They say history is written by the victors. The funeral of Mandela seemed to reinforce this aspect of history being rewritten from the perspective of the victor to suit the white supremacist agenda. Obama claimed, “Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the Twentieth Century.” I disagree. History is not always written by the victor. There are competing narratives written by others and the subterranean. We are privileged to have an overwhelming number of heroes within our midst and the victor/oppressor doesn’t decide our heros for us.
It is impossible to talk about Nelson Mandela’s without acknowledging the monumental contribution of Winnie Madikezela-Mandela. She is one of the most understood woman in the liberation struggle. She has played many roles such as social worker, political leader, mother, care giver, public speaker, revolutionary freedom fighter and to many in South Africa, she is the Mother of the Nation. Her role in South African history cannot be undermined by strangers who have never come clean about the role of the CIA and America in the surveillance that led to the arrest and consequent incarceration of Nelson Mandela. Winnie is a woman whose liberation struggle credentials speak for themselves.
By the time Barrack Obama was born on August 4, 1961, Winnie was already fighting against Apartheid. She was born and raised in the Transkei. She distinguished herself as a leader and became the first black qualified social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto in 1955.
In the mid 1950s, she became actively involved in the ANC; she later met Mandela in 1958 while he was on trial for treason. They married soon after and she gave birth to two daughters, Zenani and Zinzi.
Their family life was destroyed when Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Winnie never got to live a normal family life as many people have. She was left ill-equipped by an unjust system to raise two young girls as a single parent. Anyone who is a single mother, or a mother knows how taxing it is to raise children without the support of a partner or husband. She was left to protect and educate her daughters alone. At the same time, the Apartheid regime kept her apart from her children to punish her and torture her soul and spirit. Nevertheless, Winnie remained politically active and refused to remain silent keeping the Mandela name and the struggle against Apartheid in the national and international conscience.
Winnie was harassed repeatedly on a daily basis by the Apartheid regime and she was eventually sentenced to house arrest in Brandfort as a means to silence her for speaking out injustice. She never knew if she was going to sleep at home or in a police cell because of her political activities. She was banned for up to 15 years serving five years at a time. She wasn’t allowed to even go into the street in Brandfort. It was supposed to keep her out of sight and out of mind. It also stripped her of company and any intellectual stimulation with a community of like minded individuals.
She didn’t know the language of the sleepy and rundown town she was sent to but she soon learnt and radically transformed that area politically. This is what made Winnie Mandela a dangerous element in society, hence, the need to gag her by any means necessary. But she remained a defiant and outspoken firebrand fighting for the people of South Africa and to keep the Mandela name in the public.
When she was questioned if she believed if she would see a free South Africa in her time, she was absolutely convinced. She went on to explain, “That is why exile is so worthwhile because I am absolutely certain that we shall attain our liberation. And even being in exile is a constant reminder of the sickness of our society. We are virtually in prison even in our country, those who are outside prison homes are simply in a bigger prison because the black man is virtually a prisoner. And all those fellow whites and other groups that are as oppressed as we are, we are all in a bigger Apartheid prison.”
In Brantford, she had to go to the local post office to receive calls from her daughters because she was under house arrest and they could only call at certain times. She was kept isolated from them to torture and break her down. The system did everything within its power to humiliate Winnie and break her spirit. No matter what they did to her, it strengthened Winnie Mandela’s resolve.
Winnie resumed her struggle after spending 9 years in Brantford and again took the spotlight in the struggle to against Apartheid. Although her fight for liberation has been dubbed controversial, she was a woman without a choice. She didn’t have the tools, resources, media, state institutions and various arsenal the Apartheid Regime had at its disposal.
Therefore, in extreme circumstances, extreme measures are justified. She fought the only way she could against a regime that used brutal violence to stifle legitimate protest. She was at war against a regime and she fought a war that most of the leaders never got to experience. While the liberation leaders were locked up on Robben Island, Winnie Mandela was in the frontline fighting the ignoble regime by any means necessary. She was organising on the streets, actively involved in the underground movement and creating publicity while facing harassment and humiliation by the regime.
Unless one has walked in Winnie Mandela’s footsteps, it is very difficult to criticise her because you would need to face the same moral and personal dilemmas she faced in the struggle against Apartheid. It is a miracle she escaped with her life because hundreds of others who dared to challenge the Apartheid Regime didn’t live to see Independence. Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe are some of those. The list is too long to mention.
Many assume Mandela was attracted by Winnie’s striking beauty. But many underestimate how her strength played a part. Her strength is reinforced by her belief that her people should be equal. She believed there should be justice for black people. She played many parts and is a leading figure in the fight for women’s’ rights. She served the poor, conducting fundraising events and assisting those in the ghetto who were less privileged than she was. This is illustrated by her huge grassroots following; her love for the people is equally reciprocated.
Winnie has continually shown that she is very resilient. Her strength and ability to adapt is evident in her ability to multitask while raising two girls under Apartheid, having to avoid imprisonment, evading police, keeping Mandela’s memory alive while she was also playing a leading role in the underground movement.
The release of Nelson Mandela was the highlight of Winnie Mandela’s struggle for liberation. She never looked back and was appointed as the President of the ANC Women’s League in 1993. She still continues to serve on the party’s national executive committee.
For over three decades, Winnie Mandela stood by Nelson Mandela’s side. Even after her divorce from Mandela, she continued to be his companion and was often seen by his side to the very end. There is little a man can ever ask for with such a strong, beautiful, black woman by his side, making his struggle her own struggle and the struggle for the rest of the oppressed masses in South Africa. Whatever wrong Winnie Mandela may have committed, her struggle for the liberation of a free South Africa marks her as one of the greatest liberators of the Twentieth Century. Without Winnie there might not be a Nelson Mandela.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s only fault is that she is too outspoken and remains a firebrand who has refused to cool down with age unlike Mandela who emerged from prison a shadow of his former revolutionary self. Winnie continued to fight while Nelson took a backseat content with the historic compromise. Winnie refused to see racism as the root cause of Apartheid oppression but also identified that Apartheid thrived because of the economic system.To date, Winnie remains outspoken and critical about the historic compromise, the TRC and Mandela walking hand in hand with his jailor to receive the Nobel Peace prize. She also remains critical at the state of the lack of transformation in South Africa and continues to champion the poor.
Unlike many of her revolutionary comrades who have morphed effortlessly into the black bourgeois and forgotten the struggle, using their credential struggles to accumulate wealth, Winnie has remained an isolated figure clamouring for the rights of women and black people. She frequently engages in events highlighting the lack of transformation in South Africa and simultaneously waging the fight for women’s rights and redefining the frontiers of this unending battle.
Her biggest enemy is the white patriarchal economic system which has repeatedly attacked her, demonised her and snubbed her portraying her as a loose canon. Winnie has repeatedly waged a dignified war against oppression and Apartheid. If the white patriarchal system endorses Patrick Henry’s role in sparking the American Revolution and fight against domination by another nation, then, why is Winnie demonised for making an equally bold stance? Is it because she called for violence against whites, who happened to be the oppressors who created and ran this Apartheid System?
Winnie Mandela is no different from Joan of Arc in answering a higher call at an early age to lead her people to victory over those who wished to politically, socially and economically subjugate her people. Winnie remains outspoken on issues regarding racism which Mandela resolved by sticking band aid over deep seated wounds. At an address for women’s rights in Chicago, Winnie declared:
“Discrimination against black women is multi-pronged, multi-sectoral and transgenerational. Black women are discriminated by white supremacy; they have to contend with male prejudice fed by patriarchal notions, they suffer abuse from white women who are also beneficiaries of white supremacy. At the same time, they are expected to form alliances with these women to defeat male privilege. They are expected to be in solidarity with their male folks to fight racial oppression. In this regard they have little choice. They cannot sit on the sideline and watch the black male being reduced to an endangered species. After all, these men are the fathers of their children, the lovers, and their sons. In short, there is no other species that understand oppression as black women do.”
The contents of her speech don’t reflects the mind of a loose canon but an individual with a strong moral conscience and a deep thinker. Black women suffer three times as much discrimination as other groups because of her class, race, and gender. Winnie’s moral and intellectual qualities are often underplayed or totally ignored in the mainstream media. It is sometimes forgotten that she became the first qualified black social worker at the age of 19 during Apartheid. Such jobs and avenues of studies used to be reserved solely for whites. So one can only imagine how hard and smart Winnie had to be to excel in this profession. It also seems to be her grounding in social work that allows her to be so insightful in matters that concern society. She doesn’t wince in the face of power and continues to speak to power as illustrated in her Chicago speech:
“We survived apartheid and are now faced with a challenge of defeating global apartheid and global gender discrimination… Our successes should not lull us to complacency. The forces of evil continue to refine their strategies to fight back. We need to constantly remind ourselves that our oppression has economic and material interests. Our oppressors spend sleepless nights trying to reclaim the lost territories. We cannot defeat the specter of racial discrimination without a clear-eyed analysis of what constitute racism. We need to debunk those analyses that are unhelpful to our cause. Our understanding of the drivers of racial oppression should empower us to address other forms of discriminations – gender, class, religion and sexual orientation.”
No one can doubt Winnie’s sincerity in the fight against Economic Apartheid. Her rallying cries upset the idyllic picture painted of South Africa as a Rainbow Nation. Ironically, there is no colour black in the rainbow. Her fight is clearly to overturn the white supremacist structure in the fight for justice. This partly explains why Winnie remains marginalised by that same structure that controls the media and constitutes “popular” or “international” opinion. There is nothing popular or international about that opinion: it is the opinion of a tiny minority that constitutes the white middle class. They control and run the western media.
Claiming the late Nelson Mandela was the last great liberator of the Twentieth Century is wrong. That is a discredit to the likes of Winnie Mandela and others. She is a true heroine who can only be compared to legendary female icons like Nandi [mother of Tshaka], Assata Shakur, Queen Nzinga of Angola and Ambuya Nehanda from Zimbabwe. We cannot compare Winnie to the likes of Rosa Parks who refused to get up on a bus during the Civil Rights Movement in America. She spent a great proportion of her life in isolation when she was exiled by the Apartheid Regime. But that wasn’t enough to break the will of Mother of the Nation. She was not physically imprisoned but her banning orders meant she was in prison at her own expense. The extreme isolation imposed on her wasn’t enough to silence her indomitable spirit. Winnie Mandela is a struggle icon equal to if not greater than the late Nelson Mandela.
By the time Obama read about Mandela in the eighties, Winnie Mandela was at the forefront of the liberation struggle against the ignoble Apartheid regime for over two decades. We can forgive Obama for overlooking our warrior queen but we should never forget our heroines and heros. She has continued fighting taking off where her former husband left off when he retired from frontline politics. There is an African proverb that states, “Until the lion learns to speak, the tale of the hunter will glorify the hunter.” It is our duty to document our history and challenge the dominant or victor’s narrative so that the people never forget our heroes. True heroes and heroines are also flawed and that is why Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is a great liberator of the Twentieth Century without a doubt. I salute this intellectual revolutionary and Mother of the Nation. Aluta Continua: the struggle continues!