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Winnie Mandela (1936-2018)

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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela / ALEXANDER JOE / AFP

The life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whose remains were interred last Saturday, was something of a meteor. Sparkling in history at a very young age as one of the world’s most popular women activists of the twentieth century, Winnie Mandela, as she came to be known, began to pale in memories as global events overshadowed her illustrious past. Yet, in the annals of civil rights and freedom fighting, she remained an iconoclast of no mean quality.

Winnie Mandela, the former spouse of the legendary Madiba, Nelson Mandela, died at the Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg on 2 April 2018 and was buried at the Fourways Memorial Park Cemetery in Johannesburg. She was aged 81. By her death, the world has lost one of its most infectiously glamorous fighters against the atrocious regime of apartheid South Africa.

Reputed to be one of the leading lights in the fight against Apartheid in South Africa, Winnie learnt in the hands of Nelson Mandela her then husband the nitty-gritty of constructive and result-oriented activism. At that time, it seemed Mandela was fortunate to have had Winnie as wife, for she was not only a fast learner, but also one who understood the Madiba’s world and fitted in perfectly. Just as she joined the stalwarts of the African National Congress (ANC) in rallies and mobilisation campaigns, she displayed exemplary courage, commitment and consistency in the way she organised local forums where she campaigned for equal rights in a brutally segregated apartheid South Africa.

For these and other roles she played, she was tortured, incarcerated, put under house arrest, subjected to constant surveillance and for 18 months from 1969, she was placed in solitary confinement.

Winnie was born on September 26, 1936 in a village in Pondoland in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. She was the fourth of eight children of parents who were school teachers. Winnie had her early education in Bizana and rose to become the Head Girl of her high school, before proceeding to Johannesburg to study at the Jan H. Hofmeyr School of Social Work, where she earned a degree in Social Work in 1956. She later studied at the University of Witwatersrand and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of the Witwatersrand.

At age 22, a chance meeting with a young brilliant activist lawyer, changed the course of Winnie’s life from being a prim social worker enduring and traversing the discriminatory social system to becoming a brave crusader who would fight the system. Before long, Winnie and Mandela got married and had two daughters, Zenani and Zindziwa. By getting married to the young lawyer anti-apartheid activist, Winnie quickly realised she had courted trouble and a life of turbulence that would become her lot throughout her earthly existence.

When Zenani was barely five, Mandela was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. With two young children in her hands, a career to pursue and a promising life ahead to live, Winnie, still in her twenties, would grapple with keeping the legacy of her husband and running a young family.

While Mandela remained in prison, she became the main opponent of the apartheid regime; and for a good part of the 27 years Mandela was imprisoned, she stoked the fire of anti-apartheid crusade with so much courage and passion that the anti-apartheid struggle became known to the world through Winnie Mandela on one hand, and through Mandela and his ANC colleagues on the other hand.

In all this, Winnie Mandela displayed a strength of character that glorified African womanhood. Her commitment and tenacity to the cause of anti-apartheid is yet to be rivalled by any woman in the world; thus making her an uncommon African woman. It is not surprising, therefore, that her description as ‘South Africa’s mother of the nation,’ was rightly deserved. Africa is indeed lucky to have had such a woman of courage and consistent fighting power.

After Mandela was released from prison in 1990, an allegation of infidelity levelled against Winnie caused the couple to separate in 1992, and in 1996 finalised a divorce. Despite the scandal and bad blood it created among the officials of the ANC, Winnie remained in politics. She was Deputy Minister, Arts, Culture, Science and Technology from 1994 to 1996; and member of the South African parliament from 1994 to 2003, and from 2009 until her death on April 2, 2018.

However, like famous and influential politicians, who must step on toes and break heads to settle differences, Winnie was mired in controversies that impugned her reputation. A combination of charm and charisma, she was a motivator who brooked no non-sense from her large following. In an overzealous display of authority, she was alleged to have sanctioned a horrendous practice of burning alive using tyres and petrol, persons she suspected to be moles within the ranks of the ANC. This was corroborated by her associates, who at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1986, claimed that she had ordered kidnappings and murder in the mid1980s.

In 2003, a few years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, she found herself embroiled in image-bashing legal battles. She was convicted on 43 counts of fraud and 25 of theft. While she got prison sentence for the fraud charges, an appeal court judge overturned the conviction for theft. In more ways than one, she was bruised and repeatedly assaulted with debilitating physical and psychological scars. Yet, by this she gradually effected healing for a wounded country.

Perhaps, embittered by pain, neglect, negative publicity and dwindling relevance, Winnie was so incurably anti-apartheid that her husband’s reconciliation move with the white minority allegedly did not go down well with her. In a celebrated interview, she was said to have criticised and made snide remarks about Nelson Mandela and his conversion to South Africa’s integration.

While many African countries have only regarded her from afar as an appendage to Nelson Mandela, countries outside the continent have recognised her in her own right. A woman whose life and times have been portrayed in so many award-winning dramas and movies, Winnie Mandela was a recipient of many awards for her life-long struggle for freedom and equal rights. Among these were the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, the Candace Award for Distinguished Service from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1988, and an honourary Doctor of Laws (LL.D) of the Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, in recognition of her fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Although this age of rapid forgetfulness and information overflow may not be a good time for a famous and illustrious daughter of Africa to die, the transition to the great beyond of Winifred Madikizela-Mandela would remain an irreplaceable loss for Africa, the black world and the well-meaning community of human rights activists.


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