Although the Mandela name Winnie acquired through marriage became an inseparable part of her political identity, she sculpted out of her life a separate, distinct political Colossus of a persona.
Winnie’s self-sacrifice outside prison and the suffering she endured at the hands of the barbaric apartheid regime was at least comparable, and arguably greater than, that of the husband whose cause she had embraced as her own.
The trajectory of their personal lives was to mirror the political – the dissolution of the marriage two years after President Nelson Mandela’s release coinciding with their political estrangement. But their destinies nonetheless remained tied together by their political and family history.
Winnie, who described herself as the “most unmarried of married women”, hardly ever experienced the “normality” of married life. The little time there was in the first six of her 38 years of marriage was constantly disrupted by police harassment, Nelson Mandela’s political obligations, and the need to go underground to evade arrest.
The apartheid regime, determined to crush any notion of emancipation among the oppressed black majority, imposed a state of emergency, banned the liberation movements and sentenced their leaders to life imprisonment on Robben Island where the most famous of the resistance of the struggle against colonialism, Mandela, had been incarcerated.
From then onwards, she was thrust into the role of a living symbol of the liberation struggle. She became not just an unofficial representative of the leadership on Robben Island and in exile, but the bearer of the torch of resistance and defiance that played a critical role in retying the knot of history between the generations of the ‘50s and the ‘70s.
This role was thrust upon her by the callous, vengeful cruelty of a white minority regime enraged by her unbreakable will and defiance. But she embraced it as a duty imposed on her by history, doing so courageously and with complete devotion. While Mandela was doing hard labour on Robben Island, Winnie was subjected to relentless persecution, banning and house arrest orders, torture and banishment – the equivalent of internal exile reminiscent of the Siberian banishment of revolutionists by the Tsarist regime in pre-revolutionary Russia. In denouncing her as a terrorist, a regime was making an unconsciousness admission that the defiance of a single black woman terrorised a regime kept in power by one of the 10 most powerful armies in the world.
Mama uNomzamo was conscious of her role as a weapon for potential mobilisation, as revealed in her memoirs. She contemplated suicide in solitary confinement in the hope of sparking protests worldwide that would isolate the apartheid regime.
As the young generation of 1976 sparked the struggle for national liberation to life once again, Winnie had no hesitation in showing her support and helped to form the Black Parents Association with Dr Nthato Motlana. Her home became a refuge as well as a conduit for recruits for the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe.
Winnie’s determination to keep the spirit of militancy alive led to the formation of the Mandela Football Club. Opposition to the activities of the Mandela Football Club resulted in Winnie’s house being burnt down.
The leadership both at home and in exile condemned the club as well as her condoning of the “necklace” method of eliminating askaris, but accepted no responsibility for the impact of the calls to make the country ungovernable while having no strategy to supply arms to the youth facing repression against a regime fighting for its survival.
It is not implausible that the leadership was far less concerned with supporting the rising tide of militancy and managing its excesses than the damage these would do to the secret talks about talks that were commencing.
Winnie was to pay perhaps the most painful and bitter price after Mandela was released and the ANC unbanned. She was divorced not only by her husband but by her party, with gratuitous cruelty.
Her ostracism by the ANC leadership meant she was not included among the dignitaries invited to attend the inauguration of the country’s first black president – her ex-husband President Nelson Mandela – for whose release she had devoted her life. The early ‘90s witnessed a sordid campaign to slander and belittle her role and prevent her from contesting the position of ANC Women’s League president in 1991 and the ANC deputy presidency in 1997.
Unlike so many who fled to the suburbs, Winnie remained in her home in Soweto, to retain the bonds and camaraderie with ordinary people, especially the most disadvantaged in the squatter camps. In the words of Comrade Tokyo Sexwale, she remained the champion of the “great unwashed”.
Winnie’s criticism of the direction the ANC had taken was not limited to the negotiated settlement. She sided publicly with the Treatment Action Campaign demanding antiretrovirals. Her proximity to arguably the greatest leader of the ANCYL, and now EFF, Julius Malema, is a testament to a life lived with conviction.
Her public efforts to encourage a reconciliation between the ANC and the EFF is consistent with the efforts she made to prevent a stand-off between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma at the Polokwane conference in 2007 which she feared, rightfully, would precipitate a split.
How we will miss you Mama uNomzamo when the movement you sacrificed to preserve is plagued by pornographic factionalism that knows no limit. How we will miss your humility and warmth when our hubris and self-importance ravages your beloved organisation. And mostly we will miss your belief in self-determination for our people, when sophists that have taken hostage of your African National Congress believe in the supremacy of the ideas of those that dehumanised our people.
“I am not sorry. I will never be sorry. I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything.”
These were your defiant words to the contemptible charlatans who sought to smear your reputation.
Ungqatso ulufezile, imizamo emihle uyenzile lala ngoxolo Ngutyana ,Msuthu, Msengetshe, Phapha, Makhal’endlovu, Nqwanda, Hala, Malandelwa yintombi ithi ndizeke noba awunankomo.
Rest in Perfect Peace Mama weSizwe esimnyama, a martyr! DM
Andile Lungisa is a former Deputy President of the ANCYL, President of the Pan African Youth Union, PEC member of the EC and Councillor in the NMM.