Obituary

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: Mother of the struggle

08 April 2018 - 00:01 By CHRIS BARRON

Although she started out as a social worker at Baragwanath Hospital, there were early signs that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 81, was never going to be a Mother Teresa.
Born on September 26 1936 in the Eastern Cape village of Bizana, she was noticeably strong-willed, rebellious and sometimes violent as a child. The story goes that she made a knuckleduster with a tin and a nail with which to hit her sister in the mouth. It was survival of the fittest, she explained later.
This was the attitude that people under the jackboot of apartheid needed. Not sainthood, but defiance.
In their darkest hour, when the apartheid juggernaut seemed unchallengeable and their leaders were doing life or in exile, she was the symbol of defiance. No matter what happened afterwards, they never forgot that. The apartheid government turned her life into a living hell to break her and punish her husband.
It never broke her. Those fighting their own daily battles against the brutality and humiliation of apartheid drew strength from this, and loved her for it.
In effect a single parent
Her ordeal began when she married Nelson Mandela in 1958 at the age of 22. For the first two years he spent more time attending the Treason Trial than at home. From the word go she was in effect a single parent with two infant children to look after.After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 there was a state of emergency and he was detained for five months. In 1961 the Treason Trial ended with his acquittal but by then the ANC was banned and he had to go underground and couldn't live at home.
Nine months later he went on a secret trip abroad. When he returned in July 1962 he was arrested. He was behind bars until February 1990.
While coping with two children and the loss of her husband, she was harassed, bullied, arrested, detained and dragged to court.
In 13 years there were only 10 months when she was not under banning orders.
Around the time of his arrest she was banned for two years.
In 1965, a year after he was sentenced to life on Robben Island, she was banned for five years and restricted to Orlando township.
In 1967 she was sentenced to 12 months for failing to give her name and address to the security police.
Late one night in 1969 the police kicked her door open and turned the house upside down while her daughters, nine and 10, looked on. At 2am they dragged her off, leaving them at home alone.
She was held under the Terrorism Act, which allowed for indefinite detention without access to a lawyer or the courts. She was kept in solitary confinement for 16 months.
"Being held incommunicado was the most cruel thing the Nationalists ever did," she wrote later. "It is what changed me, what brutalised me so much. I knew what it is to hate."She was interrogated repeatedly by the terrifying Theunis "Rooi Rus" Swanepoel. Her first interrogation lasted five days and five nights.
After six months she appeared in court under the Suppression of Communism Act. Four months later the charges were dropped, but before she could leave the court she was redetained.
She was charged again, under the Terrorism Act. Four months later the charges were dropped.
After being released on September 14 1970 she applied to visit Mandela on Robben Island. She was given October 3 1970 as the date for her visit. On September 30 her banning order was renewed for five years. She was placed under house arrest, and permission to visit Mandela was withdrawn.
Soon afterwards the police raided her home and found the photographer Peter Magubane, also banned, paying a visit. She was sentenced to 12 months in prison suspended for three years, for communicating with a banned person in her house.
In 1973 she was sentenced to 12 months for having lunch in a vehicle with her children in the presence of a banned person. The sentence was reduced on appeal to six months, which she served in Kroonstad prison.Less than a year after being released she was detained for four months after rallying pupils during the 1976 Soweto uprising.
In 1977 she was banned for another five years, and banished to the rural backwater of Brandfort in the Free State. Her tiny three-room house lacked running water. Because of her banning order she wasn't allowed to be with more than one person at a time.
The police watched her house from a nearby hill.
She became friends with the white Afrikaans wife of the town lawyer who had been instructed by Mandela's lawyer to provide her with legal assistance when she needed it. One evening the friend dropped Madikizela-Mandela at home a minute before her 7.30pm curfew. A police sergeant leapt from behind a wall and arrested her for being late.
When she returned to Soweto in 1985 in defiance of her banning order she was harder, more militant than before.She started wearing military gear, with boots and beret.
"I think I'll get her a toy gun," joked her daughter Zindzi.
"We have no guns, we have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol," she told a crowd near Johannesburg on April 13 1986.
"Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country."Less than six months earlier she had precipitated talks between Mandela and the government when, during an encounter on a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, she challenged justice minister Kobie Coetsee to meet him.
In typical fashion she strode to the first-class section and sat next to Coetsee. They talked for most of the flight. By the time they landed he had agreed to visit Mandela in a Cape Town hospital where he was having treatment.
After her chilling call for the necklace, her descent into a place of moral darkness was swift and frightening.
She turned her mansion in an exclusive enclave of Soweto called Beverly Hills into a fortress and surrounded herself with a gang of vigilante bodyguards called the Mandela United Football Club that terrorised the township. In 1989 her bodyguards kidnapped four boys, among them 14-year-old "Stompie" Seipei, whom she accused of being a police informer. She ignored calls by the Mandela Crisis Committee to release them.
Stompie was found near her mansion, badly beaten and with his throat cut. Dr Abubaker Asvat, who was called to her house to examine him, was murdered at his surgery four weeks later.
In 1991 she was charged with Stompie's killing. To her denials the judge said she was "an unblushing liar". She was found guilty of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault and sentenced to six years in jail, reduced on appeal to a fine.
When she appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu hailed her as "a tremendous stalwart of our struggle and icon of liberation", but said that something had gone "horribly, badly wrong".She grudgingly admitted that "things went horribly wrong" on that fatal day in 1989. In the TRC's final report, she was held "politically and morally accountable" for the human rights violations that resulted in Seipei's death. The commission found that she was "implicated" in the murder.
She referred to Tutu as the TRC's "weeping, wailing" chairman, and the TRC as a "charade".
During his incarceration she was Mandela's greatest source of strength. Her loving letters sustained him, and her refusal to be broken filled him with pride.
But her increasingly anarchic behaviour, infidelity and contemptuous responses to efforts by him and the ANC to restrain her caused his attitude towards her to harden.
Fired for insubordination
Two years after his release they separated. After an excruciatingly painful court case, they divorced in 1996.
She served as a deputy minister in his government before he fired her for insubordination. Three years later she was still enjoying the perks of office. She gave the game away when with typical chutzpah she complained to BA and the British high commission for being charged for excess baggage on a flight from London. She was outraged, she said, because she was travelling first class and on a diplomatic passport.
In 2003 she was convicted on fraud and theft charges and sentenced to five years in jail, though she ended up serving no time.She quit parliament and resigned as president of the ANC Women's League and member of the party's national executive committee. However, she remained an eloquent and responsive champion of the poor, blaming their poverty on the ANC, and castigating the Mbeki government for its policies on HIV/Aids.
Her support was undimmed by her conspicuous wealth.
She was the ANC's biggest crowd-puller, happily upstaging a visibly furious president Thabo Mbeki.
Before the 2009 general election ANC members voted her to No5 on the party's election list. Not because they seriously expected her to attend parliament. She seldom had before. "I feel so wasted sitting there and listening to endless debates," she said.
More likely because she was Winnie, and they wanted to stick one to her enemies, just as once upon a time she had so unforgettably done to theirs.
She is survived by two daughters.

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