It was often said of Nelson Mandela that few of the iconic figures of the 20th century, including even the great Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Martin Luther King jr, inspired as many people as he did – or were the subject of as many songs as he was.
He was special, of course, hence a range of songs that have become known as Mandela standards: Free Nelson Mandela by The Specials; Mandela (Bring him back Home) by Hugh Masekela; Asimbonanga by Johnny Clegg; When You Come Back by Vusi Mahlasela; and Black President by Brenda Fassie are just a few.
Far fewer songs were written for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who died on April 2 at the age of 81.
Although a controversial and divisive figure at times, Madikizela-Mandela will always be remembered as a brave, unflinching fighter against the apartheid security apparatus that sought to destroy her and all she stood for and held dear.
One of the songs written for her was probably one of the most poignant ever written for anyone…
It was composed by a singer who had been born in Cape Town, who had gone into exile in the United States, who had impressed the great American jazz musician Duke Ellington (the producer of her first two albums), but who had always struggled to break out of the shadow of her great pianist-writer-arranger husband, Abdullah Ibrahim.
She was Sathima Bea Benjamin – and the song she penned for Madikizela-Mandela, and which was released on the album Lovelight, was called, simply and appropriately, Winnie Mandela – Beloved Heroine.
Winnie Mandela, beautiful and brave is she.
A symbol of courage to all who strive to be free
We love her grace and dignity
Beloved heroine is she.
She leads the way,
Never showing doubts and fears.
Soft gentle eyes,
Reflecting all those unshared tears.
The endless days, lonely nights.
All filled with tender sweet memories of him.
Their great love, she holds so dear.
Together, though torn apart.
She carries deep within her heart,
His dreams, her dream, their vision: peace and freedom for us all.
Backed by Ricky Ford on tenor saxophone, Larry Willis on piano, Buster Williams on bass and Billy Higgins on drums, Winnie Mandela – Beloved Heroine was the tour de force of the album.
In his review of Lovelight, jazz critic Scott Yannow wrote: “An emotional singer with a great deal of credibility, Sathima Bea Benjamin is heard at her peak on this set. Her Winnie Mandela – Beloved Heroine is heartfelt, the vocalist puts plenty of feeling into You Are My Heart’s Delight and Noel Coward’s I’ll See You Again, and her other originals (dedicated to Duke Ellington, Africa and music in general) are intelligent, sincere and passionate in a subtle way. This CD is recommended.”
In some ways, Benjamin was like the woman she wrote about in her song. Like Madikizela-Mandela, her role in the Struggle was also destined to be underplayed because of the man in her life.
In Benjamin’s case, it was because her husband, Abdullah Ibrahim, had tasted international fame quicker, and because of this his contribution to the fight against apartheid found greater resonance among music lovers with a social conscience.
Although Madikizela-Mandela’s struggles were far more desperate, they never quite captured the imagination with the same seriousness as those of her husband, Nelson.
It was a telling observation that although Benjamin had spent almost a decade working overseas for the ANC’s cultural wing, where she composed songs such as Winnie Mandela – Beloved Heroine in honour of both Winnie and the movement she had come to believe in so strongly, she was not invited to perform at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first president of a democratic South Africa in 1994.
But Abdullah Ibrahim was.
Speaking about the event later, she said ruefully that she had to “steal” one minute from Ibrahim’s five allotted minutes so that she “could sing” for her new president.
On the other hand, a democratic South Africa meant she could come back home – and give true expression to one of her songs, the heartfelt Africa…
And I’m glad to say that I’m home
I’m home to stay.
I’ve come home; I’ve come home.
To feel my people’s warmth,
To shelter ‘neath your trees,
To catch the summer breeze;
I’ve come home, I’ve come home.
I’m home to smell your earth,
To laugh with your children,
To feel your sun shining down on me;
I’ve come home, I’ve come home.
While Benjamin struggled through exile, it’s hard to picture Winnie Mandela being “out of Africa” for even a day – even during the times of her greatest tribulations, when she was arrested, tortured and banned, as well as being banished to the tiny Free State town of Brandfort.
Winnie always had the mental strength to keep her household going – against massive odds while her husband was in prison. It is small wonder that in the last Christmas card Nelson sent to her from jail in 1989, he wrote: “What a difference it makes in my life to have you.”
“It is easy to forget,” said the British newspaper the Guardian a few years ago, “that Nelson and Winnie were once an impossibly good-looking and glamorous couple, a township equivalent of Burton and Taylor or the Beckhams.
“She was 22 and standing at a bus stop in Soweto when he first saw her and charmed her, securing a lunch date the following week. But Mandela was married with three children and devoted to the struggle against apartheid,” the newspaper said.
“The next day I got a phone call,” Winnie, South Africa’s first black social worker, recalled. “I would be picked up after work. Nelson, a fitness fanatic, was there in the car in gym attire. I was taken to the gym, to watch him sweat!
“That became the pattern of my life. One moment, I was watching him. Then he would dash off to meetings, with just time to drop me off at the hostel. Even at that stage, life with him was a life without him.”
However, in the short, rare times they were able to relax together, the top musicians of that era – people such as Letta Mbulu, Caiphus Semenya, Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers – formed part of their social circle.
In a 2011 biopic on Winnie, Jennifer Hudson, who played her, sang:
Would you bleed for love? Would you bleed for love? Would you lay down your life? Would you give it all? Would you beg and crawl? Would you fall upon the knife? Would you bleed for love? For love. Would you do anything? Would you bleed for me?
There is no doubt that Madikizela-Mandela bled for both love and freedom.
* Dougie Oakes is the group political editor for Independent Media.