Hamba kahle, Mam Winnie

Why do white people find it so difficult to acknowledge the enormous role played by Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in our bloodless transition to democracy?

When the news broke last Monday that she had died, aged 81, the nation went into mourning, and rightly so.

To black people, Mam Winnie was the mother of the nation, a title she earned during and after the struggle for her unstinting focus on alleviating the plight of the poor and marginalised.

To most white people, she was the personification of evil during the closing stages of the struggle, epitomised by media images of her in battle fatigues, right fist raised, in defiance of the apartheid state and its brutal subjugation of black people.

She was indelibly linked to the death of teenage activist, Stompie Moeketsie Seipei, despite the arrest, trial and conviction of Jerry Richardson, a self-confessed impimpi – police spy – for the murder, and a re-investiagtion of the case in 1995 which failed to find any evidence linking her to Stompie’s death, according to then police commissioner, George Fivaz.

She was attacked for her call for the use of violence to overthrow the apartheid regime, including publicly endorsing necklacing of iimpimpi, with her statement in April 1986: “With our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country.”

But when one considers what happened to Mam Winnie after her husband was imprisoned for life on Robben Island, that call to violence is, if not endorsable, perhaps understandable.

She was arrested on May 12 1969 in terms of the Terrorism Act and spent 491 days in solitary confinement, during which time she was routinely subjected to torture and beatings, kept awake for up to five days and nights at a time, in an attempt to break her will and force out of her a confession.

It was only after another prisoner was tortured in front of her, that she finally broke down. Her confession led to a trial but she was eventually aquitted of all charges.

She was served with endless banning orders, which she routinely broke, resulting in a number of bouts in prison, until her continued defiance led to her banishment to the tiny Free State town of Brandfort in 1977 for eight years.

Despite endless brutalisation at the hands of the security police, Mam Winnie never wavered in her determination to bring down the apartheid state.

She returned to the Mandela home at 8115 Vilakazi Street, Orlando West in 1986, and embarked upon the road that would lead to her alienation from the ANC leadership in exile, who disavowed her endorsement of necklacing.

By then the United Democratic Front (UDF) had embarked on rolling mass action in response to ANC leader in exile Oliver Tambo’s call to “make the country ungovernable”.

The UDF was the internal wing of the ANC in exile, and Mam Winnie used it to do two things: implement Oliver Tambo’s call, and equally important, keep alive the name of her husband, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, incarcerated with his comrades on Robben Island.

By that time, Madiba had sunken into obscurity, because images of him were banned. To mention his name in public would lead to swift retribution. The apartheid state saw him as the single greatest threat that it faced, and was determined to destroy even his memory.

And it was Mam Winnie who indefatigably kept his name alive.

Had she not done so, and had the UDF not forced the apartheid state to the negotiating table after releasing Madiba and all other political prisoners, and unbanning the ANC, SACP and the PAC, the man who we now revere as the father of our nation may never have become president of our new democracy in 1994.

The man who walked out of the gates of Victor Verster Prison on Febraury 11 1990, was very different to the angry freedom fighter who went to prison 27 years earlier.

Madiba’s road to Damascus, happened while on Robben Island, when he decided that when he was released from prison, he would seek reconciliation rather than confrontation, forgiveness rather than retribution, compromise rather than antagonism.

Mam Winnie’s estrangement from the ANC came about not because she hated white people, but because the deal struck at Codesa kept the economy in the hands of the capitalists, whereas she ardently believed that a socialist state was the ideal socio-economic model for our future, and she believed that until she died.

Marginalised by the patriarchy – despite its protestations to the contrary the ANC is deeply patriarchal – she descended into virtual obscurity after 1994, and it was only after her death that the truth about her role in giving us our democracy emerged.

And for that, every one of us, will forever be in her debt.