Johannesburg - As the nation mourns the passing of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a giant who is being described as a “colossus who strode the political landscape”, the conservative Western media has lined up to dishonour her legacy.
The outrage among ordinary South Africans is palpable.
In the wake of mama Winnie’s passing, the headline in the right-wing Daily Mail in Britain read: “Winnie the Blood Soaked Bully Who Shamed the Name Mandela”.
A Reuters headline read “Mother then Mugger of the New South Africa, Dead at 81”. The conservative Daily Telegraph in Britain declared, “Winnie Mandela, the shame of South Africa has died”.
Fox News only ran a few paragraphs on her death, half of which focused on the death of Stompie Seipei, the 14-year-old activist. Many of these media houses were the same ones that defended US and British policy that quietly sided with the apartheid regime and railed against the liberation movements in this country.
Their visceral hatred of Winnie and her dogged determination to stand up to the racist regime at all costs is therefore hardly surprising. Thabo Mbeki, the president who is so well known for his speech “I am an African” and his diatribes against the West, this week sounded more like the reactionary Western media than a former president and ANC leader heralding one of our great icons in the pantheon of South Africa’s liberators.
As some of the Twitter feeds reflected this week, it seems very un-African for Mbeki to choose the moment of Mama Winnie’s passing to start to criticise her “recklessness”, and “wrong behaviour” using her slogan of tyres and match boxes, or her arriving late at state functions as examples. In a period of mourning, people don’t usually resort to that type of disrespectful mudslinging.
Some have suggested that it was score settling given that Winnie had never shied away from standing up to the Mbeki administration when it came to the rights of people on the ground.
Winnie had played a leading role in the 13th International Aids Conference in 2000 in Durban at the height of the denialist movement. She had demanded treatment for 4.2 million South Africans living with the virus, and accused Mbeki’s government of betraying the people.
History will judge her as having spoken truth to power on that score, as she had on many other occasions.
But what is perhaps most shocking is that Mbeki has delivered countless eulogies in recent years about figures on all sides of the political spectrum.
Having read through many of those, never did he at any point raise negative attributes about any of their personalities.
This is in stark contrast to what he said about Winnie this week - “it’s not as though Winnie worked alone”.
“They were in the Struggle, they were a collective When you talk about a person engaged in the Struggle ready to sacrifice, sure, she was part of that I think in celebrating her we need to talk in those terms.”
When Mbeki spoke about the legacy of revolutionaries like Ellen Kuzwayo, Joe Nhlanhla, Raymond Mhlaba, or Albertina Sisulu, he never made the point that it was not as if they worked alone, but they were part of a collective and that we need to remember them in those terms.
On the contrary, he had hailed Kuzwayo as “a queen of our world”. He had saluted her as “a dear daughter of our people who will forever occupy a permanent place among the galaxy of our exemplars”.
Mbeki hailed Kuzwayo for her willingness to sacrifice everything for the emancipation of her people. That was a fitting tribute, but it would have been just as appropriate for Winnie.
It is not that Mbeki has had nothing positive to say about the woman who was for so many decades called the mother of the nation. He has noted that she was “very committed to the Struggle”, “never elevated herself above the people”, and “was a much revered and outstanding militant”.
But that seemed to be in order to provide balance to all his negative commentary.
What one fails to understand is how Mbeki could have criticised Winnie in the wake of her passing when he failed to utter any criticism of PW Botha in the aftermath of his death. On November 3, 2006 in his weekly ANC newsletter, Mbeki said “PW Botha and OR Tambo were partners in bringing peace to South Africa though, tragically, they never met They were partners in the creation of the peace of the brave”.
In that online newsletter following Botha’s death, Mbeki offered no denunciations of his negative role in spearheading the apartheid war machine that slaughtered thousands of freedom fighters, tortured them to the point of death in apartheid’s torture chambers in towns and cities across the country, and bombed and kidnapped Mbeki’s own comrades in the front line states.
Then there was Mbeki’s praise for former Transkei bantustan leader Kaiser Matanzima at his funeral in 2003, where he assured the Thembus that the nation was mourning with them.
He said a fitting tribute would be to “do the things that Matanzima dreamed of”. To many, Matanzima was a ruthless leader.
At times it seemed Mbeki was prepared to honour some of the worst enemies of the struggle. He even attended the funeral of Ronald Reagan.
What Mbeki and the Western press fail to see is just how beloved Winnie was to the ordinary people - the masses that still live below the poverty line and the middle class who also drew their inspiration from her in the darkest days of apartheid.
You only have to visit mama Winnie’s house in Soweto, as I did this week.
People are coming in their droves to pay homage to her from far and wide.
I sat in her living room as South Africans, black and white, came to share their memories of this inspirational freedom fighter.
To them, she is the queen of hearts.
If we talk about her legacy, it is that she was a woman of the people, who stayed with them until her dying day.
One is hard-pressed to think of another political leader who has remained living so humbly among their people.
Try as they might, her detractors will never be able to take that away from her.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's foreign editor.