When Mama Winnie passed away this week at the age of 81, she was one of the only ANC leaders who had remained in the township where she fought against the apartheid state, among her people to the very end.
It was her proximity to the people, and her ability to interact with them, that enabled her to never lose sight of their reality, suffering, and need to be heard. She was determined to speak truth to power, both then and now.
It was her own immense suffering at the hands of the apartheid state that gave her empathy for her people - she could relate to parents being wrenched from their children in the dead of night, comrades lying beaten and bloodied on the cold cement floors of detention cells, and the anguish of watching a child shot in the back - she had been through it all.
If she became hardened over time it was the effect of torture, isolation, harassment and deprivation, but her tribulations only made her stronger and more determined to fight for justice. Despite it all she never lost her endless compassion.
The last time I spoke to Mama Winnie at length was eight months ago. The conversation centred on the fact that she felt most of the books and movies about her were not a true representation of her life, and that she had been largely misunderstood.
The Western media were always at pains to paint her as a compromised and tragic figure, often eclipsing much of the passion for justice that drove her to do the things she did. It was my greatest desire to write an account of her life in her own voice, reflecting how she saw the Struggle. Time was never on our side.
They say that history will judge a person, and now that the peoples’ heroine is no more, we can honestly reflect on the contribution and sacrifices she made for this country. Winnie Mandela has been called many things - a populist, a revolutionary, an enigma, an unguided missile, a leader, a militant, a hero and a mother.
To me she was an inspiration. She never saw colour, she saw ideas, and if you cared about the masses in this country you were on her side, and she was eternally loyal to you. She initially gave me her time because my husband spent 18 years on Robben Island.
It was her love for her comrade who had been through so much of what her own husband had that made her call our newborn daughter Sarah her “honorary granddaughter” more than a decade ago.
Winnie may have had faults, like all of us do, but it only made her more human. When one looks back on her life one cannot help but be in awe of her resilience, her capacity to love, and her undying passion for justice.
Imagine her life in the dusty and forlorn Free State township of Brandfort, confined to a house that initially had no floors or ceilings, no running water and electricity, and never being allowed to see more than one person at a time.
It was during those years that her eldest daughter Zenani married a Swazi prince and went to live in the US, her younger daughter Zindzi was sent away to study, and her husband had already been in prison for 13 years.
The loneliness must have been unbearable. Helen Suzman, who used to walk the dusty streets of Brandfort with her, had written that at times Winnie would sit at a phone booth from 10am to 4pm, waiting for calls from relatives and friends. Suzman recounted that when friends did visit her many were taken to court and imprisoned. Few of us have ever known such a deprived existence. This was her reality for nine years.
But what she made of her time in Brandfort is something that can only be called heroic. Against all the odds Winnie solicited the assistance of a local Indian doctor and set up a local clinic, crèche and feeding scheme for the underprivileged children of Brandfort. Many of us would have simply given in to depression, but Winnie found ingenious ways of giving back to her people even when materially she had nothing left to give.
Had she not been banned in Brandfort, Winnie would have been an unstoppable political force within the country. She had proved this in 1975 during the brief period when her banning order had not been re-imposed. Her activism was so vocal and effective that the police had tried to implicate Winnie as the main force behind the 1976 uprising, which subsequently had led to her banishment to Brandfort in 1977.
During that brief period of freedom, Winnie had attended countless political trials, made fiery speeches, and attended meetings with the Black Consciousness leaders, identifying with their cause. The year of the Soweto uprising she had urged the parents of the protesting children to organise themselves into the Black Parents Association.
She had raised funds for the association, organised burials, taken on the police, and comforted parents whose children had been slain.
She was a force for good in those dark days and actively recruited students into the ANC and helped them to leave the country. She was the peoples’ revolutionary, which is why the system she was fighting so hard to overthrow either had to kill or silence her completely.
The apartheid regime may have succeeded in silencing her in Brandfort, but they never succeeded in breaking her spirit or extinguishing her flame.
When Winnie moved back to Johannesburg in 1986 she was more defiant than ever before. One can understand her having become fiercely independent and militant in those later years as she and her comrades in the UDF (United Democratic Front) had been left to defend the people on the ground against the onslaught of the apartheid war machine at a time when the carnage in the townships was at its worst.
Every day was a life-and-death battle, and the reality of informers having infiltrated the ranks of the underground was a dire reality that ended up in countless comrades being tortured and killed. It was war, and in that context desperate measures were taken.
It was during this period that Winnie had also fed, clothed and sent children to school, and her respect in the townships was at an all-time high. Her unchallenged power in those years lay in her ability to empathise with the victims and act on that empathy.
Winnie’s empathy for the downtrodden never faded, not even after the birth of democracy in 1994. Winnie Mandela will go down in history as one of the greatest female revolutionaries who ever lived, and this is our moment to pay tribute to her.
* Shannon Ebrahim is group foreign editor