Just hours after the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ANC leaders started to flock to her home, reminiscing about their shared moments with the fallen freedom fighter and offering condolences to her family.
Many of their comments on her legacy were well received. But a tribute by former president Thabo Mbeki prompted harsh criticism.
“I’m saying that some of that activity would even verge on recklessness. For instance, this incident when she said something to the fact that with our matches and necklaces we will liberate the country, that was wrong,” Mbeki said.
The comments sent social media into a frenzy. “We are mourning and he is busy insulting the legacy of uMama Winnie,” read one comment. “At times, silence is golden,” read another.
Mbeki’s comments were, however, reflective of how Madikizela-Mandela was once viewed by a generation of ANC leaders — one that labelled her a charlatan, an attention seeker and a populist, questioned her ability to lead and may have been complicit in her becoming a political pariah.
Post-1994, Madikizela-Mandela became a thorn in the ANC’s side, a crass reminder of the image the party no longer wanted to portray. She was a sharp contrast to comrades whose hearts had been softened by long prison sentences and lonely years in exile.
She offered constant, unfiltered reminders that the liberation project remained incomplete without economic freedom. She dared to question ANC leaders and publicly criticised the work of a democratic government she had fought for. Through her brazen actions, her own party would develop what she would later refer to as “Winniephobia” — an irrational fear or aversion towards her.
1989: The first sign of shame
One of the earliest indications that Madikizela-Mandela was to become a political pariah was her public rejection by the United Democratic Front (UDF) when allegations of the kidnapping and murder of Stompie Seipei surfaced against her.
The mass movement cut all ties with her for “violating human rights in the name of the struggle against apartheid”, said UDF secretary Murphy Morobe. The movement also urged the black population to distance itself from her.
The allegations would severely dent her political image and, even after Jerry Richardson was convicted of Stompie’s murder, would still be used to fuel the disdain against her.
1991: Sowing seeds of doubt
In 1990, Madikizela-Mandela was charged with kidnapping. Nelson Mandela, her husband at the time, expressed confidence in her innocence. So did the ANC. But by 1991, when Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of the crime, she appeared to have lost the unwavering support of the ANC.
“The last word on this entire affair has not yet been spoken. We elect to leave the matter in the hands of the courts, fully confident that in the end the truth will emerge,” the party said at the time.
The ANC Women’s League would also see her as too controversial, electing Gertrude Shope as its president at its 1991 conference.
Although none in the ANC publicly voiced their suspicion about Madikizela-Mandela’s role in Stompie’s murder, when she was hauled before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) years later and implored to apologise by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, she viewed it as an act of betrayal by her comrades.
She would later tell the TRC that she suspected her ex-husband of being part of a plot to discredit her.
1992: Affairs, fraud and exits
In 1992, Madikizela-Mandela resigned from all ANC structures after she was accused of taking R160 000 from the party’s social development department, which she headed up, and giving it to her deputy, Dali Mpofu, with whom she was said to be having an affair.
Her resignation came just two weeks after Mandela announced their separation. The ANC’s national working committee gave an assurance that she had resigned voluntarily.
Although the party appeared to take a neutral stance, the alleged affair would later be used by senior ANC members to demoralise Madikizela-Mandela during her 1997 election campaign.
1995: Democracy and downfall
The ANC’s 1994 election victory and rise to governance would be the start of Madikizela-Mandela’s fiery attacks on her party.
In 1995, at the funeral of police officer Jabulani Xaba, who was shot by a white colleague, Madikizela-Mandela accused the ANC of failing black people by not dealing with racism in the workplace. Already unpopular in sections of the party because of her radical persona, her comments added fuel to the “Winniephobia” in the ANC.
By that stage, Madikizela-Mandela was president of the women’s league. Her public denunciation of the ANC saw 11 senior league members resign in revolt against her leadership.
It is alleged that the speech also gave Mandela the impetus to remove her from his Cabinet. A month later, Madikizela-Mandela was no longer deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology.
She was accused of lacking team spirit, defying the president and attempting to sow divisions by criticising the government. Her axing would be the last time she would hold an executive position in the democratic government she had fought for.
1997: Personal vs the political
“Winnie Mandela should have been president of South Africa, but men in the ANC were threatened,” Economic Freedom Fighter leader Julius Malema said this week.
This narrative could be viewed as oversimplified. The presidency, after all, is not a reward for suffering during apartheid. It involves branch nominations and elections — which Madikizela-Mandela embraced in 1997 when she stood for ANC deputy president against Jacob Zuma.
In an article in The Star, with national executive committee (NEC) member Steve Tshwete’s byline, she was labelled by her own party as a “wayward charlatan”. The line between the personal and the political blurred when her perceived sins against Mandela were unearthed to shut down her criticism of the ANC.
“She tends to believe that everyone is against her and therefore resorts to strange behaviour to attract attention,” the article read. “For her to try to denigrate the president after the terrible pain she has caused him not only smacks of insensitivity but also serves … those who want to undermine social transformation.”
Madikizela-Mandela would abort her bid to become deputy president but the insults would not abate.
2001: New century, same chaos
“Winnie Mandela liked arriving late, alone, at gatherings because she wanted to be applauded when she enters,” Mbeki said this week, reflecting on their public tiff in 2001.
That year, during a June 16 commemorative event, Mbeki brushed off her attempt to greet him on stage. It caused public fury but the ANC defended its leader against an “attention-seeking” Madikizela-Mandela.
“She is determined to flaunt her disrespect for the occasion and for everybody else; she marched on to the podium and proceeded to enjoin the president into her tomfoolery,” said ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama. “President Thabo Mbeki went on to protect himself from this caper.”
Perhaps in an effort to mend past wrongs, she was returned to the ANC’s NEC in 2007 and reinstated as an MP by a new generation of leaders who embraced her, flaws and all.
However warm the ANC was towards her before her death, the physical manifestation of her legacy tells of her shunning. Unlike other leaders, she has no airport named after her, no smiling face on bank notes, no towering statue. The house she occupied during her eight-year banishment in Brandfort stands dilapidated, with unfulfilled promises of turning it into a museum.
What she does have named in her honour, however, is an informal settlement in Ekurhuleni, east of Johannesburg. Perhaps that is where her political legacy will best be remembered — among the people she refused to leave behind.