‘One of our pillars has fallen’ ― Zuma pays tribute to Winnie Mandela

Former president Jacob Zuma delivered a touching tribute to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, calling the ANC stalwart a leader whose contribution to liberation can never be doubted.

Zuma visited the house of Madikizela-Mandela in Orlando West, Soweto on Wednesday to pay his respects.

Wearing a dark suit and red tie, a visibly sombre Zuma kept his head bowed at times and his hands respectfully crossed over his waist.

Speaking to journalists outside the house, Zuma explained how he heard of Madikizela-Mandela’s passing whilst he was staying in the village of Nkandla. He drew laughter from those around him when he referred to the village as the “famous Nkandla”, in reference to the furore around his infamous “security upgrades” to his homestead in the area.

The former president remarked how her death had come as a surprise, because no matter how many times she went into hospital, she was always discharged.

“I came [here] after hearing shocking news. I must say I was shocked because I’m in the rural area. We were sitting when the news appeared to say our mother is no more. I couldn’t believe it because in the recent period she would go to the hospital and come out and this had become almost a comforting thing that whenever she went she would be going for a check-up and she would come back,” he said.

“I had not even heard she went to the hospital so it was a big shock,” he continued.

Her sudden passing, he said, was not only a shock to her family, but also the world.

“Of course, we will all end up departing this earth, but as you know it is always a painful experience and a painful thing that one of the family departs from us. But it is more felt when we take Comrade Winnie Mandela into herself what type of a person she was: not just a mother to the family, but a mother to the organisation the ANC, [and especially] a mother to the nation,” he said.

Zuma’s words were in stark contrast to those of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki’s tribute to mam’ Winnie.

In interview with eNCA on Tuesday night, Mbeki drew some surprise when he said that Madikizela-Mandela was always “deliberately” late because she wanted attention. He claimed that it was a flaw of Madikizela-Mandela which he publicly berated her for and she “knew she was wrong”.

Mbeki’s comments were perceived by Madikizela-Mandela mourners on social media to be disrespectful.

Zuma himself had had tough moments with the struggle heroine, namely when she stood a chance to oppose him for the seat of deputy president in the ANC at the party’s conference in Mafikeng in 1997.

Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema charged that during that conference, male leaders in the ANC – particularly Mbeki and Zuma – had “robbed” Madikizela-Mandela of her rightful place in the party.

But on Wednesday, standing outside the gate to her house, Zuma left the past behind, focusing instead on her legacy as a struggle stalwart and leader. His words come at a time when Madikizela-Mandela’s contribution to the struggle has been the subject of criticism and conjecture because of her alleged involvement in the death of Stompie Seipei.

“We’ve lost a mother, a leader, a comrade, [and] a cadre of a special type. No-one can doubt her contribution that she did shorten the distance to our final day of liberation,” he said.

“She was a leader recognised not just within the ANC, but by the country, but by the world. Not just because she was the wife of our leader, our icon, Nelson Mandela, but because in her own name and right she made a contribution to our struggle. A very remarkable and noticeable contribution,” he said.

“There are many who joined the struggle because they saw her fighting with her husband in prison, not knowing when he will come out,” he continued.

“She represented many of the mothers who had their husbands in prison, in exile, whose names are not known. Some of them will never be known. She represented that type of a citizen in our country.”

Zuma honoured her courage, remembering her time in exile in Brandfort in the Orange Free State, and her detention and isolation at the hands of the apartheid regime.

“Her bravery to face the enemy was something beyond understanding as a woman. She was brave, she was politically clear, she could not be confused by anything. She was at the same time a mother of many,” he said.

“To us it’s a big loss. To us there is a pain of losing a mother, of losing a comrade, of losing a leader who has seen it all. She has been detained, tortured, exiled within the country, harassed perpetually. But she stood, because she knew she was a leader.”

Zuma thanked President Cyril Ramaphosa for honouring Madikizela-Mandela with a state funeral saying it is fitting of her legacy. The former president expressed his gratitude to her family.

“One of our pillars has fallen, one of our leaders has departed,” he said.

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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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