Love and war – Mandela marriage under the microscope
Acclaimed South African author, journalist, and academic, Professor Jonny Steinberg, recently launched his latest book, Winnie & Nelson – Portrait of a Marriage. The SA Jewish Report caught up with him.
Why did you tackle this subject?
I planned at first just to write about Nelson Mandela. It hadn’t been possible to write about him as a real human being while he was alive, and so his death opened interesting possibilities. As I began researching, it struck me that during his prison years, his sense of self began to revolve more and more around Winnie. He grew more deeply in love with her with each passing year. And yet he didn’t really know her anymore. In his mind, she was forever 26 years old. I thought, wow, this is actually the story! This book is about the marriage.
What do Winnie and Nelson mean to you personally?
Winnie was a fellow student in my political studies I class at Wits (the University of the Witwatersrand) in 1988. She was very much in my world when I was a university student. It was pretty strange having this mythical figure so close. In retrospect, I guess I became interested then in people who are both myths and flawed human beings. That duality is very much what Winnie & Nelson explores.
What was it like researching and writing such deeply personal information about two heroes of our country?
I felt the burden of responsibility. I needed to present them both as proper human beings, not leaving out the horrible bits. And yet, I also wanted to show that the myths they made of themselves were necessary myths. I didn’t want to destroy those myths. The challenge of the book was to get both of those things right.
This seems to be an unusual genre for you to tackle. How did you deal with it, seeing as your subjects are no longer here but there’s a deep sensitivity to both of them?
It’s the first time I’ve written about people who are dead, and so the sources are obviously very different. I revelled in the challenge. It was a revelation to discover how self-disclosing letters can be. People show so much of themselves when they are trying to keep alive the most important relationship of their lives through letters. Others sorts of sources were also fascinating in surprising ways. For instance, I found myself rediscovering both Winnie and Nelson anew when I sat down to read the 1950s newspapers and magazines that wrote about them. Old newspapers are amazing. Writing history is a process of sifting and thus forgetting, and I was amazed to learn how much of the 1950s had been forgotten.
What was your background with Nelson and Winnie Mandela?
I was a student activist in the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), a United Democratic Front affiliate, when Mandela was released, and I regarded him and Winnie as my leaders. I shook Nelson’s hand shortly after he came out, and I guess I was star struck. I felt privileged to be a proximate bystander to the making of history. But, along with many other people in my circles, I was also sceptical. Are these glamorous, larger-than-life people going to let us down, we all wondered.
How would you describe each of them?
Yikes, that’s a big question for a small space. Let me stick to Nelson. His close friend and chief of staff in the early 1990s, Barbara Masekela, told me that he was the saddest person she’d met. Sometimes, she said, she felt emanating from him “a stillness, just a grim, frightening stillness”. In researching his life, I think I glimpsed something of this terrible sadness. He believed in his depths that the story of his life was a tragedy.
How would you describe their relationship to each other?
Let me quote someone else again. A reviewer of Winnie & Nelson, Richard Stengel, said that “the pair are like twin planets that exert immense gravitational forces on each other. But the pull between them was not always for the good”. I can’t do any better than that.
Is there a reason you’re producing this book now?
It’s really about my own development as a writer. For the past two decades, I’ve been writing books about anonymous people. My aim has been to show that their ordinary lives can illuminate big questions about their world and ours. I needed to grow as a writer, and try something different. So, I chose to write about two very powerful, very famous, dead people. I wanted to see if I could write as intimately about such people.
In your book, you show a side to Nelson that few ever saw. A deep vulnerability and an openness to be “played” by Winnie. Describe this in more detail.
I’m not sure what you mean. By the time he was released from prison, Winnie meant everything to him. He was deeply aware that his life had been suspended for 27 years, and that the last time he’d lived a full human life was with her. And so, he couldn’t imagine life without her. And yet he also knew that they had both been deeply damaged by what had happened to them, perhaps irreparably damaged. What a confusing situation to walk into after nearly three decades in prison!
You also bring out the fact that Winnie had much more than one indiscretion in her marriage to Nelson. Why do you think she did this?
Winnie was 26 years old when Nelson went to prison, and it was clear that he wouldn’t be coming back for decades – if ever. No reasonable person expected Winnie to remain celibate. Nelson certainly didn’t.
How have their families reacted to your book?
They’ve been informed about it, but as of this writing, they haven’t read it yet as far as I know as it comes out in South Africa only on 19 May.
How much input did the families have in the book?
It’s an entirely independent book. I didn’t seek their approval.
What has the general reaction to your book been from the public and those (other than the family) who knew them both?
It’s much too early to say. The book has been out in the United Kingdom and the United States for just a few days, and comes out in South Africa only on 19 May. Just two or three people who were close to Nelson and Winnie have read it, as far as I know, and they were all very moved by it, which is gratifying. Some people will be angry. It’s that sort of book.
What impact do you believe showing this side of these heroes will have?
I’d be foolish to predict. I’ve learnt that people surprise you.
What do you believe the take-home message from the book is for our community?
Any writer who is thinking too hard about a take-home message is getting it wrong. Better to write a book that is sufficiently open to different interpretations, different experiences. It’s really quite thrilling to know that you just have no idea how different people will respond to what you’ve written.
What’s next for Jonny Steinberg?
I’m writing a book about Cecil John Rhodes. His homosexuality, his diamond prospecting, his imperial project, and the connection between these things. He was a complicated man.