Married to mandela ‘life with him was life without him’

Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela was 22 when Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela spotted her standing at a bus stop in Soweto. Thus started one of the 20th century’s most famous romances. The fact that he was married with three kids didn’t prevent this legendary ladies’ man from securing a lunch date with her.

"The next day I got a phone call," Winnie recalled. "I would be picked up after work. Nelson, a fitness fanatic, was there in the car in gym attire. I was taken to the gym, to watch him sweat! That became the pattern of my life. One moment, I was watching him. Then he would dash off to meetings, with just time to drop me off at the hostel.

Even at that stage, life with him was a life without him."

Winnie was already politicised when she met Nelson. She had her first conscious experience of racial discrimination in 1945 at end of World War 2 when she was nine years old. Celebrations were scheduled at the town hall in Bizana but her family had to remain outside as the festivities were for whites only.

Winnie was held for 18 months, most of the time in solitary confinement. In a diary she described this hell. "You are imprisoned in this little cell. When you stretch your hands you touch the walls. You are reduced to a nobody, a non-value. It is like killing you alive. You are alive because you breathe. You are deprived of everything – your dignity, your everything."

During one interrogation she was questioned continuously for five sleepless days and nights. The porridge had maggots in it. Her mat and the walls of the cell were covered in the blood of a former inmate. She became extremely ill during her 491-day stay in prison and was admitted to hospital several times. At one stage she contemplated suicide.

When Nelson heard of Winnie’s ordeal he was frantic. Both parents were in jail and did not know who was taking care of Zindzi and Zenani, or if they were going to school. Meanwhile the state intensified its cruel game of cat and mouse. Letters to each other were held back or did not arrive at all. Permission for prison visits was granted and then withdrawn. They were cut off from their relatives and each other.

On July 16 1969, less than a year after his beloved mother died, Mandela was told in a terse telegram that his son Thembi had been killed: "Please advise Nelson Mandela his son Thembekile passed away 13th instant result motor accident in Cape Town." He was 24 years old.

Mandela had regarded Thembi as an intimate friend. During the Rivonia Trial he had sat behind his father one day. "I kept looking back, nodding to him and giving him a broad smile. At the time it was generally believed that we would certainly be given the supreme penalty and this was clearly written across his face. Though he nodded back as many times as I did to him, not once did he return the smile. I never dreamt that I would never see him again," he wrote to Winnie.

In a letter dated August 1 1970 to Winnie, Mandela wrote of his agony and his feeling of helplessness at not being able to comfort her: "I feel as if I have been soaked in gall, every part of me, my flesh, bloodstream, bone and soul, so bitter am I to be completely powerless to help you in the rough and fierce ordeals you are going through. What a world of difference to your failing health and to your spirit, darling, to my own anxiety and the strain that I cannot shake off, if only we could meet; if I could be on your side and squeeze you, or if I could but catch a glimpse of your outline through the thick wire netting that would inevitably separate us."