Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s Prison Diary, 491 Days, Launched at Constitution Hill
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela attended the launch of her prison diary, 419 Days: Prisoner number 1323/69, at the Women’s Jail Atrium at Constitution Hill on Friday night. The author was present with her book’s two editors, her granddaughter Swati Dlamini and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory‘s Sahm Venter.
It wasn’t just the venue that supplied an appropriate context for the launch: next door, as part of the ongoing exhibit at the Women’s Prison, the occasional scream from the recording system pierced the chatter of the event.
The screams played soundtrack to the speeches, led by former cabinet minister Barbara Hogan, who called the diary “extraordinary”. “It is a very real contemporary account in the words that Winnie herself penned during her most difficult times in her life. It holds the rawness that no journal written 20 years later could ever capture,” she said.
Madikizela-Mandela was interviewed by family friend Victor Dlamini. Dressed in a resplendent silver, baby pink and white mermaid dress with a pink jacket, the struggle veteran handled Dlamini’s questions with humour and aplomb. She described the day when the journal was handed to her by Greta Soggot, the wife of her former lawyer. “I was in Parliament – for a change. As you know I am notorious for not going. There was a knock on the door and a lady came into my office. It was difficult for me to recognise her as it had been such a long time since I saw her. She gave me this manuscript as her husband told her to give it to me. I opened it and it was like that cold winters night when the security police came to arrest me. I still find it difficult to read more than one paragraph. I didn’t even go through the pages. It was like that May day.”
In the epilogue of the book, Madikizela-Mandela writes, “I felt strongly that this journal and these letters needed to be published in this way, exactly how it was written at the time, so that my children and my grandchildren and whoever reads them should please see to it that our country never ever degenerates to levels such as those. It is for their future. Right now, people like myself who come from that era become petrified when we see us sliding and becoming more and more like our oppressive masters. To me, that is exactly what is happening and that is what scares me.”
The author picked up this theme at the launch. “I’m terrified of any period in the future in our history where our country goes back to those times,” she said. “I’m terrified of a future where my children and grandchildren will go through what we went through… I’m terrified where we see our children back in our streets. I never dreamt that our people will demonstrate against our government.
“I naively thought, with the liberation of our country, we would try our very best to fulfill the promises we made in 1994 only to find that it was not so. That is why we have the Marikanas of our day. That is why when we open pages of up our newspapers everyday we are accused of corruption, we are accused of self enrichment.”
Madikizela-Mandela also used the occasion to question the effectiveness of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and its relevance to the present day.
“It’s not possible at all to (forget the past). Yes, we had the TRC and history will judge us as to whether that was the right thing to do. Whether the TRC served its purpose, yes for some it helped. But when you see what is happening today you wonder what purpose that reconciliation served.”
Her own appearance at the TRC still rankles Madikizela-Mandela. She drew a link between her response to TRC head Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s questioning and her time in detention and on trial under apartheid’s notorious Terrorism Act.
“When I was before the TRC in my case, it was a revisit to those painful times. It was like my retrial. Not once was I ever asked what happened to my children those years. Not once was I ever asked who brought them up when both of us, their father and their mother, were in prison. The TRC didn’t serve any purpose with my family and my children. So history will tell whether it was the best thing for the country.”
Madikizela-Mandela opened a window, briefly, on to her life as Nelson Mandela’s wife. “I was the most un-married married woman. Nelson and I lived together for only a few months before he became the Black Pimpernel.” After his imprisonment, the security branch harassed their children, causing her to send them away to boarding school in Swaziland. “But when they came home during breaks, that’s when the security branch would detain me.”
Thus it was that Madikizela-Mandela knew to have her bags already packed for prison on 12 May 1969, when the police stormed her Soweto home and the ordeal described in 419 Days began. It was school holidays, after all.