'Her life was and is always about defiance'
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's life is a difficult story to tell
In the coming days, the ANC and South Africa will grapple with how to fittingly commemorate the life and legacy of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
As in her life, in death Madikizela-Mandela will be difficult to package, particularly within the confines of the “special official funeral” that President Cyril Ramaphosa has granted her.
Her life was messy and complex, her appeal was not limited to the ANC, and her power was not derived from any position she held, except perhaps as Mother of the Nation.
Among the many heroes who rose to lead the struggle against apartheid, there were two truly seminal figures. These were people so colossal that history simply cannot do them justice.
Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela represented two parts of the ANC that sustained the organisation during its most difficult years, and were in some ways at variance. The one part of the ANC was orderly and intellectual, the other militant and uncontrollable.The fact that the Mandelas loved each other deeply, were married and had children together is one segment of two remarkable life stories that intersected to change our destiny.
Mandela was bound for greatness and his life path, climaxing in his presidency and progression into a global icon had a natural order. When he died, he had come to the end of a glorious sequence of events, including finding love again with Graca Machel.
His is a painful but beautiful story for the ages.
Madikizela-Mandela’s story is so much more difficult and, for the ANC, inconvenient to tell.
It did not have an orderly sequence, a quixotic climax or a romantic end.
Her life was and always is about defiance.
The fact that she was a woman, exuded power, was striking in her beauty and had an irrepressible character created an aura distinct from anyone else in this country’s history.
While her fighting spirit was celebrated when it kept the liberation struggle alive and inspired militant rebellion against apartheid, it became inconvenient when she would not be cast as the devoted and dutiful wife that Mandela needed to have when he was released from prison.
That Madikizela-Mandela had developed her own life, her own massive following, and had satisfied her sexual desires independently of Mandela was an affront to the establishment as it existed in the ANC then.
Madikizela-Mandela continued to challenge this establishment in her defiant approach to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as at the ANC’s 50th national conference in 1997, when the leadership would not let her contest Jacob Zuma for the position of deputy president.
History might have turned out differently had the ANC leadership not tried so hard to contain Madikizela-Mandela’s power.
Instead, she had to continue fighting to survive and to preserve her own legacy.
In truth, Madikizela-Mandela’s power and presence had long outgrown the ANC.
When South Africans were in pain and their grievances went unheard, she was there to listen and embrace them.She belonged to her people, millions and generations of them. There is no other figure in this country’s history so connected to ordinary men and women, some of whom may never have been physically in her presence.
This is why memorialising Madikizela-Mandela will be such a challenging task.
It is an open secret that she had a hand in the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters, and that the party was a manifestation of her disenchantment with the ANC.
When she addressed the EFF leader as “Julius, my son”, it was not incidental. Malema, by his own admission, was largely shaped politically by Madikizela-Mandela and derived his rebellious spirit from her.
During the Zuma years, Madikizela-Mandela was noticeably distant and consciously outspoken about the ANC’s leadership problems. There is talk that in the last year she even encouraged some in the party to create a new ANC as she despaired that Zuma would completely destroy the organisation.
She survived to the age of 81 to witness the ANC’s break from the Zuma era, even though some of the people and policies now would not be aligned to her vision.
The last public visuals were of her with Ramaphosa during the voter registration weekend in March when she declared that the ANC was “alive and well”, and would surprise the country in the 2019 elections.
There are many reasons why so many South Africans felt a deep, personal bond to Madikizela-Mandela. She epitomised our difficulties, our messiness, our defiance, our ability to survive and overcome adversity.
Even in the last years of her life, at a time of serious illness, she suffered personal and legal setbacks.
She was the most tragic figure of this era, compounded by the fact that she was black, a woman, a freedom fighter and the mother of this besieged nation.
Her life never went according to plan and she was restless to the very end.
Perhaps Madikizela-Mandela was never meant to be defined by society’s standards and, for that reason, her legacy might forever be contested.
But to millions of her people, Mam’ Winnie is eternal.