By Josephine Agbonkhese
April 2, 2018, will forever go down in history as a very remarkable date. Barely two days after the end of the International Women’s History Month— March— the entire world was greeted with news of the end of a phenomenal woman, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of the late Nelson Mandela, former South African President.
She died in a Johannesburg hospital at the age of 81 on Monday after a long illness.
One of South Africa’smost defining figures, it is totally impossible to write even the briefest note on the country’s history without multiple mentions of Winnie, who was a major part of its anti-apartheid struggle, a cause for which her then husband, was incarcerated for 27 years. Mandela was then the leader of the African National Congress, ANC, a political party founded in 1912 as a black nationalist organisation and named South African Native National Congress.
Altogether, Winnie represents a symbol of the many things women go through in pursuit of their vision and belief in their husbands’ struggle. Unlike the typical human with blood flowing in her veins, she was expected to be chaste for the 27 years that she resiliently fought to keep alive her husband’s political dream for an anti-apartheid South Africa, under the repressive white-minority regime; at the same time single-handedly raising their two daughters—while Mandela served his jail term.
She, in fact, took the anti-apartheid struggle to a whole different, radical and even desperate level; which unfortunately, eventually earned her a controversial place in history, stained with accusation of violence. Therefore, by the time her husband was set to be President of South Africa, Winnie was considered too “soiled” to be the First Lady, and was thus sacrificed for the state.
Victory for Mandela but troubles for Winnie
Her hard-earned reputation precisely came under damaging scrutiny towards the end of the apartheid rule.
In 1986, she was widely linked to “necklacing”, the burning alive of suspected traitors who had flaming, petrol-soaked tyres forced over their heads. In 1990, the world watched when Nelson Mandela finally walked free from prison — hand-in-hand with Winnie. This historic event which should have translated into the end of the struggle for Winnie was, however, the beginning of her troubles; most of which stemmed from her past activities; all in her desperate desire for an anti-apartheid South Africa.
Most significant of those allegations was the case of Stompie Moeketsi, a 14-year-old boy said to have been murdered in 1989, for which she was eventually convicted in 1991, the year after Mandela’s release.
It would be recalled that Winnie was convicted of kidnapping and assault over the killing of Moeketsi, who was a United Democratic Front, UDF, activist from Parys in South Africa. He and three other boys were said to have been kidnapped by her bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club. According to reports, Moeketsi was allegedly kidnapped from a church home in Soweto and taken to the home of Winnie, where he was alleged to have been severely beaten and later found dead on January 1, 1989, with his throat slit.
In 1992, Winnie’s marital turbulence reached its peak when she and Mandela got separated, and then divorced in 1996 after a legal squabble that revealed she had an affair with a young bodyguard.
But being the resilient woman that she was, who wouldn’t allow herself to be silenced, in her old age, Winnie re-emerged as a respected elder who was feted as a living reminder of the late Mandela’s legacy — and of the long and celebrated struggle against apartheid.
First black South African First Lady
Till date, known as the “Mother of the Nation (South Africa)” and dubbed a firebrand activist for her valiant fight against the apartheid state, Winnie never failed to criticise the ANC which has since remained South Africa’s ruling party, whenever she felt things were done wrongly.
Thus, after her death was announced, current President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, described her as “a voice of defiance and resistance” who “was an abiding symbol of the desire of our people to be free.
“For many years, she bore the brunt of the senseless brutality of the apartheid state with stoicism. Despite the hardship she faced, she never doubted that the struggle for freedom and democracy would triumph and succeed,” Ramaphosa said.
While mourners continue to gather at her Soweto home to honour the anti-apartheid fighter for whom the South African government has already scheduled a memorial service and full state funeral for April 11 and 14, respectively, Winnie Mandela will forever remain a respected phenomenal woman and will always remain the first black South African First Lady (that never was).