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Winnie in the swirl of controversy

By  Owei Lakemfa

THE fiftieth commemoration of the Sharpville massacre rolled by on March 21. It was a landmark because that massacre was conclusive proof that Apartheid could not be  ended by peaceful protests or deputations. Africans had poured out on March 21, 1960 in the South African township of Sharpville to protest laws that forced them to carry passes in their own country.

Although the African National Congress (ANC) had organised protests against this criminal law, the newly formed Pan African Congress (PAC) led by Robert Sobukwe had decided to take the protests to higher levels by organising national demonstrations. In Sharpville, the Apartheid police opened fire on the demonstrators. When the dust settled, 69 people laid dead while 180 others were injured.  The United Nations met and not only condemned the massacre, but also the  whole apartheid system. The world never looked back until 1994 when it was agreed by all that the process of decolonisation, freedom and democracy in South Africa was irreversible.

Important as this commemoration was, it was over shadowed by an interview Winnie  Nomzamo Madikizela Mandela allegedly granted the London Evening Standard. To many in the ANC leadership, Winnie is controversy personified. The former wife of the legendary Nelson Mandela was a beacon of hope for the South African masses in the long, bloody struggle against apartheid. Outside the enclave, she was a source of encouragement that the principled struggle against apartheid will not be in vain.

The former social worker was fearless and a thorn in the flesh of the evil system. She endured the deprivation of family life, liberty, torture, banishment and incarceration. But she was to the ANC of the 1980s a loose cannon whose sanctioning of neck lacing; the putting of used tyres round the necks of alleged traitors, dousing them with petrol before setting them alight, was a disservice to the liberation movement’s principled struggles.

She also disagreed with the ANC over her retention of a murderous body guard outfit called the Mandela United Football Club.  She became Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (1994-95) before being fired over conflicts with the Mandela administration. She was also engaged in many other controversies which led to her post-apartheid divorce from Mandela.

So when the alleged interview was published, her now disputed  comments did not come as a surprise, but it caused an outrage. So, did the anti-apartheid heroine grant the interview or  was it a fabrication?  The interview was allegedly conducted by Nadira Naipaul, a journalist and wife of the famous novelist, V.S. Naipaul. Nadira said she was in South Africa in the company of her husband and they both visited Winnie during which the interview was conducted. The newspaper published the photograph of Winnie and the Naipauls.

So, was it a mere visit during which the photograph was taken or the interview actually took place?  Did the famous couple make up the interview and why? To shore up Nadira’s professional career? Perhaps there was actually an interview which was supposed to be off-record, but which Nadira went on to use leaving Winnie with no option but to deny it. If this was what happened, then, even if the Naipauls produce evidence that there was an interview, professionally, it will not stick.

But  Winnie  was emphatic there was no interview and that the publication was “an  inexplicable attempt to undermine the unity of my family, the legacy of Nelson Mandela and the high regard with which the name Mandela is held here and across the globe”.

Although Winnie can be acerbic,   the description of Mandela  in the publication as a corporate foundation used to raise funds, is outrageous. That Mandela was not the only person who languished in jail is not a controversial point as lots of patriots were with him in prison, including unforgettable Pan-Africanists like Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki,  Ahmed Kathrada and Sobukwe. This cannot be a point to spite Mandela.

There is an assertion in the publication that Mandela went to prison as a burning young revolutionary but came out conservative. In truth the Mandela that emerged from prison was a more mellowed but wise legend who played a critical role in the de- colonisation process. Perhaps it was felt that he should have rejected dialogue and encouraged a fight to the end. But this would be a foolish argument. South Africans had since the 17th Century shed their blood defending their ancestral lands against white invaders, and that bloodshed had to come to an end. It is true that there have been rivers of African blood, shed in the struggle, but it is also true that the apartheid regime  with the support of America, Britain and some of their allies, was not militarily finished by 1990. There was nothing non-revolutionary in the dialogue that ended apartheid, it was a strategic move. But the transitional arrangements that saw  the birth of a new democratic South Africa were not meant to be permanent. So the issue was not
the agreements, but what followed.

The Mandela administration was to build the foundations of a post- apartheid, democratic South Africa, which it did.  The challenge after  this, is to meet the expectations of the people. There are obviously wide gaps between the promises of liberation and the reality  today. For instance, 30 per cent of agricultural  land was  supposed to be redistributed between 1994  and 1999. By 2001, only two per cent had been distributed. Today, 14 per cent of the population (almost all, Whites) own 85 per cent of the land. And these were lands stolen from the African populace under the 1913 Natives Land Act.

The liberation war is over. The transition era is gone. The victims of apartheid across all races have forgiven their oppressors and tormentors. Now is the time to deliver the dividends of liberation and democracy. If this is not done, the ANC risks becoming irrelevant and a second liberation struggle might be inevitable.


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