Rest in power Winnie Madkizela-Mandela
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In death, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela might finally receive the respect she was denied for decades. It’s a respect that will fall well short of the blind adulation that was once the preserve of the poorest of the poor only to be appropriated this week by the bellwether of social media - but much, much more than the binary image of a flawed heroine who was the sum of her sins held so fervently by many white South Africans and Western media.
Beloved as the Mother of the Nation, Madikizela-Mandela lived a full life characterised as much by its contradictions as it was defined by its extremes. In her own words, she was “the product of the masses of my people and the product of my enemy”.
She shattered myths and created her own. South Africa’s first ever black social worker, she was the 22-year-old who turned Nelson Mandela’s eye at a Joburg bus stop in 1957 and then broke his heart in 1992. He was 38, a married lawyer with a family of three. He left his wife, Evelyn Mase, for her, walking out on his family. What wasn’t often remembered was how Mandela had been left estranged as his then wife Evelyn sought solace with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as he turned increasingly to fighting for freedom - which her faith compelled her to abjure.
Winnie and Nelson were a golden couple, lionised in popular magazines. She was beautiful, brilliantly captured for posterity by family friend and legendary photographer Alf Kumalo - and then Mandela was gone. First, he went underground and then he was imprisoned for what would have been the rest of his life. Madikizela-Mandela was on her own - a mother of two young children. She never shut up, she never backed down in the face of constant harassment and unceasing financial worries. Banned initially from dawn to dusk in Orlando West, she was later slapped with an even more draconian banning order that forced her to give up her work as a social worker. Her house would be raided up to four times a day, it would be vandalised, bombed. Her daughters, Zindzi and Zenani, would have to become used to the police raiding their house late at night, upending everything in a rage of noise and destruction, sometimes taking their mother in for questioning, “imploring the white man to let mummy go”, as she remembered - or being expelled randomly from schools Madikizela-Mandela had enrolled them in.
Picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters
Her prison diaries 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, published in 2013, documented her 16 months in detention between May 1969 and September 1970. They are an uncompromising snapshot of the terror she endured. During detention she was denied sleep for days, human contact for months on end. She was tortured, beaten, and forced to live in her own waste. Her memoir though did much more - challenging the narrative of how jailed freedom fighters had fared, particularly on Robben Island, compared to activists on the ground.
“The leadership on Robben Island was never touched, the leadership on Robben Island had no idea what it was like to engage the enemy physically. The leadership was removed and cushioned behind the prison walls. They had their three prison meals. Ironically we must thank the prison authorities for keeping our prison leadership alive.”
When she was eventually released from detention, never having been tried, the harassment continued unabated until 1977 when she was banished to a little match box house in Brandfort, just north of Bloemfontein, having worked tirelessly with Dr Nthato Mothlana to give succour to the youths in the wake of the Soweto uprising the year before.
Nine years later, she returned home in defiance of her banning order. It was as if she had never been away. She had been proud and fearless in internal exile while the rest of the country had been cowed and ashamed. Now clad in military fatigues she started breathing life into the ANC’s decision the year before to render the country ungovernable.
“Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country,” she told a crowd at Munsieville, outside Krugersdorp. That was all anyone seemed to hear as the country seethed in the grip of a vicious civil war mostly bottled up in the townships by apartheid’s state of emergency. She’s prefaced her call with: “We have no guns - we have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol”. This was ignored. Instead she was painted as the architect of the brutal punishment meted out to suspected informers and collaborators.
The security police had set out to tarnish her, a campaign that succeeded in many parts to this day - but Madikizela-Mandela helped them immensely, especially with the establishment of a soccer club, ostensibly to give unemployed youth an outlet for their energy. The members of the club developed a reputation for vigilante thuggery in a war that had already long been fought with no rules. In 1988, a young activist Stompie Seipei was found dead in the veld near her Orlando West house. He had been tortured on suspicion of being an informer. Mandela United Football Club coach Jerry Richardson was convicted of his murder two years later, while Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault and sentenced to six years in jail which was later reduced to a fine and a suspended sentence on appeal.
Madikizela-Mandela would ultimately be called to account by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997 and pressured by commission chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu to confess and apologise. She remained bitter about the process. She wasn’t alone.
Meanwhile, Mandela had finally been released. Madikizela-Mandela had been there at Victor Verster prison to walk him out, holding his hand. The marriage, the fairy-tale romance that had been sold to the world, was over though in everything but name. In truth it had never really begun. They were separated in 1992, by then she was the head of the ANC’s social welfare department, when it was revealed she had been having an affair with her much younger deputy Dali Mpofu, then an articled clerk. She was further embarrassed by the leak of letters suggesting she was about to be investigated by the ANC for R160 000 she’d diverted to Mpofu. She resigned from her position, as did he.
Mandela divorced Madikizela-Mandela in 1996. By then his star was nearing its zenith, while hers was nearing its nadir. He was president and she had been his inaugural deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology, before he fired her 10 months into his presidency for insubordination, amid unproven police claims of bribe taking and peddling influence, but mostly because she was sowing dissent in the cabinet, refusing to shut up that he was cosying up to white South Africans at the expense of poor black South Africans.
Madikizela-Mandela would be elected to lead the ANC’s Women League twice, first in 1993 and again in 1997, her public support evident at the ANC’s elective conference that year when she opted to turn down nomination as the party’s deputy president. She would remain a firm favourite with rank and file members to the end, but she would also be embroiled in further scandals, from an illicit diamond deal to being convicted and sentenced to jail for the fraud and theft of almost R1million raised as loans for fictitious league members. She would be painted as profligate, for spending more than four times her monthly salary by her own admission with the difference being made up by donors. A year later, though, she would escape jail on appeal when the four-year sentence was suspended.
Throughout it all, she never lost the reverence of the most desperate. She continually spoke up when the tide of political correctness was surging the other way. She irritated president Thabo Mbeki with her stance on HIV and Aids, she stood up against president Jacob Zuma’s administration on the issue of state capture, corruption and the plight of the poor. She called out xenophobia for the affront it was and government for its impotence. She fought for the party’s enfant terrible, Julius Malema, who had outlived his usefulness and now faced being expelled from the ANC for insubordination.
Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Malema, now commander-in-chief of the EFF, the second biggest opposition party in the country, remembered this week how Madikizela-Mandela had been like a mother to him. She supported him for saying what many others in the party thought, but dare not say aloud. He was expelled in 2012. Six years later, the party is trying to woo him back.
As early as 2010 in a highly controversial interview with Nadira Naipaul, Madikizela-Mandela was already speaking unequivocally about the issues which almost nine years later underpin the current radical economic transformation debate: “The economy is very much white. It has a few token blacks but so many who gave their life in the Struggle have died unrewarded.”
In that same interview, Madikizela-Mandela was scathing of her former husband’s lionisation. He had been seduced by white capital and had sold out black South Africans. He had not been the only person to suffer. “There were many others, hundreds who languished in prison and died.”
The interview was immediately denounced as fake news, but today it seems eerily prescient, rather than the sour grapes of a woman scorned; pre-dating the Fallist movement and the hotly contested and derided “Rainbowism” - and yet no different in substance from her angry calls to action from Munsieville all the way through to getting thrown out of cabinet and beyond.
Throughout it all, she publicly eschewed political office or gain. Time and again she vowed never to leave the sprawling township like so many other leaders had. It never stopped her though from fighting, unsuccessfully, the executors of Mandela’s estate for a share of the Qunu homestead in the Eastern Cape, after being left with nothing in the will. “I will die in Soweto. The only time I go into the suburbs is when I am in hospital,” she wrote in her memoirs.
In the end, she only left to die in hospital. In a final irony, though, she might be buried in Fourways, in Joburg’s northern suburbs, next to her beloved great grand-daughter Zenani who perished in a car crash just before the Fifa World Cup in 2010.
When history is revised and rewritten, as it will be by coming generations, Winnie Madkizela-Mandela’s name will be indistinguishable from that of her erstwhile husband. They will always be two sides of the same coin of a liberation that was never actually painted in unequivocal shades of black and white beloved of scriptwriters in search of definitive happy endings, but rather nuances of grey, where the endings are never summits, but only new foothills.
She was as heroic, as complex, as conflicted and as infuriating as the long walk not just to free this country - but to keep it free for the generations to come - has been in truth.
* Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela: born September 26, 1936, Mbongweni village, Bizana, Eastern Cape. Died April 2, 2018, Milpark Hospital, Johannesburg, Gauteng.