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Exclusive: Ex-wife Winnie talks of 'sadness' over Mandela health

She is the woman who claims to know Nelson Mandela best. And even if, for 27 years of their 38-year marriage, Winnie was apart from her imprisoned husband, she is probably right.

So when we talked for more than two hours in Soweto it was a fascinating encounter.

She showed me around the room that has become a shrine to their lives together. Pictures and statues of him and endless photographs of them together or of her alone.

Whatever else she was, Winnie, in her prime, was undeniably a beautiful woman.

One photo of her in her thirties was "his favourite - the one he kept in his cell on Robben Island."

Winnie, now in her late seventies, spoke first of the hospital visits to see her ailing ex-husband.

She spoke of the pain at seeing him struggle and the great sadness she feels.

Alongside her, their daughter Zindzi told me how she strokes his hand as she talks to him of family matters and the news. Sometimes he would open his eyes or smile.

And they spoke of their anger at stories that the family elders were meeting to discuss whether to "let Madiba go." It was hurtful and cruel, Winnie said.

She is also furious at the crass photocall that involved President Zuma and an obviously uncomfortable and frail Mandela a few weeks ago.

She said words could not describe how insensitive it was. It should never have happened,she told me.

She gives a wonderful insight into the extraordinary relationship between her and Mr Mandela's present wife Graca Machel.

"Like sisters," she says, "with very strong bonds, like an extended family."

She talks of how they spend time together at the hospital bedside.

The last time I spoke to Winnie Mandela was almost twenty years ago. It was an awkward time, with her marriage to the man about to become the first black President of South Africa under great strain (they would divorce in 1996) but with her also campaigning passionately for the ANC.

Resurgent allegations of kidnap, assault and murder were stalking her again and the media were, as ever, in hot pursuit. Suspicions about her murky past persist, but her denials are as vehement now as they were then.

Nelson Mandela with then-wife Winnie after his release from prison in 1990. Credit: DPA

And she remains incredibly popular with the poor and the unemployed. And that, still, today in South Africa remains a depressingly large constituency.

She hinted that her ex-husband would not be happy with the way things were going. The ANC had failed to address the problems of the black majority quickly enough.

She called youth unemployment a time bomb waiting to explode and said the time would soon come when policies would have to be introduced that didn't "leave the black majority bruised."

She predicted a bleak future for South Africa if more was not done. Winnie Mandela remains an MP and, politically, she is not done yet.

And one last thing: She spoke of her divorce from Mandela and how it saddened her. But she said "every cloud has a silver lining."

It allowed her, she said, to stay in politics and stay influential. The life of the President's First Lady would not have been for her.

"And I don't know how I would have been as a housewife."

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