Winnie: the good, the bad, and the South Africa that needs to be spoken about
It is interesting that we reflect on a person when they are no longer around to input into the reflection. In the case of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, her passing has revived a space in which we reflect on the journey of democracy.
The passing of Winnie has opened discussions around not only who Winnie was as an individual, but the role that she played in ensuring and shaping our democracy. Winnie has been hailed as hero and saviour, and the antithesis – perpetrator and villain. Given her many roles, what are the lessons that we need to learn from her to move South Africa and its democracy forward?
In her passing, Winnie has been spoken about as the Mother of the Nation, a campaigner for the struggle, a mobiliser, and a holder and support for the families and victims of apartheid. She has been an icon for people who were marginalised by apartheid and held the "orphans" of apartheid. She has been principled and strong, fighting for what she believes in. She has fought against oppression, domination and patriarchy and paid the price for all of these – exacted not only by the apartheid government, but by our democratic government as well.
The passing of Winnie has been a trigger for many South Africans to speak not only about her, but of the darker aspects of our country. Aspects that we would like buried, and would prefer not to speak about. We speak about the oppression, torture and crimes against humanity. We speak about choices that people made in terrible and inhumane situations.
We speak about the impact of apartheid, not only on the individual but also the family. But we also avoid speaking about all of these, because to speak about these would not only bring the pain of former days, but also undermine the legacy of the person who passed on.
This denial and avoidance are common as a manifestation of collective trauma. Collective trauma is a state where the collective (in this case, the South African nation) is traumatised as an entity and results in both collective and individual reactions to triggers. Avoidance in respect of collective trauma includes the denial of problems and secrets, avoiding responsibility and accountability, not wanting to face things that may cause controversy or concern the group or the country.
We should not avoid what we as a country need to deal with: the past atrocities, and the effects of the past on our society and us as individuals.
The avoidance is seen in the denial of the more human parts of Winnie and speaking about her dark side. We speak primarily of the goodness, the courage, the passion, the humanity. We fail to speak about the controversial decisions that she committed on behalf of the ANC or in her own capacity.
We speak about how the apartheid government tortured her, put her in solitary confinement and sent her to live in isolation without support in the middle of a foreign space with foreign people. We fail to talk about the ANC's reaction to Winnie post-apartheid. How they ostracised her when it suited them or included her views when it suited them.
The passing of Winnie is a lesson for individuals as well as the country: We need to have moments to reflect on the life of the country – don't just point fingers and put faults to the country, but reflect, learn and stop blaming. We need to reflect on the causes of the things that are lacking. We need to talk about past oppression and its effects on our people, as well as current systemic violence and its effects.
We need to do this on a continual basis, rather than be triggered by the death of our stalwarts. When we can move forward as a country, we will know that the journey to democracy impacted on all of us. We all carried the wounds of that period – all of us, no matter our race, gender or political affiliations. We all have the potential to be both perpetrators and victims and must hold both of these within us, but bring out the good so that we can move this nation forward.
Winnie as an individual symbolised the courage that we have as African people. Her ability to hold the core of who she was in spite of the forces of oppression and patriarchy is what we remember. Her way of dealing with oppression and patriarchy of our African society needs to be a role model to all people who are fighting for continued democracy and freedom.
However, we should never forget our dark sides. We should not avoid what we as a country need to deal with: the past atrocities, and the effects of the past on our society and us as individuals.
Gaudence Uwizeye is a community practitioner, and Dominique Dix-Peek is the knowledge and learning manager, both at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR)