Winnie Mandela: Beloved, Berated and Behoven – an ANC leader till death
A great African warrior has fallen asleep. A titan of the liberation of our people and the African continent has joined the ancestors of our movement. Like the Egyptians who wailed for Cleopatra, our mourning and sorrow will be immense. Our mother, the nation’s mother and stalwart of our revolution has passed away.
Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela – a name which embodies so much of South Africa’s fight for freedom and a name so synonymous with the thunderous cries of our youth at the time ready to take up arms for the people and join the ranks of uMkhonto weSizwe. Mamma Winnie was the leader who entreated the youth to go to Lusaka and take instructions from President Oliver Tambo.
Before ‘speaking truth to power’ became a fashionable phrase, Mamma Winnie personified speaking truth to power. When she addressed our people she stirred up within their hearts the passion to fight for freedom. When she spoke gently minds were touched as Mamma was convincing.
In this way Mamma Winnie mortalised truth. Whether it was to speak against the Botha regime or even the ANC’s High Command in Lusaka, she knew what the truth was. She had lived truth, she had suffered for the truth and she knew where to find the truth: among the people. Very few could challenge her precisely because of what she endured and because of prioritising the people. Mamma Winnie did not only stand for something, she lived it to the fullest.
Very few leaders across society can claim access to that sort of authority. Even after liberation, when many leaders moved to the suburbs, Mamma remained in Soweto where she fought the cause of the people. At one stage she was even struggling severely. How easily she could have made millions from the Mandela name but she did not.
Yet it was there, among the people, serving them and fighting their cause that President Nelson Mandela found her. We may almost suggest that it was the beauty of her person and leadership among the people that attracted Nelson Mandela to her.
For this is what attracted the youth to her. This is what made the youth of the ANC her children. Mamma Winnie was the mother because when others had dismissed the young lions, when others were impatient, Mamma would listen to the youth, guide the youth and fight for the youth. There should be no doubt, that Mamma knew who the diamonds of the struggle were: the youth. It is therefore no surprise that generations of young people frequented her home during and after the struggle. She believed in the youth and she nurtured the youth.
When families questioned involvement of young people in the struggle, Mamma Winnie was there to take them in. When a member of the community was in need, Mamma was there to take action. She knew the struggles, she knew her people and she was a leader embedded in the community. Winnie Mandela was the beloved of our own struggle, a red rose of the revolution; passionate about our people and the issues affecting them.
It was this ability to personify truth to power that made her to be feared by many. Her ability to speak truth to power enabled her to face torture, solitary confinement, imprisonment, banishment and all the dirty tricks the apartheid regime had up their sleeves. But none of this could break her spirit. She was a strong woman and she was strong precisely because she lived and knew the truth.
Her strength and her resilience made many to hate her. Yet she did not shy away from this disdain. She would not succumb to the flattery of the chattering classes. She knew whose praise she needed. She was convinced of whose approval she needed always to seek. She did not seek the approval of the apartheid regime nor even the praise of the leadership of the ANC. Rather Mamma Winnie was forever faithful to the people; especially the most marginalised in society during apartheid and after apartheid.
To the very day of her death she commanded a place in the liberation movement which very few occupy. She was above reproach and never once could be accused of taking sides. As a true elder, a true veteran and stalwart, she brought people together rather than drive the wedge further.
Mamma Winnie brought former Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma together to try and unite the ANC in 2007. She did the same with Presidents Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa in 2017. She went out of her way to constantly engage the leadership of the Economic Freedom Fighters and even encouraged them to continue their efforts in the mission for economic freedom notwithstanding the fact that she felt they could have best pursued this within the ANC.
She was unwavering in her care and support for a generation of our former ANC Youth League leaders who defined and bravely championed our generational mission of economic freedom in our lifetime while many leaders of the ANC were impatient with them. She defended the Youth League’s former President Julius Malema up until his expulsion from the ANC and continued to mentor him till her death. She continued to stand with and encourage Youth League leaders and activists from that generation as well as our generation who remained in the ranks of the ANC and its Youth League but who had run ins with some of the ANC leadership at different levels for raising critical issues. Mamma Winnie understood the vibrancy and militancy of youth and the role of the Youth League’s autonomy in preserving this.
Can many match her ability to unite? Can many match her ability to have risen above divisions and ensure that all were kept in the fold? Can many match her ability to understand the youth?
Yet it was precisely these abilities that made her to be reviled by some. She had been a thorn in the side of the apartheid government and even when things went wrong in the ANC she was not afraid to speak up. Who can forget her prophetic words when she reluctantly declined the nomination of Deputy President of the ANC? “Comrade Thabo, I do understand what is happening.”
Winnie Mandela knew the truth. As she had spoken out against the brutality and injustice of the apartheid regime, so too she could point out what was going wrong in the ANC. During the days of apartheid and even the days of the transition the tarnishing of her image became an important exercise in the pursuit for power because she simply was not afraid. She was not afraid, despite her own weaknesses, to speak truth to power.
Little wonder then that in the post-1994 epoch Mamma Winnie did not take her rightful place. As the media would suggest, she was outmaneuvered in the organisation and in government. But then again, what was her rightful place? We may suggest that she was not comfortable in the trappings of government as a deputy minister or in the corridors of business deals but rather her rightful place was where Nelson Mandela found her all those nearly sixty years ago: in the community, among our people.
Throughout our country, women, like Mamma Winnie are speaking truth to power on a daily basis. Daily they have to stand up against injustice in their homes, in the workplace and in the communities. Like Mamma Winnie they challenge the status quo inside and outside the home. Where they meet injustice and disunity they jump in, hands ready to do what is needed to be done.
Yet like Mamma Winnie they are both beloved and bedevilled. We hate them as much as we love them. They remain the backbone of our homes, our communities and our country. They are brutally and violently dehumanised. Yet this does not stop them, like Nomzamo Mandela, they continue to do what is necessary to speak truth to power. For they, like her, know that ultimately power fears the truth.
Khalid Sayed is the Western Cape Chairperson of the ANC Youth League & Buyile Matiwane is the Western Cape Provincial Chairperson of the South African Students Congress