“Winnie Mandela was there. She is the one who started beating all of us. The rest followed, for at least one hour, if not two,” said Thabiso Mono.
He is still haunted by that night in December 1988 when he was kidnapped with three other anti-apartheid activists in an incident that has been at the centre of a debate about Winnie Mandela’s legacy since her death earlier this month.
“I was surprised, I could not understand what was happening,” Thabiso told AFP, strain audible in his voice.
“We thought that when we were around her we were very secure.”
Winnie Mandela died on April 2 at the age of 81 and is remembered by many South Africans for her courageous role in the fight against white rule and her 38-year marriage to Nelson Mandela.
But in the late 1980s her bodyguards, dubbed Mandela United Football Club (MUFC) and easily identifiable by their yellow tracksuits, inflicted a reign of terror on the Soweto township near Johannesburg.
MUFC had nothing to do with soccer. The gang was implicated in kidnappings, torture and murder in circumstances which remain mired in confusion.
Before he was brutalised, Thabiso — then 19 — was kidnapped in Soweto by the “club” along with three acquaintances — Stompie Seipei, whose murder became emblematic of the MUFC’s violence, Pelo Mekgwe and Kenny Kgase.
“We went to Winnie’s house in Diepkloof,” a district of Soweto, said Pelo who is now an army sergeant.
“The beatings happened in her property, in a back room.”
‘I am not angry anymore’
The youths were repeatedly struck with fists, bottles, sticks and whips.
“We had bruises all over the body,” said Thabiso, now 48.
Just days later the body of 14-year-old Stompie was found on a riverbank near Soweto. The other three were released after their ordeal.
The group was targeted because Stompie was suspected of being an informant for the apartheid security services.
The others were accused of having sexual relations with a white priest who lived in Soweto, Thabiso and Pelo recalled.
A portrait of Stompie, along with an image of Nelson Mandela, greets visitors to the impoverished township where he was born in the central province of Free State.
His tombstone is overgrown with wild grass and withered thistles.
Nearby in the modest, tin-roofed family home, Stompie’s mother has given several media interviews following Winnie Mandela’s death.
“I am not angry anymore. The past is the past. I want to let it go,” Mananki Seipei told AFP in her kitchen.
Her fridge door is adorned with a black and white image of her son who she describes as her “hero”.
She recalled her late 1990s meeting with Winnie Mandela on the sidelines of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which was tasked with examining and exposing the political crimes and abuses of the apartheid era.
“Winnie asked for forgiveness and we made peace,” said Mananki.
In court, Winnie Mandela was sentenced on appeal to a suspended two-year prison term and a fine for her role in the kidnapping and violent treatment of Stompie and his three friends.
Jerry Richardson, a prominent member of MUFC, was sentenced to life in prison for Stompie’s murder.
‘A shadow that has followed her’
“One has to say that something went wrong — horribly, badly wrong,” said one of her most prominent supporters archbishop Desmond Tutu at the TRC which he chaired.
The lingering pain is still felt by all three, who must weigh up Winnie’s mixed legacy and the role she played in their lives.
Both Mananki Seipei and Pelo Mekgwe will attend Winnie’s state funeral this Saturday in Soweto.
Thabiso is not planning to go but said: “I think that we must all remember her for the sacrifices she made. She might have made mistakes like anybody could do.”
Pelo still wonders what motivated the sadistic violence of some members of MUFC.
“Some of them were… working for the security police,” he speculated, a widely-held view among those who believe the apartheid regime would have stopped at nothing to discredit Winnie Mandela.
Former security branch policeman Paul Erasmus, who was involved in efforts to subvert anti-apartheid groups, claimed this week that the “entire soccer club was security branch, informers”.
Whatever the loyalties of MUFC, their brutality “is a shadow that has followed (Winnie) for the last 30 years”, said Paul Verryn, the priest who was sheltering Stompie and his friends before they were abducted.
She was “just as bright as the sun” but also “dark (as) the night”, added Verryn.
“(But) the real culprit was the violent repression we were living under where the boundaries and the filters that would be in a normal society had disappeared.”