OPINION: She was no saint but still a shining light in Struggle

She was no saint but still a shining light in Struggle
Winnie Madikizela Mandela She was no saint but still a shining light in Struggle
Image: Getty Images

We are mourning the death of a great leader of the Struggle for liberation in South Africa, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

And, as we reflect on her life, we need to take issue with the tendency of looking at Mam' Winnie through the lens of her infringement of conventions and judgments about her personality.

She should be located in history as a political actor and analysed through the content of her politics.

Mam' Winnie rose to prominence as a leader of the Struggle for liberation in her own right when the ANC's senior leadership, including her husband Nelson Mandela, were sentenced to life in prison. She could no longer be pigeonholed as just the wife and mother of the children of Madiba.

She devoted her life to the Struggle, suffering the political consequences of persecution, imprisonment and banishment. But, she did so while single-handedly raising her children while her then husband was serving a life sentence on Robben Island.

While Mandela and other leaders of the Struggle languished in prison, she did not flee. She remained to face the hostility of the apartheid regime.

The National Party waged a campaign of terror against her as a proxy for Madiba and other leaders of the ANC.

And yet, she did not back down. She spoke out. It was through her efforts, her fearless courage, and her incorrigibility that the memory of Madiba was kept alive and became the face of the liberation movement.

It was largely owing to her efforts during the years after the banning of the ANC that the rallying call of "Free Nelson Mandela" became prominent.

There is a saying that behind every successful man there is a woman. It is no different with Mandela. Yet Mam' Winnie has not been given the credit due to her.

But, her politics were not limited to upholding Mandela's name. She was a political thinker in her own right, entering into the ideological debates within the ANC about what the future of the country should look like.

She understood better than the exile leaders the experience and conditions of the people in the township. She lived through the violence of the 1970s and the 1980s which was also an expression of the deepening discontent of the youth who had become increasingly disillusioned. Her legacy was that she mentored, groomed and even mothered a generation of young leaders and activists.

So much has been made of her mistakes. Her militancy and defiance has been described as recklessness following Madiba's release. At the time, the ANC was preoccupied with managing the image of the movement in general and that of Madiba in particular.

When she differed with ANC leadership in respect to their approach to negotiations, she was said to be irresponsible and jeopardising the process.

At that point, she was not speaking as Madiba's wife, she was speaking as a leader of the movement.

Her stance against the integrationist strand represented by the exile and imprisoned leaders was informed by the experience, analysis and assessment of the South African situation from the perspective of those who remained in the country, and by her work among young people who were agitating for a different path.

It was because of this that she did not fit the mould of a saint, and was not packaged in a way so as to meet the expectations of being a liberal and accommodating figure in line with the image built up around Madiba.

The details of her personal infractions in her relationship with Madiba following his return to their home provided the pretext for the ANC to deal with the fact that her political ideas contradicted those of the leaders of the movement during the negotiations.

She was formidable because she stood her ground and stood by her conviction when the dominant trend was to defer to the paternalism of the then recently released leaders and exile leaders of the ANC, who did not have the same insight into the mood on the ground.

She was not a saint, but her stature as a leading light of the movement can't be erased on the basis of some errors of judgement at some points in her life.

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