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03/04/2018 16:07 SAST | Updated 03/04/2018 20:03 SAST

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: The System Hated Her More Than Anyone Else

Growing up in the confines of Christian National Eduction meant looking at Winnie Mandela and seeing the embodiment of the threat to white existence.

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A picture taken on April 13, 1986 shows Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, then-wife of an imprisoned Nelson Mandela, addressing a meeting in Kagiso township.

Growing up white in 1980s' Pretoria there were two figures that were demonised by the system of apartheid and Christian National Education more than any others: Winnie Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

Nelson Mandela was a name, a phantom; someone the government, media, the church and our parents dealt with years earlier. He wasn't a threat. Neither was the communist ANC or their allies. The National Party government was on the right side of history, the South African Defence Force was one of the best in the world and our police were extremely effective at crushing dissent.

Or so we were made to believe.

Winnie Mandela however, unlike Tutu, gave the grey-shoed party men in Pretoria and Cape Town enough ammunition with which to build ideological defences in the minds of the scared and reactionary white population.

The last pillars of resistance to the grand project of lasting dominance for the white man and "justice" for the black were Mandela and Tutu. That message was rammed home mercilessly, relentlessly and non-stop. It's actually quite remarkable to think that Tutu was portrayed as being the thin end of the red wedge which would lead to anarchy, bloodshed and the imposition of a one-party black state – but the machine that was constructed in 1948 when the party of DF Malan accelerated the process of ethnic separation and subjugation was extraordinarily effective.

Winnie Mandela however, unlike Tutu, gave the grey-shoed party men in Pretoria and Cape Town enough ammunition with which to build ideological defences in the minds of the scared and reactionary white population. Her battle cry about liberating the country with matches and tyres became part of apartheid propaganda staple, a warning about the descent into anarchy should she and her people seize power one day. The disappearance and murder of Stompie Seipei only confirmed whites' worst fears: there is a murderous, bloodthirsty insurrection brewing in the townships.

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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela with her daughter, Zindzi Mandela and son, the late Makgatho Mandela, after visiting Nelson Mandela at Victor Verster prison in Paarl in 1990.

The shock was even greater when she emerged side by side with her estranged husband from Victor Verster Prison in February 1990. The hope was that 27 years behind bars had pacified the old man to such a degree that he'd be easy to negotiate with. When rumours started swirling that Winnie gave Nelson a stern talking to moments before exiting the prison – just to make sure that he was radical and "hard" enough before he addressed crowds on the Grand Parade in Cape Town – it sent shivers through nervous Pretoria suburbs. "Look at that dastardly woman, always meddling; she's influencing him," was the theme of whispering campaigns among many.

And when she was appointed a deputy minister in 1994, even after the mass slaughter of white people failed to materialise and a Constitution agreed upon, the slow poison of the apartheid indoctrination project had an effect, with the demonisation of Winnie Mandela continuing off the back of necklacing, Stompie and cheating on the saintly figure of Nelson. She was apartheid's ultimate bogeyman (woman?); the epitome of barbarism and violence. There was to be no redemption for her among the formerly privileged.

She was dumped there eleven years after her husband was imprisoned on Robben Island, after 13 months in isolation and 18 in detention and with her family torn apart. She had been harassed, beaten and tortured, and the liberation movement was all but dying.

Regularly driving to Bloemfontein from Johannesburg to visit family means I always go past Brandfort, the unremarkable, dusty Free State town south of Virginia to which Winnie was banished between 1977 and 1986.

She was dumped there eleven years after her husband was imprisoned on Robben Island, after 13 months in isolation and 18 in detention and with her family torn apart. She had been harassed, beaten and tortured, and the liberation movement was all but dying. Authorities dumped her and her children at a house without amenities and services, and she was prevented from leaving the town or attending any political meetings.

Gallo Images
Former President Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

It must have put enormous strain on one person, trying to keep alive a doomed marriage, raising children in a de facto state of war and keeping the embers of the hope of freedom alive. She must have spent years building up levels of resentment and anger that she probably dreamt of unleashing against her tormentors, wiping them off the face of the earth.

Those are my thoughts every time I drive past Brandfort (named after a Free State Republic president with the surname Brand, suffixed with "fort").

Winnie was subjected to immense personal suffering, compounded by an institutional system of racial segregation and violence that forced her people into an existence of servitude for generations. Her actions upon returning to Soweto in 1986 – my first year in primary school – caused problems for the ANC, who did not know how to manage her.

The organisation on countless occasions wrote to Nelson in prison asking his advice, but he too was left floundering. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found her culpable in the murder of Seipei, while Nelson eventually cut her loose. She was also fired from Cabinet and found guilty of fraud. All a blight on her name.

Apartheid propaganda never gave the context of Winnie's circumstances, never explained what the system really did and never told us that all the ANC's efforts to talk to the National Party – from Verwoerd to Botha – were met with violence and death. We only heard she wanted to light tyres around harmless, white God-fearing necks.

But Winnie Mandela was not the demon she was made out to be by apartheid's propagandists, a narrative still perpetuated by many today. She also wasn't the flawless Mother of the Nation many others want to believe.

She was a tragic figure, contorted, twisted and disfigured by the era in which she lived, an era which broke millions of people. She will be a monument.