Andrew Kenny

Winnie Mandela, martyr and tyrant

Winnie Mandela, martyr and tyrant
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Lest we forget:

Winnie Madikizela Mandela (1936 - 2018); Age: 81; Cause of death: illness

James “Stompie” Seipei (1974 - 1989); Age: 14; Cause of death: murder, throat slit

South Africa is in mourning over Winnie Madikizela Mandela who died on Monday. The official mood is of sadness and eulogy. The unofficial mood is quite different and rather confused. Any hard look at her life brings up all sorts of disturbing questions about her and about South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy. The official message seems to be: “Don’t look too hard”.

Of course, Winnie Mandela endured many wrongs under the apartheid regime. She was held without trial and denied a family life as a result of her husband Nelson's unfair imprisonment. She was also harassed and tormented by the government. In 1969, she suffered months and months of solitary confinement. In 1977, she was banished to the remote town of Brandfort in the Orange Free State. It is true that she showed great courage throughout these ordeals.

But this picture is not a complete one of Winnie Mandela, who was also convicted of kidnapping and fraud, and should have been tried for murder. She was a mother and a monster, a martyr and a tyrant, a rampaging megalomaniac posing as a selfless defender of the poor and the helpless.

Winnie Mandela was born in the Transkei in 1936. She became a social worker and did tireless and devoted work for the needy. She was of striking appearance and had a perfect sense of dress and colour. She married Nelson Mandela, 16 years older than her, in 1958.

In 1985, she returned to Soweto, the huge black township next to Johannesburg, and became a monster. Or did she reveal her inner monster? This was the time of the “People’s War”, when the ANC unleashed gangs of young thugs to terrorise people in the townships and make them “ungovernable”. The National Party government of apartheid had lost all confidence, knew apartheid was doomed and was busy making fundamental reforms, such as the recognition of black trade unions and the ending of the hated Pass Laws. The more it reformed, the worse the violence grew. The ANC knew that apartheid was ending and fought to make sure that nobody else ended it. Its quest was not for freedom but for power.

Winnie Mandela was part of the bloody campaign playing out at this time. She applauded the hideous “necklacing” of black people, which involved putting a tyre filled with petrol over their necks and setting it alight. She established her own gang of thugs, the “Mandela United Football Club”, who rampaged through Soweto. Like the other ANC leaders, she was superb at PR and showmanship, and became internationally famous – thereby acquiring protection from the dying apartheid state – by raising her picturesque head, shaking her fist in the air and shouting heroic slogans. Her accolade as “Mother of the Nation” seems to have come from her own PR department rather than any spontaneous tribute by the people.

In February 1990, President F W de Klerk made his famous speech releasing Nelson Mandela, unbanning the ANC and effectively ending apartheid. Negotiations for democracy began, mainly between the ANC and the National Party. As might be expected, violence rose to a crescendo in this period, which ended with the democratic election in April 1994.

Shortly before these momentous events, in 1989, a 14 year old boy, James Seipei, better known as “Stompie” was found dead in Soweto. (“Stompie” means “little stump” or “cigarette butt” in Afrikaans). His throat had been cut. Seipei, who had been an activist associated with Winnie Mandela, had subsequently fallen foul of her. Jerry Richardson, her bodyguard, later testified that he had murdered him on Winnie's instructions; “I slaughtered him like a goat”, he said. (Winnie Mandela described allegations she ordered the killing as 'the worst lunacy').

Winnie Mandela was never convicted of the murder, perhaps arguably because she had succeeded in cowing the judiciary. It was also politically inopportune once apartheid had collapsed – and Winnie had become an international icon – for her alleged involvement in the case to be properly looked into. During delicate negotiations, the National Party government was nervous that bringing her case to trial might upset talks. In other words, they were now scared of Winnie Mandela. So it seems she got away with murder.

Her husband, frail and dignified, became South Africa’s first ever democratic president and performed the wonderful task of bringing about peace and healing, even if he was, otherwise, a rather poor leader. But while Nelson deserves the plaudits, Winnie does not and the endless panegyrics to her saintliness and self-sacrifice are difficult to stomach.