Mam' Winnie was the tree that carried the fruits of our freedom

Cyril Ramaphosa and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in Soweto during an ANC drive for voter registration (Photo: Gallo Images)
Cyril Ramaphosa and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in Soweto during an ANC drive for voter registration (Photo: Gallo Images)

The last time I saw Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was on March 10th of this year. 

She was part of ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa's campaign to urge South Africans to register to vote in what is expected to be another highly contested national election.

She still had that devastatingly warm smile, was full of life and gave no clues that she would be gone three weeks later. 

On the day she, in fact, told the ANC that she was going to accompany Ramaphosa to Maponya mall after declaring that the ANC was yet again to win a two thirds majority of the vote.

As a journalist, I had been walking with Ramaphosa from 06:00, and frankly, I was over the "Ramaphoria" that gripped Soweto and just wanted to catch up on the Saturday I had already lost. 

The SABC’s acting political editor Sophie Mokoena and Zizi Kodwa, head of the president's office at Luthuli House, convinced me to join the euphoria that accompanies a head of state's visit to a shopping mall. 

Earlier we had seen Mam' Winnie re-register for next year’s elections. She had that glow that weakened you at the knees. Her physical beauty always captivated me to distraction.

Every time I was in her presence, it was one of the few moments I wondered about my life – being able to hug a liberation hero, sometimes silenced by the hero worshipping moments I experienced.

Despite the negatives that followed her life, I was always in awe of the remarkable black woman she was. 

As a young journalist I battled with the descriptions of her by some leaders, even in the party she dedicated her life to. Often they described her as the woman who "kept the memory of her husband alive when he was in prison" instead of celebrating her decades of fortitude and dedication to fight and win against apartheid. It was never her singular contribution to who we are today as a nation.

History and present times' narrative reduced her to being Nelson Mandela's ex-wife.  

She was hardly ever referred to as a dedicated servant to the liberation of South Africa and her people. She was never given her rightful title as the woman who took on the regime that tried to break her at all times and emerged victorious on the other side, unshaken and refusing to give up.  

She was always cast in Madiba's shadow despite being imprisoned, harassed, tortured, and banished to Brandfort – forever under the evil eye of the apartheid regime. 

Her ability to inspire millions was what made her the enemy of the oppressor, deserving of our praises and gratitude.

The beginning of her life's story was always about a young woman who Mandela fell in love with, captivated by her beauty, despite the fact that at the time he coincidentally became "woke" about what role he would play against the apartheid regime. 

In between that story he gave her children and she was left alone at a young age while he was imprisoned and she kept her husband's name alive. She kept the aspirations for a free South Africa alive.

In some of the stories, she was described more as a duty bound wife who was chosen by a great man. Her own political awareness was hardly recorded. 

Later, her alleged links to the kidnappings, assaults and tortures by the Mandela United Football Club dominated her life's story. Her name became synonymous with the murder of Stompie Seipei and she became known as the woman who never lived up to becoming the country’s first democratic state lady.

She was imperfect, as all of us humans are, but that she loved us was never in question. 

The book, Winnie Mandela: A Life by the late Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob, gave me a quote that has stayed with me. Mam' Winnie was referred to as "a product of her history" – and that she truly was.

The quote helped me understand her life's story. She was the tree that carried the fruits of our freedom. She spoke truth to power against apartheid and even against the democratic leaders of the ANC. She refused to be silenced, speaking out against the ills that to this day plague her party. 

She inspired so many, from Zizi Kodwa, to Julius Malema and Mbuyiseni Ndlozi. 

She crossed the political lines, gracing Ndlozi's PhD celebrations with her presence. As she celebrated his achievements she acknowledged the people of Orange Farm – a township that in many ways represents how far we have come, and still have to go in the economic liberation of our country. 

Ordinary people were always first in her heart. 

She was not afraid to celebrate the ANC's nemesis, the EFF, for strengthening Parliament and holding former president Jacob Zuma to account. 

Madikizela-Mandela was for black women, often silenced and expected to be on the side lines of this nation's life, a voice and an inspiration. 

On that last day at the Nandos at Maponya mall as she waited for Ramaphosa to conclude the crowd mobbing, she pronounced on Zuma’s presidency in words that left me gobsmacked.

I wonder what would have happened if she had accepted the nomination to be the ANC's deputy president in 1997 and contested Zuma.

I join the nation to bow in sadness but also in celebration of her contribution to who we are today. Defiant to the end and never afraid to speak her mind – Mother of the Nation, we are because you are.

- Mahlase is politics editor of News24.

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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