In normal circumstances, a visit to Brandfort would not offer any exciting prospects. For it is a dreary little one-horse town in the middle of the veld. But when the object of the exercise is to call on Winnie Mandela, anything can happen, as I have experienced on two such occasions.
Winnie is the wife of Nelson Mandela, leader of the banned African National Congress, who is serving a life sentence for sabotage. He has already spent nearly 20 years on Robben Island and is currently held in a mainland jail. Winnie herself is banned and restricted to the magisterial district of Brandfort, 240 miles from Soweto in Johannesburg, where her home is situated.
Until recently, she was not allowed to receive anyone but her doctor or her priest at the small house in the bleak township for blacks of Brandfort, without the permission of the authorities. I discovered on a visit to her in 1981 that even a permit did not always help. For our conversation then was rudely interrupted by the arrival of a security policeman who rejected my permit as invalid, and who threatened to arrest Winnie if I did not leave the premises within five minutes. Winnie and I continued our conversation while walking up and down the dusty streets outside her house.
Last week when I again visited her, I did not need a permit to enter her house--only one to enter the black township. (No white, not even a member of parliament, is allowed to enter any black township without a permit.) Armed with this, a colleague and I drove confidently to Winnie's house. I went alone to the door, for she is allowed to see only one person at a time. (More than two people constitutes a "gathering," according to South Africa's security laws, and Winnie is not allowed to attend gatherings.)
As I approached the door Winnie emerged, with her beautiful wide smile much in evidence. As we embraced, I saw to my astonishment that the tiny house was full of large white men.
"What a coincidence," I said, "a reception committee again." And indeed a raid by the Security Police was in full swing. Five or six men were taking books off the shelves, posters off the walls. Very politely the head guy inquired who I was (as if he didn't know) and what was the purpose of my visit and whether I would mind waiting outside while his men completed their task because Winnie had to be present during the search.
I said I minded very much. I had a plane to catch. And I told him to go ahead and not bother about us talking meanwhile.
So there was this extraordinary scene with Winnie and me sitting on a sofa in her minute living room, chatting away about Nelson and their daughter and other matters with all those men milling around and every now and then asking Winnie to sign for an article they were taking away--books, documents, papers.
A framed certificate commending Winnie for her courage and fidelity presented by some black women's organization in the United States was among the trophies confiscated by the police. So was a poster of a white girl brandishing a burning South African flag, and so, too, was Winnie's crocheted bedspread--it was made up in yellow, green and black, the colors of the African National Congress--a subversive bedspread undoubtedly!
After the men had gone, we laughed--but for Winnie it is not such a laughing matter. She has already faced several charges for breaking her banning order--aquitted by the courts in all but one instance. She is about to be charged again for incidents that occurred when she was allowed to go to Johannesburg recently for surgery.
Who knows?--the subversive bedspread may land her in more trouble. The Security Police cannot resist harassing her. The irony is they thereby rescue her from the obscurity which is inherent in her banishment to Brandfort.