Winnie’s past a dark cloud

Winifred Nomzamo Madikizela Mandela first made her mark as a symbol of the South African liberation struggle, the darling of the anti-apartheid world and the spouse of our beloved leader, Nelson Mandela. But since the mid 1980s, her life took a different turn and began to be littered with moments of bad judgment, misuse of power and the pursuit of passion before rationality.

While Mandela was in prison, rumours of Winnie Mandela’s friendships with the “wrong sort” surfaced. Many comrades dismissed these, well aware of the apartheid regime’s use of misinformation, propaganda and blatant lies to frustrate the struggle.

But the 1980s witnessed a clearly angry and reckless Winnie Mandela whose infamous endorsement of necklacing was immediately reprimanded by ANC headquarters in Lusaka.

Unfortunately this was followed by the vicious beating of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei and three other youths at Winnie Mandela’s Soweto home. His body was found in the nearby veld days later. By then “the mother of our nation” had surrounded herself with the so-called Mandela United Football Team, who were, in fact, a posse of “bodyguards” fulfilling her wishes.

Days after Seipei’s death, Dr Abu-Baker Asvat (who had tended the dying Seipei at the Soweto house) was gunned down. Allegations of Winnie Mandela’s complicity were levelled but have never been tested in court.

Amidst this, allegations of misappropriation of funds in the ANC welfare department (headed by Winnie Mandela) arose and ANC investigators began a probe into the whereabouts of substantial amounts of money coming in from overseas anti-apartheid funders.

The entire affair sent shock waves through ANC structures, inside and outside South Africa. Some began to whisper that seemingly, no one was capable of controlling Winnie Mandela’s behaviour.

Fast forward to Madiba’s release from prison and a triumphant Winnie Mandela was at his side. But this endearing picture of love and mutual devotion did not last long. The end was a public announcement of their separation by a clearly pained Nelson Mandela.

Contrary to people’s expectations, this sequence of events seemed not to calm, but inflame Winnie Mandela’s defiant stance and when Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Archbishop Desmond Tutu begged her to apologise for her mistakes all she would concede was that “things went horribly wrong”.

Her role as an MP would also conclude in ignominy, not only with accusations of frequent absenteeism, but with dismissal following claims of corruption – and a subsequent conviction.

During Madiba’s illness her frequent hospital visits were seen by some as atonement for her past indiscretions. Others watched with a gnawing feeling of discomfort as she gravitated back into his orbit.

Now that our icon has departed our mortal coil, we hear his erstwhile wife wants the Qunu home and claims her divorce to Madiba is invalid. Perhaps this is where we should exclaim: “Have you no sense of decency, madam!”

But puzzled as we might be by some of her actions, let us never forget that apartheid made her a “widow” with a living husband destined to die in prison. She was constantly harassed, detained, imprisoned, banished to far-flung places, tortured, humiliated and under constant surveillance.

But then, so too were countless nameless others, some of whom suffered worse than Nomzamo Mandela.

Perhaps the answer to the unfathomable contradiction of Winifred Nomzamo Madikizela Mandela lies in former President Thabo Mbeki’s description of the machinations of apartheid and its effects on its victims: “... I have seen concrete expression of the denial of the dignity of a human being emanating from the conscious, systemic and systematic oppressive and repressive activities of other human beings. There the victims parade with no mask to hide the brutish realty ... those who have to lose their sanity because to be sane is to invite pain.”

Let us hope that Winnie Mandela’s dark cloud shall soon be lifted by the rays of tomorrow’s sun.

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