Shunned By Post-apartheid Elite, History Will Recognize Mama Winnie Mandela as Gallant Liberator

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Two warriors. Mama Winnie and Mama Coretta Scott King.
Photo: Flickr

Tribute to Mama Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela

Since Monday April 2, 2018, when Mama Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela --hereafter referred to as Mama Winnie-- the servant-leader and gallant fighter for African freedom and dignity in South Africa, passed on, progressive people the world over have been stricken by grief and pain.

But we also feel blessed that while she lived, she was an exemplary leader of practical idealism who always spoke truth to power, whatever the consequences. Indeed, throughout her adult life, she discharged her duty as a patriot and a lover of her people by rebuking and not sugarcoating the injustice her people were subjected to.

As we celebrate and honor her selfless sacrifices and contributions to the uplift of a cross section of people in South Africa in particular, we are in grief and pain because for more than three decades she was the ebullient north star that provided light, hope and solace to millions of people who were in the inferno of apartheid.

Although Oliver Reginald Tambo (1917-1993) was the moral and intellectual compass in the struggle against apartheid after the Riviona Treason Trials in 1964 and the subsequent imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) in Robben Island, it was largely the indomitable courage of Mama Winnie that resonated with the great majority of common people and more than kept the flame for the liberation of South Africans burning.

In a significant way, it was by the force of her personality, the example of her commitment to the cause of African freedom and dignity in South Africa and the courageous defiance of her inhumane treatment, that she did not only give anti-apartheid movement a relatable-to human face, but also captivated and inspired progressive people the world over to empathize and to join in solidarity with the struggle against the vile apartheid system.

Even the harshest treatments to which she was subjected during the darkest days of apartheid, as when for example, she was placed under solitary confinement for 491 days from 1968-70, and then banished from 1977-85 to the Afrikaner town of Brandfort in Free State, could not diminish her determination to the cause of her people’s freedom. Instead, it strengthened her resolve to proudly wear the scars of apartheid as a badge of honor; and to carry the crushing cross of suffering under apartheid defiantly, with fearless pride and dignity.

In defying all the odds, Mama Winnie seemed to have been driven by a singular sense of purpose, reminiscent of what Aime Cesaire, the spokesman of Negritude, has captured in one of his poems in “Notebook of a return to the native land,” where he declares: “Grant me the savage faith of a sorcerer. Grant my hands the power to mould. Grant my soul the sword’s temper. I won’t flinch. Make my head into a figurehead, … [and] the lover of this unique people.”

A true measure of her character is that because of her abiding love for the marginalized, the despised and forgotten in society, she refused to succumb to the fetish of materialism after 1994. Instead of moving to affluent suburbs where she could have lived in more comfort, she chose to remain with her people in Soweto until the last day of her life.

A tragic irony of African history is that despite Mama Winnie’s life-long selfless service to her people, the post-apartheid government of South Africa barely accorded her recognition commensurate to her contributions to and sacrifices for the struggle, until after she passed on.

It is a tragic irony in a double sense. In the first place, all over Africa, there is no greater affront than demeaning a mother. Yet despite the fact that it was on her almighty soul and shoulders that the aspirations of millions rested for more than three decades, a number of people have treated Mama Winnie as simply an appendage of her former and late husband, while others have even attempted to revile her by questioning her moral character.

Second, it is rather disorienting, if not disheartening, that those who have cast aspersions on her moral character when she was alive, are people who could not have withstood one-hundredth of what Mama Winnie was subjected to by the apartheid monstrosity. Now to add salt unto injury, they profess to love her with a fierce sense of collective and even personal loss. To use an African expression, such detractors of Mama Winnie or what my Pan-Africanist comrade Sihaka Tsemo refers to as Negropeans, have no shame in shedding crocodile tears. But they cannot fool all the people all the time.

A simple explanation for both types of double-speak is most likely due to the combination of the ideology and practice of patriarchy with racism, all of which that prowl and haunt the continent like a permanent nightmare.

But the refusal to give Mama Winnie her more than well deserved formal political recognition could also be attributed to what Amilcar Cabral, the razor-sharp theorist of the African revolution, characterized as the cancer of betrayal, which he maintained served the ignoble cause of neo-colonialism, by gnawing away at African revolutionary movements.

It is worth quoting what Amilcar Cabral stated at the state funeral of Kwame Nkrumah in Conakry, Guinea on May 13, 1972, because it might apply with equal force to Mama Winnie’s situation. He declared, “Let no one tell us that Nkrumah died of a cancer to the throat or some other disease. No; Nkrumah has been killed by the cancer of betrayal that we should uproot.”

But there were also those who vilified Mama Winnie in order to hide the sordid brutality of the apartheid regime.

Whatever the trepidations or shenanigans of power elites, Mama Winnie is a historical icon and one of the greatest anti-apartheid activists of the second half of the twentieth century. Now she becomes the only African woman to join the pantheon of departed African revolutionary leaders of distinction, such as Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Eduardo Mondlane, Robert Sobukwe, Thomas Sankara, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Steve Bantu Biko, Samora Machel, Chris Hani, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Julius Nyerere and Tom Mboya.

Now across South Africa, Africa and the world, her deathless spirit for social justice, equality and human dignity lives on in the songs and testimonies composed in her memory by millions of people whose lives she touched. These are the people who shall carry high her torch forward and relay it to future generations.

Although Mama Winnie has physically departed from us, the legacy of her selfless work and sacrifices is inscribed in the hearts and minds of million of people in South Africa in particular and the world at large. As long as her legacy remains in the hearts and minds of people, no one can place a wall around her powerful ideas of social justice and dignity.

It is not a cliché to say that history will vindicate Mama Winnie, as a distinguished woman servant-leader who positively touched the lives of countless people by her practical work of compassion.

It is with a heavy heart and in solidarity that we pay this tribute to Mama Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela, the extraordinary Mother of the South African Nation who served her people unflinchingly with divine motherly love, compassion and dedication. May Creator rest her soul in eternal peace.

Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu
University of Connecticut, Storrs

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