In praise of Winnie Mandela on 75th birthday

FREEDOM FIGHTER: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has suffered for the liberation cause.
FREEDOM FIGHTER: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has suffered for the liberation cause.

A woman of intelligence and charm

ON SEPTEMBER 26 2011, Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela-Mandela celebrated her 75th birthday. A good vintage, blessed with unparalleled beauty, charisma, a great sense of humour and generally good health too.

U'Mama Wethu, translated, the "Mother of the Nation", is one of South Africa's as well as Africa's most popular heroines, who kept the Struggle fires burning while the now ruling African National Congress was exiled.

Among other things, she was a leading light of the 1976 Soweto uprisings, despite certain political interests and distorted media reports.

Madikizela-Mandela was banished from 1977 to 1986 when she unbanned herself from Brandfort in Free State. She was the longest banned woman during apartheid. Another Struggle icon, Helen Joseph, served the second-longest term.

Mama Winnie was arrested in 1969 under the apartheid regime's notorious Terrorism Act and she spent 18 months in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison. She was severely tortured and lost a lot of weight.

She once described herself as "the most unmarried of married women", referring to the 27 years of her former husband Nelson Mandela's incarceration on Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison. The former president was finally transferred to Victor Verster Prison near Paarl in Western Cape .

Among other things, Mama Winnie contributed towards the negotiated peace settlement thatushered the ANC into power in 1994.

It is said that in 1980 she was approached by the then minister of justice Kobie Coetzee during one of her visits to Robben Island. He is said to have asked her if Nelson Mandela would agree to talk to his government.

She told him to meet her husband. Coetzee did and the talks between the ANC and the National Party started.

Madikizela-Mandela was persecuted by the former security police and the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), the notorious covert arm of the former SADF Military Intelligence , planting numerous agents and informers around her. Senior members of the then dismantled CCB, including Paul Erasmus, told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Bishop Desmond Tutu that they had a series of projects to frame Winnie Mandela. She was framed to tarnish Mandela and undermine the moral high ground of the ANC.

Meanwhile, the international and local media had their field day. Madikizela-Mandela could do nothing right.

She was, for example, ostracised for her public address in Munsieville, where she publicly stated that the oppressed majority had no weapons and no means to bring the racist regime down.

In that context, she considered "necklacing" with tyres and matches as part of the struggle against colonial-apartheid.

A feisty Madikizela-Mandela addressed a large assembly of ANC supporters in KwaZulu-Natal during the troubled period between 1992 and 1994, calling on them to keep their arms and ammunition to fight the marauding Inkatha impis off.

Just before that, then ANC president Nelson Mandela had called on the same constituency to throw their weapons into the Indian Ocean.

The media, having coined the urban war as "black-on-black violence", and the colonial-apartheid regime hailed Nelson Mandela as "peace maker" and criticised Madikizela-Mandela as a "warmonger".

It was later revealed at the TRC hearings in Johannesburg that the popular media description of the racist "black-on-black violence" was in reality a covert operation strategy of urban warfare, orchestrated by the dismantled CCB, also referred to as a "covert third force".

The "Stompie Seipei case" came up and fortunately her husband Nelson stood by her. He was convinced that she was not guilty of the charges of kidnapping and an accessory to the assault of young Stompie. She received a fine of R15000 on appeal.

After 27 years apart, Winnie and Nelson Mandela eventually divorced in 1996.

On her visit to South Africa, US First Lady Michelle Obama attended a special service at the famous Soweto Regina Mundi Church on June 16. Mandela's wife Graça Machel was guest of honour and she delivered the keynote address about the history of June 16.

Madikizela-Mandela was not invited. She was at home in Orlando West.

At the funeral service of the late ANC stalwart Albertina Sisulu at Orlando Stadium, former president Mandela's wife Machel from Mozambique was asked to read her husband's message.

While Machel read the message, Madikezela-Mandela's face was shown on the big television screen above the VIP stage.

The soldiers of the South African National Defence Force, the guard of honour and the women of the ANC Women's League burst into song and dance, praising Madikizela-Mandela and defied attempts to crown the late Sisulu as the "Mother of the Nation".

Those close to her know U'Mama is a good woman. She is intelligent, a woman still to be reckoned with and a woman loved and respected by her family, friends and Africans not only at home, but throughout the world.

ANC MP Madikizela-Mandela is the first woman in the ANC to receive the National Heritage Council's Ubuntu Award. She joins the prestigious list of awardees who include her former husband, former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda and retired Cuban president Fidel Castro, as well as former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros Ghali from Egypt.

Madikizela-Mandela is indeed a woman in her own league. We salute you, Nomzamo!

- Froese is an independent political and socio-economic analyst based in Johannesburg.

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