The Elephant


Winnie Mandela and South Africa’s Unburied Past

By Rasna Warah

Winnie Mandela and South Africa’s Unburied Past

In death, as in life, women are held to a higher standard than men. No one likes to talk about the fact that the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a heavy drinker and held deep contempt for the people the British had colonised in Asia and in Africa. Or that US President John F. Kennedy was a serial philanderer whose marriage was far from perfect. Or that Nelson Mandela betrayed the ideals of the African National Congress by acquiescing to the demands of South Africa’s white minority – a betrayal that was lauded by the West and the so-called international community.

But when it comes to Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela, who died last week at the age of 81, all gloves are off. The Western media, as well as the media in Africa, have not spared any disparaging adjective to describe this iconic revolutionary who held the flame for her husband Nelson Mandela when he was incarcerated, and whose unwavering defiance of the apartheid regime played a pivotal role in keeping the anti-apartheid movement alive.

Throughout her humiliation at the hands of the apartheid regime, Winnie kept her husband’s name alive. She would not be silenced. Were it not for her relentless campaign to free her husband, the icon that was Nelson Mandela might have remained one among many actors in the anti-apartheid struggle, not its much-revered protagonist.

Writing for the UK’s right-wing tabloid, the Daily Mail, Andrew Malone described Winnie as “a bitter woman” and “an odious, toxic individual who continued to preach hatred rather than reconciliation right up to the end of her life.” Obituaries in the New York Times and other publications portrayed her as a tarnished leader whose dramatic life was plagued with scandal, including adultery, fraud and murder. South African journalist Verashni Pillay was equally scathing, accusing Winnie of starting the infamous “necklacing” campaign and of trying to claim her late husband’s Qunu home after her divorce.

As @lebomashile tweeted, the depiction of Winnie Mandela as a highly tainted individual should be a lesson for black women everywhere – that they must be custodians of their own memory because “through racist and sexist eyes we will all be either monsters or invisible.”

South African journalist Charlene Smith said on Facebook that she was appalled by the “white trash know-nothing comments” about Winnie, adding that, like millions of damaged people in her country, Winnie was “apartheid’s legacy”, a casualty of a cruel system that dehumanised black people.

In the constructed mythology of the Rainbow Nation, in which the racist past was buried in the new language of reconciliation, Winnie Mandela was an inconvenience for both sides of the post-apartheid deal: the purveyors of the old white supremacist order, and the Black frontmen of liberated South Africa who had made peace with white capital.

Few are ready to admit that it was Winnie, and not her husband Nelson, who bore the most painful scars during the 27 years that he was in jail. She spent 13 months in solitary confinement where she was stripped of all clothing and not allowed to have a bath, even when she was menstruating. Before she could get over the trauma of this dehumanising experience, she was banished to Brandfort, in the Free State Province, 350 km from her Soweto home, for nine years, totally isolated except for her two small children. “Because of the poison that is racism, she was tortured beyond anything anyone should endure, and because she was so venerated, none loved her enough to give [her] the help she needed,” noted Smith.

Throughout her humiliation at the hands of the apartheid regime, Winnie kept her husband’s name alive. She would not be silenced. Were it not for her relentless campaign to free her husband, the icon that was Nelson Mandela might have remained one among many actors in the anti-apartheid struggle, not its much-revered protagonist.

However, Winnie also became a heroine in her own right: in poor black townships across South Africa, she was regarded as the “Mother of the Nation”. And for refusing to live in her famous husband’s shadow, she was punished.

As @lebomashile tweeted, the depiction of Winnie Mandela as a highly tainted individual should be a lesson for black women everywhere – that they must be custodians of their own memory because “through racist and sexist eyes we will all be either monsters or invisible.

In the constructed mythology of the Rainbow Nation, in which the racist past was buried in the new language of reconciliation, Winnie Mandela was an inconvenience for both sides of the post-apartheid deal: the purveyors of the old white supremacist order, and the Black frontmen of liberated South Africa who had made peace with white capital. As the media – the white-owned domestic press and the Western-dominated international press – lionised Mandela for the historic compromise he had organised against the objective interests of his own people, Winnie’s biggest “sin” appeared to be that she refused to play the role of the self-sacrificing, self-effacing, long-suffering wife of a great man.

She was sensationally vilified for having an affair with a younger man while her husband was in prison. (If the roles had been reversed, few would have condemned Nelson Mandela for having an affair or even re-marrying during his wife’s incarceration because, after all, “men have needs”). But it is her alleged role in the Stompie Seipei murder that suggests that there may well have been an active collusion between the apartheid intelligence system, still largely intact after 1994, and the ANC leadership.

In death, as in life, women are held to a higher standard than men. No one likes to talk about the fact that the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a heavy drinker and held deep contempt for the people the British had colonised in Asia and in Africa.

Accused, charged and convicted of the gruesome murder in 1989 of Stompie, a 14 year-old activist member of her Winnie Mandela United Football Club, Winnie has always maintained her innocence. During the TRC hearings, a weeping Desmond Tutu pleaded with Winnie to apologise for Stompie’s murder. She refused to do so, which for many was the ultimate confirmation of her villainy. Now, as a forthcoming documentary on her life shows, Stompie’s murderer, Jerry Richardson, himself a member of the WMUFC and a registered police informant, has confessed to his killing to prevent Winnie from discovering that he had infiltrated her inner circle. More disturbingly, it was the ANC’s security minister who in 1994 ordered a re-opening of the Stompie murder with the aim of pinning it on Winnie.

Winnie Mandela defied society’s notions of what it is to be a woman. She was a revolutionary in her own right, and on her own terms; she did not wait for the male or white gaze to anoint or condemn her. She was a feminist long before feminism became fashionable. As Sisonke Msimang wrote: “Winnie was everything Africans – and African women in particular – were not supposed to be. She was unafraid and independent-minded, going to considerable lengths to indicate that she was not a product of Nelson Mandela…” Indeed, as Winnie herself admitted, “I am not Mandela’s product. I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy.”

Winnie Mandela defied society’s notions of what it is to be a woman. She was a revolutionary in her own right, and on her own terms; she did not wait for the male or white gaze to anoint or condemn her. She was a feminist long before feminism became fashionable.

When Nelson Mandela – who divorced her not long after he was released from prison – appeared to be giving blacks a raw deal in post-apartheid South Africa, she was among the first to accuse him of pandering to the country’s white minority. The public backlash was instantaneous. She was depicted as the deranged former wife of a visionary leader who oversaw a peaceful transition to black majority rule. Her husband Nelson, on the other hand, was painted as a saint-like creature who forgave his tormentors and brought about reconciliation in a deeply polarised society. No one condemned him for re-marrying soon after his divorce from Winnie or for failing to curb or reverse the social and economic inequalities that characterised the apartheid era. Even today South Africa remains among the world’s most unequal societies.

Winnie Mandela was no doubt a deeply flawed human being. But which South African can claim to have remained completely untouched or undamaged by the extreme violence and blatant racism of the apartheid era? If anything, we should admire Winnie Mandela for refusing to allow the apartheid regime to crush her fearless spirit – a spirit that could be bent but which could not be broken.


Published by the good folks at The Elephant.

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