By Obi Nwakanma
She was beautiful in that ethereal and exquisitely African way: fierce, plump, straight-backed, and unbent by adversity or struggle. There was both fire and love in her eyes. You could see that in all her pictures. The bold lioness. The daring twinkle. The changing cloud of her face that could either gather with the rain, or open with the sun. Prickly and hot. Calm and seductive.
She was the fire in that burning spear that was hauled against apartheid, and her voice traveled far, like a javelin and pierced the armor of the most powerful white supremacist regime ever established anywhere in the world. No shield was proof against her. She was the cornerstone of the struggle for the liberation of the land, which people like me grew up to call “Azania” – South Africa. At the end of the struggle she became that stone which the builders of the new South Africa rejected, but which remains the capstone of its temple to all intents and purposes because history may be unkind in one generation, but does not forget.
The great heroes of today, might become in the passage of time, the villains of tomorrow. In the fullness of time, a true measure of her life will be rendered, but today, Winnie Madikizela Mandela passes on. Two women from South Africa embodied the image, for my generation, of the dimensions of the South African struggle: Miriam Makeba – whose musical genius spawned of the Shebeens of Soweto gave idiom to the South African struggle much like the mournful and insouciant jazz of her former spouse, the now equally late Hugh Maskela.
When Makeba sang “Pata-Pata,” you heard the calming balm on the spirits of men and women who have gone to battle; when she sang, “Aluta Continua,” you heard the thundering feet of the revolutionaries in Africa gathering in the street, defiant, and proud and sworn to liberty:
My people, my people open your eyes
And answer the call of the drums
Frelimo, Frelimo –
Samora Machel has come –
Maputo, Maputo, home of the brave,
Our nation soon shall be one.
Frelimo, Frelimo –
Samora Machel has won.
In Mozambique –
Aluta continua, Aluta continua, continua…
It was a song which like Bob Marley’s “Zimbabwe” written for that moment, and the powerful, almost elegiac song, “Babylon System,” with its defiant refrain, “We’ve been trodding on the wine press for much too long…rebel” broke walls, and the backs of apartheid and colonialism. But it was Winnie Mandela who embodied these songs, and the spirit of the land, and her struggles. The heave of protests which had swollen from when her husband, the much eulogized Nelson Mandela stood trial, and defiantly refused to denounce or reject armed struggle as an alternative to the negotiations for the full rights of Africans in South Africa held under the thrall of settler colonialism and apartheid.
Nelson Mandela was jailed with his comrades, condemned to death following the Rivonia trials. Let me point here as an aside, that it took the back channel diplomacy of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, pressuring the British and the Americans, to force South-Africa to commute the death sentence on Mandela and his cohorts. Indeed, the decision to return to South Africa from Lagos, through London, and make the Mandela trial a political and international issue was taken in Lagos, where Mandela had fled, under the protection of Azikiwe and the NCNC was made, I understand, in Lagos in 1962 between Zik, his principal secretary Adisa K. Disu, Jaja Wachukwu and Mandela. Mbazulike Amechi with whom he lived in Yaba had given just a hint of this and the partnership between the NCNC and the ANC in an interview with me in 1996 published in the Sunday Vanguard, but not much has been known publicly yet of the efforts by Dr. Jaja Wachukwu, Nigeria’s first republic Foreign Minister and Dr. Azikiwe in internationalizing the Mandela situation, in the years when Nigeria mattered in the world and carried weight in international affairs before she became a laughing stock of the world. I hope that soon, someday, the vast papers of Dr. Wachukwu kept in his Mbawsi Home could be acquired, indexed, and preserved by the National Archives in Enugu, or by the Special Collections Section of the Nnamdi Azikiwe Library at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, or the proposed Archive of Igbo Life and Letters in Owerri when it is fully established and operational.
But the flame had been lit, that will light the path of the anti-apartheid struggle: it was in the voice and soul of Mandela’s young wife. Nelson Mandela’s wife was much younger than he. Winnie was his second wife. From the moment in 1962, when her husband was taken to the Roben Islands, Winnie Mandela took on the role of the voice of the struggle. Many fled South Africa. But she stood, unflinching, and fearless. She led marches on the streets. She campaigned vigorously and relentlessly. She was beaten and tortured. She was banished and confined to solitary house arrest in rural Banfort. But she kept the “Free Mandela movement” alive and active. Her power-salute thrown defiantly in the air became the symbol of that defiance, not only of the African, but of that species of the Black woman – mother, lover, wife, and image of the goddess of the land. Great men like Oliver Tambo left for exile, and kept the international pressure on apartheid alive in their lives of restless exile.
Oliver Thambo in a sense was like Moses of the Jews. He led the ANC and South Africa through the Forty-year wilderness, saw the glimpse of the Promised Land, but died just on the eve of the post-apartheid elections that would have symbolized the culmination of his struggles. Tambo was blamed for the Church Street massacres, during the Truth and Reconciliation tribunals. Winnie Mandela stayed on in South Africa and kept the ANC struggle at home fierce and resolute.
There would have been no Mandela without Winnie Mandela, because she it was who stoked his legend; turned his from an ordinary man of the struggle, to the spirit of the struggle. When people saw Winnie Mandela they saw Nelson Mandela. Winnie bore the brunt of his long absence; she was already a widow for the struggle; and like all passionate humans, she sought consolation in the arms of passionate men, in the absence of her husband. It was not what broke their marriage. It was that time and the cruelty of that separation had sundered their relationship. Nelson Mandela returned from prison an old, sagely man. Winnie, still at the height of her power longed for familiar consolations, the kind which Mr. Mandela could no longer provide. She too had been shaped by the contradictions of the struggle. She was accused of being an accessory after the fact of murder in the now legendary Stompie case. She was later acquitted. She was accused of corruption as a government minister. It was later overturned by a judge who established that the transactions involving Winnie Mandela were not conducted for “personal gain.”
Her divorce from Nelson Mandela must be counted as one of the most obvious blights in what should have been a symbolic and model union. It has been said that Winnie Mandela’s “infidelity” was the primary cause of the divorce. But it is clear that Winnie Mandela was one of the sacrifices Nelson Mandela had to offer to the gods of “reconciliation,” if he had to ascend to power in South Africa.
Winnie’s abrasive involvement in the struggle; the threat of her personality and popularity; and the pan-African vision that animated her, threatened the balance of forces in the “new South Africa.” She had to be sacrificed. But she remained popular among ordinary folk. She criticized her ex-husband’s post-apartheid stances, particularly in her defence of the ordinary folk, who have never benefited from the struggle to end apartheid. Mama Africa: her soul marches on.