06/04/2018 13:13 SAST | Updated 06/04/2018 14:50 SAST

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's Numerous Deaths Came With Numerous Lives

What does it mean to die before your death? To survive numerous deaths? To live a deathless death?

Winnie had become a symbol.
Siphiwe Sibeko/ Reuters
Winnie had become a symbol.

The life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela speaks of the damage of apartheid. Damage so extensive that it cannot be fully captured – not even by the phrase "crime against humanity".

Because this damage goes deeper than the heinous results of the "big" crimes of institutionalised injustice and the accompanying violence, the pillage and the withholding of essential life resources. It involved the everyday destruction of people's lives through intimate cruelties, repeated over and again.

But fortunately, that's not all there is to life in South Africa. Our social tissue has also been constituted through continuous resistance against the relentless dehumanisation wrought by colonialism and apartheid. The imagining of something different – that is, of the possibility of living together in dignity.

All these facets are to be found in Ma Winnie's life of 81 years. The human possibility. The crimes committed against this human being in the service of injustice. The rising of this human being in resistance against the injustice. Still more crimes, but this time in the name of resistance. And, then, even more, crimes in the perpetuation of a logic which apparently could not be escaped.

In his wonderful book, "The Cry Of Winnie Mandela", Njabulo Ndebele shares with us the gift of his imagined version of Winnie's perspective on her life, or should we say lives. He emphatically captures the complexity and also the horror: "'How many lives does she have left before she's finally lying flat on her stomach?' they speculate. Even I cannot tell. I'm just grateful for the many lives I'm supposed to have. I hope they're right. It's good to know I can die many times and stay alive. I'm intrigued, though, by the idea of dying before death."

What does it mean to die before your death? To survive numerous deaths? To live a deathless death?

Juda Ngwenya / Reuters

In 2013, Ma Winnie gave her own account at the launch of her book on the 491 days she spent in solitary confinement: "You are imprisoned in this little cell. When you stretch your hands, you touch the walls. You are reduced to a nobody, a non-value. It is like killing you alive."

That was 1970, the year that she was reduced to nobody. She was 33 years old. She wanted to commit suicide, but without her daughters knowing it was suicide. Her life of deaths began.

In 1997 I bought two items at the ANC Women's League conference in Rustenburg. One is a simple porcelain side plate on a plastic stand. It bears the image of a young Winnie with a string of pearls, a blouse typical of 1970s fashion, and her arm outstretched in a fist. The other item is a t-shirt with an image of an older Winnie. It bears the legend "Mother of the Nation".

Apart from packing suitcases, women had limited space as political agents at the time. Women were second-class members of the ANC, according to political scientist professor Shireen Hassim.

Winnie had become a symbol: already by the 1980s, she was elevated to "mother of the nation" in the popular discourse. In 1990, once again with her fist raised high, she led the man who was named "father of the nation" from Victor Verster prison: Nelson Mandela.

Decades previously a bright 21-year-old social worker met a dynamic lawyer 18 years her senior. They married in 1958. Nelson was one of the accused in the ongoing treason trial, so they enjoyed relatively little time together before that day when he asked her to pack a suitcase for him. He had to go underground for the ANC. Neither of them knew that he would be gone for 27 years.

Despite hagiographical attempts to the contrary, the evidence does not suggest that Winnie was a born political activist. Nelson's imprisonment changed everything. Left behind as a prominent ANC leader's spouse, she was swept up in the political maelstrom. But apart from packing suitcases, women had limited space as political agents at the time. Women were second-class members of the ANC, according to political scientist professor Shireen Hassim.

POOL New / Reuters
Winnie Mandela (C) dances outside Parliament after the approval of South Africa's new constitution, May 8, 1996.

Similar to Afrikaner nationalism, African nationalism assigns roles to women based on motherhood. As an example, the historian professor Natasha Erlank writes that Alfred Xuma, ANC president in the 1940s, was sure to emphasise in his obituary of Charlotte Maxeke that she was a "loving mother" who was "dedicated" to her husband. He completely failed to mention her political activities, including her leadership in black women's successful 1913 anti-pass campaign.

Living in a different era, when apartheid had been declared a crime against humanity, Winnie's resistance catapulted her into becoming a globally recognised icon against this dehumanising system. But she was unlike other political "mothers".

Her resistance was counteracted with solitary confinement, house arrest and banishment to far-flung Brandfort. After nine soul-destroying years of loneliness and isolation, she finally returned to Soweto.

Perhaps it's time for us to remove the burden of the symbol from Winnie – and remember why her life degenerated into deaths.

When the father of the nation cautiously entered into dialogue with the Botha regime, the mother of the nation notoriously declared in Munsieville in 1986: "Together, hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country." It was the time of states of emergency, police hit squads and the murderous Civil Cooperation Bureau.

The spiral of deaths accelerated. Because of counter-revolutionary infiltration of anti-apartheid structures, paranoia was rife. Winnie embarked upon a terror campaign with her "lieutenant" Jerry Richardson and a gang of homeless children known as the Mandela United Football Club. In 1991 she is charged with the abduction and murder of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei but, on appeal, her six-year prison sentence is reduced to a fine.

Winnie's numerous deaths came with numerous lives. She resigns from all ANC positions but resurfaces as president of the ANC Women's League in 1993. After the transition to democracy, Nelson becomes president and Winnie deputy minister. Her time in the post is cut short due to alleged irregular spending.

Reuters Photographer / Reuters
Winnie Madikizela Mandela addresses women during a National Women's Day at Kwa-Thema township east of Johannesburg.

Despite ongoing controversy about killings and assaults on children connected to her "club", she retains her position as president of the ANC Women's League in 1997. Later the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that she was involved in the abductions, assaults and murders of at least 12 people.

In the early 2000s, Winnie is back in court, this time for fraud linked to insurance for league members who would never see the payouts. Another appeal and her jail sentence of five years is suspended. Still, in Polokwane in 2007 she is among those elected to serve on the ANC's national executive committee.

What remained of Winnie after her numerous deaths was revealed at the TRC hearing on the atrocities committed by her "club". In a devastating moment Archbishop Desmond Tutu repeatedly pleaded with her: "If you were able to say 'something went wrong' ... and say, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, for my part in what went wrong'. I beg you, I beg you, I beg you... Your greatness will be enhanced if you said, 'sorry, things went horribly wrong'."

Eventually, she apologised to some of her victims. However, during that very same hearing, members of the league harassed and intimidated Mananki Seipei, Stompie's mother.

As the story of the post-apartheid nation and its father and mother unfolded, it came to be that Nelson brought peace and reconciliation, in contrast to Winnie's violence and terror. But perhaps it's time for us to remove the burden of the symbol from Winnie – and remember why her life degenerated into deaths.

Professor Christi van der Westhuizen is an associate professor at the University of Pretoria and the author of "White Power and the Rise and Fall of the National Party".