Monday, April 9, 2018 11:28 am
By Femi Olugbile
At last it is at an end – the story of Winnie Madikizela Mandela. At least the real-time, earthly phase of it. Her story reads like an epic struggle, a titanic battle against impossible odds. It is at once a horror story, and a story of the transcendental triumph of the human spirit.
Nadine Gordimer – the South African Nobel Prize winning author, writing during the heyday of Apartheid, when White Power loomed so big and strong, spoke of the awe and sense of wonder with which she was viewed even among the circles of hard-boiled Afrikaners who hated her most.
She was so-o beautiful, was Winnie. Her beauty – to the end – remained an in-your-face, whether-you-like-it-or-not beauty that seemed designed to be shoved proudly and without a jot of fear in the faces of people she disliked, and who disliked her too. She carried herself like a queen. It was no pretense. There was no putting on of airs. It was obvious to all that in her mind, where it mattered most, she was a queen. She expected that the world, friend and foe, treat her as such. In this, as in much else, she generally got her way.
Winnie Mandela! Mother of the Nation, as many call her, even now.
For many years, she was the face of the Black Liberation Struggle in South Africa. There were other symbols, of course. There was Nelson Mandela himself, her husband and the father of her two daughters, who was in prison on Robben Island. There were eminent figures in exile, such as Oliver Tambo. There were cadres fighting the war in the jungle, making incursions from Mozambique and other areas. There were younger men such as Cyril Ramaphosa, who were stirring up the neighbourhoods, mobilizing the youths and Labour Unions.
Nadine Gordimer herself was a remarkable lady, a white South African with huge popularity and a certain street-credibility among the intellectual denizens of black Africa during the horror days of Apartheid. Theseincluded the noisy corridors populated by the Ibadan and Ile Ife ‘radical’ writers and critics such as Femi Osofisan and Biodun Jeyifo, among whom her works were freely discussed.
You would yourself experience her presence on one notable occasion during the early nineteen eighties, when she came to give a public lecture in Edinburgh. The city fathers had decided, at the ceremony, to honour her by giving her the key to the city.
At that lecture, she brought home to her audience the reality of the system of Apartheid, and the war against it. She spoke of a new Africa struggling to emerge from the dark shadows of oppression. Her audience was made up of Scottish academics of various hues, and students – many of whom had only the sketchiest of perspectives on issues in Southern Africa. Their views, such as they were, were influenced largely by American daily and weekly publications, such as NEWSWEEK The received wisdom in the Press and intelligentsia at the time was that black ‘liberation movements’ were really no match for the well trained ‘white’ armies of South Africa and its Portuguese allies in Angola and Mozambique. The possibility of black Africans taking over power someday was so remote it was not worth thinking about. Interpolated with this was what they saw as the ominous presence of Russia and other ‘communist bloc’ countries who were arming the poor blacks and sending them to their deaths. This was also the predominant narrative in government circles.
Hearing Nadine Gordimer mention Winnie in her talk on that afternoon in the packed hall in Edinburgh presented a different narrative. Winnie Mandela was a doughty fighter, a titan, Nadine said. She was the embodiment of the hope and aspiration of her people. Her existence – and the existence of countless others, who were influenced by her example, was all the evidence that was needed to conclude that someday, for sure, the black people – led by the African National Congress (of which it turned out she herself was a member) would win the war and claim the land in South Africa. Her vision of how ‘liberation’ would come about was a bleak one, as would later emerge in her book ‘July’s People’. There was going to be a long, bloody, scorched-earth war that would burn up the land and leave not much of its present ‘civilization’ standing. The South Africa the black man would win through war would be one that has ‘gone back to grass’, and would need to start all over again.
About Winnie – and that was the most telling impression you went away with from that afternoon with Nadine Gordimer, she was the compelling symbol of Nelson’s struggle, and by extension, all the peoples’ struggle. Her persistence and defiance was evidence that black liberation would come, no matter what.
And then the writer took pains to iterate, as delicately as possible, that Winnie was a young bride, only five years married when her husband was taken away from her and dumped in a remote prison island. Her life was the struggle, but she had needs of the flesh which had to be acknowledged and satisfied. She was a beautiful, full-blooded African woman. She was unshakably faithful to her husband’s struggle and his ideals, which were also her own. But about being faithful in the flesh – she shook her head. Everybody knew what was going on. There was much more she could say, as an insider. But there was no need to say anything further. The world was not about superhuman heroes, but about people of flesh and blood struggling to do the best they could within the limitations of their situation and their biology.
Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laureate, South African writer both lauded and reviled by her own people for her stand against oppression, admired Winnie Mandela, warts and all.
She was born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela, in September 1936, to an family of the Mpondo people in the Eastern Cape. Despite the difficulties of black education under Apartheid, she trained as a Social Worker. In 1958, at the age of 22, she married Nelson Mandela, a lawyer and activist who had first set eyes on her at a bus stop while she waited to catch a bus in the township of Soweto.
Only five years into their marriage, in 1963, her husband was arrested by the apartheid regime. After the Rivonia Trial, at which he made the famous speech that has resounded through the ages since,
‘…I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to life and to see realized. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die…
, he was sentenced to imprisonment on Robben Island.
It was a tough pill to swallow, but Winnie took up the challenge with aplomb. She had to bring up their two daughters by herself.
She was not a quiet little housewife, the consort and dependent of a famous political prisoner. She was a presence in her own right, an activist in the cause of liberation, and a member of the Women’s Wing of the ANC. If anything, her politics favoured direct action and open confrontation with the enemy over the more measured, cerebral, all-embracing approach taken by her husband and the mainstream of the African National Congress.
In those tough days, many black South Africans, young and old, made a living by serving as stooges and informants for the security forces. Winnie could not tolerate such ‘blacklegs and traitors’ among her own people. She thought they deserved to die, and openly said so, even when it could be construed as incitement to murder. She was not afraid to declare her support for ‘necklacing’, the practice of mob execution of suspected police informants by throwing car tyres round their necks and setting them on fire.
Winnie’s home in Soweto became an ‘action’ centre for the ‘Resistance’, despite the vigorous efforts of the South African establishment to rein her in. She was detained by the Police many times. She spent several months in solitary confinement. She was even banished for a time to a rural township.
Nothing could dampen her spirit. She gave every bit as good as she got.
She was accused of a reign of terror by the authorities and even those in the black community who did not like what she was doing or felt intimidated by her. A whole culture of dark muscle power grew around her. There was a ‘Football Club’ known as ‘Mandela United Football Club’ quartered in her premises. They played not a great deal of football. Rather the ‘club’ was known to be made up of local youthful ‘toughs’ who enforced Winnie’s writ and dealt with anybody who stepped out of line. The whole ‘football club’ saga came to a nasty head when one of its members who apparently stepped out of line – a young man named Stompie Moeketsi, was found dead. It was alleged that he had been murdered on the instructions of Winnie.
In your newspaper column ‘FILOFAX’ that ran in the VANGUARD newspapers for several years in the nineteen eighties, you had written a piece on Winnie and the accusation of murder. It was titled ‘WINNIE AND THE GHOST OF STOMPIE’
Stompie was indeed a ghost, and he would haunt Winnie for the rest of her life.
Fast forward to the end of Apartheid, and the birth of the Rainbow Nation. Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in February 1990. Shortly after, he would become President of a new South Africa. It would be a South Africa still plagued with financial and social inequities. But it would not be the ‘scorched earth’, post-apocalyptic South Africa of Nadine Gordimer’s fevered imagination.
At the ‘TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMITTEE’ – the innovation on societal catharsis and self-purification that the Rainbow Nation gave to the world, Winnie would later be found ‘politically and morally accountable’ for gross violations of human rights committed by the ‘Mandela United Football Club’.
She would be formally divorced from Nelson in 1996 – at his behest, on the grounds of – yes,infidelity. On first hearing the news, your mind would conjure up the pleasant wrinkled face of Nadine Gordimer as she stood delivering her lecture in Edinburgh so long ago.
But Winnie had a lot of ‘street-cred’, especially among her poor, still-dispossessed people, and among the youths who felt the Rainbow Nation was not changing fast enough to meet their aspirations. She remained a vastly popular figure even after her divorce, even after her conviction in 2003 by the courts for ‘theft’ and ‘fraud’. She was a powerful figure within the ANC and outside of it.
There is still one more ‘Winnie Story’ to be told here, and it is personal to you. You remember a day in your basement apartment in Edinburgh, sitting with friends and having a lively discussion. Among your friends were Reuven and Yemina – a Jewish couple with whom you generally hung out. They had brought along another friend of theirs – Simon, who just arrived from Israel to do a PhD at Herriot-Watts. Simon was a phlegmatic man with a lean, wiry body. Yemina disclosed that he had been among the ‘special forces’ who parachuted into East Jerusalem and captured it during the last Arab-Israeli war. Simon seemed embarrassed to have the talk focused on him. But Yemina – ever chatty, was not done. There had been tears in Simon’s eyes, and the eyes of countless other hardened fighting men of Israel, she disclosed, as their feet touched the ground, and they were intoning the thousand-year-old prayer they had learned at the feet of their parents at Passover while in exile in the Jewish Diaspora:
‘If I forget thee – O Jerusalem…’
Later, after a little wine, which he took with surprising enthusiasm, Simon became chatty. He talked about Masada. Did you know about Masada, he asked, rather patronisingly?
Yes, you replied, you knew about Masada – the mountain fortress when a band of Jews fought and died ‘to the last man’ to avoid capture.
Simon went on to say that part of the training of the IDF was a trip to Masada where every soldier would be required to swear ‘NEVER AGAIN!’
The discussion had got quite deep by now, perhaps aided by the wine. Reuven disclosed that he was a liberal and all that, but his bottom line was that the world could go to blazes if the survival of the state of Israel was threatened in any way.
Just then, Winnie Mandela’s face came up on BBC television. There had been some disturbance in Soweto. As usual, the Apartheid Police had shot some black people dead. The air was rife with tension and danger.
The BBC reporter was interviewing Winnie on her doorstep in Soweto, amidst the chaos. ‘Should you not call your people to order? Why are they throwing their lives away, fighting against such an overwhelmingly superior force?’
Winnie was not fazed. Her reply would forever ring in your ears.
‘As long as they would not allow us to live free in our land, to rule it, and to have Power and Dignity in it, we will always fight them. There will never be peace…’ As she spoke, policemen, guns at the ready, could be seen in the background.
There was silence in your small living room for a minute. Nobody seemed to know what to say.
Then Reuven came in tentatively –
‘You know, I love to help the downtrodden and all that – but it is wrong for the Russians and Communists to stir up the youths and send them to die at the hands of the Police…’
At which point you hit the roof.
‘Why do you think it is okay for Jewish youths to go to Masada and vow ‘Never Again!’? Why is it okay for you to say in your heart – If Israel is threatened, the whole world can go to blazes!’? Why is it not Okay for Winnie and those kids fighting in the streets to say ‘If the whole world has to go to hell in order for the black man to regain control of South Africa, so be it!’
You sprang to your feet and pointed to the door. The others took the cue.
It was the end of a beautiful friendship. Later you thought you might have overreacted, that perhaps you might have explained what The Strugglemeant to you, and given him time to buy in.
So – Winnie is dead – of ‘a long-term illness’ at the age of 81. Her latter-day travails were fodder for supporters of different ideologies. Feminists, including some in Nigeria, thought she had been hard done by by Nelson, following his decision to divorce her, even if his reason, her physical infidelity, was no great secret. Left-leaning radicals would complain that Nelson Mandela and his successors have been too lenient on the whites, and should simply have taken back what they took forcibly from their ancestors.
The Rainbow Nation has come a long distance from the bad days of Apartheid, as Winnie in her last days would have appreciated, surely. She would also have been thankful in the end, hopefully, that it did not come to the ‘scorched earth’ of Nadine Gordimer’s ‘July’s People’, with millions dead and the great buildings of Johannesburg and Cape Town reduced to rubble.
Nobody could have known, more than her, that her nation still has a long distance to travel. But she could justifiably say, in her last moments, without a fear of contradiction, that, for a time at least, she was the public face of that journey, and a major part of the force that got it on its way.
• Dr Femi Olugbile is a psychiatrist, an award winning novelist and former Permanent Secretary, Lagos State Ministry of Health