70 years on, Winnie still unvanquished

For some it is for the courage and leadership she demonstrated when she led the African National Congress’ women’s wing while for others it is for her fortitude when her then husband, Nelson, languished in an apartheid jail for close to three decades.

There are those who marvel at her staying power, even after being accused of infidelity by a man as revered as Madiba, to the point where whatever she does makes news. And for others still, there is the manner in which she has remained politically relevant some 12 years after the end of apartheid.

All of this has led some people to surmise that the former South African First Lady is the proverbial cat with nine lives.

In fact, in more ways than one, she is still a First Lady in her own respect and on the 26th of September 2006; Winnie ‘ born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela in Bizana Village in 1936 ‘ celebrated her 70th birthday.

Controversy has dogged Winnie over the years and perhaps it is this fatal flaw in her character that has made her so human while arousing so many disparate sentiments towards her by different people.

One of eight siblings, her mother taught home economics at a local school and her father worked in the Forestry and Agriculture Department of the Transkei government (now incorporated in the Eastern Cape).

Winnie’s mother died when she was just eight but she had a good schooling to fall back on as she was educated in Bizana and Shawbury and later received a Diploma in Social Work from the Jan Hofmeyer School in Johannesburg.

And though her family was significantly better off than other non-Whites, for her to get so far was remarkable in an apartheid South Africa that frustrated the ambitions of Blacks and totally destroyed those of Black women.

Despite all the odds stacked against her, she managed to attain a Bachelor of Arts (International Relations) degree from an institution as hallowed as the University of Witwatersrand.

It was while working at the Baragwanath Hospital as a social worker ‘ the very first Black social worker ‘ that she came face to face with the horrors of apartheid.

Her daily contact with ordinary, impoverished Black South Africans opened her eyes to the stark injustice of the economic, political and social system governing her country.

With her increased awareness of the world around her, she began to move in nationalist circles and was introduced to ANC members.

The 1950s marked the defining years in Winnie’s life as it was in this decade that she was first arrested and detained. All was not bleak though, as this was also the time she met a young lawyer by the name of Nelson Mandela.

The two got married against the advice of Winnie’s father who felt that the lawyer was too engrossed in national politics to give her a stable family life. Little did he know that his daughter was also destined to be a national politician who would in the coming years, together with her husband, come to embody the struggle against apartheid.

In 1962, Nelson was to go to prison, where he would spend the next 27 years of his life, and the police State restricted Winnie’s movements to Soweto. In a move that was to become characteristic of her political life, she defied this order and went to visit her husband in a Cape Town jail: a decision that cost her a month behind bars.

Winnie was actively involved in the 1976 Soweto uprising and ended up spending six months in prison after which she was banned from returning to Soweto. The State placed her in the town of Brandfort and kept her there for some nine years during which her house was attacked and she received numerous death threats. Even then, she still went to Soweto time and again and each time she was caught she was thrown behind bars.

Winnie’s stature in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the larger liberation struggle in the Southern African region grew up until the time shocking allegations were made against her a few months before Nelson’s release from prison.

In 1989, a 14 year old activist Stompei Seipeu Moketsi ‘ who some say was an informant for the apartheid police machinery ‘ was kidnapped and found murdered. Allegations were that her personal bodyguards had murdered Moketsi on instructions from Winnie.

And though her husband stood by her, the ANC leadership declared she was out of control.

She was formally charged in 1991 and was convicted and sentenced to six years in jail. However, this sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal.

Relations with her husband nose-dived and after an initial separation, the two divorced in 1996 with Nelson accusing her of adultery.

In 1997, Winnie appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was accused of race-motivated murder and assault during the apartheid years. It was soon after defending herself against these charges that she dropped controversial plans to run for the ANC deputy presidency.

Predictably, her relations with the ANC leadership was frosty to say the least but the ‘Mother of the Nation’ remained hugely popular with ordinary South Africans who looked at the charges against her as attempts to destroy her credibility.

To them, she was still the same Winnie Mandela of whom Hugh Masekela famously sung: “Free Nelson Mandela, bring him back home to Soweto, I want to see him walking hand in hand with Winnie Mandela.”Winnie Madikizela Mandela

Writing on the occasion of Winnie’s 70th birthday last week, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem said there is an endless debate about whether or not Winnie would have been famous without having wedded Nelson.

Tajudeen’s conclusion is that such a debate demeans women’s value in general and that of Winnie in particular.

Whether we love her or hate her, Winnie’s contribution to South Africa and Africa as a whole can never be understated.

As Martin Meredith noted a few years back: “Winnie Mandela is a survivor. You don’t have to admire her manner, or politics to admire her ability to come back again and again.”

And at 70 years of age, there are many out there who will be wishing her many more birthdays.

October 2006
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