Dozens of mourners attended a memorial service for the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela held at the St George's Cathedral in Cape Town. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency/ANA

An almost eerie silence greeted Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as she stepped hesitatingly towards the open Pearly Gates this week. 

Where was everyone? For a moment, she worried her fallen comrades had forgotten she was arriving, or perhaps they’d got the dates wrong. Suddenly, the silence was shattered by rapturous cheering, singing and ululating as scores of once-familiar faces appeared.

“Aaah, Nelson, it’s been so long. Oh, I can’t believe it, here’s Walter, Oliver, Govan and Ahmed.

“Just look at you, Fatimabhen. And here’s Ruth and Phyllis, and Monty and Chris. Albertina, you are still as elegant as always. And you, too, our statesman chief from Groutville.” After the last hug and emotional embrace, they walked arm-in-arm together to a memorable reunion of South Africa’s most celebrated liberation fighters.

Mama Winnie had to field a flurry of enquiries from old comrades about what was happening in their beloved country. Who was running the national democratic revolution back home?

Then came the moment when one of the comrades stood up to read from eulogies that appeared in newspapers over the past week.

Winnie knew there were times in her life when things did go “horribly wrong”, as she herself admitted. But these paled into the background against the massive outpourings of praise from a wide spectrum of politicians and community stalwarts who hailed her as a true Mother of the Nation.

Ever since news of her death was announced, politicians have been virtually falling over themselves to take to the podium and sing her praises. They have waxed lyrical about her steadfast commitment to freedom and justice; the enormous sacrifices she made in the face of harsh police brutality in the fight against white oppression.

Winnie stopped for a moment to reflect on how much better life would have been had they said all these good things about her while she was still alive. It would have strengthened her resolve, cleared many nagging doubts about her role and healed the deep wounds she carried for most of her life.

If you love and respect someone, say it out loud when they can hear you. Don’t wait until it’s all interred with their bones.

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The Sunday Independent