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Winnie Mandela recalls her struggle against apartheid

By Jennifer Muchiri | February 7th 2015

NAIROBI: Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the end of the apartheid system in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela came out as the most revered hero of the liberation struggle but he never tired of telling his admirers that he was only one among many South Africans of all ages, races, professions, gender and social-economic backgrounds who sacrificed their lives, families, careers, luxuries and other items to fight for the liberation of South Africa and restore the dignity of her people.

Fighting alongside Mandela and others was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela who, just like other liberation fighters, suffered severely for working for the breakdown of apartheid and the liberation of the South African people. In her book, 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 (Ohio University Press, 2013) Winnie recalls her days in detention from May 12, 1969 to September 14, 1970. She was among 22 people charged under the Suppression of Communism Act and acquitted in February 1970, but immediately redetained and charged under the Terrorism Act.

During this period her husband was serving a life sentence at Robben Island after he had been jailed in 1962 for sabotage. It was while in prison that Winnie tried to keep a journal, secretly, which she shared with her advocate David Soggot. This journal, which Winnie did not see until 2011 when Soggot’s widow Greta brought it to her, forms part of this book alongside letters between her and Mandela, and from Mandela to various other people regarding his affairs and those of his wife and children.

‘491 Days’ is a valuable book not just because it is a memoir of Winnie’s days in prison, but because it is also part of Nelson Mandela’s biography and a significant recording of the history of South Africa during the dark days of apartheid.

Reading this book is to hear the pain of a young wife, a ‘political widow’ and a mother of two young daughters forced to leave her children without a guardian or a home to serve time in detention. It is to recall the memories of the brutality of the apartheid system which worked to humiliate and crash anyone considered a dissident. Winnie was kept in solitary confinement for months on end and she confesses that that was the worst punishment one could be put through as it totally destroys one’s psychological and physical state. She confesses that she contemplated suicide at some point in April 1970 because she could not take solitary confinement any more. She considered suicide as a way of saving her co-accused from trial as well as focusing the world attention to the horror of the Terrorism Act.

The book reveals the dreadful circumstances in which detainees lived in South African prisons. They were insulted by the prison authorities, denied exercises and showers and treated in the most inhumane way. At times they were given only one meal per day and even then the food was served in dirty plates. Winnie remembers a time when her sanitary bucket was emptied only once a day and the bucket would be returned to her unwashed and with the food plate placed on it. Her food, mostly porridge for breakfast and supper, often had maggots floating on it and as a result she would go without food for many days. Food that was brought to the detainees by their relatives would be left to rot in the matron’s office instead of being given to the detained persons.

Winnie had to suffer the humiliation of borrowing slippers and stockings from fellow detainees because the prison officers denied her the clothes delivered to the prison by her relatives. Even when she got ill, suffering from acute anaemia caused by malnutrition as well as having to deal with a chronic heart ailment, she had to beg to be attended to by specialists.

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The apartheid government, through the prison authorities, mercilessly interfered with and broke family relationships by sabotaging communication between Nelson and Winnie while both were in prison. The letters from Nelson to Winnie reveal the pain of a husband separated from his wife and children and unable to help them especially when Winnie is incarcerated. His letters are a clear demonstration of just how evil the apartheid regime was but they also reveal his selflessness as he worries about Winnie yet he too is in jail. In fact, most of the letters from Nelson to the prison authorities during the period of Winnie’s detention concern her health and he keeps begging the government to allow him to visit her. For the period the two are in prison, they have no way of fending for their young daughters and at some point they do not even know who is staying in their house or with the children. The effect of apartheid on the Mandela’s family is representative of its effect on millions of families in South Africa.

‘491 Days’ demonstrates the viciousness of apartheid while at the same time celebrating the selflessness, resistance, courage and resilience of those like Winnie who survived the violence and lived to see a liberated South Africa.

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