South Africa

The increasing loneliness and frustration of Winnie

By Stephen Grootes 2 July 2013

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has towered over our public life like very few other people for decades. If you're at a boring dinner party, bring up her name, and watch what happens. Everyone has an opinion, whether it be marvelling at her inner strength, or fuming at her relationship with tyres and matches. So when she said over the weekend that it was wrong for ANC leaders to have had their photos taken with Nelson Mandela back in April, she was being opinionated. And settling some very old scores. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

To be in the presence of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is to literally sit with history. With someone who goes back through the worst years of our history, who knows both the good and the bad that our people are capable of. In a way she mirrors the country, from the life spent away from from her beloved husband, being harassed by the Apartheid regime, through horror of the Stompi Sepei murder, to the opening of her home for victims of xenophobic violence.

For much of this time, Winnie has been a major political figure in her own right, not just because she was married to Nelson Mandela. To meet her now is to finally understand how she was able to call a hush at a packed stadium when she spoke, to realise how she was able to control people. She has a strength, a beauty and a confidence that makes Gwede Mantashe look nervous. And she is absolutely, always, the cleverest person in the room.

The political nous Winnie has gained over the years helped her enormously at Polokwane. She was one of the first to realise that Thabo Mbeki stood no chance against the Zuma tsunami. Despite her frosty relationship with Mbeki, she tried at the last minute to broker some sort of deal between them. And when that failed, she was still voted to the Number One spot on the ANC’s National Executive Committee. Such was her personal popularity that she got more votes than Number One himself.

Two years later, Winnie was number five on the ANC’s electoral list (meaning that she was the fifth ANC member to become an MP, after, well Number One, some guy called Kgalema no one can remember now and one or two others).

How times have changed.

At Mangaung, she was still elected on to the NEC, but in the second-last spot. This means she literally just made it. The way the NEC elections work, there’s a bias towards women as they count votes towards the final positions. In other words, if she hadn’t been born a woman, she wouldn’t have made it at all.

It’s a terrible fall from grace within the ANC. It could be seen as a signal that actually no one cares about her, that she’s being dispensed with, even as she still carries the Mandela name. Imagine that, being left out of the NEC altogether, but with that name?

Still, in the cold, hard reality of our ANC-dominated politics, she had it coming. She had broken the Number One Golden Rule of the ANC: don’t cross Number One. There’s a reason he’s the MacDaddy, he’s in charge, and he knows how to carry a grudge. Ask Mbeki. And Winnie had backed the wrong horse. She had supported Julius Malema through thick and thin.

She testified in his defence, she appeared to campaign for him in the NEC, and even worse, she spoke in his favour in public. And she’s the one ANC member who can, and does, criticise government policy. Particularly economic policy. She’s able to remind people that under the ANC government, not enough has changed since she was banished to Brandfort. So she’s broken the cardinal rule of all ANC disputes. She made it public.

How dare she!

If you look through the voting results of Mangaung’s NEC elections, there’s a pretty obvious pattern. Those people who Number One wanted, Number One got. I mean really, how else could you explain the fact Pule Mabe, a former ANC Youth League Treasurer, a man who walked the hard miles to Pretoria with Malema, got on the NEC? It was clearly because he’d been turned by Zuma’s people, and campaigned for him within the Youth League. And in way, the closer you were to Zuma, the higher up the list you went. Would you like to know who got the most votes? If you go and look, you’ll find it was “Dlamini-Zuma Nkosazana Clarice”, with 2,921 votes cast in her favour. Hard to get closer to Number One than having kids with him. (And no, I don’t know anyone called “Clarice” either.)

This is a humiliation that must be hard for Winnie to bear. She could certainly be forgiven for looking at Number One and asking who the hell he thinks he is anyway. And he’s given her plenty of ammo to fight back. What with Nkandla, Waterkloof and corruption generally. And she is a person to whom people still listen. If she speaks into a microphone, it’s going to be news.

Which bring us back to this weekend’s interview. What a perfect way for her to really throw something at Number One and his hench-people that would stick! What a way to ensure that it really hurts, that he absolutely has to respond! Because the ANC leadership’s visit, and subsequent pictures of them with Madiba back in April, were roundly condemned by much of South Africa. As an attempt to get Mandela’s political benediction, it failed. No one was talking about how cool JZ was to get that pic the next day. Instead they wanted the blood of whoever used a flash right in Madiba’s face.

And let’s not forget, considering Mandela’s current state of health, it’s pretty likely those will be the last pictures we ever see of him. So for them to have been created in that way is almost the worst possible scenario for Number One. And the one person who can, and will say that, is Winnie. Graca Machel is too classy, and the other members of the Mandela family are too busy fighting to get around to it.

But what Winnie has that Number One will never have, is a strong, legitimate claim to be the voice of the true, historic ANC. Zuma was on Robben Island too. But he wasn’t the face of the Struggle. If you had to pick two names from that time, it would probably be Nelson Mandela, and his ex-wife. She fought in public, for decades, in a way that gives her a huge claim to the past, and thus to the now.

So in one short interview, Number One’s action was exposed for what it was, a publicity stunt. And only Winnie could have said without a usual torrent of abuse being unleashed by the party’s communication department. Only she still has the voice.

Still, that voice is on the wane. Number One and Co. have sent out their statements, Jackson Mthembu’s done the interviews, and the news cycle will move on to another controversy/scandal. In four years’ time, it’s hard to see how Winnie Madikizela-Mandela will get back onto the ANC NEC. And that will be that. And it’s going to make her frustrated, and angry. And that is going to make her even harder to control for Luthuli House. But still, that will be that. DM

Read more:

  • Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s comments regrettable – ANC on PoliticsWeb

Photo: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, 18 December 2012, ANC 53rd Conference, Mangaung, South Africa. (Leonie Marinovich)

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"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall

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