491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 by Winnie Madikizela Mandela

Format: Paperback

Publisher: Picador Africa

Release Date: 2013

Genre: Autobiography

Setting: South Africa

My Rating: 2 stars


On a freezing winter’s night, a few hours before dawn on 12 May 1969, security police stormed the Soweto home of Winnie Mandela and detained her in the presence of her two young daughters, then aged nine and ten.
Rounded up in a group of other anti-apartheid activists under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act, designed for the security police to hold and interrogate people for as long as they wanted, she was taken away. She had no idea where they were taking her or what would happen to her children. For Winnie Mandela this was the start of a 491-day period of detention and two trials.
Forty-one years after Winnie’s release on 14 September 1970, Greta Soggot, the widow of David Soggot, one of Winnie Mandela’s advocates during the 1969–70 trials, handed her a stack of papers that included a journal and notes that she had written in detention. Their arrival brought back vivid and horrifying memories and uncovered a unique and personal slice of South Africa’s history.
491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 shares with the world Winnie Mandela’s moving and compelling journal as well as some of the letters written between affected parties at the time, including Winnie and Nelson Mandela, who by then had been in prison for nearly seven years.
Readers gain insight into the brutality she experienced, her depths of despair as well as her resilience and defiance under extreme pressure. This young wife and mother emerged after 491 days in detention unbowed and determined to continue the struggle for freedom.

My Thoughts......

This book was a disappointment. I am not even sure I can call it a book – more like a disjointed collection of notes, journal entries and letters . I was disappointed because my expectations going into it – to learn about the fierce, resilient, strong woman that was Winnie Mandela – were not met. Didn’t even come close!

The book begins with the arrest of Winnie in 1969 on charges of terrorism. She is detained and interrogated for days by the Apartheid government. She would end up spending 491 days in jail and undergoing 2 different trials whilst incarcerated. In her journal, Winnie describes the state of her deteriorating health, her prison cell and detainment – having to live on one Mealie meal a day and rotten porridge for breakfast, a single unsanitary bucket that would serve as her toilet, sink and table, being held in solitary confinement for days on end and what that can do to the human psyche and her frustrations over the period of her detention.

Winnie’s description of prison conditions gave me chills. Her resilience, dedication and commitment to South Africa is inspiring. But I wanted more. I wanted to learn about her childhood, how she met Nelson, what made her tick, what shaped her beliefs and resolve, Winnie the mother, the wife, the freedom fighter, a vulnerable Winnie and a strong Winnie. This is not that book. The journal entries are disjointed and make reference to other documents that are not available. The recounting of events did not strike an emotional chord with me – the entries were too methodical.

The 2nd part of the book contains letters exchanged between Winnie and Mandela and some written by their counsel, but don’t get too excited – 90% of these letters are by Nelson Mandela to various family members while he was locked up. I only counted 3 letters written by Winnie. Reading these letters, I couldn’t help but acknowledge Mandela was indeed a living saint! His good nature, kind spirit, strength, appreciation for Winnie and family, even in the face of adversity shines through in his letters. You have to admire the man. 

We actually get a better sense of the man Mandela was more than we get to learn about Winnie which I feel is a disservice to Winnie.

Have you read this book? What was your take?

P.S I am still on the lookout for a book that is solely about Winnie Mandela


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