OPINION - The conscience of a nation that has forgotten apartheid
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If Madiba could forgive and honour her, and then not punish white South Africans for what we put her and others like her through, how dare you judge her?
Winnie Mandela, when I first met her in 1976, was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen - tall, imperious, with a gorgeous, deep voice and a low, sexy laugh.
I interviewed her after she had to stop working for a cobbler because security police harassment was so intense that business at the store fell off.
It had been this way for 13 years, ever since the jailing of her husband, Nelson Mandela, in 1963. Now that she has died the clichés about her life are rolling in thick and fast. How eager we are to forget, and in refusing to remember we perpetuate the harm she experienced in life.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 1989 found she played a role in the murders of Stompie Seipei, 13 - evidence suggested she stabbed him twice in the throat - and the deaths of Lolo Sono, and others.
In 1992, she was charged with ordering the death of Dr Abu Baker Asvat. A decade later, she was charged and convicted on multiple counts of fraud and theft, but never served jail time.
And yet she deserves our empathy, and I’ll tell you why.
In the 1970s she was a source of inspiration to many young people, some of whom flocked to her home after the 1976 uprising. Some went into exile, others remained and, coached by her, became leaders of the United Democratic Front.
Winnie was banished to a dusty village, Brandfort, hundreds of miles from her Soweto home, and that, and an incident in 1969, broke her.
In 1969, security branch officers came to her Soweto home at 3am. She was alone with her daughters, aged 10 and 9. Winnie asked to fetch her sister who was one street up so the girls would not be alone. The police refused, she was taken and her children left alone. She spent 18 months in solitary confinement, naked, not allowed to wash, and not allowed out to exercise. She did not know what had become of her girls. When she spoke of this with me, her whole countenance changed.
She was not allowed sanitary towels when she had periods, no water or cloths to clean, and so the blood caked on her. She made friends with cockroaches.
I’ve been in the cell at the Old Fort that she was held in. It is narrow with high, thick walls, it is oppressively dark when the door is closed, as it was for 18 months.
I believe she experienced profound post-traumatic stress. It was never treated; instead, she was expelled to Brandfort. She had a classic four-room house with a biggish yard. Money from mostly American donors saw her build a large bedroom with a quilt on it made by American sympathisers.
She used to wait at the Brandfort post office at around 11am each day for phone calls, or would make phone calls out. People who visited her were arrested and charged.
Winnie was isolated and lonely. It was here that the drinking and drug-taking began, and affairs with younger men, including a dreadlocked film-maker. The conservative black folk of Brandfort township grew to loathe her.
She would receive visiting international dignitaries like Senator Edward Kennedy in 1985, but it deepened the resentment of her.
When she went back to Joburg, in defiance of her banning order, Madiba was already in secret communication with the apartheid government.
She formed the Mandela United Football Club. It became an instrument of torture and murder of young men wrongly accused of being spies.
At the TRC hearings where its activities were recounted, Archbishop Desmond Tutu put his head on the table and cried.
Mandela wrote: “I have often wondered whether any kind of commitment can ever be sufficient excuse for abandoning a young and inexperienced woman in a pitiless desert.”
And so when he came out of jail in 1990, it was with his hand in hers, even though a few Sundays before his release, her explicit love letters to a young lawyer were revealed.
On the night of his return to Soweto, she left the house early in the morning with the lawyer in full view of the world’s media outside.
Zwelakhe Sisulu, who accompanied them to the US, not long after said she would yell at Madiba in hotel rooms. The entourage were not sure how to cope with these outbursts.
Archbishop Tutu said: “Mandela said to me that he was never so unhappy as in the period after he was released until he decided to leave Soweto.”
Winnie was unrepentant, she ran up huge bills on Mandela’s tab, was convicted on multiple counts of theft and fraud, and became an embarrassment.
Lots of false pieties will be said about her now. The truth is that once there was a beautiful, proud woman who studied social work with an older woman, Albertina Sisulu.
Through her she met a handsome, brilliant lawyer called Nelson Mandela. They fell in love. He divorced his first wife to marry her. They had two children. Their marriage was passionate. He adored her. I don’t believe he ever loved anyone else as much. However, their life was never normal because of his political activities, which she embraced.
When Mandela went to jail, he was comparatively safe compared with the perilous life she experienced. The apartheid state punished her because of him, and also because she was an effective conduit for sending young people into exile for military training.
She was a devoted and exceptionally loving mother, grandmother and great- grandmother. I’m not sure how Zindzi, especially, will cope now.
Because of the poison that is racism she was tortured beyond anything anyone should endure, and because she was so venerated none loved her enough to give the help she needed.
Winnie is the conscience of a nation that has already forgotten the tragedy of apartheid; even in her death, people do not realise how she suffered, how damaged she became and how it hurt her.
South Africa today has one of the worst crime rates in the world. It has millions of damaged people - they are apartheid’s legacy.
It is in remembering and healing a wounded people that we honour the legacy of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
Sleep with the angels, Nomzamo.
* Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning writer, editor, lecturer and management consultant.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.