South Africa

South Africa

Analysis: The inevitable contest over Winnie’s political legacy

Analysis: The inevitable contest over Winnie’s political legacy

The death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela will be remembered chiefly as another reminder that even people who have her strength, her raw humanity and her super-human abilities, are also mortal. Anyone who saw her in person (as this reporter did once or twice, albeit briefly) knew they were in the presence of something greater than themselves, greater than any other person they could possibly meet (with the obvious exception of Nelson Mandela and perhaps Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu). But her passing also leads to a slight stir in our present politics, as many a politician will have attempted to score points and present a connection with Winnie, no matter how tenuous. Much of this is basic gutter politics, but it is also quite revealing. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It is common practice in politics around the world to try to claim the positive side of the legacy of a politician who has passed on. In the case of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, there is a huge amount to fight over. This was a woman who, through her own role in the Struggle, had a unique place in our society. At Polokwane in 2007 she won more votes than anyone else on the ANC’s national executive committee, coming top in the system used at the time, and actually scoring more votes than the then future president, Jacob Zuma. (As an aside, it is possibly a symbol of how much changed in the ANC between 2002 and 2007 that at Stellenbosch the person who came out on top was Trevor Manuel).

But Madikizela-Mandela was much more than that. She, uniquely perhaps, had access to everyone in our society. If she had to burst into a shareholders’ meeting at the Rand Club (which no longer really exists) or at a ratepayers’ meeting in Sandhurst, or at any community meeting in Chaiwelo or Seshego or Umlazi or Uitenhage, ordinary proceedings would have stopped, and she would have been ushered to the stage.

Despite a past that involved criminal convictions for other than strictly Struggle-related incidents, she used this power for greater good. Only she could walk into a hostage situation and negotiate with the hostage taker, who eventually agreed that the hostage should be placed in her care. And only she could walk into Marikana to start a process for healing for now President Cyril Ramaphosa.

No one, really, no one said no to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Then there is the humanity of the person, which extended to even those who benefited from the oppression of her people. The journalist (who may object to the term “veteran”) Max du Preez wrote movingly in his book Of Warriors, Lovers and Prophets of how one night a sub-editor he worked with on the Beeld newspaper was depressed and inebriated and phoned her landline during the mid-1990s. He didn’t know why he did it, but someone took a message and she phoned him back at three in the morning. The journalist was in deep emotional turmoil, and despite his angry response to her returning his call, she persisted, teased his life story and his distress out of him, told him that he was cared for, that she cared for him, and that he had a duty to put his life back together. It is stories like this, of which they are many, that proved the power and humanity of someone who had been tested so much during the dark days of the Struggle.

And it is because of this greatness that there is now so much contestation over her legacy.

It appeared to have started almost immediately after news of her passing was announced, with the strange claim from the ANC’s election machinery that its Secretary-General Ace Magashule would “address the nation”. In the end, as has been spelt out previously elsewhere by Melanie Verwoerd, that is not what happened, as Ramaphosa, in his role as President, made the first national address. The roots of this may well lie in the factionalism that could still dog the ANC. But it may also lie in a much deeper political struggle.

It can be good politics for the ANC to try to claim certain people as its own. If it can give the impression that Madikizela-Mandela was of the ANC, that it was the ANC that gave her to the nation, as it did with Mandela himself, it is the strongest possible reminder of what the ANC gave voters. This is hugely contested terrain. Both Mandelas were people in their own right, not just of the ANC, but also, surely, of the nation. This can make it difficult to disentangle one from the other. It is surely not honest to say either of them are not of the ANC, and yet it is surely not honest to say that they don’t belong to South Africa as a whole.

The practical results of this are that every political party, including the DA which mostly has no ANC tradition at all, had to pay homage to her, knowing full well that this helps the ANC. But such is life in our politics, and such is the dominance the ANC currently has on our history (as you may know, dear reader, history can change from time to time…).

It was, of course, Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters who made the point that Madikizela-Mandela “was denied to be President on the basis that she is a female and African… They feared her… even in death they feared her”.

Certainly, there may have been probably no other people that the apartheid government feared more, and some communities in this country hated more. So that part of the statement is true. However, claims that she was denied the presidency need to be examined more closely, as are any claims that if she had been, the country would be in a better place.

It is obviously true that her economic politics were much closer to Malema’s populism than of the current ANC (although sometimes with the ANC you do have to be more specific…). She gave the impression of being much more radical than the economic policies espoused by Mandela and then former president Thabo Mbeki (who again couldn’t resist giving what appeared to be a tone-deaf statement of his own this week). But playing “what if” politics should also be avoided. It is the same as asking “what if” Chris Hani had lived. The simple fact is we don’t know, and it is probably irrelevant to ask.

Certainly, there is not much evidence that Madikizela-Mandela would have been able to manage the tensions of the incredibly broad set of constituencies that made up the broad church of the ANC and the alliance after 1994. That is not to say that she should not have played a greater role than she did, but it is to point out that despite being elected first to the NEC in 2007, she did not play much of a public role in the ANC, and did not use her official position actively. Of course, it must be remembered that she was getting older, and had more than played her part in our politics by this point.

All of this goes to a much greater point that may hold true for all politics everywhere: That is it much easier to be very, very popular and enjoy broad support along the majority of a group of people for a long period of time, if you actually have no direct constituency you have to defend. To put this another way, it is much easier to say what you want to say if there is very little consequence for you politically in a personal way.

As a slightly Poplakian analogy it is also the reason that Bono from U2 can sound so sensible all the time, while Barack Obama became so much more wonderful in his second and final presidential term. If you don’t have a high position in government, if there is no election to fight, it is easy to say the “right” things, the “sensible” things, the things “that need saying”, because you don’t have anything to fear. The same may have been true of Madikizela-Mandela, that if she had held high office (higher than Arts and Culture deputy minister) she might not have been as popular as she was for so long, despite all that she had done for her people.

There will, unfortunately, be much more politics to come during this period of mourning. Will government invite opposition party leaders to play a formal role, or simply attend, the memorial and funeral? Will Maimane and Malema share a stage with Ramaphosa? Or will they have to sit in the front row? Or worse, the back row? Could this be a moment of national unity in some strange way, or could something odd and unexpected still happen? Certainly, her legacy is much more contested than that of Mandela, so a moment such as his funeral seems unlikely at this stage.

In the end, people like Madikizela-Mandela can appear immortal sometimes, they appear to be of something stronger, perhaps better, than the rest of us. But that doesn’t mean the mere mortals, we on the ground, are not going to fight and scrap over her legacy, to try to get a touch of the immortal. DM

Photo: Winnie and Nelson Mandela at a 1990 rally (Greg Marinovich)


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