Those who dwell on Winnie's 'dark side' ignore brutality she endured

08 April 2018 - 00:00 By REDI TLHABI
Winnie Mandela returns to her Soweto home in 1975 after six months in jail for contravening her banning order, to be greeted by her daughters, Zenani, 16, left, and Zindzi,14.
Winnie Mandela returns to her Soweto home in 1975 after six months in jail for contravening her banning order, to be greeted by her daughters, Zenani, 16, left, and Zindzi,14.
Image: Tiso Blackstar Group

In her lifetime, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was called names, many of them scathing; from terrorist, rebel and murderer to being reduced to "Nelson's wife". These pejoratives have stuck to her despite no court ever finding her guilty of murder. A section of our population and Western media have ignored the fact that her lawyers, prominent human rights lawyers like George Bizos and former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, have reiterated that Winnie had no hand in themurder of Stompie Seipei.

White South Africans who have never cared about the hundreds of black lives butchered by the state in its bloody onslaught, who have not bothered to learn the names of those who died in police cells, who did not blink when men and women were disappearing in numbers as the state cracked down on anti-apartheid activists, who did not care that Winnie spent months in solitary confinement - tortured, harassed, violated, banished while her little girls had to fend for themselves and her husband was in prison - suddenly care about Winnie's "victims".

This is the history they wish to invoke in their attempt to diminish her stature. That she was a complex human being goes without saying. That she was defiant and fearless and perhaps at times reckless may well be true. But this cannot be seen in isolation. These were desperate and dangerous times and the architects of this darkness have escaped scrutiny while Winnie has borne the brunt of the condemnation and judgment.

The Winnie I remember from my childhood is the one who walked the streets of Soweto, where I was born, comforting widows and orphans.

All they care about is Winnie's call for black people to be militant and arm themselves against a repressive and violent state and its spies in the anti-apartheid movement. Winnie and many others lived on the edge, never knowing who was friend or foe.

The Winnie I remember from my childhood is the one who walked the streets of Soweto, where I was born, comforting widows and orphans. When a little girl was hit by a car in my street, nobody knew what to do. Instinctively, someone said: "Let's call Winnie." It seemed the most obvious thing to do because that was Winnie; she showed up when it mattered the most. Her love for people was as fierce as her politics.

A scholarly reflection on Winnie must exhibit her strengths and weaknesses, the complexity of her being. In the aftermath of her death, some who have eulogised her have refused to entertain any discussion on her complexity; the bulwark of life writing and personal narrative. They have shouted down anyone who attempts to reflect this side of her.

Obviously, a historian, writer or social scientist does not have the luxury to deify human life, including Winnie's. However, there is a context to this resistance to dwell on Winnie's "dark side". The resistance is legitimate and stems from the fact that much of what is believed about her dark side is false and deceptive.

Another more important reason is that those who have been her most vocal critics have not allowed any complexity in their analysis of her. They have not taken into account the brutality she endured at the hands of apartheid police. They have nothing to say about the torture she endured until she fainted, about being denied sanitary towels and left to soak in her own menstrual blood in jail.

Those who have judged Winnie the most have not applied this single-mindedness to the men in grey suits who formulated the apartheid dogma and the bloodthirsty soldiers and police who enforced it. They are generous in their assessment of Wouter Basson, Barend Strydom, PW Botha, FW de Klerk. They are quick to say: "They are men of their times, there was a war and they were soldiers. Move on."

Well, Winnie was a woman of her times, there was a war and she too was a soldier.

Her call for violence cannot conveniently be divorced from the fact that at that time, the state was unleashing untold violence in townships and across our borders.

Letter bombs were going off, massacres were taking place and body bags were filled with anti-apartheid activists, ordinary black people, with few casualties on the other side. Winnie's call was a response to the violence of the state.

Another criticism of Winnie is that she cheated on Mandela. In his lifetime and after death, nobody asked questions about Mandela's faults and indiscretions (if any). Some of his children have spoken about him being an absent father. We are mindful that he and others sacrificed their families for our liberation. Mandela's late ex-wife, Evelyn, spoke bitterly about his absences. We are sympathetic to him because we know the struggle against apartheid would have come to naught without this colossal sacrifice.

Yet Winnie is expected to be a good wife, mother and peacemaker who turns the other cheek. Her self-righteous critics do not consider what it was like for a young woman, a mother, to be alone so early in her marriage. Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. Somehow, Winnie was expected to behave as if she knew the exact date when he would be released and wait in chastity and faith, like a good wife should. Is it really beyond human comprehension that she sought intimacy and companionship in her life?

Her detractors also claim that she was full of anger and never forgave. But the question is: did they seek her forgiveness or merely believe themselves entitled to it? Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu told me in an interview that he was profoundly disappointed by how white South Africans shunned the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and were not interested in its proceedings. They refused to acknowledge and participate in a process whose pillars were truth, accountability and forgiveness.

Yet many of them demand these attributes from Winnie. They only know about Stompie. Which other brutal murders of blacks have stirred their souls? Are they as sickened by the rape, torture and murder of activists whose jailers had a smoke, drank beer and braaied meat while human flesh burnt next to them?

Mandela's widow, Graça Machel, told me eight years ago: "South Africans have not fully appreciated the sacrifices Winnie made. They have no clue of the brutality she endured. I believe South Africa owes Winnie a gift of gratitude."

As she transitions to the next life, many of us wish her the peace that was elusive for most of her life.

Tlhabi is the author of Khwezi: The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo