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Winnie Mandela — an issue for Christians?

From the time of Winnie Mandela’s death earlier this year, we have been flooded with writings on the life of this complex South African figurehead. Many suggest that her importance and the key roles she played during apartheid were only overshadowed by her heroic ex-husband, Nelson Mandela. There is a posthumous move by her supporters to gain for her the respect and applause they believe she so rightly deserves — and has been denied. But such credit won’t be easily won. ‘Truth, Lies and Alibis: A Winnie Mandela Story, published this month by Fred Bridgland uncovers a strong body of evidence to suggest that there were sinister goings-on which we still need to uncover, Paul Trewhela opines.

There is no escaping a fundamental issue for Christians in South Africa: what are they to make of the life of Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela – Winnie Mandela, once uMama weSizwe, the Mother of the Nation?

Six months after her passing, this issue is explored in a definitive new history, Truth, Lies and Alibis: A Winnie Mandela Story, by the veteran British journalist and author Fred Bridgland, foreign correspondent in southern Africa for The Scotsman and the Sunday Telegraph in London from 1989 through to 1997. The book is published this month by Tafelberg.

Relentlessly factual, minutely referenced with 15 pages of notes followed by an index of six pages, it supercedes, surpasses and embraces all previous studies relating to Mrs Mandela. Bridgland’s writing is luminously clear, accessible to any reader, and essential study for anyone concerned with South Africa’s past, present and future. It makes very grim reading.

Page after page, Bridgland proves with near scientific accuracy that Winnie Mandela’s trial in 1991 and her appeal in 1993 were among the most shameful — and shameless— in South African legal history.

He makes compelling argument that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its otherwise praiseworthy inquiry in 1997 into the murders of Stompie Moeketsi Seipei and Dr Abu-Baker Asvat disgraced itself in the same manner as those two trials when Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC’s chairperson, intervened at a crucial stage to block further forensic questioning of Mrs Mandela in what Bridgland recounts as a non-judicial, obstructive and staged reconciliation between the accused (Mrs Mandela) and the mother of her victim, Stompie.

The judicial reality was simple: to stop Mrs Mandela going to prison. Rule of law was sacrificed for a political end. It was the TRC’s worst compromise of its founding mission.

Midway through her trial, in an interview quoted in the East London Daily Dispatch on 13 April 1991, Mrs Mandela said: “What should I have done about Paul Verryn raping our children?” (quoted by Bridgland, p.145)

There was no rape, nor were there consensual homosexual relations on the part of Reverend Paul Verryn with the four youngsters, among them 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, who were kidnapped on Mrs Mandela’s instruction from Rev Verryn’s manse at the Methodist Church in Soweto on Thursday 29 December 1988. Reporting on the trial for the Mail & Guardian, Emma Gilbey wrote later, “The dubious logic seemed to be that if Verryn was guilty of sexual misconduct then Winnie had to be innocent of the charges against her.”

Mrs Mandela’s counsel, Advocate George Bizos SC, informed the court: “The primary concern of Verryn was that he did not want allegations of sexual misconduct to be made public.”

It was the illogic of members of the ANC Women’s League, who demonstrated outside the trial with banners stating “Stop harassing our Mother” and “Homosex is not in black culture.”

Verryn’s bishop, the Rev Peter Storey, stated rightly in a submission to the TRC in 1997: “Truth has been suppressed because people have vanished and fear for their lives.” While the primary cancer had been apartheid–oppression, “secondary infections have touched many of apartheid’s opponents and eroded their knowledge of good and evil. They [the secondary infections] resemble far too closely the abuses of apartheid itself.” (Bridgland, pp. 143, 146-47).

This is a truth still not adequately acknowledged by the Christian churches in South Africa, for which Mrs Mandela made no repentance.

Christians should read Bridgland’s book, to help make up their minds on a great issue of the past three decades.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Paul Trewhela
Born in Johannesburg in 1941, Paul Trewhela worked in underground journalism with Ruth First and edited the underground journal of MK, Freedom Fighter, during the Rivonia Trial. He was a political prisoner in Pretoria and the Johannesburg Fort as a member of the Communist Party in 1964–1967, separating from the SACP while in prison. In exile in Britain he was co-editor with the late Baruch Hirson of Searchlight South Africa, banned in South Africa.

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