Winnie falls from grace -- into a state of isolation
Tuesday afternoon outside the Rand Supreme Court was vintage Winnie Mandela—the cameras and the halogen lamps, the throng of adulating admirers, the excitement and the mad hysteria, the populist smile and the clenched fist raised umphantly. Only the context was different.
The saga of Winnie Mandela had just drawn to a dramatic climax in the courtroom and the 56-year-old leader who was once idolized as the mother of the nation had been sentenced to six years in prison for kidnapping four youths and being an accessory after the fact to assault.
What was incongruous about the moment was not simply Mandela’s apparent lack of emotion and the way that she betrayed not even a split-second of bewilderment, let alone remorse, in the dock. It was that, far from being a cause for celebration, the day marked the probable demise of her own political career,—a career that she had fought hard for against all the odds.
Irrepressible as she is, it will be too much to expect Winnie Mandela to fall silent. But, as the legal proceedings enter the tortuous process of appeal, her political role can only be increasingly divisive. To the black youth in the streets the Winnie Mandela mystique lives on, no matter what the verdict of white man’s justice. They treated her like a conquering hero as she left the supreme court.
Mandela’s supporters could argue, quite rationally, that even if she did hold Kgase, Mekgwe, Mono and Stompie, this was far less than the regime itself at the time by incarcerating thousands under the official cover of the State of Emergency and the Internal Security Act. And who can deny that, from Mandela’s point of view, there is something entirely unjust in the same state which held her in solitary confinement for 17 months in the late 1970s declaring her guilty of depriving people of their liberty.
But the issue here is not a trade-off of wrongs. It is that Winnie Mandela no matter what her past and who her connections, has brought the movement into disrepute. A clear indication of her future political prospects was the fact that on her final days in court not a single major ANC figure other than her husband attended. This was in marked contrast to the beginning of the trial in February when liberation movement leaders such as Chris Hani, Joe Slovo and Alfred Nzo attended the hearing daily.
Winnie Mandela was then still on the political rebound, behaving in public like the wife of a future state president. For her it was a triumphant return from die day two years earlier when die leadership of the Mass Democratic Movement had distanced themselves from her over the events of December 1988 and January 1989, including the death of the 14-year-old Stompie.
Mandela’s relationship with elements of the movement had always been uneasy. That was partly because of the type of woman she was. She was not just a wife, but an ambitious woman whose dominant feature in a male-oriented environment was political chutzpah. Articulate and charismatic, Winnie Mandela was transformed into a media icon (an irony given that, according to her own account as she stood on the supreme court steps on Tuesday, it was the media who eventually brought her down).
Back home, she was dogged by controversy. Her statements such as those on neck-lacing articulated what many thousands of alienated black youths in the eye of the township rebellion felt, but were too embarrassingly frank and tactless for the liberation movement. There was more. The whiff of corruption and scandal followed Winnie Mandela.
She built a mansion for herself in Soweto, amidst the poverty of her people. She attempted to offer the international rights to the Mandela family name to Bob Brown, a Reagan-supporting black American with a shady business past, at the same time as Brown arranged a lucrative scholarship at Boston University for her daughter Zenani.
But it was the activities of the Mandela United Football Team, a gang of street toughs who lived in the back rooms of her home in Diepkloof Extension that finally drove her relationship with the internal anti-apartheid movement over the edge in 1989.
While the court case continued, the tide was again turning against Mandela. But the first real glimpse behind the curtain of silence that the ANC had maintained around the Winnie saga came three weeks ago with the elections for the presidency of the ANC’s Women’s League. Mandela was defeated by a landslide. That set the scene for this week’s even more damaging judgment.
Though Nelson Mandela again publicly upheld his wife’s innocence and expressed confidence that the verdict would be overturned on appeal, the ANC issued a remarkably neutral statement saying they believed the last word on the matter had not been spoken but electing to leave it in the hands of the courts.
Mandela was there on Monday to hear Mr Justice Stegmann deliver a withering critique of his wire’s veracity in the witness box, calling the one-time social worker a “calm, composed, deliberate and unblushing liar”. The main finding was that she had conspired to kidnap four youths from the Soweto Methodist manse in 1988.
Rejecting Mandela’s denial of any involvement in the kidnapping, Stegmann found: “To imagine that all of this took place without Mandela as one of the moving spirits would be like imagining Hamlet without the prince.” Mandela’s poise in the dock was somewhat at odds with the roasting that her reputation was subjected to in the judge’s carefully argued five hour summary of the trial proceedings.
Those who had attempted to predict the judgment on the basis of what political considerations would rule it underestimated the extent to which Mr Justice Stegmann would play the trial by the book. Time and time again he impugned Mandela’s credibility, using the terms ‘vague, evasive and lacking in candour” to describe her performance in the witness box.
Listening to all this, a downcast Nelson Mandela cut a solitary figure in the cramped public gallery—an aged gentleman in a white raincoat. Perhaps part of the complex tragedy of Winnie Mandela is that, even in her downfall, she will not be able to be her own person. It will be in the effect on her husband’s psyche at a time when peace in the country is in the balance that Winnie Mandela’s fall from grace will at the end of the day be measured.