Why we will miss Mama Winnie

2018-04-08 06:01
Jeff Radebe with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at the ANC elective conference in December 2012PHOTO: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Felix Dlangamandla

Jeff Radebe with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at the ANC elective conference in December 2012PHOTO: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Felix Dlangamandla

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As the nation and the world mourn the untimely passing of the Mother of the Nation, Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, I feel like the Roman orator, writer and prose stylist Marcus Cicero when he said: “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”

I feel honoured to put pen to paper about my and my family’s appreciation of the friendship we shared with the Mandela family. She was our mentor, our adviser and our beacon of hope.

It was in Mama Winnie’s warmth that many appreciated the shoulder to cry on when faced with predicaments of life. It was to her that many sought advice on navigating through trying times in their lives. Never one to reject a request for her wisdom, Mama Winnie dispensed it with a smile when one was needed, but with equal sternness when such was deserved.

On September 26 1936, two teacher parents – Columbus and Nomathamsanqa Madikizela, uMaRadebe – had been expecting a baby boy. Not only did the young Nomzamo fulfil the duties of a boy child, such as trapping animals and stick-fighting, but she went on to bring up her brother during her mother’s incapacitation and after her death. In our interactions with her, we came across a strength of character, an infectious smile, a caring heart and a reassuring hand that was so universal as to defy all gender idiosyncrasies.

Many of us who cherished her dedication to the cause of our people are perturbed by the negative narratives being peddled during this period of national mourning. We are emboldened by the fact that real revolutionaries, of which Mama Winnie was undoubtedly one, will invite their fair share of peddlers of false narratives. Mama Winnie was not a saint. She never claimed to be one. When men and women are judged by the human eye, it is always the many good things they did over the few bad ones. Mama Winnie did more good than bad.

The girl Columbus and MaRadebe gave birth to in 1936 is hailed as a woman who stood up to and did far better than boys and grown men. Mama Winnie, throughout her life, defied all parochialisms of the preference of boys over girls.

I have no doubt that it was the leadership and insistence of formidable women like Mama Winnie that changed the course of South Africa’s history towards a gender-sensitive country.

Let me hasten to state that while the role of these formidable women has started to chip the granite of patriarchy, much more still needs to be done to create a deserved space for women in all our country’s pursuits. That will be the one honour that we pay to Mama Winnie. She spoke for all women and never complained that not all spoke for her. That to me was the true mark of a leader who did all, but never expected anything in return. She was driven by principles, not rewards.

She stood up against a powerful state of men who were hellbent on destroying her spirit and she survived. She outlived many Security Branch (a police section during the apartheid era) hard men and informers who had perfected the art of humiliating her and assassinating her character. Every death has its sorrow and mourning. Mama Winnie’s did not succumb to a broken spirit or broken bones, which her captors wanted, the isolation of Brandfort or the 18 months of solitary confinement.

The cumulative effects of these harassments cannot be denied, but to add to her resilience, she passed on only through the will of her maker and not of her captors. All her captors did was to imbue her with doses of patriotism and love for the freedom of her people. Mama Winnie’s life should continue to conscientise our patriarchal society of the same resilience that can be displayed by both boys and girls, and by both men and women when faced with the same challenges.

Even before she came to Johannesburg, her first encounter with the difference of her colour was raised when, after persuading her father to attend the end of the World War 2 celebrations in Bizana, black people were shut out of the town hall. Only white people were allowed to celebrate the victory of the Allies, despite the fact that black South African soldiers had also participated in the war.

When her father could not save a black woman who was beaten by a white shopkeeper’s son, despite his strong morality, it later dawned on the young Nomzamo that her father’s intervention could have made matters worse. She knew there and then that the domination by white people was a status quo that had to be changed. By the time she came to Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg, inequality had already struck her in Mbongweni and in Mbizana town.

As throngs of South Africans descend on her house to pay their respects, I get overwhelmed that the goodness of her heart was known throughout the length and breadth of our country. When South Africans go through this phase of loss, I am reminded of the bravery of Queen Manthatisi who, despite her small stature, carried the hopes of the Batlokwa on her shoulders through difficult and trying times. Men trembled at Queen Manthatisi’s name as much as they trembled at Mama Winnie’s.

Mama Winnie was also a global icon. In 2003, I had the honour of accompanying former president Thabo Mbeki to the Caribbean Community conference in Jamaica. The prime minister of Jamaica indicated that he wanted an audience with president Mbeki. On granting the prime minister the audience, it transpired that a whole crowd of our Jamaican friends had gathered to speak on behalf of Mama Winnie when there were perceptions that she was being treated unfairly.

This was but one example of how she was iconised by the world.

We are a luckier generation because Mama Winnie will not suffer the absence of records of the heroic struggles of the women such as Manthatisi. Our generation has been bequeathed with a wealth of the history of this remarkable woman in films, in dramas, in stage plays, in pictures and in biographies.

The cameras that were attracted to her lifelong radiant beauty will miss her. The sharp pens of authors who wanted to write about her remarkable life will be blunt. South Africans from all walks of life will miss her.

When I arrived at the hospital to check on her wellbeing, she had passed on a few minutes before. I consoled myself by kissing her forehead to bid her farewell. That kiss on the forehead will forever be etched in my mind as my last interaction with the mother of the nation.

My family and I were honoured to have shared a part of Mama Winnie Mandela’s 81 years of life.

- Radebe is minister of energy and ANC head of policy, monitoring and evaluation

Read more on:    anc  |  winnie madikizela-mandela  |  jeff radebe

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