If Nelson Mandela was a saint, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his wife, would be a fallen angel.
While their marriage survived prison, it could not withstand freedom. After 38 years, they divorced.
As Mandela went for reconciliation and forgiveness, Winnie came out with enduring scars borne from the torture she survived from the white apartheid government that thrust her tumultuously into violent and continued struggle against oppression.
This may have damaged her reputation, but her place as South Africa’s mother of the nation was sealed from the beginning.
When Mandela was detained on Robben Island and significantly cut off from the struggle against white minority rule, a whole nation looked at a woman for its face and spirit of hope and courage in search of freedom.
Having experienced death during her 491-day in solitary confinement, later placed under house arrest, her home set ablaze and banished from her town and people- all these strengthened her resolve to fight for South Africa.
“I no longer have the emotion of fear, there is no longer anything I can fear. There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn’t any pain I haven’t known. I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy,” she said.
The woman, who emerged from this lyrical, poignant, tragic life, better read than lived, was proud and humorous throughout her life, with a majestic sense of the self.
In Africa National Congress (ANC) and its uMkhonto we Sizwe paramilitary wing, Winnie was a voice of reason. Her judgement was widely respected.
At times, she was such a free spirit who never minded the political roadblocks. She attended and patronised Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Party meetings. She publicly fell in love with the group’s gospel of economic salvation while maintaining her allegiance to ANC, the party of Mandela.
As Winnie might have noted, the ANC compromised too much during the transition. Like Malema, the son she got on to love and admire as the leader of the ANC Youth League, Winnie remained radical.
Throughout her 81 years of life, she believed that the struggle to liberate South Africa was not finished and that the ANC had to do more to deliver the promise of freedom.
While Mandela’s image of a president and peacemaker found its way around the world, Winnie’s brand of justice could never be elated by white imperialists.
To many of them, her radicalism and politics had a veil of hate and deserved no space in the mythology of a rainbow nation, one that lied to itself it had reconciled with its past—but not.
Among the people who know South Africa’s silently loud struggle for economic and cultural decolonisation, with skewed land ownership at the heart of the conversation, fuelled by the born-frees that have found reason and voice with time, Winnie Mandela will remain revered.
For a good number of people that will assume the negotiation table that Madhiba left, they find inspiration from Winnie to bargain with white power on black terms, to buy back significant freedom not in compromise and false integration.
In the EFF, the party of ‘her sons’, it is no surprise that Winnie Mandela’s historical meaning is cherished and renewed in service of new political warfare that is thriving on militancy and an insistence on now in its effort to topple the status quo and usher in an unknown future.
It is, therefore, not surprising today that all those who knew her, to all of us who heard and read about her are touched by her spirit of resistance and partake in reaction to her death. n