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Winnie Mandela: Exit of the (Amazingly) Beautiful Freedom-Fighter

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By Akeem Soboyede

It is no exaggeration for me to admit that when I first heard the news of Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela’s death —a woman I had never met—I felt I had lost a family member, and a close one at that. That was simply how I had, from afar and over the course of more than four decades, perceived the matriarch of South Africa’s struggle against the iniquitous apartheid regime and former wife of another legend, the late Nelson Mandela.

Winnie Mandela was well-known as a hero (ine) in her own right, and deserves a pride-of-place in the pantheon of freedom-seeking luminaries who forswore personal comforts and risked their lives everyday for decades to fight institutionalized and state-run racism (aka apartheid) to a standstill in 20th Century South Africa. Needless to add she is rightly known as the Mother of modern-day South Africa.

The aftermath of Winnie Mandela’s demise has also been quite hard for me to bear: there is a little-disguised strain of meanness towards the woman in the eulogies, testimonies and obituaries that have predictably trailed her recent passing.. There are commentaries that have chosen to dwell on the scandals that trailed Winnie Mandela in those same turbulent years of her life she spent fighting for her people’s freedom. These included the notorious, adulterous relationship with lawyer Dali Mpofu that eventually led to her divorce from Nelson Mandela; her not-so-heartfelt apology before the Bishop Desmond Tutu-led South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 90s, and the unfortunate exploits of her bodyguards earlier that same decade, cheekily named the “Mandela Football Club”, which tragic highlight was the abduction and murder of black teenager Stompie Moeketsi, an alleged spy for the apartheid regime.

Winnie Mandela was far from perfect, like all mortals. Just as her ex-spouse Nelson Mandela, she stood out in apartheid South Africa, not only because of the spell-binding beauty of her youth that she retained well into her golden years, but the strength, grace and tenacity of purpose she displayed throughout the very difficult years she battled the agents of the horrible system of apartheid. During that better-forgotten epoch in South Africa, Winnie bravely confronted the vile agents of white superiority and black subjugation in that country, who bore eerie Afrikaner names like Hendrik Verwoerd, Johannes Vorster, Pieter Willem Botha, Andries Treurnicht, to mention only a dreadful few. 

Winnie Mandela did not have to live the hard, danger-filled life of a freedom fighter’s wife, who would literally be absent for most of the decades the marriage lasted. She was stunningly beautiful and could have chosen the more ordered life of a well-married black housewife in one of the so-called “Bantustans” architects of apartheid had carved out in South Africa, to give a veneer of humanity to their inhumanly abnormal system of governance.

Thankfully, the alluring Winnie Mandela was also smart enough to realize  she could enjoy no personal privileges nor advantages in a system that condemned people with the same skin as herself to a life of permanent servitude and powerlessness in their own country, “Bantu Free State” or not.

Instead irrepressible Winnie fell easily for the love overtures of Nelson Mandela, who would decades later free South Africa from its white-inflicted bondage of apartheid. The road to that ultimate victory was treacherous, though. The apartheid state struck with venom just four years after the couple were joined in marriage; in 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested, tried in the infamous Rivonia Trial and bundled off to jail, not to be seen again in the outside world for the next 27 years, until he was freed in February 1990.

I have no doubt that notwithstanding the exploits of the African National Congress (ANC) cadres (the Thabo Mbekis, Jacob Zumas, etc.) who fled into exile to keep the flame of the anti-apartheid struggle burning in foreign lands—thus putting unrelenting pressure on the white high priests of apartheid who operated a system that kept a majority of the country’s citizenry in bondage—Winnie Mandela’s actions and mere presence in South Africa did more to ultimately consign apartheid to the dustbin of history, perhaps an effort second only to Nelson Mandela’s decades-long imprisonment.

As a child growing up in Nigeria in the 70s and 80s, I would read numerous newspapers and listen to radio broadcasts and marvel at the courage of this stunningly attractive woman (yes, I did have that awareness, even as a child!) whose steely resolve kept her people going through such chaos and tragedies like the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the Soweto Uprising in 1976, Steve Biko’s murder by the apartheid authorities in 1977 and other epochal events in the long-running struggle by blacks to overthrow the yoke of white, Afrikaner racial “superiority” imposed on them in their own country.

The brave woman never let it show that she suffered from the epic misfortune of being allowed only four years of marital bliss (that was even a stretch, since Nelson Mandela spent most of those years on the run while eluding the apartheid authorities) with her husband before he was locked away for decades. While Nelson’s unjust incarceration lasted Winnie Mandela continuously gave voice to her people’s struggles and privations—imposed solely by the iniquities of the evil apartheid system—while literally raising alone the two young children she had with her jailed husband.

It got even worse: the apartheid regime, frustrated that the ravishing housewife whose husband they had unjustly jailed kept up her husband’s struggles on behalf of the black people of South Africa, decided to inflict on Winnie the odious treatment they had visited on her husband years earlier: in 1969‚ Winnie earned the unenviable distinction of becoming one of the first detainees under apartheid South Africa’s venal Terrorism Act, which was enacted two years earlier in 1967.  She was kept in solitary confinement for 491 days during her time in detention, in a cell for condemned prisoners at the Pretoria Central Prison. Then there were the numerous stints when she was routinely placed under house arrest by vengeful apartheid forces.

If unending physical exertions and numerous acts of self-deprivations must be used to prove one’s bonafides as a savior and leader of her people, Winnie Mandela surely passed that test in flying colours. This heroine’s superhuman efforts, needless to add, deserve the unqualified, unreserved and eternal gratitude of not only South Africans but all blacks and other oppressed people throughout the world.