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An Axe for the frozen sea within

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Picture: Independent Archives – The late Nelson Mandela and his then wife, the late Winnie Madikizela Mandela, upon Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.

Book Review:Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage

Writer: Jonny Steinberg

Publisher: WILLIAM COLLINS, 554PP (£25)

By Chris Chivers

This book achieves that hardest of all combinations for any biographer: compassion that springs from its dispassionate tone

Biography at its best requires John the Baptist qualities that few biographers possess. They all too easily get in the way, their text more about them than the subject(s) concerned.

The risk for anyone attempting the life of one, let alone both of the subjects tackled by the distinguished South African academic and author, Jonny Steinberg – Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – is that the narrative simply collapses, too weighed down by what it takes to construct an original authorial voice –so much has already been said – as also by the tonne of myth, hagiography, and sheer obfuscation that has accrued to the subjects.

Steinberg brilliantly avoids this by following the central protagonists in turn towards their first meeting, with an intense focus on the limited time they shared a life together before we return to studies of each as they struggle with their enforced separation, and their increasingly disparate approaches to the larger struggle for freedom for all South Africans against which their relationship is set.

The renewed intensity of their encounters in prison waiting rooms in the last third of the book – and which presage formal confirmation of the disintegration of their marriage – are made possible through transcriptions of the (often taped) recordings the South African prison service was asked to keep for the apartheid minister of justice, Kobie Coetzee.

On his retirement he effectively stole these – they should be in the South African National Archives. Sensitively handled and suitably contextualised by Steinberg – who is at pains to point out the obvious constraints under which Winnie and Nelson were speaking (certainly aware that they were being recorded) – they make for perhaps the hardest reading and paint the two central characters at their most heated, angry, manipulative, vulnerable and human.

They add considerably to a narrative that at turns sings with colour – the devastating beauty of Winnie silencing a court simply by entering it on the one hand – and, on the other hand, seers the reader with shafts of absolute cruelty revealed through recorded conversations of Winnie’s interactions with and instructions to her dreaded Mandela football team – which was but a cover for her role presiding over a most appalling orgy of violence as the foundations of apartheid crumbled.

Steinberg enlightens with moments of intense pathos and emotion – Nelson’s tears after the deaths of his son and mother – and private anger towards his wife or Zinzi his daughter which he chose to mask in a public persona as serene as any in recent history. The biographical achievement is magnificent at every level.

To understand the iconic, mythic role that both protagonists intuited early in their lives they must play a hand in creating for themselves, that history handed them and that millions projected onto them requires the deftness of an historian able to set context but allow his main characters uniquely to emerge from this.

Steinberg could have overwhelmed the reader with necessary historical background. The way in which, for example, he handles the ethos of late 1950s and early 1960s Johannesburg – its tense political undercurrents spilling into the RivoniaTrial, the Sharpeville Massacre, or the Treason Trial, or again the charged events that lead to Soweto in 1976, and PW Botha’s subsequent ill-fated reforms – ironically making possible the very changes he wanted to avoid – is a model of concision, objectivity, and clarity. Many will know this history already. But for the reader who doesn’t they may discover no better interpreter than Steinberg.

Steinberg finds brilliant ways into every facet of the narrative. Jerry Dammers’ composing the song, Free Nelson Mandela – which made possible the reality that those three words became a global mantra for billions in the 1980s – but one example of many master strokes. So good is this historical material that it would be tempting for any writer to dwell on it in more detail. But John the Baptist-like, it’s author uses this merely to point to a marriage so complex to disentangle, and already freighted with so much interpretation, that he genuinely gifts the reader a vantage point from which to form a perhaps less biased view of Nelson and Winnie than has hitherto been possible.

The way in which Steinberg gives space to Winnie’s many extra-marital relationships, for instance, in a manner that is not censorious, does not rush to judgement but by taking a dispassionate approach allows for a degree of compassion often missing in previous accounts, is an important component for the reader’s understanding of her isolation.

In a similar sense, when Steinberg reports the domestic violence that saw Nelson physically strike his wife – a fact that will surely shock many and certainly subvert the standard plaster-sainted view of South Africa’s ‘saviour’ – the reader is again enabled to sense the all too fragile humanity of a man whose behaviour is not excused but from whom too much mythic responsibility was expected – and continues to be read.

Brilliant vignettes include Steinberg reflecting on the books that Madiba read as student and emergent political leader – among them, Macauley in his History of England, describing how, four generations beyond the Norman conquest, the descendants of erstwhile enemies Harold and William became friends – a narrative so closely paralleling Madiba’s own career that it sparkles in Steinberg’s telling. Or his account of the moment when prison warder, Christo Brand, risked his career to enable Madiba to hold the grandchild Winnie had brought to Robben Island – against all regulations – thereby sealing in Madiba’s mind a trajectory of reconciliation that was never to be possible in his own marriage but was the costly gift of both Nelson and Winnie to democratic South Africa.

Many readers may balk at that assertion, that it was both who made possible this gift. But if Steinberg’s many-warted telling of their life stories does one thing, it is to make possible a reading of the way in which at the national and global levels if not for the protagonists themselves hope only just about transcends the complex failings and sometimes lamentable, terrible – even wicked and certainly tragic – misjudgements that Steinberg allows us to consider in a thoroughly rounded way.

As with all truly great writing – and this is undoubtedly in such a category, like Steinberg’s previous epic, A man of good hope – what the author offers readers is a chance for their own complex experience of human living to resonate, albeit painfully – since Winnie and Nelson’s is undoubtedly a painful story – but also with a telling intimacy from which each reader cannot but learn much. Frank Kafka once said that ‘a book must be an axe for the frozen sea within’. This is such a book.

Chris Chivers was formerly precentor of St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town and now teaches Religion and Philosophy at UCL Academy, London