Mother of the nation

2016-10-05 06:00

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 Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

When her face was flashed on South African TV screens 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 was all about how she has managed to remain so beautiful.

It is as if South Africa has begun a new love affair with Madikizela-Mandela, who in the past has 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 life.

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.

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 Madikizela­-Mandela during the Rivonia Trial in the early sixties. Even then, there was a fascination with her beauty. Photographers scrambled for pictures of the regal wife of the most famous trialist.

It was almost as if the world was distracted from her pain 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 leadership roles. 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 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. 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. The internal and external leadership were forced to scramble to distance themselves from the statement.

Many of those who adored her didn’t know what to do with their love for her during the scandals of the late eighties, nineties 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 two.

The only time that there has been 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 tribute from celebrating her beauty. Such a narrative imprisons Madikizela-Mandela in a cubicle that says she is just a hard political being. It also restricts ordinary people’s relationship with her to a political one. That would be a lie.

The Madikizela-Mandela SA fell in love with was a beautiful young woman from whom her revolutionary husband drew strength.

• Mondli Makhanya is the editor-in-chief of City Press.

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