A wounded lioness or a recuperating lynx?

Past predictions of Madikizela-Mandela's political demise have failed to materialise.

Summary - Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s detractors may be celebrating her political demise prematurely. Many of them believe that the omission of her name from the Gauteng ANC’s nomination lists shows that her unsavoury past has finally caught up with her, and indeed it is a major blow to her political ambitions, if she still has any. But the Free State has thrown Madikizela-Mandela a lifeline by nominating her for the national list. Over the years Madikizela-Mandela has shown a remarkable ability to recover from devastating blows that would have destroyed lesser individuals. In 1991, the same year she was charged with kidnapping and assault, she was elected chairperson of the ANC Women’s League in Gauteng. Two years after being convicted of these crimes, she was elected president of the Women’s League. Columnist Adebayo Williams warns that Madikizela-Mandela not only has an innate ability to rise above calamities, she also has the power to inspire admiration and fear. ‘The fear of Winnie,’ he writes, ‘is the beginning of wisdom’. The truth is that many ordinary black South Africans continue to adore Madikizela-Mandela, regardless of her transgressions and irrespective of what the white community thinks of her. The reason is that she is still seen as the champion of the poor and the voiceless. Like many great individuals, she lost her way in the past and finds it difficult to acknowledge that she erred. It is likely that her problems began in the eighties when she was subjected to recurring state persecution. Njabulo Ndebele suggests in his novel The Cry of Winnie Mandela that apartheid brutality taught her to be brutal in turn, and that she came to embody the nature of her torturers. Her name tends to conjure up a lot of emotions, particularly among whites, who have never been comfortable with her politics. Their prejudices are reinforced by their tendency to view her always in contradistinction to her former husband – saint versus loose woman, liberator versus kidnapper, reconciler versus firebrand. History tells us that anyone who offers a message that is distasteful to whites is demonised. Thus Martin Luther King was preferred to Malcolm X, and Peter Mokaba was never forgiven. In his novel, Ndebele seems to be torn between condemnation of Madikizela-Mandela and empathy for her. He writes that a ‘cloud of moral doubt will hang over [her] without end’, but he also recognises that she has been defined by circumstances in her life that were beyond her control.

It may be too early for the teeming detractors of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to rejoice in her ultimate downfall following the omission of her name from the Gauteng African National Congress (ANC) nomination first draft lists for the provincial legislature, the National Council of Provinces and National Assembly.

Those who have been anticipating her final political demise may have concluded that ultimately her unsavoury past and recent convictions on multiple counts of fraud and theft - against which she is appealing - had finally caught up with her. The omission of her name from the Gauteng list should be seen as a major blow to Madikizela-Mandela's future formal political plans - if she has any - for two reasons: the province is the richest and second most populous after KwaZulu-Natal, and, as important, the area where the flamboyant lady resides.

Her lifeline in politics has come from the Free State, which in the past has had its share of internal problems. She was nominated for the national list along with the besieged Jacob Zuma, Thabo Mbeki, former Gauteng premier, Tokyo Sexwale, now a successful businessman, and Cyril Ramaphosa whose political ambitions were put into cold storage when he lost the battle for the deputy presidency to Mbeki during Nelson Mandela's tenure. Her less conspicuous Free State nomination could either be a demonstration of her resilience to serious setbacks or simply that she is invulnerable to calamities. If she were another person she would be wasting away as an old recluse somewhere.

Madikizela-Mandela's ability to recover from devastating blows is illustrated by numerous points. In 1991, the same year she was charged with kidnapping and assault, she was elected as chairperson of the ANC Womens' League in Gauteng. This was after she was defeated in the tussle for League presidency by Gertrude Shope following the withdrawal of veteran Albertina Sisulu from the contest. It is interesting to note that Shope's defeat of Madikizela-Mandela was as a result of Sisulu's request to her supporters to back Shope. Madikizela-Mandela was later convicted in the then Supreme Court in Johannesburg for the charges of kidnapping and assault.

Barely two years later she had an even more spectacular triumph when she was elected president of the Women's League, overwhelming Sisulu in the contest. Not even conjecture that she might have been involved in the slaying of Dr Abu-Baker Asvat, the medical practitioner in Soweto, prevented her resurgence as a major political figure. Asvat examined Stompie Seipei, one of the four young men whom Madikizela-Mandela was found guilty of kidnapping, shortly before his death. Seipei was killed after being taken from her house by Madikizela-Mandela's bodyguard, Jerry Richardson, who was later convicted for the murder of Seipei. Madikizela-Mandela subsequently apologised for failing to save 'his' Seipei.

To borrow a phrase from columnist Adebayo Williams, who warns against counting Madikizela-Mandela out prematurely, the "lioness" may not only be endowed with an innate ability to rise above calamities but, beyond that, has the power to inspire admiration and fear. As Williams declares, "The fear of Winnie is the beginning of wisdom".

A few years ago, during a morning news conference a white editor asked what I thought of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. That was shortly after Nelson Mandela had announced that they were to be divorced. I cannot precisely recall the exact words I used. But, in a tone that bordered on being curt, I said that many ordinary black people continued to adore Madikizela-Mandela, irrespective of what the white community might think of her. My response elicited no further inquiry from the editor.


In an editor's office, akin to the size of a small bedroom of a Soweto four-roomed house, my black and white colleagues sat quietly until the next item was discussed. Interesting, though, is that after the conference a black Zimbabwean colleague came to me and applauded me for my stance. My views have not changed. Even today, despite the displays of her soiled and reeking linen, many young black people still see her as a hero.

The reason for this is that Madikizela-Mandela is seen as the champion of the poor and the voiceless, her conviction for fraud and theft notwithstanding. Hers is a story of a great woman, who lost her way in the past and who finds it difficult to accept that she erred, as is often the folly of great individuals. In his imaginary novel about four women who wait for the return of their beloved partners, The Cry of Winnie Mandela, Njabulo Ndebele comments perceptively: "The most piercing agony is the impossibility of admitting that you have lost your way, and the need to hold onto the pretence of being in control."

The circumstances that define her are intricate and difficult to unravel. Stories abound that the beginnings of her troubled life are traceable to the eighties, when Madikizela-Mandela's psychological equilibrium was purportedly disturbed by recurring state persecution. If that were true, and the mitigating factor was that she had no one close to lean on, what then might her alibi be for what has happened in her life after Mandela's release from prison?

Evidence shows that the "Old Man" - as Mandela is affectionately known - wanted to bury the hatchet and let bygones be bygones. The answer to Madikizela-Mandela's problems may lie in Ndebele's novel, where he describes how Madikizela-Mandela came to embody the very nature of her torturers. The implication is that Madikizela-Mandela learnt the tactics of torture examined during her trial from the apartheid system. "Indeed the drama of Brandfort really ended back in Soweto, where I perfected it. I, the child of Major Theunis Swanepoel, born in his torture chambers, nurtured in Brandfort, and matured is Soweto, took on the world alone... On that journey of perils, 'the driveness of depravity', my expression gave way to the driveness of banality..."

But the real problem is not that she has lost the plot. Everyone does at some point in life. The issue is that her name has come to conjure up a lot of emotion for the wrong reasons. A disappointing view of her is that people want to dissect Madikizela-Mandela's life in the context of her former husband whose stature looms larger and lingers longer than clouds before a storm. Those most inclined to do so come, more often than not, from the white community.

They may well be appalled by her behaviour that led to convictions for kidnapping, fraud and theft and her purported sexual indiscretions. But there is perhaps a more powerful explanatory factor: whites have never been comfortable with her politics. Their discomfort dates back to before the release of political prisoners, the unbanning of liberation organisations, the freeing of her husband in 1990, and the subsequent publication of the love letter to her young former boyfriend, Dali Mpofu.

In dealing with Madikizela-Mandela they do not separate her from Mandela - though she has been without him for almost four decades now, save those few months they were together after his release - because it serves their prejudices better. A saint versus a loose woman, a liberator as opposed to a convicted kidnapper and fraudster, a reconciler who meets the widow of the architect of apartheid, Betsie Verwoerd. Madikizela-Mandela visits squatter camps and exposes the failure of the newly elected government to bridge the economic disparity between black and white. She thereby alerts the majority that the minority still enjoy the fruits of the land and, consequently, endangers the fragile rainbow nation. Anyone who has offered a political message incongruent to the tastes of whites, anywhere in the world, history tells us, is demonised.

In America Martin Luther King, who preached non-violent resistance was preferred to Malcolm X, whose revolutionary teachings "By Any Means Necessary" were far more threatening to the white establishment. In South Africa the late Peter Mokaba, despite abandoning the "Kill the Boer Kill the Farmer" slogan, was never forgiven by whites amidst their talk of embracing the new democratic government. Much as Madikizela-Mandela has managed to refute serious allegations of murder, the stigma will follow her.

Maybe it would be overstating the case to suggest that Ndebele's The Cry of Winnie Mandela is a work ululating her as an individual with capacities that put her in a select class. Although it does not demonise her, certain sections of the book do remind us of some of the galling phases of her life - ranging from the court cases, the published love letter to her former lover, her appearance in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to Desmond Tutu pleading with her to apologise. Ndebele offers a warning: "Indeed, although you have not been found guilty of so much allegation, except for the kidnapping of the child Stompie Seipei, the cloud of moral doubt will hang over you without end…"

Ndebele seems torn between condemnation of, and empathy for, Madikizela-Mandela. He writes: "You were seen as acting like one with the power to declare someone a sellout and have a life snuffed out, or to absolve him and let him continue to breathe. You seemed to love the children in your care, the more you terrorised them into your care. You declared that you loved and cared for them far more than their parents were capable of." But then he asks: "So what does a woman do in the absence of her husband, who is in jail… has endured the uncertainties of waiting, and has hoped for the return of her man. Departure, waiting and return: they define her experience of the past, present and future."