Former PA: what Mam’ Winnie was like
Winnie MadikizelaMandela’s former PA recalls what is was like being in this formidable woman’s orbit
HE CAN’T believe he’ll never again pick up the phone and hear Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s distinctive voice on the other end of the line. Serving as the icon’s personal assistant for 24 years, Alan van Zuydam-Reynolds got to know her better than most – and he can still vividly recall their last conversation about a fortnight before her death.
Even though Winnie (81) had been in and out of hospital in recent months he says she was full of energy as she quizzed him about the goings-on in local politics.
Although Alan stopped working for Winnie full time a while back they had such a great rapport he’d continued to help her on an ad hoc basis – and as a project coordinator at the parliamentary budget offices in Cape Town he was perfectly placed to give her the gossip she craved.
Alan (56) smiles as he remembers hearing chickens clucking in the background as she chatted to him from her home in Soweto.
“I drafted a letter for her a few weeks ago,” he recalls.
Over the years, working so closely with her, he got to see what made Mam’ Winnie tick. And he says she had a softer, warmer side that was often overlooked.
Alan says like any mother Winnie never stopped worrying about her children.
“She was troubled by the suffering her daughters [Zenani (59) and Zindzi (57)] went through during and after the apartheid years because of who their mother and father were. I think it troubled her to the end of her life.”
But she was a good mom and loving grandmother to her nine grandchildren, he recalls. “Her grandchildren gave her great joy.”
And he believes her late former husband, Nelson Mandela, remained her one true love – even though they’d divorced in 1996. “I don’t think Winnie ever loved anyone else. She didn’t allow anyone ever to disrespect him.
‘You strike a woman, you strike a rock’
No one would risk it in front of her.”
AS A social science student in 1980 at the then University of Natal, Alan was lucky to have Fatima Meer as his sociology lecturer.
The renowned author and political activist was a lifelong friend of the Mandelas and invited Alan to go with her to the remote Free State town of Brandfort, where Winnie was under house arrest.
“We travelled with packed curry that Fatima’s housekeeper cooked. Winnie loved spicy food,” he says.
After that first meeting in 1981 he and Winnie kept in close contact. But he got to know her even better from 1994 when he became her personal assistant.
He says it always bothered Winnie that her name would forever be linked to the murder of 14-year-old activist Stompie Seipei in 1989.
Although she maintained her innocence she knew in the minds of some her legacy was forever tarnished. “But she knew she could do nothing about it. Those who believed it wouldn’t be persuaded otherwise.”
He recalls that after the Sizzlers murders in 2003, in which nine men were killed at a gay massage parlour in Cape Town, Winnie arranged for the body of one of the victims to be flown to his family in Johannesburg.
“She asked me to tell no one that she was going to the funeral. She slipped in at the back of the church but the mother of the boy saw her, ran to her and broke down. Winnie was strong but caring.”
Alan says when R&B singing sensation Whitney Houston toured South Africa in 1994 Winnie cooked dinner for her.
He says his boss loved making a statement with her striking headscarves and trademark fashion choices.
“In many ways from her mid-twenties, she was robbed of her life. It’s one of the ways they failed to break her: the way she dressed.”
She was incredibly proud too. “I once asked her about a film about her life I saw,” Alan recalls. “The actress cried in it. She told me: ‘No security police ever saw me crying’.”
And that’s how he’ll remember Mam’Winnie. “She was fearless,” Alan says. “She was afraid of nothing and no one. She wasn’t afraid of death – that made her invincible.” S
Alan van Zuydam-Reynolds spent 24 years being Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s personal assistant and even longer being her friend.
LEFT: A younger Winnie outside the house where she spent most of her time in Brandfort in the Free State, in exile and away from her daughters Zindiswa and Zenani, in 1977. The mother of the nation, as she was widely known, spent nine years in the town, and in that time opened up a crèche for the children in a Methodist church that still operates today. ABOVE LEFT: The struggle icon in 1977, a year after she called for black people to unite against oppression. “It is only when all black groups join hands and speak with one voice that we shall be a bargaining force which will decide its own destiny,” she said in 1976. ABOVE RIGHT: She survived 491 days in solitary confinement during which she didn’t see anyone but her jailers between 1969 and 1970. “Being held incommunicado was the most cruel thing Nationalists ever did. It is what changed me, what brutalised me so much. I knew what it is to hate,” she wrote years later.
LEFT: Winnie arriving at the Old Synagogue court for Nelson Mandela’s trial in 1962 in Pretoria. “They think because they have put my husband on an island that he will be forgotten. They are wrong. The harder they try to silence him, the louder I will become!” she said in 1962 when Mandela was on trial for “inciting persons to strike illegally”. The ANC and 31 other organisations were unbanned in 1990.