During the 1980s Winnie Mandela was the public symbol, face and embodiment of the radical domestic turn of the struggle against apartheid, when the angry black youth almost independently from the ANC, moved to make the country ungovernable.
It ultimately played a bigger role in bringing down the Nationalist government than conventionally accepted by both the ANC leadership and the former Nationalist government elites.
This was the period when the ANC temporarily lost the hegemony of the domestic anti-apartheid struggle to local, mostly youth activists. These activists saw Winnie Mandela as their ANC leader, rather than the exiled ANC leadership or the veterans like Nelson Mandela imprisoned on Robben Island. The ANC, rather than directing the struggle from its exile headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, now had to frantically run to stay abreast with the internal struggle developments.
This was also the period when the National Party (NP) lost its own enforced control over blacks, partially because the youth activists of the 1980s aimed, as political strategy, to make the powerful apartheid government structures impotent under the rubric of making the country "ungovernable". Winnie Mandela was perceived by the apartheid government, white establishment and white society as the central leadership figure in this new, terrifying internal attack on apartheid institutions.
Her positioning as the pre-eminent domestic ANC leader, overshadowing for long periods the official leadership at the ANC exile headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, and the imprisoned Robben Island veterans, such as Nelson Mandela, brought her into opposition with the ANC leadership itself.
On these two accounts, she paid heavily in the post-apartheid era in terms of her personal life, political career and marginalisation by the establishment. The argument could be made that in order for the negotiations between the ANC and NP for a democratic South Africa to take place successfully, Winnie Mandela, as the symbol of the 1980s "ungovernability", had to be pushed aside by both parties.
Winnie Mandela had to "fall" for the transition to be a "success".
The struggle's "lost generation"
The essential child and youth activists of the 1980s operated almost like in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: they defied the apartheid state and their parents, elders and traditional authorities and thought of them as being too submissive to whites. They used violence to counter the violence of the apartheid state. The slogans "Victory or Death" and "No education without liberation" personified this defiance. This is the generation I cut my political teeth in as teenage activist in the mid-1980s.
Sadly, this is also South Africa’s "lost generation": they entered the new South Africa, highly politicised, but without education, and without connections to the dominant ANC exile leadership – the passports to success in democratic South Africa. Thus, this generation, unlike the 1976 generation or the post-World War II, Mandela struggle generation, has not had the tools to write their stories into the ANC and South African political rubric.
This is not to say that Winnie Mandela did not make appalling judgement errors, invited opportunists into her close circle, knowing full well that the apartheid government was bent on discrediting her, whether by infiltrating her inner circle or leaking compromising personal details.
Furthermore, she should have apologised for the actions of the so-called Mandela Football Club, her informal bodyguards, and for the events that led to the kidnapping and eventual murder in 1989 of teenage activist Stompie (Moeketsi) Seipei for allegedly spying on behalf of the apartheid regime.
She wrongly thought that apologising at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would destroy her legacy and give her ANC and apartheid detractors (who at the time, and in many cases still, have not owned up to their complicity in systemic violence against black South Africans) the opportunity to crow – rather than strengthening her own legacy for all time.
As a black African woman Winnie Mandela faced a backlash on a number of fronts. Firstly, a black woman in the apartheid mythology was supposed to be subservient, invisible and silent, doing domestic work, raising white children and cleaning up in the white household.
Her anger, defiance and public radicalism unleashed the wrath of the apartheid machinery against her. She was probably one of the most publicly vilified in the established, mainly white media. She was spied on and her personal life was pried into and the details cynically divulged by apartheid agents.
ANC a typical liberation movement
In the ANC, which was a typical African liberation movement with a guerilla wing, patriarchy was the norm. Armed African struggles often worship macho, loud and perceived to be radical males – the ANC was no different. Winnie Mandela overturned this "norm". She outmuscled, outshouted and outradicalised the radical males.
Upon the release of Nelson Mandela, Winnie, who had emerged as a national leader in her own right, now fought a political battle within the ANC and with Mandela over hegemony of the new, unbanned and reconstituted ANC itself – which she ultimately lost.
Firstly, she tussled for political control with Nelson Mandela, which she lost. Secondly, she fought for equality as a woman in her relationship with Nelson Mandela, a man who, despite all his progressive outlook, was still within the politics of marital relationships, a man of his time. Winnie also lost this fight.
It appeared he could not forgive her for the unproven rumours of infidelity that were whispered about her – something which must have hurt her deeply, given the fact that he was so forgiving of whites for their role in oppressing blacks.
In the post-apartheid era, she remained publicly defiant of both the ANC leadership and the white establishment, and continued to call for radical measures to address black dispossession as a prerequisite for reconciliation.
Unlike Nelson Mandela, who charmed white South Africans with his calls for reconciliation, Winnie Mandela remained for many white South Africans forever as the embodiment of the past and future "Swart Gevaar" (Black Peril).
- William Gumede is Chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg). This opinion piece appeared in The Guardian, London, 4 April 2018.
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