“THE COMMISSION itself recognises the enormous contribution she made to the liberation struggle,” states the final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. “For over two decades she suffered anguish in her separation from her husband, as well as persecution, banishment, imprisonment, torture and harassment.”
But while she was undoubtedly instrumental in keeping the flame alive while her husband Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned, there was another side to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a side which forever tarnishes her legacy.
The same commission found Madikizela-Mandela formed and sanctioned activities of the infamous Mandela United Football Club; that this entity was involved in many criminal activities including killing, torture, assaults and arson; and that those who opposed or dissented from Madikizela-Mandela were branded as informers, hunted down and killed.
“The Commission finds Ms Winnie Madikizela-Mandela politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed,” the Report stated. “The club…engaged in a series of acts of terror against perceived enemies and those that defied its authority. Madikizela-Mandela’s proximity to these events is as undeniable as her complicity.”
This is the tragedy at the heart of the legendary woman who died yesterday at the age of 81. While her husband languished in jail for 27 years, it was Winnie who took up the baton in the fight for freedom. Her indomitable will in the face of a vicious and brutal apartheid regime is unquestionable. Here was a black woman fighting for justice in a white man’s world.
But in later years she was willing to achieve her ends by any means necessary, even if it meant the violation of the very rights and freedoms for which she so fervently fought. And then came the convictions for theft and fraud which seemed to seal her fate in ignominy.
Winnie’s polarising nature was evident for all to see when she paid a visit to Trinidad and Tobago decades ago, and in a speech praised our “rainbow country” but then remarked that “she saw no black in the rainbow.”
In 2010, she also sparred with VS Naipaul’s wife, the journalist Nadira Naipaul, accusing Lady Naipaul of fabricating a newspaper article in which Winnie was quoted as claiming Nelson Mandela was a sellout.
In the early days after Nelson Mandela’s incarceration, Winnie was a source of strength and hope to him. But two years after he was freed, they separated though the marriage would only be formally dissolved four years later in 1996. Winnie, however, always insisted on having a role to play in his life, claiming no one knew Madiba better than she. That may well be so, but it is history that will now place both legends into relief.