Walking into Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's house feels like walking into your own grandmother's home. In the room where we conducted our interview with her, there are cream couches with too many cushions and doilies hanging on their backs. A heavy wooden table in the middle of the carpeted floor holds an abundance of nameless books placed seemingly for decoration, and every space on the walls is crammed with pictures.
As soon as the 80-year-old struggle icon walks into the room, any preceding anxiety vanishes. Madikizela-Mandela greets us like we've just popped in to visit after a few weeks away. Her hugs, handshakes and smiles are so warm, one would be forgiven for expecting a comment on how much we've grown. In that moment, I'm struck by how different she is in person to the angry, scary character created in my head from what I've read about her.
Filmmaker Pascale Lamche released her documentary of Madikizela-Mandela's story, "Winnie", at the Encounters Documentary Film Festival in June. The film unashamedly seeks to change the "bitter woman" narrative created
around her, and won the Best Director World Cinema Documentary prize at Sundance.
When asked about how she felt about the treatment of her story, Madikizela-Mandela refers to Anand Singh's "Long Walk To Freedom", made from Madiba's best-selling book of the same name.
"How do you condense that type of lifestyle into one episode that can be watched in two hours? You've done an impossible task," she says to Pascale Lamche, the French director who created the 97-minute documentary about her.
Perhaps emboldened by the film, which focuses less on her canonised ex-husband Nelson Mandela and more on a lesser-known version of her story that is more sympathetic to her character, Madikizela-Mandela cuts to the chase. She almost immediately calls out the apartheid system for capturing Madiba and watering down his militancy.
And perhaps this shows that the documentary is timeous. The idea that Mandela didn't do as best as he could have for black people is an idea that has not only been on the discussion table of various academics and commentators since the Codesa discussions in the 1990s, but has re-entered mainstream conversation on the invite of so-called born frees demanding decolonised, free education and struggling to find their place in Mandela's rainbow.
"It must have been such a feather in Niël Barnard's cap that ultimately, they really calmed down Madiba," she says, referring to the former head of the apartheid-era's national intelligence. Barnard, along with former Stratcom head Vic McPherson, giddily relate how they created a rift between Madiba and Madikizela-Mandela in order to have better control over him.
"They wanted to break me. That was their problem, I was never breaking down," she says.
Madikizela-Mandela has never been an easy personality to pigeon-hole. As part of a radical block within the ruling party, she was forced to work as a foot soldier in Soweto during Mandela's incarceration, which began in 1964. Because of her unparalleled popularity with the public, she was banished from her marital home and pushed to the sidelines by the apartheid government. She rose through the ranks of the African National Congress's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe in the 70s as she supported young people who were called upon by 1985 to "render the country ungovernable" by their leader, Oliver Reginald Tambo. She eventually grew to be one of the most senior and respected operatives in the party with unrivalled public support.
During this time, Madikizela-Mandela was accused of many serious misdemeanors. One of the most notable controversies surrounding her was 14-year-old Stompie Seipei's murder. She was found guilty of his kidnapping, and on appeal paid a fine with a suspended two-year-sentence for the crime. A member of her Mandela Football Club served time for his death.
The complicated, shady way of life during the armed struggle against apartheid means we might probably never understand fully what happened to Seipei.
"We were at war," Madikizela-Mandela explained a few times during the interview. "We read about Nazi Germany, and we equated our situation to Nazi Germany."
"The struggle is a thankless job. It doesn't go around and say 'well done, well done'," she explained later.
In the documentary, Madikizela-Mandela says she always dreamed of an ANC and South Africa that was led by Chris Hani, the leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe who held a more socialist ideological leaning than other leaders of the ANC. He was assassinated in 1993.
"Tragically, I think we will be lucky if we ever get to the bottom of it. Chris Hani was not assassinated by the right wing. There were more sinister forces than Janusz [Waluś]," she told HuffPost SA.
In what could be seen as a final act of defiance, Madikizela-Mandela talks about Mandela personally with frankness that could surprise many of Madiba's uncritical supporters. She explained that he had many relationships outside of theirs, and called him a philanderer on more than one occasion.
"He was like that by nature anyway, your old man. That's why his children are springing up," she jokes. "Every time there's a picture of a person who says 'I'm Madiba's child'. The public doesn't know, I knew about them, and it's true. Those are his children."
She explained that she supported some children who came from the "philandering old man".
"I sent some of them to school, quietly. I educated them. That's what we do, we have extended families."
And in either one more act of protecting him, or a final attempt to vindicate herself, Madikizela-Mandela attempts to explain that Madiba was not a myth. He was a real person with faults too.
"He was a ladies' man. He was an ordinary human being that had an eye for ladies," she said.
Would every woman have acted the way Mama Winnie did? Of course not. And perhaps she might not have even behaved that way herself had the circumstances been different.
"He wasn't there for me to scratch his face. I was seething with rage," she said when she heard about his other children.
"He was a normal human being after all ... He had to be made normal. He wasn't just a myth. This huge figure that was so awesome, a demi-god -- he was just a normal human being."
And with one final reference on the man, Madikizela-Mandela embodied once again what so many black women, some of our grandmothers and mothers, had to go through (and still go through) to keep black families alive.
"There was nothing one could do. These men were in prison. What was important was the country, SA. What they did in their personal lives was really immaterial. it was neither here nor there. We should understand that they were normal human beings after all."
On the land
"The truth was, we may have lost the land again in the process. Our struggle was a struggle for land. It was all about the return of the land to the owners of the land. Not this silly notion of driving the white man to the sea -- the notion of fighting back to get back our land," she explained.
"We disagreed with Madiba over it. You say, 'Let us negotiate'. When we negotiate, you say the land belongs to all who live in it, the doors of learning shall be opened. Now how were we going to buy the land back from those who had stolen it?"
But she warned against land seizures too.
"We were not going to seize the land back without compensation. There would have been grave consequences if we had done that. The bloodbath would still have been going to this day," she said.
"We could have reached other decisions other the willing buyer, willing seller
" during the time of the negotiations," she said.
What should have changed
Madikizela-Mandela thinks more pressure should have been applied to corporates to take on the responsibility of employment in an effort to level out inequality in the country.
"The captains of industry ought to have been part and parcel of the agreement at Codesa that they were going to create jobs. Governments don't create jobs," she said.
She explained the reason why discussions went pear-shaped could have to do with the ANC rushing to reach a consensus at the time, and that was where differences with her former statesman husband heightened.
"We wanted to raise the flag of freedom, and we accommodated minorities in the process, and I warned Madiba. I said 'It's not going to work. We have fought with these people at grassroots level. We know them, we know them better than the leadership that was incarcerated for years'," Madikizela-Mandela said.
"We ought to have looked at the types of agreement that were not going to sell the country, not sell the country back to the owners of the means of production," she said. "That was the basis of our disagreements with Madiba."
Changes to the ANC
"We are in trouble," Madikizela-Mandela said about the current state of the ANC, but added that things could still be turned around. In the last local government election, it lost control of key municipalities such as Johannesburg and Tshwane, and has lost unprecedented numbers of wards in by-elections.
Regarding the party's leaders currently, Madikizela-Mandela said the ANC would use its constitution at its upcoming elective conference to make changes.
"We will reshape the African National Congress. We're waiting for the December conference. Everything needs to be done structurally," she said. "When everything is said and done, we'll bring it back to its former glory."
She added that the temptations of state capture were to be expected.
"There are human beings who are doing [this] to the African National Congress," she said. "This is what happens to revolutionary movements... and I warned about that 23 years ago."
Madikizela-Mandela maintained hope that through the judiciary, the glory of the ANC would return.
"Thank God we still have a respectable judiciary. That's the only institution that is still acceptable to the masses," she said, alluding to other parts of government -- such as Parliament, the legislature and the media -- allegedly being captured.
During her research for the documentary, Lamche discovered information about Seipei's murder that she reveals to Madikizela-Mandela for the first time during our interview, which the struggle stalwart called "crucial".
Jerry Richardson, who confessed during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he was promised R30,000 for killing Seipei told Henk Heslinger, a white police officer brought into operations to discredit Madikizela-Mandela, that the apartheid state still owed him money for the murder. Heslinger in 1994 checked the records and found it to be true, and then took it on himself to get the money to settle the debt. Richardson asked for the money to be converted into a diamond solitaire for a woman he was in love with.
The information was important to her to set the record straight.
"The right wing to this day, even the DA for that matter, they still continue abusing that information and calling us all kinds of things," she said.
Last year September, a few media outlets quoted Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as saying that the ANC had "serious problems". She hasn't budged from that stance. But while most of them took the quote to be an indictment on President Jacob Zuma's leadership, she is careful not to outright name any of the current players she might blame within the party.
Madikizela-Mandela says she doesn't recognise the African National Congress (ANC) anymore.
Madikizela-Mandela tells us that corruption in the ruling party is not part of the ANC she fought for during the the anti-apartheid struggle.
"The ANC of our forebears has disappeared," she said. "Every day you open a newspaper, there are stories about this corruption, capture of the state, the ANC is also captured ... This is the news we read today about my ANC."
Madikizela-Mandela said she told the party's leadership at the Codesa negotiating table in the 1990s that things were going awry, adding that these problems were to be expected. "There are human beings who are doing [this] to the ANC," she said. "This is what happens to revolutionary movements ... and I warned about that 23 years ago."
"Not even a fool can pretend that we don't have problems," Madikizela-Mandela said. "We have very, very serious problems. The ANC is haemorrhaging."
Madikizela-Mandela said she took the current corruption allegations against the party personally.
"Hopefully, after bleeding and haemorrhaging as it does, somewhere we are going to find an antidote," she said. "
'What did we fight for?'
Madikizela-Mandela ended off our conversation with a message of hope to South Africans, and one more push as the so-called mother of the nation.
"We are aware of the grave challenges today," she said. "Lives of women have never been as cheap as they are today," she said. "The challenges of today are really an indictment on the African National Congress. What did we fight for?"
"Children get raped! These are the ills of society we see today because the ANC has lost that image, of protecting its masses," Madikizela-Mandela added.
"I wish [to give South Africans] a message of encouragement, and tell them that not all is lost in the African National Congress. We are hoping, us remnants left of the original African National Congress, that we will be able to restore it to its dignity, to its former glory."