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Jonny Steinberg bags another prestigious award

- Alumni Relations Office

Wits alumnus wins National Book Critics Circle Award for his double Mandela biography.

Wits alumnus and social scientist Professor Jonny Steinberg (BA 1992, BA Hons 1993, MA 1996) was announced as one of the recipients of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) awards for the publishing year of 2023.

At a ceremony held in New York on 21 March 2024, Steinberg received the biography award for Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage (Jonathan Ball, 2023), published under Knopf in the United States. The awards are among the only literary honours in the United States decided by working book critics and are considered among “the most prestigious and venerable in American letters”.Professor Jonny Steinberg received the biography award by the National Book Critics Circle for 2023.

Committee chair Elizabeth Taylor said: “Steinberg’s deeply insightful, painstakingly researched Winnie & Nelson unmasks the Mandelas, sliding past their public mythos, and the simpler romantic narrative they told each other, to reveal the emotional labyrinth beneath. With its exploration of two radically different approaches to apartheid, this beautiful biography speaks movingly to present-day struggles for racial justice.”

Steinberg, who currently teaches part-time at Yale and Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, is also a two-time winner of South Africa’s premier nonfiction prize, the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award, the winner of the Recht Malan Prize, and an inaugural winner of the Donald Windham–Sandy M Campbell Literature Prize.

At the ceremony Steinberg honoured the late editor Dan Frank, who acquired the book for Knopf and died three weeks before Steinberg handed in a draft. "I want to bring his spirit here. I am so very grateful to him, as are many other authors."

He added, "I rediscovered my country, South Africa, through writing this book. I’m really thrilled to receive this recognition. And I’m delighted, too, that an iconic South African tale is getting to a broader audience at a time when the cachet of the story of this country’s freedom struggle is waning.”

See more about the book from April 2023 edition of WITSReview

Winnie and Nelson: A Portrait of a Marriage recreates the political and private lives of the iconic anti-apartheid activists’ whirlwind ro­mance from its origins in Johannesburg during the 1950s, during Nelson’s incarceration, till their separation two years after Nelson’s release from prison in 1990 and their eventual divorce in 1996.Cover of Jonny Steinberg's Winnie&Nelson (Jonathan Ball, 2023)

The Mandelas had an unconventional mar­riage which spanned three decades, only being physically together for three years before Nelson was imprisoned. Their contact was limited to brief supervised visits in the constant presence of prison warders. They were also permitted to write each other short letters. Soon their three years “receded into memory and history”.

Steinberg offers a fresh perspective, drawing on extensive correspondence from the 27 years Nelson was imprisoned and troves of archival material, as well interviews with those who knew the couple. He tries to decipher the “code” they used to communicate.

He suggests that because of their unique positions in the context of South Africa’s history, “the idea of a marriage itself became a spectacle, a political spectacle”.

On the one hand Nelson grew ever more in love with an idealised version of his wife, courting her in his letters and inevitably losing touch with events on the ground. Winnie had to raise their two daughters alone, enduring imprisonment and torture. She too kept his memory alive, writing in her memoir Part of My Soul Went With Him (Norton, 1985): “I had so little time to love him. And that love has survived all these years of separation … perhaps if I’d had time to know him better, I might have found a lot of faults, but I only had time to love him and long for him all the time.” But in this dual biograph, Steinberg details exactly how Winnie and Nelson’s political values eventually shifted over time. The result is an enthralling study adding clarity to the question South Africans still face: what do we do with the past?

Sources: and WITSReview