12/15/2013 10:34 am ET Updated Feb 14, 2014

My Hour with Winnie Mandela: Understanding Nelson, a Nation and a History

I met Winnie Mandela ten weeks ago.

She was slower than she once was, happier than she often has been, but when she punched a clenched fist into the air and shouted--Amandla!--she was gently reminding us that some things stay the same. Dressed in five strands of pearls, a crown of black hair, and a billowing print gown, she was speaking at the One Young World Summit in Johannesburg where over a thousand people reacted rapturously to her cry for freedom.

She basked in their applause.

The queen was back.

In recent years much of that 'reign' has been shrouded by heartache, disappointment, and controversy: the death of her great-granddaughter; her divorce from Nelson Mandela; and serious criminal allegations. But, that evening, as I looked around the sparkling convention center in this new South Africa, I realized that the people won't allow her to abdicate as Mother of a Nation. For 27 years, she kept Nelson Mandela's story alive, afraid she said that if she stopped, the international community would simply forget him. The African National Congress leveraged their parallel sufferings, and positioned their joint personalities to humanize the wider struggle for liberation: he, a lawyer and member of a royal house; she, a noted beauty with the dignity to match. Together, they were handpicked to illustrate the horrors of the apartheid regime.

Twenty-four hours later and Winnie Mandela is dressed in a Springboks shirt, with the colors of the ANC on a scarf around her neck. We are meeting at 36 Saxon Road, a private estate that is now a hotel, and formerly a residential house. It is the same house where Nelson Mandela lived on his release from Victor Verster Prison, and where he drafted the manuscript for Long Walk to Freedom. As she walked into the room with her grandson, Zondwa, and three-year-old great-granddaughter, Zazi, I was reminded that this freedom fighter was for so long a mother and father rolled into one. And yet for periods, she herself was absent.

It was around 3am on May 12, 1969 when she heard shouting outside her matchbox house in Soweto, then banging on the glass windows, before the front door was kicked in. It was a familiar sound. Years of being harassed had taught her to stay focused, and to also keep two suitcases by the door in case she was taken away.
She only had time to grab one.

Her daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, just ten and nine years old, at the time clung to her skirt as officers from the Security Branch dragged her out of the house, and threw her into a van--the girls still screaming, "Mummy, don't go". That night, Winnie Mandela was held under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act, and for the next 491 days was put in solitary confinement, incommunicado, and detained at the pleasure and the whims of an merciless State.

She recalls that night off the back of her hand.

"It was sheer and utter hell. It was almost a death sentence because you knew you were at the mercy of these people, and they had a right not to give any information about the prisoners. It was in their Constitution, the law allowed it, and there was nothing you or your family could do. They could kill you."

Perhaps death would have been kinder. She lived in a cell so small she could touch all four walls just by stretching out her arms. Her daily ration of two-and-a-half liters of water was not only for hydration, but also for surviving through the seasons, and for staving off the infections that she inevitably succumbed to. She wasn't allowed to wash. She ate off a sanitary bucket that was returned to her un-rinsed from the night before. She used a pin to scratch out a calendar on her cell wall, so she wouldn't lose track of time.

She thought about suicide. But then she remembered her husband. And, when the pain of missing her daughters became too much, she spoke to them out loud in her cell, and then imagined their answers back into her head. And, if that wasn't enough, for the entire 491 days she remained in a 'death cell', the warden's way of letting her know that she would never leave alive.

But she survived.

And if anything the horrific experience made her more angry.

"The ANC was an opium to us. We were so hooked, at least I was. I was so hooked by the fight for freedom that nothing mattered to us, so long as we fulfilled the dream of years and years of our people being liberated. I thought normal life would come the day after."

I think of the parallels between her story and the one told by Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom. He may have been black, but slowly by slowly his wardens agreed to call him "Mr. Mandela". In prison, Winnie Mandela was never "Mrs. Mandela". She throws her head back at the mere possibility: "My goodness! Who would address me like that? I was just that 'kaffir girl' or 'that native girl, Winnie'".

Ironically, apartheid was more inclusive than you think. It didn't just split 'Blacks' from 'Whites'. It was also 'Natives', 'Coloreds', and 'Asians'. By being 'Black', their crime was deemed the same, and both were sentenced to isolation: Nelson Mandela, across the waters on Robben Island; and, Winnie Mandela, in a cell with a tiny window at the top. It was a reminder to her that the world she once knew was still there--and just beyond her grasp.

The absence of Nelson Mandela for 27 of their 32 years of marriage was as deafening as his absence in our interview. I began our one-hour television special by asking her about the day he was released. Was it difficult to reunite with a husband who went into prison a 'man', and emerged from it a 'myth'?

"Prior to his arrest I had never lived with him", she said. "If you put the months together of when he was in and out of prison (and I myself would be detained now and again), it was hardly two years. We never actually lived together. So when he came out of prison it was a continuation of that life where there no room, really, for a normal family life."

Today, there is something pleasingly 'normal' about Winnie Mandela. Smiling, bespectacled, still beautiful, and surrounded by family. I look at her grandson, Zwonda, and ponder the alternative. The chilling truth is that at his age, his mother and aunt could strip and assemble an AK-47 assault rifle in 38 seconds flat.

Winnie Mandela and Nelson Mandela are not the first prisoners to emerge into political office. Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Benazir Bhutto, Michelle Bachelet are a few other examples--and significantly every South African president post-Mandela: Thabo Mbeki, Kglame Motlanthe, and Jacob Zuma.
But they are a dying breed.

I don't know whether our young people today can commit to a cause in the same way that these men and women staked their entire lives. Today, we feel good just by forwarding an article, uploading a picture, or tweeting an opinion in 140 characters or less. A different cause for a different week. A bracelet or a ribbon to demonstrate our polite support.

Sometimes, it's not about politeness.

You need a bit of anger.

I think Winnie Mandela would agree.