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Winnie’s bridge-building changed South African politics


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

Once “Winnie” had put the Mandela United Football Club events of the late 1980s and poor judgements in the early days of government and in ANC Women’s League enterprises behind her, she consolidated an iconic status. Much of it related to bridging the divides in South African and ANC politics.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s death and departure from South African politics leaves a bridge-building void that will be filled with difficulty.

Madikizela-Mandela played this role within the African National Congress (ANC), among political parties and at the grassroots. At first she became the public face of her incarcerated husband. In the 1970s and 1980s she helped bring vast new constituencies into the ANC. The role continued in the public protest era of 2005 onward. Once Winnie had put the Mandela United Football Club events of the late 1980s and poor judgements in the early days of government and in ANC Women’s League enterprises behind her, she consolidated an iconic status. Much of it related to bridging the divides in South African and ANC politics.

The opening session at the ANC’s mid-2017 National Policy Conference at Nasrec epitomised her bridge-building actions. She had already been on record to condemn Jacob Zuma’s rule as a disgrace to the ANC. Yet, when she walked on stage at the opening ceremony and realised that Jacob Zuma and his nemesis Cyril Ramaphosa were both nearby, she clasped their hands together in a peace-making, bridge-building gesture.

Similarly, at a time in the run-up to Election 2014 when Bekkersdal residents rejected several Gauteng ANC leaders in anger, they still welcomed Madikizela-Mandela warmly – and she stood as the ANC’s bridge into the otherwise alienated community. Comparable scenes had played out in Olievenhoutbosch and a host of other communities that exploded in the face of poor government service delivery.

She had a rapport with angry protesters, she was accepted as the ANC oracle that spoke truth to power and, above all, was unfailingly on the side of the poor and the disadvantaged. ANC national chair Gwede Mantashe probably had in mind her candid honesty when he reminisced that “she was one of those who would tell us what is wrong and what is right at any given time. We are going to miss that about her.”

As the ANC Women’s League notes in its obituary, she was the “epitome of the struggle against inequalities, unemployment and poverty”. Through her presence on the ground she was, of course, also the ANC’s convenient link to Nelson Mandela; her presence a reminder of the ideals associated with the 1994 transition to democracy.

Madikizela-Mandela unfailingly mobilised voters into registration and voting when apathy ruled and the ANC ran the risk of losing votes. Her appearance alongside President Ramaphosa at the March 2018 voter registration weekend speaks to her role in ensuring that apathetic or dissident ANC supporters would not stray too far. She was a bridge between the people and the ANC.

They trusted her innate political judgement. In the words of Economic Freedom Fighters’ leader Julius Malema, “she never befriended the enemy”. She was schooled through apartheid oppression and brutality and in Mam’ Winnie’s words, she “learned to hate” at the time of her extended solitary confinement. Angry community residents and voters, questioning the goodwill of ANC government, did not doubt her word when she pledged the ANC’s enduring commitment.

Madikizela-Mandela had also been one of the ANC’s continuous bridges into the Malema-EFF front. Although her words were insufficient at the time to counter Zuma’s anger at Malema’s “disrespect”, it was she who defended Malema at the ANC disciplinary hearing that led to his expulsion.

Madikizela-Mandela played comparable roles in the 1970s. As anti-apartheid activist Lord Peter Hain has observed, she was probably one of the first ANC leaders to recognise the significance to the ANC of the 1976 Soweto riots. She had grassroots credibility and was instrumental in directing much of the Black Consciousness-driven dissent into the ANC. The ANC’s struggle was reinvigorated as the resistance fervour of the 1970s swelled the ranks of the ANC, both in the underground and in exile. The actions also contributed to the bedrock of 1980s’ ungovernability, which, in turn, accelerated the transition to political democracy.

Also in the 1980s, the United Democratic Front-Mass Democratic Movement mobilised for the boycott of the October 1988 municipal elections. As South Africa History Online reports, it was the first time that “elections for all areas, except homelands, would be held on the same day. The state hoped that through the elections it would get a new group of black councillors to support it, and at the same time could assess the effect the State of Emergency had had at stopping resistance”.

It was a futile effort. The MDM boycott won the day and Madikizela-Mandela was a prominent force in this mobilisation.

At the time, I was in Leverkusen in then West Germany, part of a delegation from South Africa that met with top ANC structures and Soviet academics. Mam’ Winnie was the exiled leaders’ bridge into South Africa; they relied on her for updates on the boycott actions and other parts of the internal struggle.

Still “on the ground” – the place that was the fortress and forte of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – in the era of “black-on-black” violence when covert apartheid agents stoked the fires, Madikizela-Mandela was one of the leaders who could enter the areas and deliberate for peace.

She was the voice for the underdog in South African society and politics, not afraid to confront apartheid hogs, but in less hostile environments also not baulking at challenging ANC leaders in mighty positions. She clashed with all of South Africa’s post-apartheid presidents, including at the political coalface with her former husband.

Besides supporting Malema, she was also there for other ANC dissidents. African Democratic Change leader, Makhosi Khosa, reports that Madikizela-Mandela’s support carried her through dark days of being ostracised for resisting Jacob Zuma. United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa’s tribute highlighted the earlier bridge-building act when after the Rivonia trial Madikizela-Mandela “became Madiba’s public face during the 27 years of his imprisonment”.

An era has passed. Flaws, iniquities and all, there is no South African political leader in sight who can cross these boundaries so seamlessly and with such innate credibility. DM


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