When the rains finally came to Orlando Stadium in Soweto, it was hard, fast, and with a measure of violence – like the life lived by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whose coffin, wrapped in the flag of the new nation she helped forge, the downpour had come to bless.
The pallbearers, brigadiers and rear-admirals from the South African military held their line, and their funereal pace, as they moved her mortal remains out of the stadium and onto the gun carrier that would take it through the streets of her home Soweto to its final resting place in Fourways Memorial Park.
That the urban guerrilla whose life had experienced the direct and untrammelled violence, torture and denigration perpetrated by the apartheid state – a condition she shared with so many South Africans who did not go into exile, or were not imprisoned – was getting a military send-off, was apt.
It was a final, fitting, recognition of the Mother of a Nation, who was also one of its sharpest spears. Mama was Mkhonto – forged in the fire and brimstone of the 1980s state of emergency, in solitary confinement, in banishment, in relentless harassment. The life of a South African in a country controlled by a racist junta.
This was a point recognised by President Cyril Ramaphosa when he delivered the eulogy. Madikizela-Mandela’s convictions and conscience “left her with no choice but to resist” an unjust regime, Ramaphosa said.
“She felt compelled to join a struggle that was as noble in its purpose as it was perilous in its execution.”
Ramaphosa recognised that Madikizela-Mandela had “felt compelled to organise, to mobilise, to lead when those who led our people had been sent across the bay to [Robben] Island, whilst others were forced to flee beyond our borders or were martyred by a state that knew no mercy.
“She felt compelled to pick up the spear where it had fallen. It was a spear that, throughout the darkest moments of our struggle, she wielded with great courage, unequivocal commitment and incredible skill,” he added.
“She was an African woman who – in her attitude, her words and her actions – defied the very premise of apartheid ideology and male superiority. Proud, defiant, articulate, she exposed the lie of apartheid. She laid bare the edifice of patriarchy,” Ramaphosa said.
In death, Madikizela-Mandela was finally being recognised as the warrior, one who had to make hard decisions about how struggle was to be conducted inside the country, on streets rendered ungovernable.
A middle-aged man whose clothes had faded from circumstances that denied him sparing them overuse recognised this. He accompanied Madikizela-Mandela’s body out the stadium with his anguished voice: “She is my mother! She is my mother! She is my mother!” he shouted out.
In the VIP seats ministers, lawyers, businesspeople and hangers-on sighed and mumbled and whispered “Hamba kahle Mkhonto”.
Our wounds were her wounds and vice versa, Ramaphosa had said.
“During this period of mourning many South Africans have been touching Mam Winnie’s wounds. It ought to have been done long ago. For she wore the gaping wounds of her people.
“She had been left to tend her wounds on her own for most of her life. Left alone to fend for herself only caused her more pain. But she touched our wounds all the time. When we lost our loved ones, when people were in pain, overcome with anger, prone to violence, she came to touch our wounds. She bore witness to our suffering. She bandaged our wounds. We did not do the same for her,” he admitted.
“We must continue to touch Mama’s wounds, acknowledge her immense pain and torment, and pass on the stories of her suffering to future generations so that it may always be known that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was a giant, a pathfinder, a soldier, a healer, a champion of people’s struggles and forever the Mother of the Nation.
“We must also recognise our own wounds as a nation. We must acknowledge that we are a society that is hurting, damaged by our past, numbed by our present and hesitant about our future… Many people saw Mam’ Winnie as their mother because her own wounds made her real and easy to relate to.” said Ramaphosa.
For Ramaphosa, Madikizela-Mandela’s 80th birthday party two years ago hung spectrally over his address. He remembered the recitation of Maya Angelou’s poem, ‘And still I rise’ – an apt description off her life.
He remembered the promise to go to Marikana with her and Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema to visit the widows of the 2012 massacre of the striking mineworkers who worked for the platinum company where he had been a non-executive director.
Ramaphosa, who had also remained in the country in the 1980s building up the National Union of Mineworkers, recognised the volatility of her life then. He admitted the abandonment Madikizela-Mandela had suffered:
“Like so many of our people she has lived with fear, pain, loss and disappointment. And yet each day she rose with the nobleness of the human spirit,” he said.
“They sought to denigrate her with bitter and twisted lies, but still she rose. They wanted to see her broken, with bowed head and lowered eyes, and weakened by soulful cries, but still she rose. As we bid her farewell, we are forced to admit that too often as she rose, she rose alone. Too often, we were not there for her,” said Ramaphosa of the leaders of anti-apartheid movement.
As he rain lashed down with a final fury before the skies cleared again, and the sun re-emerged, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s coffin winded its way slowly past Orlando stadium. A passing train tooted its horn loudly as the ordinary people walked beside her for one last time. They had always been with her, and she with them.