As young people, we do ourselves a disservice by slicing and dicing our leaders and putting their contribution to our liberation on a sliding scale. Do I think the Rivonia trialists contributed more to the Struggle by deciding they would not contest a death penalty, sacrificing their lives in order to galvanise the people to finally take over their country, or a 21-year-old Thabo Mbeki who gave a compelling speech at the United Nations which directly resulted in the apartheid state sparing the lives of the Rivonia trialists, sentencing them to life in prison instead?
Do I think Madiba’s over 20 years in the belly of the beast, agitating the state with his Youth League comrades, leading a defiance campaign in 1952, which led to the treason trial, forming the MK which terrorised the state, leading to his Rivonia trial and life imprisonment, was more than Winnie’s 27 years single-handedly taking on the entire state apparatus, a one-woman army facing a ruthless force and saving many lives?
To draw this divide is to reduce ourselves, degrading the memory of the few people who did do something in a country of then 30 million blacks, many of whom had accepted their fate.
What we must accept however is how history played itself out and why some comrades are more celebrated than others.
Nelson Mandela is the most celebrated ANC leader in the history of the ANC and country and this was both a product of circumstance, a deliberate act and a result of Madiba’s own natural appeal, skill and eloquence. As a result of these three components, Madiba’s name became synonymous with the Struggle. As Mandla Langa writes:
“The liberation songs inspiring a generation of political activists, from the 1960s to the 1990s, invoked Mandela’s name.”
Indeed, he emphasised that “it was common for ANC representatives to open their addresses to the world bodies with the words “we greet you in the name of Nelson Mandela and the struggling masses of South Africa”.
Occasionally this bothered other ANC leaders, particularly the seeming separation of Mandela from the rest of the ANC collective. This is because the ANC has always put great emphasis on collective leadership, something that even Mandela was always at pains to emphasise.
The world, however, has always wanted to put a human face to any revolution and struggle, and Madiba, through his ability to capture the Struggle in revolutionary prose, his die or nothing demeanour, the best speaker of his time, his appeal, his eloquence, and yes, being telegenic, and carrying himself with dignity, always well dressed, tall and imposing, catapulted himself to this human desire to put a face on the Struggle.
Tony Hollingsworth, who produced the star-studded Mandela concerts at Wembley Stadium in 1988 and 1990, credits Mandela’s global appeal for the success of the extravaganzas.
It did not help that the ‘60s were defined by individuals who were the face of their revolutions in various parts of the world, Malcolm X in North America, Che Guevara in South America, Kwame Nkrumah in Africa, and many others. All these leaders were at pains to explain that they were but one aspect of a people-led struggle, but the world was not interested. They were individually idolised as the epitome of righteous revolutions.
The first casualties of Madiba’s elevation to this cult status were the presidents of the ANC and other highly placed and elected leaders of the movement. Responding to this sentiment, OR Tambo, arguably the greatest leader of the ANC, and partly responsible for elevating Mandela to this very cult status, said:
“We always saw no reason to change the people’s sentiment that Nelson Mandela was the president of the ANC because we have always insisted that our leaders are languishing in prison trapped by the violent apartheid state.”
Tambo had in fact ensured that internationally, Mandela’s name is spread widely as the human face of the revolution, a leader of the people who, for no reason at all, was taken away from his family and kept in hostile conditions for years on end.
As a result, Madiba walked into prison as a freedom fighter, as ANC leader, a husband, a father, and walked out almost as a god among men. Madiba of course rejected this elevation outright; in every speech he emphasised his mistakes, his faults, his weaknesses, but the world could only hear these admissions as affirmation of his humility and sainthood.
At this stage, even Mandela had lost control of his name. Mandela’s greatness was now in the hands of the people and despite telling his people he is not a prophet, that’s exactly what the people accepted him to be.
The second casualty of this elevation of Madiba to cult status was his wife and family. A husband left home and came back as a prophet who belonged to the people. The first complaint Winnie makes in the recent documentary is that after Madiba was released from prison she lost her identity, and suddenly became “the wife of”. This of course was inevitable. Those who work hard for the coming of the king almost get forgotten once the king has finally arrived. It’s the way of the world.
Even in biblical terms, John The Baptist was bitter when Christ, whose coming he had proclaimed for a time, finally arrived and John was immediately arrested and killed while Christ did nothing to protect him.
The second aspect of course was the controversy. I remember as a young boy watching Mandela on TV crisscrossing the world, forging relations, discussing trade deals, debt relief, changing the face of a country and truly living up to his prophet status. And the next day, the prophet would be going in and out of court, supporting his wife and subjecting himself to the normalcy of life, a husband standing by his wife. This was hard to swallow even for a young boy like myself. It was becoming clear that Mandela, who was our conscience and moral compass at this stage, could never belong to us and to the courts, whatever the reasons. Something had to give. Madiba, known for being stubborn and loyal to a fault, most probably did not care about this juxtaposition; he was going to support his wife, whatever the costs, whatever the sacrifice.
Winnie Mandela’s legacy however has finally been redeemed and it is one of the greatest gifts to us all. Even if she had not been mired in controversy, she could never be in the same league as Nelson Mandela, not because her contribution was less, but because Madiba was the galvanising face of the global fight against apartheid and would therefore be almost given kingly status. As the saying goes, history remembers kings, not soldiers.
Winnie will forever remain a “king” in her own domain. Since 1958, the year she married Nelson Mandela and the same year she first tasted prison, she would square up against the entire state apparatus, fighting for every square mile, for every inch of freedom, pushing back the mighty armies, standing in between the police and the people like a human shield, and would pay dearly for it. She would dust herself down and get back on the streets. There is nothing that could ever reduce Winnie’s legacy. She fought the apartheid state to a draw and then some.
Despite the many months spent in solitary confinement in prison, the daily hounding by the police, being uprooted to different parts of the country to remove her from the public spaces, she only got more resolve and became more of a headache for the state. She stood alone in front of police Caspir armoured cars demanding that the police release political prisoners, armed with only her voice and resolve – the Lion of Soweto, she would live to tell the tale. She will forever be an inspiration to all those who remain subjected to oppression and occupations by forces much bigger than they endure. Nothing is stronger than the human spirit.
Sometimes our parents don’t end up together but they will forever remain tied by the fruits of their labour, proudly reflected in us.
Thank you Mandela Family, we will never forget you. DM