Missing interviews with key witnesses to murder of 14-year-old Stompie raises credibility about new book on Winnie and Nelson Mandela
Winnie with Nelson Mandela in Zimbabwe in 1990, soon after his release from prison. Brave faces hid broken hearts. (Picture: Trevor Grundy)
Jonny Steinberg says he spoke to 150 people before writing ‘Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage’. Sadly, he failed to talk to key witnesses to the murder of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei at Mrs Mandela’s Soweto home on New Year’s Eve 1988. The teenager’s death shook the world and the story lies at the heart of the stormy — some say tragic — marriage of the Mandelas. It’s a seminal event in South Africa’s history, and future generations need the truth to understand what happened and why, says acclaimed foreign correspondent and author FRED BRIDGLAND.
WHEN a 14-year-old boy, Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, was murdered on New Year’s Eve 1988 at the home of Winnie Mandela, she ordered her personal driver, John Umuthi Morgan, to “pick up the dog and dump him”.
Morgan said Stompie was already dead when he was asked to remove him. The boy, he said, had been stabbed and had blood on his neck. Six days later, a maggot-infested cadaver was found on waste ground on the edge of Soweto, where Mandela lived. A senior Johannesburg forensic pathologist, Dr Patricia Klepp, identified it on 14 February 1989 as Stompie’s remains.
Before Morgan was given his grisly instruction, a 16-year-old Zulu youth said he watched Mandela stab Stompie next to the open-air jacuzzi behind her Soweto house.
Morgan’s extensive account, obtained by a dynamic young Sunday Times reporter, Dawn Barkhuizen, changed the course of South African history. Her front-page story was published on April 12, 1992. Morgan also rebutted Mandela’s alibi — that she had been 350km away from Soweto, in the small town Free State town of Brandfort, when Stompie was kidnapped, assaulted and murdered. In fact, Morgan told Barkhuizen, Mandela was in Soweto throughout December 31, 1988, and led the assault on Stompie by her vigilante group, the so-called Mandela United Football Club.
Before Barkhuizen’s story even reached the pages of the Sunday Times, Mandela somehow obtained a copy. The journalist submitted a draft to her news editor on the Friday afternoon before publication. An hour later, a friend who lived near Mandela’s home phoned Barkhuizen to say Winnie had a printout.
Mandela was enraged, said Barkhuizen’s informant, adding a warning: “Don’t go home. You are not safe.”
The Sunday Times removed their journalist to a safe location and placed security guards around her house.
Before publication, the story also reached the ANC, whose national executive committee (NEC) convened an emergency meeting on the Saturday. Immediately afterwards, a senior NEC member telephoned Barkhuizen to ask if she had any information relating to Dr Abu Baker Asvat, Mandela’s personal doctor, who had examined the dying Stompie and advised her that his injuries were so serious that she must get him to hospital, or he would die. Barkhuizen replied that she did not have any information relating to the doctor.
Asvat was murdered on January 27, 1989 by gunmen hired by Mandela.
The day after publication of Barkhuizen’s story, Nelson Mandela announced at a press conference in Johannesburg that he was separating from his wife after 34 years of marriage.
A short while later, Barkhuizen accepted a transfer to the Sunday Times bureau in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth. She never returned to work in Johannesburg.
Key players in a terrible South African drama
Winnie and (above right) Stompie and Katiza
The murder of Stompie, the removal of his body and the consequent separation of the Mandelas lie at the very heart of the Winnie-Nelson marriage saga, and they are seminal events in South Africa’s history which future generations deserve to know about, scrutinise and understand. So, presumably, former Oxford University academic Jonny Steinberg related the story in his new widely promoted book, Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage?
Despite the claim by Steinberg’s publishers — Jonathan Ball in South Africa, Harper Collins of London and Alfred A Knopf of New York — that Winnie and Nelson was “deeply researched”, Steinberg did not interview Barkhuizen, living in South Africa, nor refer to her seminal exposé about the murder of Stompie and the consequent termination of the Mandela marriage.
Nor did he contact or interview the then 16-year-old Katiza Cebekhulu, who said he saw Mandela stab Stompie before she ordered Morgan “to pick up the dog and dump him”.
Cebekhulu was abducted to Zambia by an ANC special operations unit and imprisoned without charge or trial, presumably to prevent him giving evidence in Mandela’s 1991 criminal trial for kidnapping and assaulting Stompie.
Steinberg could easily have contacted Cebekhulu, a refugee in the UK who is completing his account of his life, including his time spent as a member of Mandela’s football club. The provisional title of Cebekhulu’s book is Winnie & Nelson & Me: The Story of a Child’s Murder.
Steinberg’s total airbrushing of Barkhuizen and near-total omission of Cebekhulu from his narrative raises questions about the reliability of Winnie and Nelson. It suggests we are being corralled into gazing at what the renowned Czech author Milan Kundera once described as “the mirror of the beautifying lie”.
Barkhuizen commented: “I don’t know whether or not Steinberg deliberately blanked out my experience of that time and that of Cebekhulu. If he had tried to contact me or Katiza, he would surely have had to tell a different story.
“I find it disturbing that any writer can deem it fit to handle other people’s experiences and pain so glibly and lightly. His treatment of Cebekhulu is particularly insulting because Katiza has suffered more than anybody in all this, apart from Stompie, who is dead.”
Author Jonny Steinberg
Despite Morgan’s description to Barkhuizen of how he had been ordered to dispose of Stompie’s body immediately after Cebekhulu said he saw Mandela kill the boy, it was Jerry Richardson, Mandela’s violent chief bodyguard, who was convicted of murdering the teenager.
At the Rand Supreme Court, Judge Brian O’Donovan said the evidence against Richardson was only circumstantial, but nevertheless he sentenced him to death in May 1990. Richardson was saved from the gallows by a moratorium on judicial executions introduced by then-president FW de Klerk.
Richardson pleaded not guilty to murdering Stompie before O’Donovan. But later, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), he told a graphically different and more gruesome story about the final hours of Stompie’s short life.
Richardson testified that he explored a possible uncultivated place on the edge of Soweto where he might bury Stompie, after being ordered by Mandela to “dump” the boy. Early on New Year’s Day 1989, Richardson said he left Mandela’s house with the still alive Stompie and an unarmed football club member. “I had to help Stompie along because he was very ill, very weak. We had to drag Stompie along,” he said.
Having taken the boy to the reconnoitred killing spot, Richardson told the truth commissioners: “I slaughtered him like a goat. We made him lay on his back and I put garden shears through his neck and they penetrated to the back of his neck and I made some cutting motion.”
Steinberg says in his book that Richardson’s story was “consistent with the forensic evidence subsequently gathered”.
But it wasn’t.
Forensic pathologist Klepp, unnamed in Steinberg’s book and who does not seem to have been interviewed by the author, testified to the TRC on December 2, 1997 that Moeketsi could not have been “slaughtered like a goat”.
She told the commissioners: “What we have here are stabs, three discrete, penetrating incise wounds of the neck. This is not what we call a cut throat.” Klepp said two stab wounds behind Stompie’s left ear were consistent with the use of a knife with two sharp edges; those wounds probably killed the boy, she said.
Cebekhulu, in his evidence, said he saw Mandela stab Stompie twice with a shiny object. He demonstrated to the truth commissioners with two downward thrusts of a pencil grasped in his right hand.
Questioned by Richardson’s attorney about the apparent inconsistency between her description of the way Stompie was killed and the account of his client, Klepp replied: “I understand a cutting of the throat is a lateral cutting of the throat.” She said there had not been a “slaughtering of the neck”. With a cut throat, as described by Richardson, “the trachea would be damaged, the oesophagus would be damaged, and we don’t have that here”.
The TRC’s deputy chair and head of investigations, advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza, assessed the conflicting evidence of Cebekhulu and Richardson. Ntsebeza, now a judge at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Tanzania and chair of the Desmond Tutu Peace Trust, said Cebekhulu’s evidence dovetailed with that of Klepp, as well as Morgan’s account of how Mandela had ordered him to remove Stompie’s body from her house.
Ntsebeza, who dealt closely with Cebekhulu because he was in charge of the TRC witness protection unit, said: “There is a consistency between what Cebekhulu says, what Morgan says, and the suggestion by the pathologist. That is an impression that I want to take into account.”
Ntsebeza said he wrestled with the conflicting accounts of Stompie’s killing. He observed that Cebekhulu was the only person who claimed to have been a witness and his evidence stood alongside that of Morgan, whose testimony “seems to suggest that there was a time when he was ordered by Mrs Mandela to ‘pick up this dog’ and dispose of it. Where he saw ‘the dog’ lying, he seems to suggest it was bleeding from the neck.” Ntsebeza said Klepp’s evidence was inconsistent with Richardson’s description of Stompie’s death having been equivalent to “the slaughtering of a goat”.
Given Ntsebeza’s senior TRC role and the conclusion he reached, Steinberg presumably contacted him to discuss his opinion?
No. There is no reference to Ntsebeza’s opinion or to anything about Ntsebeza in Winnie and Nelson. Ntsebeza and his thoughts do not feature.
It was not only Ntsebeza and Klepp who raised question marks over the truth of Richardson’s TRC account. Journalists also did so. Writing in Business Day, crime reporter Stephen Laufer noted: “The description [by Klepp] of the stab wounds [of Stompie] appears to lend credence to former Madikizela-Mandela acolyte Katiza Cebekhulu’s version of Seipei’s death.” (Mandela adopted the Madikizela-Mandela surname after Nelson divorced her on March 19, 1996).
Laufer is not quoted in Steinberg’s book.
Richardson’s trial lawyer, Henti Joubert, told the BBC (in an hour-long TV documentary, Winnie Mandela & The Missing Witness, directed by Nicholas Claxton) that he was amazed by how philosophically Richardson reacted to his death sentence.
“He believes Winnie will come riding on a white charger to release him from Pretoria Central Prison,” said Joubert. “There is no evidence the accused [Richardson] killed Stompie. One still has to speculate who killed Stompie … He [Richardson] was protecting Winnie Mandela, more deeply so than anybody admitted during the trial.”
Steinberg does not refer to Joubert by name in Winnie and Nelson. There is one point, on page 419, relating how Richardson’s unnamed “defence counsel” told the court his client had been lying, with Steinberg adding a single-sentence Joubert quote: “He [Richardson] is protecting himself from others because if he mentions their names his life won’t be worth much.”
Steinberg himself illustrates just how prodigiously Richardson could lie. Richardson testified at the TRC that on Mandela’s orders he killed two young men, Lolo Sono and Siboniso Tshabalala, accused falsely by Mandela of being police spies, on November 13, 1988. “It is strange,” wrote Steinberg, “to hear a man confess to a murder he could not have committed.” Richardson, Steinberg asserts, was in a police cell at the time.
This article has described how key events and people involved in the murder of Stompie Moeketsi have been ignored by Steinberg. Much else is debatable or has been airbrushed. It makes Winnie and Nelson an unreliable source of information for future researchers who wish to unravel truths. As the late John le Carré once observed: “Their lies contained so many omissions that by the time they’d finished telling them, the lies were all I could hear.”
* Fred Bridgland is an author and former foreign correspondent. He was based in South Africa from 1989 to 1995 and from 2002 to 2009. He earlier reported from India, Bangladesh, the Middle East and the European Union. He lives in Scotland.