Popular perceptions of political leaders are rarely subtle; leaders are either the embodiment of virtue or of evil. In the last three days Winnie Mandela has joined the pantheon of African nationalism. The celebrations of her political life in Orlando stadium, Johannesburg, sealed a chapter in South Africa’s history and brought a unique female presence into a line of male heroes who date back to Nkrumah and Lumumba.
The word iconic is worn-out. An icon is not the familiar – and pretentious - way of describing a significant example. An icon is a pictorial representation of a powerful inner – spiritual – reality. Winnie Mandela was an icon of the struggle against apartheid. The inner reality of the struggle against apartheid was the heroism it evoked and the damage it did to so many.
The white South African regime with stunning cynicism described apartheid as “Christian nationalism”. A priest friend of mine once described it as “sin made visible”. To understand the meaning of structural violence, just study the apartheid system and its aftermath, the persistence of its inherent violence within civil society.
Nelson and Winnie Mandela achieved their status as heroes in very different ways. He believed and lived his own heroic myth in prison, as an absent, eloquent silence for 27 years. It fell to his wife to embody that reflected myth, to be the public presence, a symbol and a voice. And to suffer. For two debilitating decades, this she did with fortitude and bravery in the face of a brutal regime. She did not ask to play Penelope to Nelson Mandela’s Odysseus.
By the 1980s, though, the price of resistance had begun to show. Her inner strength and political judgement had become coarsened and hardened by alcohol and the pervasive violence around her in the townships where she lived. She was not alone in that.
Winnie’s association with the Mandela United Football Club, a group of violent and anarchic Soweto youth, was to begin the darkest chapter in her life. And one of the biggest sufferings Nelson Mandela experienced in prison may have been the very human one of being unable to fulfil the traditional role of husband and father. He could not look after his wife, or get her out of the country to recover. There were communications channels in and out of his prison and during the time of his house-arrest. He tried. But to no avail.
By the early 1980s, the situation in the townships had deteriorated. The regime had boosted its infiltration of the ANC and fear of informers was rife. Young people made accusations and alleged informers were necklaced with a burning tyre, a particularly horrible execution. The internal ANC youth movement, COSAS, had lost its leadership, arrested, imprisoned, sometimes killed by the regime. The ANC outside the country was stepping up its armed struggle. More and more township youth were engaging in anarchic resistance and killings. I saw one group at a funeral break away with the ferocity of a hunting pack and chase a boy. There was nothing to stop them.
The group of Church leaders with whom I worked, influential within the internal resistance, were extremely concerned and made strengthening COSAS with leadership training a top priority to bring the situation under control. But the only interpretation of one, often quoted, speech by Winnie Mandela was that she was blessing necklacing. The external ANC in Lusaka called for an insurrection. If it had taken place black youth, eager for combat, would have been massacred.
One of the illusions of both popular journalism and popular perceptions is that the world is made up of bad people and good people. No shades of grey here. You build them up and you knock them down. So two stories can be run about the same person. Demonology follows hagiography as night follows day. Brave new dawn Blair of 1997, deceitful, militarist Blair of 2007. Dangerous, rebellious Winnie to Winnie, Mother of the Nation. Saint or Sinner?
Winnie Mandela, a lonely female figure in the pantheon of African heroes, in death as in life, escapes such polarised treatment in the British Press. The memorial services in Orlando stadium are not a time for reflection on flawed humanity. But they could be a time to begin leaving the violent legacy of apartheid behind, as Nelson Mandela, freed at last, worked for until his death.