Winnie Mandela’s complicated legacy — and how to honor it

Winnie Mandela’s complicated legacy — and how to honor it
© Getty

Orlando Stadium overflowed in Johannesburg's Soweto township on Saturday, April 14, during the state funeral for anti-apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of the late Nelson Mandela. Mourners from across the country and the continent, along with dignitaries from around the world, gathered to pay tribute to the “Mother of the Nation.”

In a passionate eulogy, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa recounted:

She was an African woman who — in her attitude, her words and her actions — defied the very premise of apartheid ideology and male superiority. She challenged the attitudes, norms, practices and social institutions that perpetuated — in ways both brutal and subtle — the inferior status of women. Loudly and without apology, she spoke truth to power.”

“In death, she has brought us all together,” Ramaphosa said.

But unity was hardly the sentiment voiced by Mandela’s family and longtime supporters, who questioned the authenticity of the outpouring of emotion and asked why such widespread recognition and respect felt largely absent throughout Winnie Mandela’s life.

The fiery debate over Winnie Mandela’s legacy appears to have laid bare a fissure in South African society regarding the double standards imposed upon women. This is particularly the case following the recent airing of a documentary which uncovered a covert propaganda operation the Apartheid government staged against her. Known as Stratcom, its purpose was to divide her from her husband, reveal her infidelities, and to discredit and humiliate her.

As a result, it has given new life to another important self-examination as South Africans discuss what extent a culture of patriarchy and misogyny played in her vilification.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life was defined by both her marriage to Nelson Mandela  and her rebellious approach to keep the anti-apartheid struggle alive after he was sent to Robben Island Prison.

Upon his sentencing she declared:

“They think, because they have put my husband on an island, that he will be forgotten. They are wrong. The harder they try to silence him, the louder I will become!”

During those intervening years, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was arrested several times and held in confinement. In addition to deprivation, she faced torture and was regularly terrorized by the Special Branches of the security forces, which kept her under a 24-hour intrusive surveillance.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela chose to fight back, and was willing to cross lines others stayed away from, including her support for the torture of “necklacing” suspected government collaborators — burning them alive by placing a tire doused with gasoline around their necks.

She was repeatedly criticized for endorsing violence, most infamously in the case of her alleged involvement in the death of  a 14 year-old boy at the hands of the Mandela United Football Club, her personal security detail. She later became estranged from Nelson Mandela and the revered Bishop Desmond Tutu.

In 1997, as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was concluding nine days of testimony focusing on crimes attributed to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Tutu described her as “an icon of liberation” and a “stalwart of the struggle” in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, but recognized that “something went wrong — horribly, badly wrong.”  Later in day, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela offered an apology to the Commission, admitting that “things went horribly wrong” during “those painful years.”

In its final report, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission ruled that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was "politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed” by the Mandela United Football Club.

Since her death, there is a growing chorus suggesting that the lens through which she was viewed and judged in life was unfair.

In a CNN column, Farai Gundan said,“The beasts of patriarchy and misogyny were deeply entrenched cultural practices and norms within all the races in South Africa,” and add that, “the narrative on Madikizela-Mandela has been defined by white South African male anger in suppressing the African female expression.”

In a speech to mourners on Saturday, Zenani Mandela-Dlamini, Madikizela-Mandela’s daughter, was indignant. She promised not to forget those who defamed her mother. She lambasted the media for repeating lies of the apartheid propaganda machinery and called those who defended her mother in death “hypocrites.”

She asked the thousands assembled:

“Why didn’t you do the same with her male counterparts and remind the world of the many crimes they committed before they became saints? It is clear that South Africa and the world hold men and women to different standards of morality.”  

“My mother is one of the many women who rose against patriarchy, prejudice and the might of a nuclear-armed state!” Zenani concluded.

In memoriam of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whether one perceives her to be victim or villain, sinner or saint, it is time to initiate a larger conversation on the widespread effects of patriarchy and misogyny in Africa. Like any other hatred or prejudice, patriarchy and misogyny are exclusionary and corrosive to society, governance and economic development — and all thrive in silent complicity.

And through this discussion, we might be able to understand better why, despite the march of democracy and competitive elections across the continent, Africa today doesn’t have a single female president.

K. Riva Levinson is the president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a DC-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets and award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President,” (Kiwai Media, June 2016). Follow her on Twitter @rivalevinson.