Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: RIP

The death was announced this afternoon (2nd April 2018) of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. She was known as the Mother of the Struggle for her role in the liberation movement during which she suffered greatly, not least her year of banishment with her two young daughters. She was harassed and imprisoned, and experienced great deprivations and humiliations. She was a symbol of the struggle and a brave resister against the brutality of the apartheid regime.

But her reputation was damaged by some excesses, financial and violent, that caused conflict with her then husband, Nelson Mandela.

In the 1980s, Madikizela-Mandela endorsed violent actions, including the use of ‘necklacing’ which is described on Wikipedia as “the practice of summary execution and torture carried out by forcing a rubber tyre, filled with petrol, around a victim’s chest and arms, and setting it on fire. The victim may take up to 20 minutes to die, suffering severe burns in the process.”

She allowed, even instigated, her bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club, to carry out a regime of violence. Their most notorious killing was that of the teenager James ‘Stompie’ Seipei. Madikizela-Mandela did not intervene to stop the killing of this child and, alleged by Jerry Richardson, who was convicted of the murder, that he had been ordered to kill by Madikizela-Mandela.

Madikizela-Mandela‘s legacy will be mixed. She is often compared, unfairly in my opinion, to her husband. It is often forgotten that Nelson Mandela initiated and led the armed struggle against apartheid, and caused sorrow and hurt to others. His legacy frequently skirts over that. But the armed struggle was necessary and played a small part in the ending of apartheid.

My niece, Janice Winter, a great student of politics in Africa and South Africa in particular, wrote earlier today: “How much this pillar of strength sacrificed for and was ultimately sacrificed by the struggle. Liberation politics is ugly and unfair. But this mother of the struggle withstood unimaginable indignities and endured unacknowledged horrors for the sake of a liberated South Africa.”

She was clearly a hero of the struggle, still revered and adulatory by millions of South Africans. Yet she was guilty of crimes of violence and brutality. While I find it hard, actually impossible, to reconcile the killing of a child, I was not in her position facing constant threats to her life and to those around her. Therefore, it is not for me to judge her.


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