Falling in love with her all over again

2016-09-25 06:07
beauty beyond words Winnie Madikizela-Mandela over the decades. Inset: The day she married Nelson Mandela

beauty beyond words Winnie Madikizela-Mandela over the decades. Inset: The day she married Nelson Mandela

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Isn’t it funny that the biggest talking point in the past two weeks – other than #FeesMustFall campaign and the amusing frustration of Kaizer Chiefs fans – has been the timeless beauty of one Winnie Madikizela-Mandela?

When her face was flashed on television screens around South African during her birthday celebration, social media went berserk.

The memes were wonderful. The most popular was one that juxtaposed her picture with one of a much younger 54-year-old minister who allegedly used to fill up her tub with Smirnoff when she took a bath.

The following morning, the conversation around water coolers was all about how she has managed to remain so beautiful in her later years.

To this day, the subject is still dominating chatter in nail parlours, gyms and places of liquid recreation.

It is as if South Africa has begun a new love affair with this individual who has in the past been the cause of division, the target of derision, the object of adoration and, in many instances, of worship.

As she turns 80, there seems to be an overwhelming outpouring of love for Madikizela-Mandela.

It is an outpouring that seeks to blot out the controversial parts of her public life. This amnesia seeks to highlight only the heroic parts of her eight decades on Earth.

The new love affair reflects the complex relationship South Africa has had with the Mother of the Nation, as she became known while Nelson Mandela was in prison, which is as complex as the person herself.

Although she was a familiar figure in political circles and among those who read the so-called Black Press, the world was introduced to a young Winnie during the Rivonia Trial in the early 1960s.

Even then, there was a fascination with her beauty. Photographers scrambled for pictures of the regal wife of the most famous Trialist.

Those pictures became timeless and were published and republished around the world during Mandela’s incarceration.

It was almost as if the world was distracted from her pain and suffering as she attended a trial that she knew could make her a young widow or, at best, a single mother for a long time.

The imprisonment of Mandela and his comrades thrust some of their spouses into an unsolicited leadership role.

While some were reluctant, others, such as Madikizela-Mandela and Albertina Sisulu, accepted the thorny crowns.

Over the next three decades, they would evolve from being just the wives of Trialists to being leaders in their own right. They became the rallying point of a revolution that had lost its leadership to prison, exile and death.

The apartheid government reacted brutally. They were banned, detained and generally subjected to torturous harassment.

South Africa’s relationship with the two women was an interesting one. Sisulu was the maternal mother, who was treated as an elder in the internal resistance movement.

Although she had proved her leadership mettle and demonstrated great political acumen, Madikizela-Mandela was always the glamorous firebrand. There was as much reaction to her beauty as there was to her powerful and defiant oratory.

The focus on her looks was never disrespectful or sexist – it was during this period that she became known as the Mother of the Nation, a sign that she was seen as a protector.

Even the pictures from her angry public speeches and of her sad face while she was being harassed were hauntingly beautiful.

When other leaders were preaching non-violence in the face of unrestrained violence on the part of the state, she was prepared to speak the language of the streets.

Only she could utter the immortal exhortation that “with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country”.

That phrase earned her love among the oppressed, and virulent hatred on the other side of the divide. The internal and external leadership were forced to scramble to distance themselves from the statement.

There were always the pictures and the disbelieving discussions about the woman who didn’t want to age despite her suffering.

Many of those who adored her didn’t know what to do with their love for her during the scandals of the late 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Many found excuses for her to justify their unconditional love.

Those who were angry were always drawn back to her. Even during her divorce from Mandela, emotions were split between the strong Mother of the Nation and the leader of the nation.

In the past decade of Madikizela-Mandela’s life, the refusal to age became the topic of many animated discussions.

The only time that there were concessions about her ageing was during the mourning period for her former husband in 2013, but then came the rejoinders that it was because she was in emotional pain. But the topic was there.

There have been many birthday tributes to Madikizela-Mandela in recent weeks. Tributes to her courage, her wisdom, her leadership and her resilience.

But political correctness has prevented those paying public tribute from celebrating her beauty and her stubborn refusal to age.

Such a narrative imprisons Madikizela-Mandela in a cubicle that says she was just a hard political being. It also restricts ordinary people’s relationship with her to a political one. That would be a lie.

The Winnie that South Africa fell in love with was a beautiful young woman from whom her revolutionary husband drew strength.

The Mother of the Nation, who inspired young and old in the 1970s and 1980s, was not just a political firebrand, but also someone men and women could easily take to.

The national elder who chastises today’s corrupt and selfish leaders is a grandmother the nation finds easy to embrace.

At least her recent television appearance opened that door and allowed South Africa to revisit the pictures through the decades and marvel at her agelessness.

And to fall in love with her again.


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