Africa

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela leaves behind a complicated legacy

THE death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela came as a shock to South Africans. At 81 she looked as radiant as ever, her taut skin and chic outfits belying her age. She still had the will to fight, taking the estate of her late ex-husband, Nelson Mandela, to court (she lost an appeal in January). Just last month she appeared at a voter-registration campaign for the ruling African National Congress (ANC), grinning alongside Cyril Ramaphosa, the president. But, unbeknown to many, she had long been ill. Ms Madikizela-Mandela died on April 2nd in Johannesburg. Outside her home in Soweto, mourners sang old struggle songs into the night. She will receive a state funeral on April 14th.

Ms Madikizela-Mandela was one of a shrinking number of heroes from South Africa’s struggle to end repressive white rule. She came from what is now Eastern Cape and, against the odds, became a social worker at a Soweto hospital. During that time she met Mr Mandela, whom she married in 1958. But they would spend only a few of the next 37 years together. While he was in prison for sabotage, mostly on Robben Island, she raised their two daughters and was tormented by the apartheid police. She herself spent 491 days in solitary confinement for her political activism. Later she was banished to a cramped home in a dusty township, where she spent eight lonely years.

When Mr Mandela was finally freed in 1990, Ms Madikizela-Mandela walked at his side, one hand gripping his, the other raised in a fist. But their marriage ended six years later, with Mr Mandela testifying in court that his wife was having an affair.

In contrast to her husband, who is often portrayed as something of a saint, Ms Madikizela-Mandela is often seen as a brave woman who went bad. Many South Africans consider her a mother of the nation, but her legacy is troublesome. Addressing a rally in 1986, she defended “necklacing”, the horrific practice of setting fire to a petrol-soaked tyre placed around the neck of a suspected apartheid collaborator. She was convicted of ordering the kidnapping of four boys in Soweto, including 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, whose throat was slit by her bodyguard. Appearing before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she admitted, with a nudge from its head, Desmond Tutu, that “things went horribly wrong”. (She later said she was furious at Mr Tutu, a former archbishop of Cape Town.) When Mr Mandela became president, she was given a cabinet post, but he soon sacked her. In 2003 she was convicted of fraud and theft. She was later returned as a member of parliament for the ANC, but rarely bothered to show up.

Ms Madikizela-Mandela’s seething anger, in contrast to Mr Mandela’s famed forgiveness, increasingly came to define her. She felt that under her ex-husband’s leadership the black majority got a bad deal in the negotiations that ended apartheid. Too many concessions were made to white South Africans, she argued, and not enough changed. This view has found currency among outspoken young South Africans who are frustrated with high unemployment, inequality and a lack of improvement under black rule. Among them is her acolyte Julius Malema, a populist firebrand who was expelled from the ANC in 2012.

An opera about Ms Madikizela-Mandela’s life, staged in 2011, told her story with unflinching truth and pathos. On opening night Ms Madikizela-Mandela sat in the State Theatre in Pretoria, watching her own tumultuous struggle re-enacted on stage. It was all there: her terrible persecution by the apartheid regime, the brutality of her bodyguards and her appearance at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At the end of it all she cheered wildly. And so did the audience.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top