Winnie Mandela: Exit of a colossus

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South Africa's anti-apartheid heroine Winnie Mandela laid to rest
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South Africa's anti-apartheid heroine Winnie Mandela laid to rest
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The curtain was drawn on the chequered life of Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela-Mandela, more widely known as Winnie Mandela.

It was a turbulent life; it was a life of trials and struggle, the height to which only women are capable of driving it if they are resolute and there is a goal, given their special nature.

It was, therefore, not surprising that the South Africans saw and regarded Winnie Mandela as the Mother of their Nation.

Like a mother hen she spread her wings and charged at the enemy to free and protect from the strangle-hold of the erstwhile minority rule.

For women, by their nature a feeling of injustice is like driving a spear into their ribs. They would rise.

In our clime, there have been several instances. Have we forgotten the Aba Women riots of 1929? Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and her liberation troops who dethroned an Alake in Abeokuta over taxation, do we remember? There was the story of Queen Amina of Zaria; there was Moremi of Ife and Madam Tinubu of Lagos.

Winnie’s first name is Nomzamo, meaning one who goes through trials and tribulations. As is revealed in higher knowledge, everyone is the name he bears.

The trials of life Winnie went through were consistent with her name and she found a soul mate for the struggle in her husband, Nelson Mandela.

Is it not interesting and instructive that she went on to marry Nelson Mandela in spite of the father’s admonition of the path that lay ahead of her and for her to rethink her decision. “Winifred, you are marrying a jail bird,” the father said to her daughter.

He went on: “You are marrying a man who was already married to the struggle of liberation. Therefore, if your man is a wizard, you must be a witch.” Winnie must inexorably live out her name and her chosen path.

She married Nelson Mandela at the age of 22. Barely five years into the marriage, off the husband went to prison and she was not to have him by her bosom for another 27 years.

She was cruelly separated from her husband in her prime, left to cater for their two daughters all alone by herself.

And this was for no other reason than that Mandela was pressing for the dignity and the inalienable human rights of the Blackman at least in his own land.

While Mandela was away, Winnie took up the gauntlet from where Nelson her husband left it.

She became radicalized. She mounted a vigorous campaign using every available platform, but particularly the African National Congress, the famous ANC. She was a staunch member of the organization, the pillar and a rallying point of the freedom fighters out in the field.

During Mandela’s incarceration at Robin Island, he was not allowed contact with the outside world through newspapers or radio.

Defiant and resolute, Winnie smuggled newspapers to him. During her visits she could only see him and talk to him through a glass wall. It was so crushing.

The South Africa President, Cyril Ramaphosa captured it all in his moving tribute at the funeral of Winnie Mandela at the fully packed stadium in Soweto on Saturday. He said: “We gather here to bid farewell to Mam’Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela—a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a great grandmother, a sister, a great leader who we have come to refer to as the Mother of our Nation.

Just as we are burdened by the sorrow of her death, so too are we confronted by the richness and profound meaning of her life. The pains we carry in our hearts cannot be extinguished.

Nor should we be denied the joy in recalling the life of so wondrous a person. We gather here not only to pay our final respects to a great African woman but to affirm the common humanity that through her life, she revealed in us.

“Her life was dedicated to the unity of daughters and sons of the African soil. Her life was dedicated to the unity of the oppressed of all nations. In death she has brought us all together, from near and far, across many nations and continents to mourn, to pay homage, to remember and fondly reminisce.

“Hers was a life of sacrifice. It was a life of compassion. She chose as her vocation the alleviation of the suffering of others. She trained and worked as one who provides support and care and comfort to those most deeply affected by poverty, hunger and illness.

Yet, like many of the great leaders of her generation, she understood that the suffering she encountered did not happen on the edge of society. Such suffering defined society. She saw for herself the deliberate intent of the apartheid rulers to impoverish the people of this country.

“Her conscience, her convictions, left her with no choice but to resist. She felt compelled to join a struggle that was as noble in its purpose as it was perilous in its execution.

She felt compelled to organize, to mobilise, to lead when those who led our people had been sent across the bay to the Island, whilst others were forced to flee beyond our borders or were martyred by a state that knew no mercy. She felt compelled to pick up the spear where it had fallen.

It was the spear that, throughout the darkest moments of our struggle, she wielded with great courage, unequivocal commitment and incredible skill. Her formidable will was matched by a keen political sense and a presence that inspired both awe and admiration.

As a potent symbol of resistance, as the steadfast bearer of the name Mandela, she was seen by the enemy as a threat to the racist state. Proud, defiant, articulate, she exposed the lie of apartheid.”

President Ramaphosa went on: “Loudly and without apology she spoke truth to power. And it was those in power who, insecure and fearful, visited upon her the most vindictive and callous retribution.

Yet, through everything she endured. They could not break her. They could not silence her….Instead, she emerged from these torments emboldened, driven by a burning desire to give voice to the aspirations of her people.

To give them hope. To give them courage. To lead them to freedom. Like so many of people, she had lived with fear, pain, loss and disappointment. And yet each day, she rose with nobleness of the human spirit.

“As we bid her farewell, we are forced to admit that too often as she rose, she rose alone…She bandaged our wounds. We did not do the same for her. …Many people saw Mam’Winnie as their mother because her own wounds made her real and easy to relate to.

It is only when you experience real pain yourself that you can recognize it in others and offer comfort.

That was what Mam’Winnie did for decades particularly when she stood alone as a bulwark against the apartheid regime when she wiped people’s tears, carried their coffins and inspired violence-fatigued communities to carry on.

Mam’Winnie was a witness to the truths and horrors of our nation, not only because of her own hardships, but because of her courage. Let us honour her memory by pledging that we will not betray the trust of her people, we will not squander or steal their resources, and that we will serve them diligently and selflessly.

“The Mother of the Nation has died, but she is not gone.”

What then went wrong that later Winnie saw the world around her upside down and she was lonely? We may wish to look at it from this angle. She was consumed in the struggle and in the process she was driven to suppress her womanliness.

The peccadilloes that are the accompaniment of suppression of womanliness began to emerge. She got involved in distasteful activities that smeared her image such as neck lacing of those regarded as fifth columnists in the struggle.

Tyres sprayed with petrol were thrown around the necks of those said to be traitors giving information to the police from the rival anti-apartheid campaigners as well.

She was tried for fraudulently obtaining a bank loan and theft.

She was freed on account of the fact that she was not a beneficiary of the loan. She used it to help the poor.

She became non-reconciliatory with developments in the land, and her marriage collapsed, a great marriage that held so much promise. The husband saw the developments differently. He was ready to forgive his enemies and pray for them.

There was distancing and loathing in the relationship. Mandela said she only entered his bedroom when he was asleep. He said they did not talk for months during the dark moments and he was the loneliest man since his release from prison.

On 13 April, 1992, Mandela announced his separation from Winifred:

“In view of tensions in recent months, we have mutually agreed that a separation could be best for each other.”

Even then, on balance, the stature of Winnie Mandela as a colossus is incontestable. Life indeed is a school!

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Winnie Mandela
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