Even in death, Mam’ Winnie can’t catch a break


As South Africans mourn the loss of a mother, international news outlets have provoked ire for the way in which they have covered the death of anti-apartheid stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

The New York Times said her triumph over apartheid was “overshadowed by scandal”. The BBC reduced her to being Nelson Mandela’s former wife in a one line breaking news brief, and Reuters referred to her as “tainted”. Reuters went even further, headlining how Madikizela-Mandela went from “‘mother’ then ‘mugger’” of democratic South Africa. TIME magazine, said Madikizela-Mandela leaves behind a complicated legacy which was not pristine.

As some of Madikizela-Mandela supporters have pointed out on social media, the NYT, for example, was far kinder and measured towards Margaret Thatcher. They dubbed her the “‘Iron Lady’, Who Set Britain on a New Course” in one headline.

Throughout her life, Madikizela-Mandela has had to fight. And now it appears, the battle will continue even in death.

There were the 491 days of isolation in prison, and her banishment, with her infant daughter Zindzi, to rural Brandfort in the then Orange Free State because the state could no longer contain her influence as she was attracting global attention as one of the most prominent faces of the anti-apartheid movement. While Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, growing his political intellectualism, Winnie was carrying the coffins of freedom fighters the regime had killed.

In response to a deadly regime, she also made deadly threats: “Together, hand in hand, with that stick of matches, with our necklace, we shall liberate this country.”

It is that quote, and the fate of Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, that has emerged as a key detraction of Madikizela-Mandela. When international headlines or her critics in South Africa rally against her, it is mostly because of the perception she orchestrated the murder of a teenage boy.

Madikizela-Mandela made the remark about necklacing during a speech at Munsieville, outside Johannesburg in 1986, when flaming tyres were used as weapons to kill in the so-called “black-on-black” violence period towards apartheid’s end.

The death of Seipei, three years after that speech, would add further hostility against Madikizela-Mandela as speculation spread she and her Mandela United Football Club were responsible for his death.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) never found Madikizela-Mandela guilty of murder, but did find that she was involved in abductions and “initiated and participated in the assaults” that were alleged against her.

Since then, in the minds of a vocal and powerful many, Madikizela-Mandela has owed an apology for her actions.

At the TRC, after then Archbishop Desmond Tutu pressured her, Madikizela-Mandela apologised to Seipei’s mother and for other misdeeds she was accused of. She was pushed into the apology, even as the old guards of the apartheid regime were let off the hook, despite many never having expressed remorse and spinning tales that the commissioners knew were not always true.

The TRC was an exhaustive and largely ineffectual exercise. During the apartheid era, she had fought against patriarchy within the liberation movements in South Africa and against the oppression of apartheid. For the errors in her judgement, such as the infamous necklacing quote, she would be expected to apologise for the rest of her life. The TRC further cemented the perception of her criminality by making her the only ANC member to appear before the commission and punishing her more than it did the architects and perpetrators of apartheid.

In this spotlight of forced atonement, Madikizela-Mandela was laid bare. And while international headlines may lambast her, for many in South Africa, particularly the women who stand by her, she was all the more human and relatable for her nakedness. She was not a struggle icon who was inaccessible, but one whom every women could connect with on myriad levels.

There are experiences she embodied that are intimate to many women in this country. Such as, how only men are praised for accomplishing the same feats women have conquered – and there are many women who fought bravely against oppression but have been written out of history. Mam’ Winnie’s reputation has been eternally marked by her decisions, yet men who have taken similar actions have been championed. Women in South Africa know all too well what that feels like.

And so it is women, that have rallied behind Mam’ Winnie while her detractors still expect an apology from her grave.

Even as broadcasters air footage of moving tributes and grief-stricken Sowetans – neighbours who knew Mam’ Winnie personally and community members she had assisted – it is still the memories of her alleged sins that are being exhumed.

While the dichotomous memories must exist side by side, in her final departure, Mam’ Winnie has taught women that even in death a woman will never be good enough.

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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