Our first getting to know each other was when I met Mam’ uWinnie in the late 1980s, when the ANC leadership in Lusaka mandated her to convey the message that the late King Sabata Dalindyebo should be reburied in a dignified manner deserving of his political and traditional stature.
When she approached the then Transkei Military Council (TMC), she was very resolute and precise.
She did not entreat or plead but gave clear-cut directives on what needed to be done. As she typically had done throughout her life, she worked extremely hard to ensure the wishes of the ANC leadership in exile were carried out correctly.
The former Transkei, unlike many other homelands, was a safe space for the liberation movements to operate from within the country.
The positive disposition of the TMC made it possible to execute the instruction to rebury the king with the respect due to him.
uMama had been at the helm of the organisation of the event and ensured adherence to the required formalities. On the day of re-burial, she led the delegation of the United Democratic Front and the committee members of the Release Mandela Campaign as part of the mandate she was entrusted with.
When Madiba was released, Mama Winnie was at her husband’s side, with a radiant smile, after 27 years of his cruel absence.
The picture of the couple holding hands, as befits two married people who have earned the right to walk freely in the streets of South Africa, is iconic arms raised in victory.
I first met Madiba after his release in 1990. During my visit to his Soweto home, Mama Winnie expressed legitimate concerns about Madiba’s safety. For obvious reasons it would not have been proper to ask Mr FW De Klerk’s government to provide for his security. She thought that I might be able to assist, and I was honoured to do so.
I immediately contacted the, Lieutenants General TT Matanzima and Derrick Mgwebi and we worked out a detailed plan to ensure Madiba’s safety. They arranged that two trusted officers would, always, be at Madiba’s side, until the personnel of the ANC armed wing, MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe), returned from exile. We also took care of Madiba during the famous Durban Rally with Transkei Defence Force personnel on duty, assisted by the MK underground operatives.
At the beginning of the so-called “black-on-black” violence, I was again called to Johannesburg to urgently meet with Madiba and uMama at their home. Their telephone was ringing off the hook with people calling in reports of violence, the perpetrators described as “people who wore red doeks” and the presence of the dreaded yellow Casspirs of the SAPS.
Madiba and I left his house to visit Nancefield Hostel, the hub of violence. En route, we met Mr Jomo Sono, who warned us to not go closer to the hostel, because it had become extremely dangerous.
Madiba, however said: “Thank you let’s go, Bantu!” and off we went so that Madiba could use his influence to try to stop the violence.
On arrival we were met with a scene of destruction and victims of lethal force. The two groups attacking each other were wearing either white or red doeks. In his unique way, Madiba appealed to both groups to stop this senseless violence and killing. He reminded them that it was not yet Uhuru and that we needed to expend our energy towards the defeat of apartheid instead of killing each other.
In the aftermath of the Boipatong massacre, Mama Winnie had been one of those who called for Codesa (Convention for a Democratic SA) negotiations to be suspended. For her, it was clear the apartheid regime had not been negotiating in good faith. She succeeded in persuading the ANC leadership to collapse Codesa and put greater demands on the table for the apartheid government to commit to action.
The other side of Mama Winnie was that she was a hands-on woman who took her role as wife, mother and grandmother quite seriously.
When I went to their home for meetings, she would be standing in the kitchen preparing a lovely meal for us and the grandchildren. It was endearing that she loved readying her husband for his daily duties.
She also had a sense of humour and enjoyed good-natured teasing (dishing it out as well, where I was concerned, me being the target).
uMama derived pleasure from the everyday chores around the house, as well as robust political debate. She would quite often join our discussions in the sitting room, and she would not hesitate to push a point of view and advise on what course of action Madiba and his advisers should take.
She was also close to the late Chris Hani; I cannot count the number of occasions when we, together with uTata, discussed what should be done to ensure that apartheid was permanently destroyed. Post the collapse of the apartheid government, the ANC focused inward. This approach had its weaknesses as some of us were chastised and purged.
Many, like Peter Mokaba, Mama Winnie, myself and others bore the brunt. It was at this point that some opportunists occupied centre stage within the ANC, and took leadership positions solely to have access to public resources.
Madiba loved uMama even post their divorce; he always made sure that she was in good spirits and health. They both made it their responsibility to ensure that their children and grandchildren were always loved and taken care of.
The other relationship which she will be remembered for is the one with Mama Graça Machel.
Most will agree that it can be challenging when a former partner remarries. Quite often petty jealousies arise, yet these two women showed maturity, shared a love for Madiba, had mutual respect and shared a tight bond; their relationship was reciprocal on many levels.
We all learn that leadership is about falling in love with the people and the people falling in love with you. uMama taught us, in word and action, that leadership is about selfless sacrifice and putting the people’s interests ahead of your own
She departs at a time when South Africa moves farther and farther from the dreadful dark years of apartheid, and when we are frequently confronted with the passing on of those who, together with her, played critical roles in the Struggle. Mama Winnie will be remembered as a feisty and vocal freedom fighter who did not hesitate to speak her mind; she stirred lively debate wherever she went.
She sometimes made for a controversial figure and whether one agreed with her views or not, one must admire the fact that she never lacked the courage of her convictions. She was outspoken, strong, passionate, articulate and charismatic. She did not shirk confrontation, but also had a sense of humour and a light-hearted side.
Ulale kakuhle, Mama; I will miss you, and I want to pass my condolences to the entire family and the extended family of the Madikizelas and the Mandelas, as well as the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I also pay our respects to the ANC as her lifelong political home.
To honour her memory, we must work harder to improve the lives of the people of South Africa.
We must create an entrepreneur-friendly economic environment.
We must make schools work and be safe places to teach and learn.
We must eradicate informal settlements.
We must improve the quality of basic health services.
Gender equality must be addressed, and as a woman, uMama will look down on us from heaven and judge us if we fail any of these tasks.
May her soul rest in eternal peace
* Holomisa is the UDM leader and MP
The Sunday Independent