Winnie's death captured by populist politics

Nelson Mandela with Winnie Mandela as he is released from the Victor Vester PrisonPHOTO: Graeme Williams / South Photographs
Nelson Mandela with Winnie Mandela as he is released from the Victor Vester PrisonPHOTO: Graeme Williams / South Photographs

The extraordinary beatification of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela since her death last week and the intolerance shown to anyone daring to say "yes, but" tells us a lot about the psyche of the people of South Africa a quarter of a century after the official ending of apartheid.

Madikizela-Mandela was elevated to a revolutionary angel this past week – a symbol of supreme goodness and super-human bravery. As the ultimate mother figure she is the symbol of the nobility of the titanic struggle against white domination and the awakening of black pride and assertiveness.

It is almost as if there is a yearning for a pure, noble past in order to exorcise our evil history and divert blame for the lack of progress in black economic and social emancipation.

Especially in EFF circles, Madikizela-Mandela has almost been treated in the way the faithful in North Korea treat Kim Jong Un. "Mama Winnie" suffered and died for our sins and now we have to be faithful to her vision of a New Jerusalem.

In the process it is allowed, necessary, actually, to deny or twist some events of the past and rewrite a better history. There's no room for impurity; to point it out is heresy, serving the purposes of the enemy.

At Madikizela-Mandela's funeral service, this led to the demonisation of the heroic UDF, the Truth Commission, Desmond Tutu and even Nelson Mandela himself. They acted against Winnie, thus they are the enemy.

I engaged two prominent EFF Twitter warriors on this and it soon became clear that they had no idea of the close relationship between the UDF and the exiled ANC. They thought the TRC was a white con to keep apartheid killers out of jail. Tutu was "little Satan", Mandela a "sell out" and I was a racist liar for pointing out that the actions the UDF leadership took against Winnie in 1987 had the blessing of ANC president OR Tambo and his exiled leadership.

It was all so unfair to Madikizela-Mandela. She was a human being, and a very extraordinary one, and no human being is a saint. Black and white South Africans should focus on Winnie the human being, not only on Winnie the great revolutionary.

I met Winnie face to face several times and followed her career closely during the 1970s and 1980s. She gave full meaning to the expression "magnetic personality". If you met her once, you would never forget her.

Between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s Winnie was a stronger symbol of resistance against apartheid and of black assertiveness than the ANC in exile or even her jailed husband.

She wasn't safely in jail or in exile; she was amongst her people and she was absolutely fearless and defiant in the face of the cruel, dehumanising apartheid machinery.

On top of that she was a woman in a strongly patriarchal society and the mother of two daughters.

But there can be no denying that she went a little haywire after she returned from her banishment in dusty, remote Brandfort. Perhaps post traumatic stress disorder is a part of the explanation.

I suspect it's also true that her new militancy, parading in camouflage and having her own unit of thugs, had something to do with the fact that the UDF had by the mid-1980s fundamentally changed the politics in the country. Winnie wasn't the only revolutionary show in town any more, and neither was she part of the UDF.

If we look back at her life now, we see that during all the decades that she was politically active, there were only three or four years where she really lost the plot – the days of the Mandela United Football Club that terrorised Soweto and kidnapped and killed several young activists. She participated in the kidnappings, but there was never clear evidence that she had a hand in the murders.

Julius Malema had a very special relationship with Winnie. But his sadness at her passing hasn't stopped him from cynically capitalising on her death. He is now trying to fold the mantle of Winnie the Messiah around his own shoulders, and with some success.

His callous attack on the brave and principled leaders of the UDF (and later the Women's League) who had distanced themselves from her and her "soccer club" shows everything about his political style.

The fact that Malema was only six years old when the UDF and ANC leadership attempted to discipline Winnie is no excuse for a national political leader to spread lies. In fact, he could have asked his party's national chair, Dali Mpofu, who was 25 at the time and intimately involved with the whole Winnie saga.

I thought it was ironic that the EFF relied on the propagandistic documentary film of Winnie by an arrogant white European to whip up emotions against its political enemies. Pascal Lamche explained last night that her film was a "gift" to South Africans to learn about the history they don't know – she even boasted that she was the first to speak to Vic McPherson, the nasty security policeman of Stratcom, and pretended that her exposure of Stratcom was a scoop.

The truth is that newspapers such as the Weekly Mail, Vrye Weekblad and New Nation exposed Stratcom when it was still active in the late 1980s, and that the Truth Commission summoned most of its leaders to testify about it, including McPherson, John Horak and Craig Williamson.

It was a serious mistake by eNCA to broadcast the film without insisting on edits or context or to accompany it with a panel discussion where some of the more outrageous claims could be challenged.

I agree with former Truth Commissioner Dumisa Ntsebeza when he says Lamche achieved what Stratcom would have wanted her to achieve.

Winnie was a heroic figure for two decades. I believe we should honour and remember her for that time when she showed unparalelled courage and served as an insipration to millions.

But she didn't cope well without all the attention after the ANC returned, her husband walked free from jail and the ANC formed the first democratic government.

Winnie's death has had a much greater impact than while she was alive these past three decades.

It looks like her death and the way she was worshipped after that, has radicalised our society even more.

It must be clear now that populist style politics have come to stay and that the centre is under increasing pressure.

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.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Voting Booth
Is social media doing more harm than good?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, our children are exposed and we can't protect them
49% - 3543 votes
Yes, but social media is part of the new reality
46% - 3296 votes
No, it's great for growing a child's world view
5% - 352 votes
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo