their battle with all that they did to us, that we survived. We are the survivors who made this history.
When I was in detention for all those months, my two children nearly died. When I came out they were so lean; they had had such a hard time. They were covered in sores, malnutrition sores. And they wonder why I am like I am. And they have a nerve to say, ‘Oh Madiba is such a peaceful person, you know. We wonder how he had such a wife who is so violent?’ The leadership on Robben Island was never touched; the leadership on Robben Island had no idea what it was like to engage the enemy physically. The leadership was removed and cushioned behind prison walls; they had their three meals a day. In fact, ironically, we must thank the authorities for keeping our leadership alive; they were not tortured. They did not know what we were talking about and when we were reported to be so violent, engaged in the physical struggle, fighting the Boers underground, they did not understand because none of them had ever been subjected to that, not even Madiba himself—they never touched him, they would not have dared.
We were the foot soldiers. We were their cannon fodder and it was us who were used as their political barometer each time they wanted to find out how the country was going to react. They tortured us knowing that it was going to leak to the country and they wanted to test the reaction. Tata could not comprehend how I had become so violent in the eyes of the police. They knew that I was involved with the military wing of the ANC and they knew I was a leader of the struggle underground. They knew I saved soldiers who infiltrated into the country.
But we learnt all kinds of tricks to protect ourselves against them. I learnt then that ‘the nearer the danger, the safer the place’, which is the first thing they are taught in the military. It was him, Tata, who always repeated that ‘the nearer the danger, the safer the place’, so I hid the cadres next to the police stations. Not one of those cadres was arrested, and they were right under their noses. If I had a very dangerous unit, which was in the high command and involved in special operations, I hid them around the police station. And they could not catch me because I discovered that the only way to survive those days was to operate alone. There was always a danger of getting someone killed by merely associating with them. That is why I never knew their real names. I never knew the names of the units that infiltrated the country. When they came into the country I gave them my own combat names so that they did not coincide with the names they used in the camps and they would not know who was who. These are people who are generals in the South African army today who hold the highest offices in government but they must tell that story themselves. We and the enemy hunted each other at sunset—our daybreak was 6pm. We operated right through the night; it did not matter where I was. Daybreak was nightfall. We reversed the hours in the same way we had to reverse the values of society. Zindzi and Zeni would ask questions, especially Zindzi. She was a very troublesome child; she had a very enquiring mind. Her sister did it in a more sombre and dignified way. Zeni was always the princess. She was born like that. When her father used to play with her as a baby, he addressed her as ‘Princess’. That is how she became ‘HRH’ and she is still HRH today. That is how we addressed her. Zindzi was a tomboy and she was always asking, ‘Ma, you know? You know you are a liar.’
I always give the example of Tat’uSibeko, my next-door neighbour, a Zulu from Zululand and one of those real traditional types. And so Zindzi came in, she was about five or six, and she said, ‘Mummy you said all the daddies are in jail. Why are the daddies in jail?’
I said, ‘Because they are fighting for us to also be able to live in town.’ You could not use the word ‘free’ because the children did not understand. ‘They want us to have nice houses and also live next to the shops in town.’
And then she said, ‘But then why is Tat’uSibeko next door at home? Why hasn’t he gone to fight for that?’ And then she went on to say, ‘But Mummy, the other children say people who are in prison are bad people.’
What do you say? This is a five-, six-year-old with an enquiring mind. Both of them would confront me with these questions so the values of society were reversed to the extent that as they grew older the fathers who were not in jail were ‘collaborators’—it was ‘wrong’ not to be in jail, you were a ‘collaborator’. It was right to be in prison; it was not that if you steal you would be arrested and you would go to jail. You could not use that example so we had to use religious examples and say, ‘You know if you do wrong things your angel is watching. You know God does not want you to do bad things, that’s why we have to pray, that’s why we have the Lord’s Prayer. You mustn’t do bad things.’ We could not use imprisonment for right and wrong because then they would have regarded their father as a criminal and how would you get that out of a child’s mind? No matter how she gets educated later on in life, what you teach the child as a mother in the formative years is what sticks. There was propaganda from the nationalists that their father was terrorist—he was a killer.
And how do you change those values later on in life? People do not realise how tough it was to bring up children in those years. They have led conflicted lives and they have turned out to be who they are. You do not know how many times parents like us fell on our knees and thanked God that they turned out to be who they are. It was touch and go—the child could have turned out to be a criminal. In fact, the child could have grown up to blame you. When they discovered the truth, they could have told us, ‘How dare you?’ So, ‘Mummy and Daddy gave us up and chose the world and chose the country, chose to fight for the people? These people?’ Can you imagine what that would have meant to our families if they had turned out to have such questioning minds? At what point do you, as a parent, decide that you would fight for a cause that is thankless sometimes, but you know you are fighting for human dignity?
When Tata was arrested in 1962 and I got my first banning order, it had no name—‘Mandela’s wife’ was banned and confined and the rest of the world did not know who I was. I could never say anything that was from myself, my own mind. It was possible they did that deliberately, but my reaction was that if you have arrested the man you must destroy what he left behind. I took that as a direct attack on women and that we were useless—our husbands were our voices and in their absence the struggle would end. To the prisoners, if they did not have the support of their families that would have been their end. I realised how important the support of family is when you are in prison.
When Tata was arrested on 5 August 1962, I decided, ‘I will fight them to the last drop of my blood. I am going to fight them and I am not going to let them break me. I will never let them break me.’ I was aware of the fact that suddenly I discovered, ‘Oh, I have no name now’—everything I did as ‘Mandela’s wife’. I lost my individuality: ‘Mandela’s wife said this’, ‘Mandela’s wife was arrested’. It did not matter who the hell I was; it did not matter that I was a Madikizela; it did not matter that I was a human being. And it was understandable to the oppressor that whatever they did to Mandela’s wife, she deserved it. So I thought, ‘My goodness I’ve grown up a princess in my own home; I come from the Royal House of Pondoland; and suddenly I’ve lost my identity because of this struggle. I am going to fix them. I will fight them and I will establish my own identity.’ I deliberately did that. I said I was not going to bask in his shadow and be known as ‘Mandela’s wife’; they were going to know me as Zanyiwe Madikizela. I fought for that. I said, ‘I will not even bask in his politics. I am going to form my own identity because I never did bask in his ideas.’ I had my own mind.
I realised that, my goodness, if you are married you lose your identity completely. I became a nobody and I had grown up walking tall in my home. I had been taught by my mother and my father that I must walk tall. I am me; I am black; I must be proud of my blackness. My father taught me the history of our country; he taught me about the nine Xhosa wars; he taught me the role the Pondos played in the liberation struggle; he taught me what happened when the 1820 Settlers came into the country and how Van Riebeeck landed in the Cape in 1652. I heard all this history from my father and then I came here; I am a nobody. Not on your life. No, I am going to be who my father taught me to be. I am going to walk tall.
Gallery: launch of 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69