The much-maligned and often wilfully misunderstood Mother of the South African nation, Comrade Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, passed away at the age of 81 on 2 April 2018 following a long illness. Her place in history is guaranteed by her tenacity, heroism, and overwhelming ability to stand unflinching in the face of the murderous, openly racist apartheid system that was South Africa.
Winnie was proud to be linked to the struggles of her husband, Nelson Mandela, and fought for his release over the 27 years of his time in prison. But she was no mere appendage of his, she was not just a public face whose only role was to transmit his thoughts and demands. She was a fighter, a leader and a symbol of black liberation in her own right and suffered for the struggle just as he or any other leader of the South African anti-apartheid movement did. When many leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) were in prison cells or abroad, it was comrade Winnie who was recognised by friend and foe alike as the director of the anti-apartheid struggle, whether it was mass protests, or the fight on the armed or economic fronts, in South Africa.
In 1962 when her husband, Nelson Mandela, was arrested and sentenced to life in prison on the notorious Robben Island, she was left with two small daughters to look after, but she still played her role at the head of the liberation movement. She was often arrested and had her home searched (which is a nice way of saying her home was smashed up), but this young mother never succumbed to the threats and personal oppression that was meted out to her by the racist pawn of imperialism in Africa that the white minority government of South Africa was. During arrests at various times she had been denied time to dress or even make a phone call to get someone to look after her children. These things were personal on one level but Winnie understood that the personal attacks were the result of her position within the movement and bravely bore them for the sake of the movement.
In 1969, she became ‘Prisoner number 1323/69’ when she was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 491 days. She was even left in her cell (incidentally, her cell was next to the torture cell so that she was constantly hearing the screams of the victims of apartheid) being refused even sanitary towels, something for the liberal writers of today to ponder over when, denouncing her, they claim that ‘she was soaked in blood’! To these hired pens we simply repeat the words of a braver, more truthful journalist in respect to comrade Winnie, the Guardian writer Afua Hirsch, who wrote in her obituary; “Perhaps we have forgotten what it actually takes to overthrow such tyranny when the legal and moral force of a sovereign state was on the side of white supremacy. Columnists did not cut it. Activists could not have done it. Peaceful protest did not do it. Sports boycotts, books, badges and car boot sales did not do it. It took revolutionaries, pure and simple. People willing to break the law, to kill and be killed” (‘Winnie Mandela was a hero. If she’d been white, there would be no debate’, The Guardian, 3 April 2018).
When imprisonment didn’t have the desired ‘calming’ effect on Winnie, the apartheid authorities banished her from Johannesburg, to the rural town of Brandfort in the Orange Free State, a model of white supremacy rule even within South Africa. Here she could not receive visitors at her home or talk to more than two people at a time or own a phone, and yet she travelled daily to a post office to use the phone there to tell the world of the brutality of apartheid and the vibrant struggle to overthrow it. Her home in Brandfort was bombed twice, yet it was here that in 1976 she publicly applauded the student uprising in Soweto, encouraging them to fight on, and it was here also that she was visited by US Senator Edward Kennedy who had nothing but praise for this formidable fighter, describing her as "very courageous and very concerned for her country". Of course, Edward Kennedy was only one of the very many international notables who travelled to Brandfort to stand outside her home and have discussions with her, and it was this turning of a punishment into a publicity asset that led the apartheid regime to send her back into the townships.
Winnie was now in her element, among the people who loved her for the role she played in the struggle and able to address mass rallies. But it was not without dangers. Inside every black township there were traitors who spied, or worse, for the government – it was this threat that made the trusted bodyguard around Winnie so necessary. Black policemen had homes and families in the townships. Some spied for money, some were forced by fear or threats into this coward’s trade, but, as in all struggles, this enemy in the rear has to be faced and destroyed. Not a single liberation struggle has been able to rid itself of this fifth column without bloodshed, and in South Africa, where life was extremely grim, potential spies had to be strongly dissuaded. Hence the public necklace executions of traitors. It is not a glorious thing to do but it is a necessary one if you are serious about overthrowing the oppressor, and Winnie characteristically linked herself as a recognised ANC leader with this necessity when she told a mass rally on April 13‚ 1986‚ in Munsieville that: “Together‚ hand in hand‚ with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.” The liberation movement that rids itself of traitors and spies finds itself free to fight an opponent that does not have advance notice of its plans or strengths and can only react to its actions.
This simple ridding the movement of traitors did much more to bring the white racist regime to the negotiating table than all the international pressure. And to those who now know the first name of the one black teenager killed by Winnie Mandela’s supporters (Stompie), we must again point out that there were hundreds of thousands of black children who died at the hands of the apartheid state during the era of apartheid either through bullets, beatings, torture, starvation and lack of medicines etc., and we lay the blame for every single one of them, including Stompie Moeketsi, at the door of the apartheid regime and the US and British imperialism that worked so hard to keep that vile regime afloat.
There are many today who understand this and who have publicly placed themselves with comrade Winnie. Siv Ngesi, South African actor and comedian, said; "I love how we must forgive countless white murdering racists! But they want to trash queen Winnie Mandela! Many of you didn’t even know who Stompie was till yesterday! You fake bloody hypocrites." While Mayihlome Tshwete, a South African social media star, said; "To those who insist we recall her greatness alongside her imperfections, we shall remind them that she, like us, is a product of an enemy that made us more imperfect, more angry and more determined to no longer be products of its confine."
Most ANC leaders have also spoken of her courage and struggle but some, unfortunately, have felt obliged to add the ‘ha’porth of tar’ regarding the role of her Soweto bodyguard ‘Mandela United’. Perhaps if they had been in the townships during those times (and that is no criticism of comrades who were in prisons or necessarily abroad training fighters or fund-raising) they might be a little more understanding about the need (a) for prominent fighters for liberation to have trusted and able guards to protect them, and (b) to eradicate treachery by any means – bearing in mind the non-availability of such luxuries as courts and legal niceties.
Winnie remained up until her death a member of the African National Congress, a member of its Executive Committee and a Member of Parliament representing that party, but she would never hold back from giving deserved criticism to her party. She was, and is still, the conscience of the South African nation, symbolising not only their past struggles but also the struggles that still need to take place. Comrade Winnie was laid to rest at a full state funeral on 11 April, but those hoping to bury her rich revolutionary legacy will undoubtedly be disappointed.
Hamba Kahle Comrade Mama Winnie Madikizela Mandela
Poem by Afzal Moolla
Today we grieve‚ The mother of the nation has breathed her last‚
today we reflect on her gallant past.
Today we mourn‚ the falling of a giant tree‚
who rattled the foundations of Apartheid‚
in the collective struggle to be from oppression free.
Today we weep‚ tears of sorrow and tears of pain‚
for our mother who shall no longer walk amongst us again.
Today we sing‚ songs of freedom and of profound loss‚
as we remember the cruel and brutal obstacles she had to cross.
Today we reflect‚ on the years of banishment and of solitary confinement she was made to suffer‚
with no husband‚ no family‚ nothing but her will acting as her protective buffer.
Today we recall her strength‚ as she fought alongside her comrades without a pause‚
while remaining ever faithfully dedicated to the valiant struggle‚ to the cause.
Today we console each other as the truth cuts deep‚
her life one of loss and of unimaginable pain‚
as we call out our eternal refrain – Hamba Kahle Mama Winnie Mandela!
We will not give up your fight! Matla ke a Rona! The Struggle Continues.
Viva the undying spirit of Winnie Mandela!
Viva the struggle against racism and oppression!