Ma Winnie: Nothing left to shock us

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela during an interview with the City Press newspaper at her home in Soweto in 2010. (Photo by Gallo Images/City Press/Leon Sadiki)
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela during an interview with the City Press newspaper at her home in Soweto in 2010. (Photo by Gallo Images/City Press/Leon Sadiki)

There will always be a serious temptation to explain Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in one way or the other. Not that it is wrong, desirable or undesirable. It is simply that either way we are dealing with a phenomenal person. I don’t want to say a phenomenal woman for fear of entering the terrain of then dealing with the issues of a woman instead of a person. If you want to know the true dark secrets of people, wait until they head to the divorce court. That is the point when even a teaspoon is a big issue.

I have read with great interest Mondli Makhanya’s opinion piece on Mama Winnie. I read it over and over again, not because I found anything wrong with it per se. I dare not shoot the messenger. I was just intrigued at what supposedly comes from senior people within the movement, particularly those parts which seek to explain the narrative that Mama Winnie was an unguided rebel and had serious lifestyle issues. It may not help to even try and mount a defence for her. Like Makhanya, we can only rely on hearsay, speculation and opinion.

No doubt there are many views about who she was and what she stood for. Of course, much positive stuff has come out from unexpected quarters, such as former security police operatives. The most telling is that a vicious campaign was run by the security establishment to tarnish her image and that of the ANC. Most interesting is that this comes into the open immediately upon her death. One wonders whether there is more to come.

There is a significant part of the entire narrative that one hopes will be told one day. That is whether within the broader movement there were no forces, either on their own or in collusion with the security establishment, that participated in the campaign to vilify her. One good thing about Mama Winnie is that anything bad to be said about her has been said already. There is very little that can come out and shock anyone. What, however, remains the really interesting part is the degree and extent of truth in what we have already heard.

At a point we heard that one of the areas of discomfort with Chris Hani was his militancy. Like Mama Winnie, we hear stories of how some, even in senior leadership, were uncomfortable with some of his pronouncements. One still has to hear more when those with accurate information are ready to tell us. I raise this because it appears that Mama Winnie was a source of discomfort. I am not suggesting that those who were uncomfortable were wrong. The reality is that the history of the ANC tells us about militants as far back as 1949. Surely militancy must be militancy and can only vary in expression.

Often leaders say what those they lead want to hear. Not because the original idea comes from the leader, but because already the ground dictates the terms of engagement. The impression created is that Mama Winnie would have been this political thug who slept and woke up with a box of matches in her hand. It appears that, because she addressed public platforms and said things, then those were original ideas. It may sound weird to say this, but the reality is that the real militancy started when a decision was taken to embark on the armed struggle. The pronouncements and the mood then cannot be said to have been friendly. There was more hard talk than that heard from Mama Winnie. That talk itself was just not hard talk, because it resulted in death and serious injuries for others. War started using more deadly material than a box of matches. It is possible that, even if we attribute the idea of the matches to Mama Winnie, we can count the instances when it was used – compared with the war arising from the armed struggle. All I am trying to say is that context will always be important.

It is dangerous, knowing how elective conferences of the ANC work, to assume that she would have been elected deputy president. The reality is that popularity per se is no ticket to election into a top position. It, however, makes sense for the purpose of the narrative that she was prevented from being elected. If that were so, many who should never have been eligible would have been prevented. But more than anything, the true insult is to the delegates at that conference. The reality of the narrative implies that they were reduced to puppets. Elections at ANC conferences start at branch nomination level.

Another dangerous impression created is that FW de Klerk woke up one morning to decide that very day that Nelson Mandela was to be released. In fact, before Mandela was released, Walter Sisulu and others were released. It was known that Mandela would follow. It sounds disingenuous for anyone to create an impression of some sudden emergency. On the contrary, we should be asking questions whether Mama Winnie was not in fact kept in the dark about when Mandela would be released. Those who told Makhanya that they had to go look for her should please stand up and answer questions about whether they indeed knew on a sudden emergency basis that Mandela was to be released, having regard for the fact that his release was a process.

It does make sense for anyone who has already declared their discomfort with her to construct a narrative that they had to go and look for her and found her in a state. I am not saying they didn’t. But that they had to go and look for her in the first place tells a story. The painful part of this story is when the very people who declared you a discomfort do not even know where to find you, but can remember that you are critical for an activity they need to execute.

I assume that the real suggestion is that she was so drunk wherever she was. I must say that I see people very drunk on a daily basis. I see people so drunk who cannot even walk. I am not saying that it is proper. I am just interested to understand why it is such a big issue.

Apartheid security operatives have now come out to say some members of the Mandela United Football Club were their agents. I have heard that the ANC in exile suffered the same fate of being infiltrated. I have heard about askaris. Maybe what is different here is whether she had the capacity the ANC had to deal with its own infiltration.

When people become estranged, expect any of them, as they head to the divorce court, to throw as much mud on to each other as possible. I agree with Makhanya that we should not see her as a villain or a saint. Everything said and done, patriarchy is not an excuse here. I have no doubt that those who put up this narrative are males. I am saddened that her beauty becomes part of the narrative. I am of course probably ignorant to think that her being a woman was not the true mainstay of the resentment. She was as a woman expected to behave in particular way.

Having regard for what she went through during her life, she remains a phenomenal person.

- Mannya is a former public servant and an advocate of the high court

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