Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: "I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy"

{© Oscar López Rivera}

{ exclusive feature}

The Complexities and Ongoing Commitment of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
by Carolyn Moon (Contributing Writer, Liberator Magazine)

Author's note: This is an essay I wrote after reading an article online about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's ongoing problems with the leadership of South Africa and the world press. I feel that she's been the most misunderstood and demonized of the leaders during the years that led to and after Nelson Mandela's release. In fact, once he was released, seemingly, she was no longer needed and became a liability to the movement. It's my contention that The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings made a hero out of F.W. deKlerk (who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela) and relegated her efforts and painful struggles to an abyss that she cannot escape. At 73, she still addresses the issues that are unresolved in South Africa -- especially the treatment of women -- and continues to encounter resistance over what she says or doesn't say.

I remember Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. It seems as if many have chosen to forget her and the contributions and hardships she endured during the heyday of apartheid in South Africa.

The catalyst for this remembrance was an article in The Mail & Guardian Online based in Johannesburg. The focus was on an interview that she had given to the City News in which she lamented the ineffectiveness of the African National Congress in implementing policies that would empower South African women. Madikizela-Mandela was diplomatic in her approach, stating, "I wouldn't say the ANC has failed women -- it's the responsibility of every South African to transform society." However, there was clearly some concern about the slow pace of providing much-needed health services and "protection" for these women, and disappointment that the ANC hadn't worked more aggressively for change.

Controversy proves never to be far. In March of 2010, there was another article written about her lambasting Nelson Mandela and the ANC for failing the masses with the alliances they made with the power structure. "A bad deal" was the phrase they attributed to her. This, reportedly, was an interview she had with Nadira Naipaul and was published in the London Evening Standard. Bishop Tutu was described as a "cretin" and she expressed an inability to forgive Nelson Mandela for accepting the Nobel Peace Prize with apartheid's former president F.W. deKlerk. Madikizela-Mandela denies having the interview and states that it was all fabricated. (Read: "Winnie Denies Mandela Remarks")

Again, she's vilified and locked into an image of bitterness and an inability to reconcile and forgive the injustices of the past. Though she continues to be the "town crier" for ongoing injustices and hardships that are present in South Africa today, for as many who believe in her fighting spirit, there are those who view her as a troublemaker.

I've followed Madikizela-Mandela for many years and understand that behind the headlines and controversy therein lies an extraordinary and fearless woman. She continued to feed the hungry and dispossessed, provided shelter, counseled and tended to the health needs of many poverty-stricken South Africans. This was done during the most oppressive and devastating assaults by the apartheid regime. The accusations about her that aired during The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings were disturbing, yet the brutality of the times victimized all who were fighting for justice and independence. The dynamics of revolution posed situations and circumstances that few can really ever reconcile, however, she made it through despite the betrayal, at times, of her countrymen. Her conviction on fraud charges and suspended prison sentence are quite complicated, and later rendered her ineligible to run for the General Assembly in 2009, but it shouldn't overshadow the scope of her legacy. And neither should the rift with the ANC and resignation from the women's league and the organization. Though it had to be devastating, at age 73, she continues to express hope about the future of South Africa and the empowerment of women and the downtrodden in that society.

Dr. Maya Angelou described her in 2007 at St. Sabina's Church in Chicago, as a freedom fighter: "She's a woman and a strong woman and an intelligent and loving woman." Her supporters today still view her as such and understand that fighting for freedom in oppressive societies underscores the best but also, at times, the worst in the human condition. There have been a number of biographies on Winnie-Madikizela, however, the one written by Anné Marié Du Preez Bezdrob is perhaps the most balanced. Du Preez Bezdrob compares her to the heroic women of other oppressive societies, e.g., Sarajevans against the Serbs and Akhmatova (poet) under the Stalin Regime. I also think of Fannie Lou Hamer under the segregated south; Angela Davis fighting for change within the criminal justice system; Ida B. Wells' anti-lynching campaign and the list could go on and on.

In the book, there is one particular quote attributed to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, which reads:

"I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy."

I shall never forget her.

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