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09/04/2018 19:57 SAST | Updated 09/04/2018 20:13 SAST

'Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Wasn't Evil. She Was Remarkable.'

"Winnie was not prepared to be anybody's victim, no matter what they did to her," Khulumani Support Group director tells HuffPost.

Juda Ngwenya/ Reuters

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's reputation has been a prominent topic of debate since the apartheid struggle activist passed last Monday. Critique has come in from various parts of the globe – both in relation to the brutalities the apartheid government visited upon her, and her role in some of the incidents that occurred during the time in which Nelson Mandela was incarcerated.

Since Madikizela-Mandela's passing, there has been a lot of hype around the torture and subsequent murder of Stompie Moeketse Sepei (Jerry Richardson, coach of the Mandela United Football Club [MUFC], was found guilty of the murder of Stompie). From the mid-Eighties, Madikizela-Mandela had a dark cloud of suspicion hanging over her head regarding the activities at the club, as the sponsor of MUFC. This has been reinvigorated following her death.

A number of commentators have put Sepei's death at the centre of her story - pushing all of the other work she did to the periphery, defining her by the criminal trial and the questions raised around Madikizela-Mandela's involvement.

Beeld/ Archives

The truth is that she was a nuanced individual. She was not a saint and was often surrounded by teams of questionable individuals, but she also put up a fierce fight against the machinery of the apartheid state while playing a pivotal role in the liberation of black South Africans and the ushering in of the new democratic dispensation.

It goes without saying that hers is a complex legacy, and she should not be represented in the media with broad brush-strokes declaring her either definitively good or evil. To do so generates what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called "the danger of a single story", which more often than not leads to gross misrepresentation.

Dr Marjorie Jobson, national director of the South African civil society organisation Khulumani Support Group says, "Winnie was not prepared to be anybody's victim, no matter what they did to her. Which is why I think she survived some of the torture and horrors she went through ... she was never going to be a victim. That is what is so fascinating about her; they tried to hold her guilty for Stompie and the Mandela United Football Club - which was a debacle.

The western media, in particular, has continued to reinforce the erasure of her work through purposefully highlighting her flaws, painting a picture of 'Winnie the mugger'

"The world has never sympathised with her because they don't regard her as a victim – they regard her as a perpetrator, and the western world has always wanted to condemn, particularly a woman who is a genuine revolutionary and who was willing to defy and condemn the things that she was observing."

The horrors of the 1980s, including the reign of terror in Soweto, were undoubtedly a dark time in the country. However, to use a moment such as this to highlight misgivings over the totality of her contributions is a failure to manage the complexities of time and space.

Jobson says that she doesn't think "the world grasps the extent of horrors that she [Winnie] was subjected to ... the 491 days in confinement that she was subjected to. She was never willing to be classed a victim, and that is what is so interesting to me with Winnie."

Beeld/ Archives

In Alex Boraine's "A Country Unmasked" there's a recollection of an article which Fatima Meer wrote in the Sunday Times, in which she concluded that Madikizela-Mandela was "a victim of a vicious media which not only headlines every conceivable bad news against her, but regurgitates it endlessly so that one bad multiplies into many in the public mind".

"This is important to note because the western media, in particular, has continued to reinforce the erasure of her work through purposefully highlighting her flaws, painting a picture of 'Winnie the mugger'. Many times we have seen this happen to women – where their work has been pushed aside in favour of criminalising her on the one hand, and on the other not wanting to engage with the ramifications of her circumstances."

Marjorie Jobson speaks of the terrible gaps that existed in the TRC proceedings, and she quotes Mahmood Mamdani when he said of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; "You guys did the wrong thing. You didn't understand that the TRC should have been about political justice and not about criminal justice ... criminalising things that happened". Jobson agrees.

It is easier to peg the terrible damage of the strategy employed by the repressive state on those who are on the receiving end of its brutality...

Jobson adds: "For me, the major problem with the TRC was that it was trying to accord individual responsibility for violations - it failed almost completely to look at the system, that in the military language is called psychological operation (psyop). These are well-known practices all over the world where there are repressive governments.

"And so because it only dealt with individuals, none of that came out. And this is the biggest failure, I think, of the TRC. People survive because they are part of a community that looks out for each other – all of that capacity was destroyed, even though the TRC gave this global impression that it was an amazing capacity for forgiveness.

"Holding individuals responsible for an evil that was systemic - engineered into the entire system - doesn't work. It ended up where you had people who were informing [during apartheid] and were surviving because of this, but you could also easily name someone an informer and never have proof of it – and that could be used by both sides against an individual."

Bloomberg via Getty Images
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, during the 54th national conference of the ANC. Saturday, December 16, 2017.

"This was one of the most devastating tactics of the apartheid government, because then you never knew who had been bought by the apartheid officials with all of their secret funds."

So much of what happened during that tumultuous time in South Africa destroyed the social capital in townships, and Jobson says that this is the real evil of the system. The worst damage of all is also that it will still take so much work to begin to rebuild this social capital. This is what Jobson speaks of when she says that this is what "apartheid set out to destroy, and it wasn't named clearly so that it could be properly dealt with by the TRC".

It is easier to peg the terrible damage of the strategy employed by the repressive state on those who are on the receiving end of its brutality than to "address the torture and the fundamental destruction of the human connection within communities and between individuals".

Jobson says that one could tell from the kind of questions Madikizela-Mandela was asked by the media that "they wanted to name her as evil" – and insists: "She wasn't evil. She was remarkable."

And that, perhaps is where we should begin: by acknowledging what the apartheid government did, and the role it played in the undoing of this woman – instead of pretending that who she became was not built on the brutalities she suffered.

Dr Marjorie Jobson is the national director of the South African civil society organisation Khulumani Support Group; working in response to the needs of members to restore the dignity of people harmed by apartheid through activities that transform victims into active citizens.