Opinion: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at 80: A life of deaths

Posted on October 07, 2016


This article first appeared in Afrikaans on Netwerk24.

The life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela bears testimony to the damage of apartheid. Damage so extensive that the phrase 'crime against humanity' cannot capture it adequately.

The damage is more than the consequences of the 'big' crimes of institutionalised racism and the accompanying violence, the pillage and the deprivation of essential resources. This damage is also due to the everyday destruction of people's lives and the intimate, repetitive cruelties.

But that's not all. The social tissue of South Africa also consists of continuous resistance against colonialism's relentless dehumanisation. The imagining of something different – that is, of the possibility to live together in human dignity.

All these dimensions can be found in Winnie's life of 80 years. The human possibility. The crimes against this human, committed in service of injustice. The resurrection of a person in opposition to the injustice. Still more crimes, but this time in the name of resistance. And then even more crimes in a perpetuation of a logic from which there seems to be no escape.

In his wonderful book, The Cry of Winnie Mandela, Njabulo Ndebele gives us his imagined version of Winnie's perspective on her life/lives. He empathically captures the complexity as well as the horror: '''How many lives does she have left before she's finally lying flat on her stomach?'' they speculate. Even I cannot tell. I'm just grateful for the many lives I'm supposed to have. I hope they're right. It's good to know I can die many times and stay alive. I'm intrigued, though, by the idea of dying before death.'

What does it mean to die before your death? To survive numerous deaths? To live a deathless death?

In 2013, Winnie gave her own account at the launch of her book on the 491 days she spent in solitary confinement: 'You are imprisoned in this little cell. When you stretch your hands, you touch the walls. You are reduced to a nobody, a non-value. It is like killing you alive.' That was 1970, the year she was reduced to a non-value. She was 33 years old. She wanted to commit suicide but without her daughters knowing it was suicide. Her life of deaths began.

In 1997 I bought two items at the ANC Women's League conference in Rustenburg. One is a simple porcelain side plate on a plastic stand. It bears the image of a young Winnie with a string of pearls, a blouse typical of 1970s fashion and her fist held high. The other item is a t-shirt with an image of an older Winnie. It bears the words 'Mother of the Nation'.

Winnie became elevated to a symbol: by the 1980s she was the 'mother of the nation' in the popular discourse. In 1990, once again with her fist raised high, she led the man who was named father of the nation from Victor Verster prison: Nelson Mandela.

Decades previously an intelligent 21-year-old social worker met a dynamic lawyer, 18 years her senior. They married in 1958. Because of the prolonged treason trial in which Nelson was one of the accused, they had little time together before the day he asked her to pack a suitcase for him. It had been decided that he would go underground. Neither of them knew that he would be gone for 27 years.

Winnie was probably not that politically active before she met Nelson, despite hagiographical presentations. His imprisonment changed it all. Left behind as an ANC leader's spouse, she was swept up in the political maelstrom. But, apart from packing suitcases, women had limited space as political agents at the time. According to political scientist Shireen Hassim, women were second-class members of the ANC.

As in Afrikaner nationalism, women's role in African nationalism was built on motherhood. For example, Alfred Xuma, ANC president in die 1940s, wrote an obituary on Charlotte Maxeke in which he omitted her successful campaign against pass books for black women, but was sure to emphasise her 'dedication' to her husband and her being a 'loving mother'. Winnie was a different kind of mother activist.

Her resistance was counteracted with solitary confinement, house arrest and banishment to far-flung Brandfort. After nine soul-destroying years of loneliness and isolation she finally returned to Soweto. When the father of the nation guardedly entered into dialogue with the Botha regime, the mother of the nation declared in Munsieville in 1986: 'Together, hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country.' It was the era of states of emergency, police hit squads and the murderous Civil Cooperation Bureau.

The spiral of deaths accelerated. Because of counter-revolutionary infiltration of anti-apartheid structures, paranoia was rife. Winnie embarked on a terror campaign with her 'lieutenant' Jerry Richardson and gang of homeless children known as the Mandela United Football Club. In 1991 she is charged with the abduction and murder of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei. On appeal, her six-year prison sentence is reduced to a fine.

Winnie's numerous deaths come with numerous lives. She resigns from all ANC positions, but resurfaces as president of the ANC Women's League in 1993. After the transition to democracy Nelson becomes president and Winnie deputy minister, a position she loses because of alleged misappropriation of funds.

In 1997 she keeps her position as president of the ANC Women's League despite ongoing controversy about her club's killing of and assaults on children. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (TRC) findings implicate her in abductions, assaults and murders involving at least 12 people.

In the early 2000s she is back in court, this time for fraud linked to insurance for league members who would never see the pay-outs. Another appeal, and her jail sentence of five years is suspended. Still she is elected to the ANC's national executive committee in Polokwane in 2007.

What remained of Winnie after her numerous deaths is revealed at the TRC's hearing on her club's atrocities. Archbishop Desmond Tutu pleaded with her: 'If you were able to say "something went wrong" ... and say, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, for my part in what went wrong". I beg you, I beg you, I beg you… Your greatness will be enhanced if you said, "sorry, things went horribly wrong".' She then apologised to some of her victims. However, on that very same day members of the league harassed and intimidated Mananki Seipei, Stompie's mother, at the venue where the hearing took place.

As the story of the mother and father of the postapartheid nation unfolded, it came to be that Nelson was the one who brought peace and reconciliation, in contrast to Winnie's violence and terror. But perhaps it is time for us to remove the weight of the symbol from Winnie – and remember how her life was turned into deaths.


Prof Christi van der Westhuizen is an associate professor at the University of Pretoria and author of White Power & the Rise and Fall of the National Party.



- Author Prof Christi van der Westhuizen

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