As news spread around the world of the death of Winnie Mandela yesterday, former Luton News journalist Bev Creagh paused to reflect on her own encounter with the first lady of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Working as a feature writer for WOMAN magazine, Bev interviewed Winnie Mandela in 1986 when she was still regarded as the Mother of the Nation.
Bev writes: “She was the most remarkable woman, amazingly charismatic.
“I saw her at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. She walked across the lawns to meet me, an absolutely commanding presence in flowing national dress, hair beaded and plaited, tribal bangles on both wrists.
“She was still a banned person so arranging the interview had been fraught with difficulty. We both could have been jailed. Being banned under the old apartheid laws meant she could not be quoted and a gathering of more than one person constituted a crowd and was illegal.
“But Winnie was magnificent. She was openly scornful of the regime and utterly defiant. She was the Mother of the Nation, its figurehead, while her husband Nelson was incarcerated in Robben Island for 27 years. She kept her people’s fight for freedom against white domination at the forefront of the world press for almost three decades.
“And it was at a terrible personal cost. She told me: ‘I am the most unmarried married woman. But I went into this with the knowledge that I was marrying a cause, and not just a man. His country had more access to him than I ever did.’”
“For years she and her daughters held a simple ceremony every June on her anniversary. They’d take out a battered old cake tin bearing the top tier of the wedding cake Nelson and Winnie – South Africa’s first black social worker – never ate because he was jailed before the traditional four-day celebration could be completed.
“Even though she was subsequently charged with a series of heinous crimes, including kidnap and fraud, she later confessed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that ‘things had gone horribly wrong’ and she was deeply sorry.
“I often wondered if I’d been at the receiving end of the intimidation, torture and brutality she’d experienced, how would I have reacted?
“She has certainly earned a position in the pantheon of South Africa’s freedom fighters.
“Rest in peace, Winnie Mandela.”