Monday Philips Ekpe pays tribute to Winnie, ex-wife of Nelson Mandela, at age 81

Millions of glowing accolades have been pouring in from all over the globe in honour of Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela who passed on the other day at the age of 81 years. Some other people have also seized this period to tell the world that the memories of the woman who bore a chunk of the burden of liberating her country, South Africa, from the shackles of apartheid were, in their hearts and minds, muddled up – at best. However, my own humble attempt here is, decidedly, a panegyric.

There is a precedent. In 1992 when the late President Nelson Mandela of South Africa announced that he was going to part ways with Mama Winnie, I wrote a two-page piece in the defunct Lagos-based Expression Magazine in reaction to that decision. For me then, Mandela’s accusation of infidelity against his former wife, though a sound legal ground for divorce, was not strong enough to justify the closure of their unique, over-exposed marriage. I actually felt that the Madiba ought to be eternally grateful to Winnie for not succumbing to the brutal repression of the White supremacist government while he was in jail; that he derived some of his own legendary moral and mental strengths that sustained him behind bars from the loyalty and tenacity of a wife who had to operate in a hostile and violent environment.

Back then, some of the allegations of criminality leveled against her were either yet to surface or be subjected to all sorts of analyses. The murder of 14-year- old Stompie Moeketsi, a teenager suspected of spying for the security forces, an accusation she denied throughout her lifetime, did become her albatross. The activities of her bodyguards, better known as Mandela Football Club, sought to becloud her reputation as a fearless, selfless and devout defender of the defenceless. Stories of her dating younger men further put her in the class of the scarlet, especially in the estimation of puritans. Some pronouncements in the media have also not helped matters. Even in death, Mama Winnie continues to be described by her detractors as controversial, unfaithful and bullish. But passing judgments on others, though compelling and gratifying sometimes, could also expose our own actions and future to unfair and acrimonious scrutiny. Some call it Karma. An imperfect being on a judgment seat over another personality, particularly in cases he or she (the self-appointed judge) is not in a position to see all the sides, is, indeed, despicable.

Two and half decades ago, I chose not to condemn the late Mother of South Africa in the face of her reported misdeeds. That was when her hope of becoming the First Lady of the nation she had sacrificed so much for was evaporating and slipping through her fingers. That posture has not changed. To satisfy my curiosity and quest for the essence of the rich, though largely sad, South African history, I visited some places of interest on one of my trips to the country in 2012. They included Robben Island, Mandela’s original house in Soweto, the museum of apartheid in Soweto and, gladly, Mama Winnie’s country home there. I felt fulfilled. The museum has left a lasting impression on me, a conviction that there are many men and women, boys and girls in the Rainbow country who, like their better known compatriots, stood against the evils of segregation, discrimination and extreme cruelty. Some of them even paid the ultimate price but have remained generally uncelebrated.

The numerous efforts made to twist the quintessential Winnie Madikizela-Mandela persona have not been able to diminish her heroic status and image in the consciousness of countless people within and outside South Africa. Mama Winnie’s public stature might never measure up to that of her beatified former husband but her horrible experiences and laudable credentials as a freedom fighter can never be trivialised.

My opinion against President Mandela for ending his union with Winnie did subside when he announced her successor. Graca Machel is viewed by many as likeable, humble, elegant and humane. Her tribute last week to Winnie validates those attributes and vindicates the departed heroine more. It reads in part: “The extraordinary life you led is an example of resilient fortitude and inextinguishable passion that is a source of inspiration to us all of how to courageously confront challenges with unwavering strength and determination. Thank you for your brilliant wisdom, your fierce defiance and your stylish beauty. Fortunately, stars shine brightest during the darkest of hours. I know you will continue to illuminate our sky, even through the storms and clouds. Your legacy will be an uplifting beacon from which we can continue to draw guidance and strength during difficult times.

“You loved our people unconditionally and sacrificed so much for our freedom. It is my prayer that as befitting tributes are paid to you both at home and abroad, all of us will internalise the values you helped to mould and birth into existence. As a nation, I hope we will stand tall and proud, and as uncompromising as you were in the defence and protection of our rights. As one of our brightest stars, continue to be the lioness that protects your children and your grandchildren. Warm their hearts so that while your transition may shake them, it does not break their spirit. Your legacy is everlasting. Take a well-deserved rest in peace, my BIG sister.”

Posterity will, hopefully, weigh Winnie’s perceived and real minuses against her humanity. It will remind present and coming generations that the woman born simply as Nomzamo Winfreda Madikizela never laid claims to being superhuman; that destiny thrust on her awesome responsibilities that many other mortals would have dodged. Instead, in a world where exceptional heroism is not always well recognised and rewarded, she stood firmly against daunting odds to be counted among the true leaders of the human race.

Dr. Ekpe wrote from Abuja