The struggle politics stifling debate on Winnie's legacy

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's legacy has been hotly debated in the wake of her death. (File, Netwerk24)
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's legacy has been hotly debated in the wake of her death. (File, Netwerk24)

There is an ancient saying that cautions against speaking ill of the dead.

Judging by 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.

Even those 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 period.

Compounding 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.

Faced with 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.

It is 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.

For making 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.

This is 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 be disbanded.

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 defiance.

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 credentials

Now, this 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.

Some were 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 and unhelpful.

Unfortunately, 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 outside.

Comparing 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 by others.

Now, those 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.

PAC 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…

Expanded 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 leaders.

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 liberation movements

In addition 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 anti-apartheid project.  

The debates 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.

In the process of hero-worshipping, some leaders developed attitudes that put them above their organisations and the people they led. They refused to be accountable.

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.

Although 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.

Madikizela-Mandela's defiance extended to the ANC

The defiance 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 foreign travel.

Granted, 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.

Professor 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 history.

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.

Those who 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 was.

- Mkhabela is a political analyst with the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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