Mama Winnie’s demands: A responsibility deferred, an opportunity missed
- Aubrey Masango
- 23 Oct 2014 12:43 (South Africa)
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has every right, under the Constitution and our laws, to challenge the Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (NRM) Family Trust in order to gain control of the Qunu home she claims rightfully belongs to her. It is also her right to use whatever means at her disposal, within the ambit of the law, even to suggest that the land was fraudulently obtained by former President Nelson Mandela. This, I suppose, is what can be expected once the gloves come off in any legal dispute. The truth of her accusations, however, must still be verified or refuted in court proceedings.
Mama Winnie is no stranger to conflict or controversy. She is a fighter, whether one agrees with her point of view on any matter or not. Her long and often painful battle against Apartheid is testimony to this fact. So you can be sure that, once Winnie has drawn the line in the sand, she cares very little for public opinion and popular sentiment for or against her. This is one of the qualities that endeared her to many generations of South Africans. It is this very quality that, at the zenith of Apartheid’s oppression - when all ‘heroes’ of the struggle had been silenced by flight or incarceration - she stood loudly and proudly as a lone voice of defiance against not only the injustice of Apartheid, but for the release of her husband Nelson Mandela. Many have correctly pointed out that, had it not been for the very stubborn nature she has been often reviled for, Nelson Mandela would have, in all probability, disappeared into obscurity in the prison system. The argument is that, had it not been for the “belligerent” Winnie - as she has so often been type-cast - we would not have had our beloved Mandela. She is, for many, many South Africans, a national treasure.
Around this time last year, just before the passing of former president Nelson Mandela, we witnessed what many regarded as unsavoury skirmishes amongst the Mandelas, with running battles between Makaziwe Mandela and Mandla Mandela, over the very same property in Qunu. Bodies were exhumed, court cases ensued and insults were flung to and fro in courts and the streets. A right royal undignified mess it was. A chapter in the Mandela family history many of us would have preferred not to have witnessed. Once again it appears that the same mud-slinging could be witnessed on the eve of the first anniversary of the passing of former President Nelson Mandela. Winnie is fighting for control and custody of the Mandela rural headquarters in Qunu.
The Mandela family, for many of us, is not merely a family of struggle heroes, but a symbol of a family’s ability to overcome the most harrowing of episodes in our national history. They hold a very special place in the psyche of South Africa’s relative stability. They are, as a family, a national treasure. Acrimony amongst them creates a strain in the general social cohesion of many South Africans. Out of this family came one of South Africa’s favourite sons, Nelson Mandela, a man who was responsible, amongst others, for South Africa’s global recognition as a miracle of racial reconciliation. A project he was supported in by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, however unsubtle she may have been perceived to be. They are, together as a pair, also a national treasure.
There are indeed arguments, valid arguments, about the personal circumstances that led to the rift and later the very public split between former president and his former wife in 1996. I’m loath to pass judgement on a certain illicit relationship that may or may not have taken place between a certain Economic Freedom Fighting barrister and said heroine. These are private and personal and very subjective matters, whose relevance in the greater scheme of things becomes nebulous. They often give rise to the argument that Nelson Mandela was also within his rights to compile the kind of will and testament that excluded Winnie from many of his worldly possessions.
Not much is known about the settlement agreements that led to what many saw as an amicable divorce. The former president moved on, as was his right, and married Graca Machel, a woman he clearly loved until the end of his days – as was also his right. A right which cascaded into the way he bequeathed some of his worldly possessions in his will. To suggest that Graca Machel is in any way liable for Winnie’s financial wellbeing or in some way responsible for Nelson Mandela’s decisions in excluding Winnie in his final wishes, as reflected in his will, is unfair, and frankly a grossly misguided notion. She is the beneficiary of a personal relationship between her and her expired husband. This should not be a fight between the women who held a place in the heart of an icon. To do so would be to succumb to the cheap seduction of unrefined banter and to dishonour the memory of a great statesman. Winnie and Graca’s cordial and mature behaviour towards each other over the years has been both heart-warming and exemplary. It would be so much the better if this could continue.
So what of Winnie’s demands? Are we to silence a woman who clearly believes she has been hard done by by her former husband? Are we to ignore the lamentations of a struggle heroine forgotten by time and history? Does she really want the house in Qunu or is her demand a proxy for a deeper need? Who is liable and how do we restore dignity to the Mandela name and thus to our history?
It is my view that Winnie is personally insulted by the lack of institutional recognition for the part she played, not only in the liberation of Nelson Mandela (a man who seems to her, and others, to have unfairly become the sole recipient of world adulation and respect) but also what she perceives to be a disdain for her unique contribution to the struggle in her own right. As she celebrates her 78th birthday and the reality of her mortality and lack of personal historic legacy begins to dawn on her, indignation rises in her. Her anger is directed at the one institution she is personally responsible for building, and that is Nelson Mandela, the man himself, conflated with whatever injustices she may perceive him to have committed against her in their relationship. This is understandable, but misdirected.
This is not a battle which Winnie should be waging herself in her old age. It is a fight for recognition which we, South Africans, who recognise her illustrious contribution to this country, should be fighting on her behalf. She is a woman on a quest for redemption as she enters her twilight years. It is a country that is sensitive to the needs of cohesion and reconciliation, regardless of political persuasion or affiliation, which should be agitating for appropriate and honourable recognition of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in her own right, not just as the former wife of Nelson Mandela. She should not be subjected to the indignity of court battles which drag her and her family’s name through the mud because she is not taken care of in legacy and practical need.
Traditional leaders and government understand, as do many South Africans, her contribution to our relative stability and the sacrifices she has made. She deserves a far more considered hearing. Not a court of law. It is unacceptable that we have once again failed as a collective to see the opportunity and the responsibility of finding the appropriate form of recognition in sincere consultation with her. I don’t think she wants much. I don’t even think she really wants the house in Qunu, to be honest. A quiet, sober discussion with her, befitting an icon of our struggle, would soon enough reveal what would quiet her demons.
I challenge our relevant government officials to have this sit-down with Mama. You will discover that she is far more agreeable than your lack of responsibility and tact has made her appear. DM