Winnie Mandela: Heroine or villain?
It is no longer news that Winnie Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid crusader and former wife of the First Black President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, has died at age 81. According to a family source, she passed away after a protracted illness. Her death, no doubt, symbolizes the end of an ear for South Africa in the history of struggles for political emancipation in South Africa. In the tempestuous years of apartheid rule in the Rainbow country, she was a thorn in the flesh of the white supremacists and a rallying point for the unconditional release of her then incarcerated husband. Without a doubt, Winnie was one of the leading figures in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. She was dubbed the “Mother of the Nation” while numerous musicians and writers across the world, who celebrated Nelson Mandela in their works, also accorded her eminence consideration.
The departed enigma was married to Nelson Mandela for 38 years, including the 27 years the iconic South Africa former President was imprisoned in Robin Island, near Cape Town. She kept the memory of her imprisoned husband alive during his years on Robben Island and helped give the struggle for justice in South Africa a universal image. Up till the time she breathed her last, she was a leading member of South Africa’s frontline political party, the ruling African National Congress, ANC. At the time of her death, she was a member of the country’s parliament. In 1993, she was elected president of the ANC’s Women’s League. In 1994, she was elected to parliament and became Deputy Minister of Arts, Science and Technology in the country’s first multi-racial government.
While reacting to her demise, South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa referred to Winnie as an advocate for the dispossessed and the marginalised” and “a voice for the voiceless.” He said: “Even at the darkest moments of our struggle for liberation, Mam’ Winnie was an abiding symbol of the desire of our people to be free. In the midst of repression, she was a voice of defiance and resistance. In the face of exploitation, she was a champion of justice and equality.”
Born in 1936 as Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela, Winnie married Nelson Mandela in 1958 at age 22, and firmly supported him at the risk of her own life and freedom throughout the dark years of apartheid in the Rainbow nation. While in prison, when Nelson Mandela was banned from reading newspapers, it was Winnie that connected him to the external world through her regular visit. Though, she became a target of endless harassment from the ruling white minority government, she obstinately stuck to her gun and stood by her incarcerated husband. She declined to be cowed despite the emotional pains and aches of unending pestering of her family by security forces, detentions, solitary confinements and banishment.
In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:”Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists.” Thanks to her doggedness, as well as the staying power of her co-fighters, in 1990, the curtain finally drawn on white minority rule in South Africa. Unfortunately, she was separated from her the late Madiba in 1996, two years after he became South Africa’s First Black President.
Ironically, despite Winnie’s vital role in securing a new and unprejudiced political system in South Africa, she became a victim of the political struggle that played out during the anti-apartheid campaigns. In view of her deep involvement in the vicious anti-apartheid battle, she became entwined in a series of scandals that eventually ended her marriage with Nelson Mandela. In 1986, she was widely linked to necklacing, a code name for jungle justice which involves the burning alive of suspected traitors who had flaming, petrol-soaked tyres forced over their heads. In December 1988, her bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club, kidnapped four boys belonging to another anti-apartheid party. One of them, Stompie Moeketsi, was subsequently assassinated by her bodyguards. In May 1991, she was sentenced to six years in prison for kidnapping in relation to the incident, but the sentence was later reduced to a fine.
In 2003, she was convicted of fraudulently taking out bank loans and theft. But according to her, the loans were used to help poor people. Her conviction for theft was later reversed since she had not recognized any personal gain from her actions. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission also accused her of human rights abuses during the apartheid years.
Winnie was also accused of having several lovers while her husband was in prison. For instance, she was alleged to be having an affair with Dali Mpofu, a lawyer 30 years her junior and a member of her defence team. It was even alleged that she carried on with the affair with Mpofu after Mandela left prison. It was once alleged that Winnie was due to travel to America for a political meeting and she wanted to take Mpofu along with her, a move that was strongly objected to by Mandela. Though Winnie consented to Mandela’s stance, but she secretly went with her lover nonetheless. According to the gist, when Mandela put a call through to her at her hotel room in New York, it was Mpofu that answered the phone. Details of her sizzling romantic escapades with Mpofu were afterward made garishly public in a newspaper report.
The story of Winnie and Mandela is a classical narrative of people who chose to sacrifice their life, comfort and family for the good of the society and people. For Winnie, her whole life was defined by Mandela’s deep and passionate involvement in the struggle for a free South Africa. When she gave birth to her children, her husband was never there for her. Even though he was not in jail at the time, he was out on several commitments for the struggle. But then, she was aware of Mandela’s obsession with the struggle before marrying him, knowing quite well that his first marriage crashed because of the struggle.
In view of her several scandals, many have tried to paint Winnie as the devil who puts on the garment of an angel. But in all reality, how could she at the age of 28 have endured the emotional torture of being separated from her husband and tendering the children for the long period (27 years) she did without possibly getting involved in the several messy episodes that eventually consumed her marriage? In the first place, was it right for Mandela to have been so deeply caught up in the struggle to free his people without giving appropriate consideration to his family?
All alone and emotionally shattered, could Winnie have toed a more angelic path than she did in the face of loneliness, persecutions, betrayals and several other emotional traumas? How many women in her shoes could have been more rational in thoughts and acts? Meanwhile, how will history judge Winnie? As a heroine or a villain? Time will tell.
• Ogunbiyi is of the Lagos State Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja.