Despite Patriarchy, Prejudice and Propaganda: Winnie Is Still Winning



By Alex Otti

Bring Back Nelson Mandela

Bring him back home to Soweto

I want to see him walking

Down the street in South Africa - Tomorrow

Bring Back Nelson Mandela 

Bring him back home to Soweto

I want to see him walking hand in hand with Winnie Mandela.

Above are the lyrics of a powerful revolutionary song written by none other than the great trumpeter, Hugh Masekela (1939- 2018).

It is an irony that when Nelson Mandela was eventually brought back, his union with Winnie Mandela was short lived by a separation and subsequent divorce. Long before then, on the 26th of September 1936, Winifred Nonzamo Zanyiwe Madikizela was born in Bizana, South Africa. Twenty two years later, the young Winnie got married to Nelson Mandela. They were blessed with two daughters in quick succession, Zenani born in 1958 and Zindiwa born in 1960. As fate would have it, out of the 34 years of her marriage, she only spent just about 7 with the man she loved. Her husband spent the rest of the 27 years in jail. Unconfirmed stories have it that Nelson Mandela’s marriage proposal to Winnie was, in his typical manner, very unusual. The anti-apartheid fighter had reportedly met the smashing damsel at a bus stop in Soweto and swept her off her feet instantly. He immediately secured a lunch date with her and just about a year later, Mandela told her, very casually, to go to a seamstress down the road, where he had made arrangements for them to take her measurement for her wedding gown,. That was Mandela’s way of asking for her hand in marriage.

In 1963, Nelson Mandela was jailed by the apartheid regime of South Africa and remained in jail till 1990. This event threw Winnie into the limelight as she became the face of the struggle not only to release her husband, but to end the apartheid regime. Immediately after he was sentenced to jail, Winnie Mandela issued the following statement which signaled the long battle that was going to follow: “They think, because they have put my husband to prison on an island, that he will be forgotten. They are wrong. The harder they try to silence him, the louder I will become”. Her will was unshakable, her resolve was solid and her voice was strong. She became a thorn in the flesh of the apartheid regime. They, in turn made life miserable for her, such that she was attacked, brutalized, thrown into jail, released and jailed again and again. Finally to silence her, she was sent into exile and banished to a remote location called Brandfort in the Orange Free State, where she was not allowed to make contact with anyone, except when she secured the occasional approval to visit Mandela in Robben Island. The violence inflicted on her by the apartheid police resulted in a back injury that made her live on pain killers most of the time. In all these, Winnie refused to be broken. She would not give up on the struggle. As part of her struggle, she was in and out of court responding to one charge or another. This did not stop after the fall of apartheid, but was rather on the increase. 

When all these failed to get her to back down, the Apartheid regime resorted to cheap propaganda and blackmail. She was accused of ordering kidnapping, torture and murder. One of her body guards, Jerry Richardson, had made an allegation that through the Mandela United Football Club, a militant club that had her sympathy, she had ordered the murder of a teenager. Unfortunately, for poor Winnie, several of the members of the Club lived in her home. The ANC in exile, fell for the propaganda and issued a statement condemning her for violating human rights in the guise of fighting apartheid. They also came down hard on her for refusing to listen to instructions issued by her husband in prison. The witch-hunt against her subsequently heightened, as her house in Soweto was subsequently burnt down. Unfortunately for Winnie, she had earlier made a statement which seemed to suggest she was in support of the tactics of the Club, and the pro-Apartheid group made a meal of it. 

Following from the estranged political front, the family front suffered a huge setback. The expectation of many was that having held out for 27 years and being the face of the struggle during much of the period, she would have received a deserved commendation from both her husband and the ANC with the successful defeat of the evil Apartheid regime. Don’t forget that the ANC in exile had disowned her sequel to the well-crafted allegations that portrayed her as violent. The question is, why would anyone expect that having gone through torture herself, both mental and physical, she would still be very normal? Unfortunately, no one wanted to reason along those lines. She began to face tough challenges at home. Two years after she was reunited with Nelson Mandela, they separated. As the husband sued for divorce, she objected, suggesting that an arbitration could save the marriage. Nelson Mandela insisted that the divorce should go ahead on allegation of Winnie’s infidelity, an act he was in no way to know as he was all the while in prison, that is if it actually happened in the first place. 

The divorce was therefore concluded in March 1996. Some analysts were scandalized with Mandela’s revelation or better still, allegation of infidelity against his wife. I have researched this issue and have been unable to stumble on credible evidence of the alleged infidelity. Granted that infidelity is easily proved when the accused is caught red handed, it is also not difficult to understand if Winnie did something by the side in the 27years that the husband was incarcerated. Like we say in Nigeria, “man no be wood”. I may not have the answer, but a few people had questioned the appropriateness of Maddiba throwing this woman out on the basis of such unsubstantiated allegation, which was more likely to be part of the false and vicious propaganda funded and promoted by the apartheid regime to punish and humiliate her for her indefatigable fight to end the oppressive regime. In fact, there is a recent documentary which exposed a wicked propaganda launched by the apartheid government against Winnie. Stratcom as the documentary is called was designed to discredit her, sow seeds of rancor and discord in her family, present her as a loose woman and generally destroy her reputation. Unfortunately, the world, and Madiba himself, apparently, fell for this fraud! 

To add insult to injury, her husband showed up with a family friend and the wife of his departed comrade and friend, Late President Samora Machal, Graca as his new bride. This must have been heart wrenching for Winnie. I’m sure she would have wondered when the relationship started. She couldn’t ask such questions because a patriarchal society would have none of that. Graca therefore supplanted Winnie and became a First Lady a second time. Having been toughened by life experiences, in a chat on the possibility of reconciliation after the husband had become President, Winnie retorted: “I am not fighting to be the country’s First Lady. In fact, I am not the sort of person to carry beautiful flowers and be an ornament to everyone.” Indeed, in Winnie’s own words, ‘The struggle is my life’. It is therefore appropriate to say that Winnie’s ‘life’ really ended when the Apartheid regime fell.

So, when at her burial last Saturday, April 14, at the Orlando Stadium in Johannesburg, and as several men gathered to pay glowing tributes to her in death, some of us kept wondering where these men had been all this while. Perhaps, it was in the spirit of the African tradition of not speaking ill of the dead. The South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa had these to say: “She was an African woman who, in her attitude, her words and her actions, defied the very premise of apartheid ideology and male superiority. She challenged the attitudes, norms, practices and social institutions that perpetuated, in ways both brutal and subtle, the inferior status of women. Loudly and without apology, she spoke truth to power…. In death, she has brought us together”. To the best of my knowledge, this was one of the few times that someone occupying a very high office in ANC would be speaking so glowingly about Winnie Mandela since her problems started. Unfortunately, this is coming too little, too late. The woman was lying lifeless and knew nothing about what was being said about her.

Any way you look at it, Winnie Mandela was very instrumental to the respect and reputation that Nelson Mandela enjoyed and still enjoys today. She worked hard to secure his release from prison. She paid a great price for the struggle to bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa. The brutality and violence unleashed on her by the racist police, in my opinion was much worse than what her husband went through. Yes, he was in jail, but I’m not sure he was abused and victimized the way Winnie was. That she courageously stood up to the apartheid regime without wavering is one of the reasons that he was released, the regime was dismantled and Mandela became President. Majority of women in her position will cave in and even advise their husbands to throw in the towel and end the suffering.  Mention has not been made of the fact that at the time her husband was sent to jail, Winnie was left with the responsibility of not only being alone after just five years of marriage but to raise two little children aged 5 and 3. She had to combine that role with that of fighting for her husband’s release. 

Those said, I do not pretend to imply that she was perfect. Far from it! She was human, and therefore had her weaknesses and areas that she may not have done well. In confirmation of this, when she was brought before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission she apologised for some of the mistakes she might have made in the course of the struggle. It would have been more appropriate to look at the issues in the context of her state of mind at that time and the ‘fog of the struggle’. A woman who had been tormented, abused, tortured and kept in solitary confinement was unlikely to remain the same. So instead of vilifying her, she should have been given some support and sympathy. The point has also been made that some of the allegations were mere propaganda or were given a different slant to score political goals. It worked more because she was a woman than anything else, a fact that is very germane in the predominantly patriarchal society in which she waged a successful struggle against decades of discrimination, racism and oppression. She was abandoned and again it worked more because of misogyny than anything else. Such cases abound here in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. Some people hide under the guise of culture and religion to rationalize their oppressive tendencies against those deemed strong-willed women. I strongly believe that it is about time that the world, nay Nigeria begins to accord women their due as I believe that there is nothing fundamentally different between a man and a woman. 

Adieu Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the mother of the Nation. May your great defiant soul rest in peace.