Andrew Kenny

Winnie Mandela and her legacy of unwelcome truths

Winnie Mandela and her legacy of unwelcome truths
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The death of Winnie Madikizela Mandela has come at a delicate time for South Africa. The country's new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has taken over, yet politics remains in a state of flux. Jacob Zuma's corruption trial, set to take place in June, will see an airing of dirty laundry sure to paint the country's political class in a bad light. Yet Mandela's death has seen South Africa's leaders try to outdo themselves in a different exercise: giving the most nauseating panegyrics to “Mama Winnie”. At Mandela's funeral today, these tributes – which ignore the darker side of her legacy – are sure to continue if her memorial service this week is anything to go by. Take South Africa's deputy president, David Mabuza, who gave the following eulogy:

'The Mother of Nation is gone. When she passed on, we heard the skies weeping as if to mirror the emotions felt by the nation and the world. Though gone from the human eye, the black fortress of human dignity cannot be erased from the grieving heart of Africa. Because you were the tender heart of poets and sweet melody of musicians, in a thousand years our children will return here and say, we love you without reservation Winnie Madikizela Mandela.'

South African newspaper columnist, David Bullard, spoke for many when he sarcastically tweeted the following in reaction to similar tributes: 

So, after an educational night on Twitter, we're all agreed then. Winnie was a saint who fought bravely against apartheid and only set fire to people or had kids murdered when it was absolutely necessary.

— Prof David Bullard (@lunchout2) April 2, 2018

For all the excessive tributes, Bullard has put his finger on the central paradox about Winnie Mandela: she did much good, yet she could also be a violent, drunken, self-adoring monster linked to terror, torture and murder. Did her suffering under apartheid turn her into this? It is impossible to say.

Even in death, Winnie Mandela remains a politically dangerous and divisive figure because her life reveals murky details about South Africa's recent history. Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – and a familiar type of loud-mouthed Marxist who thunders against white people, wears expensive clothes and sent his son to a private school – alluded to this when he said the following at a funeral oration to Mandela:

'Let's say for a second that Winnie Mandela killed Stompie Seipei. Why are they destroying her and saying all sorts of things because of this one child when in exile a lot of people were killed?'

Malema was talking hypothetically but he is far from alone in his apparent eagerness to downplay Winnie Mandela's alleged crimes. Indeed, the darker elements of Winnie's legacy are now being widely expunged as a result of the fawning reaction to her death. George Fivaz, the former head of the South African police force, now says there was no evidence linking Winnie with the murder of Stompie. At best, this looks like revisionism which ignores a mountain of evidence. Take the British investigative journalist, John Carlin, who estimates that the so-called Mandela Football Club, connected to Winnie, was linked to 16 murders. It's true that Winnie Mandela was never convicted in a court of law – or, indeed, even arrested – for murder, but why are such reports simply brushed under the carpet? Many, it seems, are falling into the trap of reacting to Winnie Mandela's death by thinking it best not to ask too many questions, for fear of finding out some unwelcome truths.

During the fragile negotiations between the national party government and the ANC, between 1990 to 1994, it was clear that some sordid compromises were necessary. One such compromise appeared to be the bending of the justice system to absolve Winnie, by then an international celebrity, to avoid disrupting these delicate talks. But while these compromises were perhaps justified in the early nineties, we should not be doing the same now. In death, we are in danger of lauding Winnie Mandela and ignoring the more sinister elements of her character. To do so would be a grave mistake.