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The mother of the nation is no more

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela left a nation craving for heroes. Image: Nelson Mandela Foundation

The mother of the nation, some say, is no more. Thus comes the news if it is befitting of describing the exhumation of the soul of a freedom fighter. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was 81 years old when she died at Milpark Hospital on April 2 2018. She was laid to rest on April 14 2018 in Fourways, Johannesburg.

The world has come to know her as Winnie. Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela was born on September 26 1936 in Mbongweni village, Mbizana in Western Mpondoland. This is in what was then called Transkei by successive colonial regimes.

She was born to the Ngutyana clan who are also called Msuthu, Msengeshe and Phapha. Some of their relatives call themselves Mlungwana and praise themselves by saying they are ooBala Lenkomo - those who have the colour of cattle. These have a residence in Ngqeleni, their home is called Salelweni.

At the time of her birth the mettle of women’s leadership had already been tested and found more than equal to the task. There had of course been the shrewd Manthatisi who had made her presence felt among the BaTlokoa. More importantly, there was Queen Nzinga of the Ndongo in Angola who refused to balk against sustained campaigns by the Portuguese.

Some of the events shaping the political landscape were the women of Bloemfontein registering their displeasure in 1913 against passes. The march of 200 women led by Charlotte Maxeke to the mayor’s offices sent shockwaves throughout the country.

The nurses strike of 1949 led by leaders like Veronica Zondeni Mathe at Victoria Hospital in Lovedale is another less mentioned event tied to women struggles. This little mentioned event shaped the consciousness of the leaders who were to emerge in the 1950s.

Winnie was the first African medical social worker to practice at Johannesburg's Baragwanath Hospital.

Induction into the cruelty of apartheid politics

When Winnie got inducted into the harsher side of politics through her first imprisonment in 1958 a lot was in store for her and her contemporaries. Although she had been born at a time when education was becoming a useful tool against the growing list of privations, none of it could have prepared her for the indignity piled upon many the repression to come.

The training she received as a social worker had to contend with the grim hardship the South African reality. To start her off were the appalling conditions under which women were imprisoned after the October 1958 protest. Here women again marched against the hated passes, more than 2000 were jailed.

Her prison journal 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 published in August 2013 records the privations, her harrowing experiences in solitary confinement. She was held for 419 days at Pretoria Central Prison following her arrest on terrorism charges in May 1969.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela lived in a complicated world, none of which was of her own choosing. The colonial office at the time of of her birth was following a dual policy with regards to Africans. The first objective was to denationalise them. The native homelands were created for this.

The second was to make Africans do the bidding of the colonial office on their behalf. Their entire lives were to be administered by the Native Commissioner’s office. Passes were the strategically placed to accomplish this ambitious task.

The colonial office wanted indirect rule without the necessary repercussion of revolt. These two factors became important factors in Winnie’s fight for freedom.

The kind of world the colonial office wanted was a political mess. Winnie was thrust upon it by circumstance. Every incident in her life could be related to this singular fact. In her own words she has described herself as a product of a complex history.

A complex narrative

This same challenge faced by those who are suddenly confronted with the daunting task of writing about Winnie. It is proving impossible to tell where the complexities of history end and where the life of Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela the person begins.

When reflecting on this Mahlatse Mahlase says it is because some are unable to fathom the staggering extent of Winnie’s political activism.

“She’s not given political agency. She was also politically aware of the system and agreed that apartheid needed to be broken down.”

This is the hurricane of her political involvement that has hit the imagination of many in the world, especially South Africa. The pace of myths, facts, opinion and conflicting sentiments flooding the national discourse has been overwhelming.

“I don’t particularly think that from a large section of South Africa there is anything called a balanced view. Parts of her story are difficult and complex,” Mahlase adds.

Her narrative finds itself unfolding at a time when the pendulum of opinions and what remains in popular memory swing to many sides. According to Mahlase the reason for this is that we are wont to cast our gaze on the past in today’s limited filters.

What complicates matters in Winnie’s case is that her political activism spans across two of South Africa’s imaginary political contours. Her activism has stretched well beyond the careers the likes of Mandela,Tambo, Biko and Hani.

The loudest critique of her politics happens in our time and many are tempted to implicate her feats into today’s struggles.

The first temptation is to characterise her death as the final arrival of the women’s moment for South Africa.

Some may be discouraged from the thought, especially since no woman candidate commanding wide support is expected to run in the 2019 presidential election.

There is also the recollection of Winnie declining nomination for the ruling party’s deputy presidency position in 1997 at the Mafikeng ANC conference. That puzzling moment in the history of women leadership in South Africa has been beamed across the media recently.

The august occasion meant to be her funeral on April 14 turned out to be mesh between the recounting of the life of a heroine and the expedient correction of the historical record for politicians.

What the world will make of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy from henceforth is squarely on the lap of those she has left behind.

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