The prodigious outpouring of grief and messages of condolences about the passing on of Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela reminds one of a story of a dying professor who attended the funeral of a colleague who had died suddenly of a heart attack and came home depressed.
“What a waste,” he said. “All those people saying all those wonderful things, and Irv never got to hear any of it.”
If there is a penchant South Africans have adroitly perfected, it is the art of celebrating a person once he or she is dead. They all pour out their hearts with an amazing performance. It is time South Africans began to honour their heroes and heroines while they are still alive than to wait and to express a veritable avalanche of accolades when they are no more.
The glorious history of the struggle for liberation in South Africa has occasioned upon us formidable giants and stalwarts. One among many who stands out like a cathedral in a citadel is Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela. It is hard to find the right words to capture the essence of a formidable leader Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was. I have thought long and hard, and the best words that I could retrieve from my limited facility of expressions are feisty, courageous, endurance, fortitude, tenacity, fearless, and resilience. In a sense, the final adjective is a sum of the others. Her many friends and colleagues will always remember her with warmth and affection and gratitude.
As Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebooks long, long ago, a “life well used brings happy death”.
We are grateful to Winnie for her many contributions to the betterment of the lives of his fellow citizens. Indeed, the news of the demise of Winnie has left the nation with a deep sadness and an abiding sense of irreplaceable loss.
However, in sharing our cherished recollections of her, we assuage our sense of loss.
With the demise of Winnie Mandela we have lost another warrior who served fearlessly on the battlefield of justice, and who gallantly stood up to the obnoxious apartheid regime.
She was the face of the struggle when most of our leaders we either in jail or exile. She kept the name and memory of Nelson Mandela and the fight against apartheid and human injustice alive.
To many South Africans, Winnie was the big, comfy shoulder they found when they needed to cry on. To her children, Zindzi and Zenani, the loss is visceral, like a punch in the gut. May her family derive sustenance as though they were characters in John Dryden’s verse “Johnnie Armstrong’s Last Goodnight”?
“Lay me down and bleed a while
Though I am wounded,
I am not slain
I shall rise and fight again.”
Whether or not one agreed with her on anything, or everything, one would appreciate at least that she spoke her mind fearlessly and plainly. She was never timid to express her opinions and beliefs. She never quit and she never flinched. Her face had the composure of settled endurance and determination, but relaxed and laughing it assumed a comely brightness and ease neither describable nor forgettable.
She was also a sense-maker – a smart, always impeccably and immaculately dressed, informed, articulate, sensible woman. A humorous, steady intelligence seemed to comprehend, and transcend her other life.
No one who met her could be in any doubt of the profundity and unshakable firmness of the convictions on which her radicalism rested. She was an eccentric curmudgeon who was a tireless and indefatigable champion of the downtrodden, and a matchless voice for social justice. Winnie spelt out with matchless eloquence her moral imperatives of social justice and social equality. In pursuit of social justice, she always placed frankness above discretion, often to the chagrin of her fellow ANC members.
Anecdotal evidence has it that, even in exile in 1976, the ANC feared her volatility and insubordinate politics.
Winnie was fallible like everybody else, but to deny her a place in the annals of our liberation history would be disingenuous. Whatever her faults as a human being may be, she is assured of her place in the annals of liberation history.
Indeed, few people would disagree that Winnie carved herself a niche in the history for fighting for justice and human rights which will last for all time. Winnie was a revolutionary. Many have learned, it is impossible to kill both the revolutionary and the history, and revolutionaries die in order to continue living in our memories.
Winnie was a special kind of political leader and special kind of woman almost irreplaceable. Lest it be forgotten, though some of the controversies that visited her were the work of the fiendishly prying apartheid intelligence machinery that sought to systematically and insidiously tarnish her image. There is no doubt that Winnie’s activities were infiltrated by the apartheid espionage.
Nelson Mandela himself raised the possibility that the “continuing aspersions of her character,” “whispering campaign,” and the criminal charges were part of the state’s continuing campaign to discredit and vilify his wife.
Let me hasten to indicate that the citation of the apartheid intelligence is not meant to justify the shenanigans Winnie became entangled in, but to provide the context for some of the inexplicable things that the Mother of the Nation unfortunately became enmeshed in.
In short, the dastardly acts of the ever prying eye of the apartheid intelligence against many freedom fighters are yet to be told.
As Helena Pohlandt-McCormick points out in her piece Controlling Woman: Winnie Mandela and the 1976 Soweto Uprising, “many narratives have been constructed around Winnie Mandela. Out of the cacophony of discordant images, one thing emerges clearly: she is an historical actor as central to the state’s official memory and the collective memory of resistance as her famous husband.”
Winnie’s struggle against apartheid was also compounded by her struggle against the entrenched system of patriarchy, which had its own inhibitions in as far as women were concerned.
As Dale Spender in her book Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them puts it, “fundamental to patriarch is the invisibility of women, the unreal nature of women’s experience, the absence of women as a force to be reckoned with.”
Moira Rayner, in her paper A Pound of Flesh: Women, Politics and Power in the New Millennium, which she delivered at the Clare Burton Lecture, calls the tendentious views of patriarchy “a pound of flesh” from Shylock’s bargain in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, to signify that, in her view, women who seek political office or engage in formal politics expect to pay an extortionate fee for the bargain. Winnie however steadfastly who refused to be cowed down and “erased” from public memory by patriarchy and apartheid despite the latter’s plethora of attempts to ignominiously consign her into the dustbin of political history. She fought up to end the two demons with spirited gusto.
For Winnie to emerge from all the personal travail she had to go through without going insane is a miracle, and it speaks volumes about her tenacity. As Nelson Mandela aptly put it, Winnie endured the persecution heaped upon her by the apartheid government with exemplary fortitude and never wavered from her commitment to the struggle for freedom. It is against this background that Kgalema Motlanthe cautions us when he says without condoning her misdemeanour’s “we must acknowledge that she is a victim, she is damaged and hurt”. Who would not be damaged when deprived of sanitary towels when on period, no water or cloths to clean, leading to one’s blood caking on her? Who would not be damaged from spending 18 months in solitary confinement? True, as stated by Motlanthe, when someone is subjected to the kind of consistent persecution and harassment Winnie suffered from the apartheid system, something is bound to snap. Snapped, she did snap. I am also in agreement with Charlene Smith’s observation that Winnie is the conscience of a nation that has already forgotten the tragedy of apartheid; even in her death, people do not realise how she suffered, how damaged she became and how it hurt her.
Perhaps the best yet poignant analysis that provides both the context and the prism from which some of the foibles of Winnie should be understood comes from her husband, Nelson Mandela, who wrote that “I have often wondered whether any kind of commitment can ever be sufficient excuse for abandoning a young and in experienced woman in a pitiless desert.”
Viewed against this backdrop, the unrelenting scavenging over Winnie Madikizela Mandela’s political career by the public courts should end and allow the Mother of the Nation to rest in peace.
Sadly, Winnie has died at the time the party to which she devoted her entire life appears to be riddled by factionalism. If the party is to fully recover, it will have to embody the values that Winnie so unceasingly stood for – unity, humility and resilience. D.H. Lawrence said in one of his letters: “The dead don’t die. They look on and help.”
Given her inextinguishable passion for the ANC, Winnie would, on the other side of life, look on and help the ANC. It is highly unlikely that South Africa would have another politician like Winnie anytime soon.
American female civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hammer, teaches us that there are two things we should always care about: “Never forget where we came from and always praise the bridges that carried us over”.
We thank Winnie for having been a bridge that withstood the devastating hurricanes of apartheid and allowed the millions of South Africans to cross over to freedom.
As an epitaph for Mam’ Winnie, I’d suggest the following lines, from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses: “Tested by time and fate, but strong in will / to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Thank you Mama Winnie for your many contributions Mama Winnie, as you repose peacefully, may you find satisfaction that you have left behind a life that will be legendary in the annals of the history of liberation in this country.
Equally true, the American scholar, Benjamin Franklin advises that “if you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading or do things worth the writing.” Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s political career has certainly assured her place in the annals of social justice. Winnie, the fiercest apartheid critic, is gone in flesh, but her influence on us and others will be eternal.
Dr Vusi Shongwe works for the office of the Premier, KwaZulu-Natal . The article is written in his personal capacity.