By Owei Lakemfa
WINNIE Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela was a matchless fighter, an unconquerable combatant with an indomitable spirit who was not only married to the legendary Nelson Mandela, but also to the struggle of the African people. She was not just the mother who brought up the Mandela children, but was the undisputable Mother Africa.
Winnie was young, but she was conscious of her historical role. When in 1963, at 27, her husband was sentenced to life, she said: “What has happened should take none of us by surprise, for we are faced with a vicious oppressor…I shall certainly live under great strain in the coming years, but this type of living has become part and parcel of my life. The greatest honour a people can pay to a man behind bars is to keep the freedom flame burning, to continue the fight.”
Many may not fully understand her role in the African Liberation Movement and struggle, but suffice it to state that at the height of the South African liberation struggle when the evil Apartheid system was militarily and politically backed by powerful countries like Britain and the United States; when the apostles of that soulless system routinely murdered Blacks, and seasonally invaded African countries; when it held the cream of the liberation struggle on Robben Island and its word was law that must be obeyed to the letter or be met with severe consequences, Winnie Mandela defied Apartheid and refused to obey its laws. Most importantly, when she was banned, a very harsh punishment which was accepted without question, Winnie, unbanned herself.
On May 12, 1969, Winnie was a 33-year-old mother taking care of two young daughters aged nine and 10 and whose husband was six years into a life sentence. That morning, the Apartheid monsters from hell struck, abducting her from her Soweto home, taking her through a 491-day (16 months) detention during which she was subjected to unspeakable atrocities some of which she refused to talk about. Although a woman who had not entered menopause, she was denied a bath for months. She almost lost her mind and contemplated suicide over a period. She said of her experience: “Solitary confinement is worse than hard labour. When you do hard labour, you are with other prisoners, you can tolerate it because you all dig together, you communicate and you are alive. Solitary confinement is meant to kill you alive. It is the most vicious punishment that you could wish your worst enemy. You are imprisoned in this little cell. When you stretch your hands, you touch the walls. You are reduced to a nobody, a non-value. It is like killing you alive.”
Despite her ordeals, when she was brought to trial, charged with 540 offences of terrorism including furthering communism and the aims of the African National Congress, ANC, and conspiring to commit sabotage, she told Apartheid Judge Bekker that she considered her trial as: “unjust, immoral, soul-corrosive and physically destructive… I consider it difficult to enter a plea because I regard myself as already being found guilty.”
Tortured, held in solitary confinement, deprived of family, with assassination attempts and her home bombed twice, Winnie survived the brutality and violence of Apartheid, emerging like gold from the crucible. She was to say: “There is no longer anything I can fear. There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn’t any pain I haven’t known.”
When the anti-Apartheid struggles became bloodier from the mid-1980s and the struggles were in the streets with massacres and betrayals, there was what was later called ‘Necklacing’ which was placing a burning tyre full of petrol on the victim’s neck. Winnie broke ranks with the ANC by endorsing it. She declared: “With our necklacing, we shall liberate this country.” It is easy for some to criticise her for this and her resort to self-help including running informal bodyguards called the Mandela United Football Club, but these were in the days of apartheid violence when the state was out to physically eliminate fighters like Winnie. They were the days of apartheid lawlessness when it was criminal to be law-abiding.
My generation was quite familiar with the name, Nelson Mandela, but not his face; it was the face of Winnie we could identify with. When he was released from prison on February 11, 1990 and the image was beamed across the world walking with Winnie, we readily could identify Winnie but had to get used to registering the face of the legendary Nelson. She was one of the main persons that kept his memory alive in those lonely 27 years in prison. Those years were to put a heavy strain on their marriage which later broke down.
Winnie who passed away this Monday, April 2, 2018, thought the ANC conceded too much to the White regime in the negotiations leading to independence and on the land issue. She was a young lady drawn into the vortex of the struggle to liberate our continent from servitude, Apartheid and colonialism. Winnie played her part courageously and became one of the undisputed leaders of the African people. She was the best known of the famous South African women fighters who were leaders in the Anti-Apartheid War. Preceding Winnie in solitary confinement, was Ruth First who after 117 days in Apartheid jail, fled in 1963. On August 17, 1982, she was killed in Maputo, Mozambique by a letter bomb sent to her by security agents of the Apartheid regime. Another whose life trajectory has similarities with Winnie, was Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu. Her husband, Walter was a leader of the ANC like Nelson Mandela, they were both charged with treason and sentenced to life in prison on the notorious Robben Island. Albertina, like Winnie, was held a number of times in solitary confinement. When anti-apartheid movements in South Africa united to found the United Democratic Front, UDF, to pull down the apartheid structures, Albertina led the organisation. After liberation, she sat in parliament with her husband. She passed away on June 2, 2011.
Just as the South African Government prepares to give Winnie a state funeral on April 14, so is it also preparing for the Centenary of Albertina Sisulu who was born in October 1918. May we be worthy heirs of these outstanding mothers of Africa.