It is not normal for a society to be this unequal, hence we cannot adopt a classical approach to our challenges, writes Ralph Mathekga.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's legacy has been hotly debated in the wake of her death. (File, Netwerk24)
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There is an
ancient saying that cautions against speaking ill of the dead.
the reactions to the death of liberation heroine Winnie Madikizela-Mandela,
those who are inspired by her resistance against the brutal apartheid state are
understandably annoyed by talk of negatives in her life. They see it as an
attempt to taint her near-saintly legacy.
who agree that Madikizela-Mandela was not an angel wouldn't like to talk about
her faults, for it would amount to casting aspersions on her track record in
the struggle for liberation. Criticism could be seen as disrespectful of the
dead about whom no ill should be spoken – either forever or during the mourning
the debates about her legacy is the fact that the truth, however durable, can
momentarily succumb under the heavy weight of emotions. It can briefly give way
to false stories on the basis of which either praise or criticism is anchored.
the falsification of facts by the critics of Madikizela-Mandela, Justice
Dikgang Moseneke, one of her lawyers in the Stompie Seipei abduction case, reiterated
what is already in court records and judgment: that Madikizela-Mandela was
never convicted of murder.
apparent that her detractors had hoped for a different conclusion. Their wish,
however, must not stand in the way of facts.
On the other
hand, in the face of the risk of glorifying Madikizela-Mandela as an
unblemished soloist in the struggle for freedom, former president Thabo Mbeki
stepped in to clarify that she was, in fact, part of a generation of liberation
fighters. Her role should, therefore, be understood in that context.
this observation, Mbeki has come under heavy criticism because his remarks in a
television interview were perceived as a cold attempt to reduce this great
freedom fighter to mere otherness.
despite the fact that Madikizela-Mandela herself had acknowledged the influence
other women leaders had had on her. Madikizela-Mandela's role in the struggle,
those who disagree with Mbeki seem to suggest, was very special. She was
subjected to unspeakable treatment and had her dignity violated in detention
and banishment. This is entirely true.
But they go
further: As a result of her undisputable resilience, her mistakes must not be
highlighted in the course of celebrating her legacy. Mbeki had dared mention
some of Madikizela-Mandela's weaknesses, including the fact that she defied the
leadership of the ANC, which wanted the controversial Mandela Football Club to
It has been
suggested that Mbeki should have kept his thoughts to himself. He is, after
all, a man who spent most of his struggle life in exile abroad. It doesn't
matter that, as someone who worked closely with Oliver Tambo, he would have
personally known the attitude of the ANC leadership towards Madikizela-Mandela's
Nor does it
matter to his critics that his own family had suffered pain. His father was
imprisoned on Robben Island, his mother harassed by security police and his own
son, who disappeared, is feared dead at the hands of the security police.
The divisive issue of struggle
brings us to one of the divisive issues in the ANC and other liberation
movements. It is the issue of struggle credentials within and between
liberation movements themselves. It is often spoken about in hushed tones. But
it occasionally and unseemly reveals itself in the public domain – that some
people suffered more than others in the course of the struggle for freedom. It
is often said that some were genuine activists while others were not.
more ANC or more PAC than others. Even pain – something so personal, so
individual and so deep, that people suffered in various contexts – is subject
to judgement through the ugly lens of relativity. One struggle hero could be
said to have suffered more pain than another. These kinds of comparisons are unwarranted
Madikizela-Mandela herself was guilty of making such comparisons. In her
biography, she commented about what she perceived were better conditions experienced
by those imprisoned on Robben Island compared to those who were harassed
the pain she and her children suffered with the experiences of others, she
wrote that the prisoners on Robben Island were "cushioned" behind the
island's prison walls. This kind of comparison is unhelpful and insensitive.
Not only does it ignore the hunger strikes, humiliation, slave labour, complete
isolation from society, and other horrible things on Robben Island; it also
makes a moral judgement through the undesirable lens of relativity about pain suffered
who seek to downgrade Madikizela-Mandela's suffering at the hands of a brutal
apartheid system and her heroic defiance are as wrong as she was herself in
seeking to downgrade the pain of others. But she was not the only one who made
the mistake of making a relative analysis of suffering.
adherents would often talk about how the revered Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe
should be better appreciated than Mandela because he was held in isolation on
Robben Island. Unlike Mandela and other Rivonia trialists, Sobukwe's activism compelled
the apartheid Parliament to pass legislation that became known as the "Sobukwe
Clause", specifically to prolong his stay in prison after he had served
his sentence for committing a crime of fighting for freedom.
It is, of
course, true that Sobukwe was subjected to this kind of treatment and that no
specific law was ever crafted for Mandela. And it is also true that not much
has been done to honour Sobukwe.
No right to judge people's individual pain
But it is
wrong to make a moral judgement that Sobukwe was a better liberation hero than
Mandela and that he suffered more or less pain than Mandela and others. Pain is
an individual thing. We have every right to compare and judge their strategies
arising mainly out of their differences on the Freedom Charter. But not the
pain they went through. The pain that all liberation fighters went through was
specific to their individual circumstances.
Yet, it was
shared through the value of human solidarity – what the apartheid architects
and subordinates lacked. It was shared because the struggle they led,
regardless of political affiliation, exile or "inzile", it was not
for personal benefit. It was for the oppressed majority.
The pain was
shared by the very public nature of the struggle. It was not a private affair. It was also shared because some were
literally locked up in groups and tortured.
You have to
have a heart of stone not to be moved by the accounts about Vlakplaas death
squads or the gallows, among many horror stories. But the idea that some people
suffered more pain than others is very dangerous as it seeks to create artificial
classes among the leaders of freedom fighters. Stimela, the music band led by
the late Ray Phiri, were correct when they sang in Whispers in the Deep that:
We are all tributaries of the great
river of pain/
Flowing into one ocean/
There is only one motion/
All our pains flow into it/
But it did spill over/
Spill over the waters of love/
Into a great nation of love…
further, such comparisons of painful experiences that ignore the message from
Stimela often take the form of comparisons between those who went into exile
and those who remained in the country during apartheid.
A war of
words broke out about this ahead of the ANC's 54th elective conference
after one of the presidential contenders, Lindiwe Sisulu, implied that those
who had experience in exile (a group that includes her) would be better
She later on
retracted her comments, but not before she was accused of having been "cushioned"
in exile while others suffered. But how the matter ended is no guarantee that
it poured into Stimela's ocean of love.
Hero-worshipping an integral part of
to the unhelpful comparisons of painful experiences, many in the liberation
movements battle to reconcile the individual efforts of leaders and collective
efforts of ordinary people that contributed to the execution of the
about Madikizela-Mandela's legacy is a symptom of the problem. Hero-worshipping
became an integral part of liberation movements. Beautiful songs have been
conceived in praise of certain heroes. Yet, the professed humility and
selflessness of leaders required that, as individuals, they should not be seen
to be above their own organisations, which recognised collective effort. Nor
should they look down on the people they led.
process of hero-worshipping, some leaders developed attitudes that put them
above their organisations and the people they led. They refused to be
After 1994, those
leaders took it further, put themselves above the democratic rules of the new political
order and the constitutional provisions crafted to regulate their conduct. As
regular media revelations show, some went to the extent of stealing from the
people they were supposed to serve.
there are many testimonies of Madikizela-Mandela's commitment to community
upliftment, a valid criticism against her is that she did not fully subscribe
to the post-1994 rules. But her defiance was not because she was reckless or
wayward as some of her detractors suggest. Rather, the brutality unleashed on
her might have had the opposite effect of what was intended. Instead of
breaking her, as the apartheid regime had wanted, it hardened her defiance
against forms of authority in general.
extended to the ANC
extended to her own organisation. She refused to subject herself to the
authority of her president, Nelson Mandela, who had appointed her deputy
minister of arts, culture, science and technology. She described the conduct of
his office as "clumsy", "unprofessional" and "inept"
after she was dismissed from her job for refusing to follow Cabinet protocol on
Mandela at first didn't follow the Government of National Unity's procedure
that required consultation with other parties before making changes to Cabinet.
But even after he corrected his mistakes, Madikizela-Mandela was defiant. She
contradicted Mandela in many respects before and after her dismissal.
Some of her
detractors have judged her for her affair with Dali Mpofu, one of the ANC's
young activists. But missing in this "judgement" is the fact that
Mandela himself had acknowledged that it would be impossible for him to expect
that, young as she was, she wouldn't have a relationship while he was in prison
for an unknown period. All Mandela had asked for was discreetness – a request
she rejected in her actions.
Njabulo Ndebele wrote an excellent novel, The
Cry of Winnie Mandela, that sets a proper context to her extramarital
affair. The novel makes it plain she was not the only woman who faced the
dilemma: to wait or not to wait for a husband who might not come back.
It would be
helpful to appreciate Madikizela-Mandela's legacy in its entirety. More books
and movies should be produced to explore all angles of her rich life story, a
complex South African story that holds many lessons for all who care about our
She was a
human being. This means she had weaknesses and she would have made mistakes.
Fortunately, her flaws – acknowledged and publicly discussed as they must be
for a public figure like her – pale into insignificance when contrasted with
her extraordinary courage.
are hostile to the discussion of her legacy as a whole are unwittingly denying
her her full humanity and are remaking a new Winnie Madikizela-Mandela that never
- Mkhabela is a political analyst with the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa.
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