Then Cosas president Julius Malema with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ANC Women's League president and Cosas honorary president at the time, at a rally in 2003. File picture: Siphiwe Sibeko

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s influence on young black revolutionaries was immense, as Julius Malema recalled in an interview with Janet Smith a few years ago.

Julius Malema tells a story from 2003 when Cosas staged its infamous march in Joburg, and some of its young members ran amok, running wild through the ranks, overturning hawkers' stands and breaking car windows. A Cosas leader then, he admits now that it was “a very difficult” day. He and other young leaders were terrified as noise and chaos overpowered the streets.

Then a mere 22, Malema confesses some of them then fled the scene of anarchy at its most intense. They didn’t know what to do, or where to turn, and so they ran to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s house in Soweto.

“We felt there must be an elder with some experience to help us with this type of a situation,” he reflects.

He relates how Madikizela-Mandela listened to them and heard their defences.

“Then she said, ja, you’re not listening - I’m taking you to the police station. She took us there (to Hillbrow), there they charged us, and when they were supposed to lock us up, she fought and said, no, I didn’t bring them here for you to lock them up. They have messed up. Charge them. Then let them be released on warning and I will take care of them and they will come to court. And they did exactly that.”

After that, Malema says, Madikizela-Mandela helped him and his fellow student leaders convene a meeting with the hawkers’ association in the interests of peaceful resolution. It went calmly. Eventually the State too withdrew its charges.

He tells the story because it helps centralise the role Madikizela-Mandela has played for many young black revolutionaries. Malema admits, though, that he found that role quite complicated a few years later when she warned him and others at the ANC’s pivotal Polokwane conference in 2007 that “the levels of division” in the party were going to put it “into a permanent crisis”. He recalls her saying: “Let’s allow Thabo and Zuma to continue in their positions until we find a solution after and beyond this crisis.”

But for Malema - who backed Jacob Zuma against Thabo Mbeki at the time - this was unconscionable. “I ran away again,” he says. “I was no longer interested to talk to her because she was advocating something different. Later, we came to appreciate she was correct. Had we allowed that cooling-off period, perhaps it would have brought some different reasoning.”

These are significant remarks from the EFF leader who, like other revolutionaries - including late MP and former ANC Youth League president Peter Mokaba, and assassinated ANC and SACP hero Chris Hani - found close associations with Madikizela-Mandela. She drew the ire of Zuma’s champions when she supported Malema at his ANC disciplinary hearing in 2011, and he explains “she went to warn the ANC when they were trying us in the DC”.

“She said: I’m not here to justify whether the young boys are correct or not. I’m here to tell you that expulsion or suspension is not an option. They are doing what they are doing because we as elders have failed, and we must take responsibility and teach them correct politics.”

Malema’s words, in an interview for the book A Coming Revolution, gained ground this month as Madikizela-Mandela - who supported the ANC for the municipal elections in August - spoke her mind about the party to which she gave her life 55 years ago as a young social worker. “The country’s leadership needs introspection,” she said. “(It) needs to find a permanent solution. You are asking me to self-critique. I’m in the national executive, and look at the country today. I am the ANC... what is left of the ANC. We cannot pretend things are not wrong... We need a whole layer of fresh leadership combined with the leaders who are still left. We need to go back and see where we went wrong ...and who has the answer to that? It is the governing party.”

For Malema, who calls himself “a product of Mokaba and Winnie, victims of apartheid propaganda”, this is the Madikizela-Mandela who mentored him and who he understands, who presented him with a peculiarly South African revolutionary fervour, but also a wisdom which he hopes to bring to his own role.

He’s cognisant, he says, of patterns in the rhetoric which allowed the ANC to expel him and other young leaders who couldn’t break down its patriarchy or centre its confusing ideological blend of conservative African nationalism and neo-liberalism. Among those patterns would be the manner in which Malema sees his enemies - among them, senior members of the ANC - as being in danger of replicating some of the dirty tricks of the apartheid regime.

“Winnie Mandela ... the apartheid regime got into her bedroom, destroyed her from her bedroom, said all manner of things about her. She never looked back. She soldiered on.

“I am happy I have hit where it matters most. The enemy’s talking. For me, it is cause for celebration that I’m making this impact. Giving you good examples. Malema: woodwork. Mokaba: apartheid spy. Winnie Mandela: cheated on an icon.”

Mokaba allegedly confessed under ANC internal interrogation to being a security police informant during apartheid. But the story goes that, among others, Madikizela-Mandela secured his survival in the early 1990s. It was suggested Mokaba might have been seen as an antagonist by some, but those who were not in favour of Zuma's ascendancy protected him.

This narrative remains a guarded conflict within the movement, however, and perhaps it is only Madikizela-Mandela who can properly unravel its mysteries. Nonetheless, her position as a link between those young revolutionaries and the ANC's hierarchy was never questioned.

In his book The Politics of Moral Capital, John Kane recalls prominent anti-apartheid activist Dr Nthato Motlana speaking about Madikizela-Mandela's pivotal role in bridging trenches between Black Consciousness, the PAC and the ANC during apartheid. Then a member of the Black Parents Association, he said people needed a powerful individual who would transcend internecine battles, and young black people found their views most easily heard by Madikizela-Mandela.

Motlana says she bridged the gap not only between opposing ideological factions, but more vitally, between the youth and the older generation.

Yet sections of the ANC threatened by her individualised and elevated position even after Nelson Mandela's release in 1990 perhaps bear reference to Malema's contention around “the enemy talking”. Even as Madikizela-Mandela this week condemned students who'd turned violent during #FeesMustFall protests, and regretted the post-apartheid truth that free education is not possible, it was clear her portfolio as a pathfinder for liberation has not been quelled at 80.

Speaking from the home she’d shared with Mandela on Vilakazi Street, Soweto, she was drawn to quietly reflect: “Sometimes we miss those days when we were fighting for real freedom.”

* Janet Smith interviewed Julius Malema for the book The Coming Revolution: Julius Malema And The Fight for Economic Freedom (Jacana, 2014)

The Star