Death has once again visited grief and anguish upon the hearts of South Africans, Africans and the rest of the global family. Indeed, like a thief in the night, death has come again to steal from us one of our beloved citizens as South Africans. Mama Winnie is no more. Citizens of the world, our nation is in mourning. Sadly, Mme Nomzamo Zanyiwe Winfred ‘Winnie’ Madikizela-Mandela has forever left our midst. Ever since we heard of the passing of this brave daughter of the soil, mother of this great yet tragic nation, our hearts have been weighed down by grief and hopelessness.
I describe Mama Winnie as brave because throughout her life she had to contend with abuse and insults from both the oppressor and the oppressed. Even in death, her name is still marked by controversy and scorn. To mention the name Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is to invite contempt and ridicule from these who insist that we should never celebrate and honour our mother – Nomzamo Zanyiwe Winfred ‘Winnie’ Madikizela-Mandela – as a freedom fighter, a stalwart of our struggle and a fearless leader of our people. But they could not have been more wrong. This time around, despite their concerted efforts to massage the truth about this brilliant daughter of the African continent, they have overestimated their powers to spin facts, for we, the proud descendants of Mama Winnie, know what she stood for when she was alive.
In her death Mama Winnie will continue to suffer abuse and insults at the pens and tongues of those who are masters of distorting reality; but we are not worried because facts, unlike lies, have no expiration date. Even if the real story of Nomzamo Zanyiwe Winfred ‘Winnie’ Madikizela-Mandela for now still wobbles under the weight of falsehood, the truth about this glorious Queen of the oppressed will one day be liberated from lies. The greatness of Mama Winnie will never be diminished by a bunch of professional liars, for her people, the great masses around the globe, knew her as an unwavering leader, a selfless person and a wonderful human being. Once again, in her death, these who are experts at spreading propaganda will exaggerate her mistakes, magnify her flaws and amplify her faux-pas all in the hope of embarrassing her and bringing shame to her name. But we should never be ashamed to be associated with this gallant hero of our people. We should never shudder to defend the name of this phenomenal woman – Nomzamo Zanyiwe Winfred ‘Winnie’ Mandela. Yes, Mama Winnie had her faults. She made her fair share of mistakes, but who amongst us is infallible?
From the early stages of her life Mama Winnie had to carry on her shoulders the curse of being a black woman in a world which does not respect black people, nor does it hold women in esteem. Having married a man who would later become a head of state the pressure was bound to increase and the weight double. Unfortunately, as it is a curse of black women, and women in general married to powerful men, those who cannot help but dilute facts will continue to define Mama Winnie through the patriarchal prism of her former husband, whom she has now joined in the world of the non-living, while reducing her solid legacy to a mere footnote in the books of history. The world, through history, has always been cruel to blacks and women, but no one knows its brutality more than black women. Mama Winnie knows this brutality firsthand. She was vilified by both the racist apartheid regime and her own comrades, yet she stood tall and erect like a Morula tree.
Dear world, our hearts have been struck by pain and sorrow ever since we learned of the passing of our beloved mother, Mama Nomzamo Zanyiwe Winfred ‘Winnie’ Madikizela-Mandela. Her departure has left us numb and paralysed. Members of the global family, South Africa and the African continent are mourning the passing of this giant of the human struggle against racism, inequality and sexism. Mama Winnie is no more. Bizana, a small town in the province of the Eastern Cape, the birthplace of this paragon of resilience and pillar of strength, has lost a daughter. Soweto, a township in Gauteng where our beloved mother was residing when she met her death has seen all sorts of characters come in and go. Media houses, like a group of vultures smelling a carcass, have deployed their reporters to ask all sorts of questions – from silly to ridiculous – about the character of Mama Winnie.
In Mbongweni, a village in Bizana where our beloved mother was born will see a pouring of visitors carrying with them cameras and microphones to record stories of a beautiful and intelligent daughter of school teachers – a daughter who is no longer with us. The locals, those who grew up with her as well as those who came after her, will share generously their individual tales of Zanyiwe; for that is who she is known as in Mbongweni. They will speak of Zanyiwe, a girl who could not stand to see injustice meted out to a fellow human being even if it put her in trouble. But Zanyiwe is no more. After decades of fighting the racist apartheid regime she is resting. Citizens of the world, unite, for a spear that battled for the equal treatment of Africans and women has fallen.
Notwithstanding his spectacular failure to set aside personal grudges and honour the memory of Mama Winnie, President Thabo Mbeki was correct in his eulogy at the funeral of Sarah Bartmann on 09 August 2002 when he said: ‘We cannot undo the damage that was done to her. But at least we can summon the courage to speak the naked but healing truth that must comfort her wherever she may be.’ The former president went further regarding the need to speak truth about what was done to Sarah Bartmann: ‘But, today, the gods would be angry with us if we did not, on the banks of the Gamtoos River, at the grave of Sarah Bartmann, call out for the restoration of the dignity of Sarah Bartmann, of the Khoi-San, of the millions of Africans who have known centuries of wretchedness.’
It goes without saying that ‘the gods would be angry with us if we did not’ rebuke Mbeki for his petty, childlike behaviour during a period of mourning and sadness. It is disappointing that the very same Mbeki, a respected statesman, almost sixteen years since the burial of Sarah Bartmann in the Eastern Cape, denied Winnie Madikizela-Mandela the same dignity in her death. While she was alive Mama Winnie was humiliated and isolated by the racist apartheid government and her own comrades, including the former president. In the end we cannot undo the damage that was done to Mama Winnie; but at least we can summon the courage to speak the naked but healing truth that must comfort her wherever she may be.
Like Sarah Bartmann and many women before her, Nomzamo Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela should have never suffered like she did throughout her life. She should never have been subjected to solitary confinement like an unrepentant murderer. Mama Winnie should have never been separated from her husband, her children – her family. However, it is consoling to know that prior to her departure, a permanent exit from this world, Mama Winnie had begun to see her legacy bare its ripe fruits. University students, particularly young women, who protested around the country for free education in 2016 invoked her majestic name as a symbol of strength and stoicism. Late last year the South African government announced that as of 2018, first year students from poor backgrounds would receive fee-free education. Thus, now with the fight to return land to its rightful owners – a fight Mama Winnie fought gallantly her entire life – on the tongue of every progressive South African, her spirit is clearly living on, and it will certainly live on for generations to come.
The resourceful Motsogapele had said this of warrior-women like Mama Winnie: ‘Mmangwana o tshwara thipa ka fa bogaleng.’ Nomzamo Zanyiwe Winfred ‘Winnie’ Madikizela-Mandela was borrowed to us for eighty-one years, and most of those years she spent advancing and defending the cause of her people. More than any one of her peers within the struggle, including her late former husband, Tata Nelson Mandela, she led from the forefront. Not once did she waver. When democracy arrived and most of her comrades left the township for the leafy suburbs of Sandton and Kayalami, she remained behind amongst her people in Soweto. Indeed, like Motsogapele had observed a long time ago, she held the dagger by the sharp side – for the sake of all her people. Dear world, as it is the order of things when we lose one so dear to our hearts, for her soul and body have agreed to part ways, join us in bidding farewell to the Queen of our struggle as the oppressed. Finally, allow me to pronounce these words as we normally do when we say goodbye to a loved one: May the soul of this towering colossus of our people rest in peace. Kgotsong!