A Guy’s View: Winnie Mandela, the under-appreciated heroine

“If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much.” Charles Lutwidge Dodgson

Winnie Mandela, the wife of Nelson Mandela, has transitioned from this plane having done her service to mankind in her allotted time. Hers was a service from which every human being benefited and should properly be acknowledged as a genuine service to mankind. She excelled beyond anything most of us mere mortals will accomplish.

The enormous stature of her husband, Nelson, compels one to still introduce Winnie as the wife of Nelson, but she did enough to merit an introduction that would not need Nelson to support her. She was a phenomenal woman who was willing, and able, to carry the burden of an entire people in a just cause.

Like any freedom fighter who wages battle in an environment where her opponents represent the status quo and control the sources of information, she suffered from false news and the poisoning of the minds of some of her own people against her. But she pressed on with her fight.

It is standard procedure that the law is always used to counteract the efforts of those who fight against their oppressors, for the law is instituted by those who oppress and seek to maintain their privileges. Her case was no different. The police spied on her, harassed her and spread lying propaganda about her. She knew that if she spat on the street she would be arrested. And yet she pressed on with her fight.

The approach of the apartheid regime in South Africa in trying to undermine her efforts was akin to that adopted by the oppressive regime in Barbados during the 1930s. Our historical record shows that persons were arrested and charged for sedition for statements as dangerous as “Today is a funny night”. Apartheid South Africa and colonial Barbados were hardly different.

For much of the time of her struggle, her later illustrious husband was imprisoned. Since then, many edifices have been erected in his honour. Individuals, groups, organisations and countries have accorded him great respect. Parks, buildings, roads and all manner of landmarks have been named after him. But not a lot is said of the fact that for most of his life, Winnie fought for him, on his behalf and for South Africa. He was the inspiration, but she was the one who carried the fight. He became President. She became invisible.

Much was made in the media about her tactics in fighting the enemies of her people. Rather than condemn her, she rightly deserves the highest commendation for her determination to stop at nothing to achieve her righteous end. There can be no question of illegality when one is locked in a war of life and death, and that is where Winnie found herself.

When the British people who had migrated to America wanted to end their colonial relationship with the country of their origin, they went to war and much blood was spilt. When two factions of the American people could not agree on the way forward for their adopted country, they fought what we call a civil war, and brother slew brother. When our forefathers wanted to be free of their bondage, they fought, even though nearly weaponless, and blood was spilt – although mostly theirs. When the people of Ireland decided that they no longer wanted to be controlled by England, they formed the Irish Republican Army and much blood was spilt, both English and Irish. That is the nature and reality of struggle. And in no situation was a traitor given a pass.

Although she was fighting against white suppression, some of Winnie’s major foes were to be found among the black people that she was trying to liberate. In this regard, her experience would have been similar to Moses. Just as the people that Moses led grumbled against him, some of those who sought her company were plants of her and their oppressors. A fiery necklace was deserved punishment for them.

White South Africans learnt late what was known in this part of the world for a long time: you do not have to control a Government in order to control a country and a people. As long as you seize the reins of the economy, the country is yours. Black South Africans can now vote and travel around their country with greater freedom. But these common rights have not otherwise changed the lives of the vast majority of them. Except for politics, which may still be no more than fastidious apparel, the power structure has not changed.

The African National Congress continues to battle over its leadership, but those leaders seem to have lost sight of the fact that there is still an unfinished battle to wage for the development of the people who elect them.

All of South Africa’s post-apartheid leaders owe their positions to the effort of Winnie Mandela. When she was on the front line, some may have been too young to join her and many of them were probably hiding. It is unforgivable that they were willing to allow her to drift off the scene because of the scandals that were created about her. They failed to grasp the opportunity to use her to inspire the younger South Africans beyond the traces of comfort which some may now come to enjoy. But there may be good reason for this. She would never have tolerated the watered down policies which they have adopted since their rise to power, sorry, political authority.

Winnie took great risks and paid a terrible price. But she knew the devil she stood against and she did not surrender to it, even when she was lifted on her cross. The unholy superstructure which sought to control and manage her was strong because it was imbued with great evil. The faint hearted could not undertake her task.

However, although she has not been sufficiently credited, she won a great prize. It is because of her efforts that the black South African people have been able to take their first steps towards regaining their freedom from white oppression. Her risks were great, but the rewards of her people were potentially greater. She was willing to pay any price to achieve her goal. Jean Jacques Rousseau helps me to express how I think Winnie’s role should be considered: “Every man has the right to risk his own life in order to preserve it. Has it ever been said that a man who throws himself out the window to escape a fire is guilty of suicide?”

Winnie Mandela was dealt a difficult hand in the game of life and she played it well, given all of her circumstances. When she had to throw herself out the window of a moving vehicle, she did so. But it was never to save herself. She did what she did to save a people. If there is a reward beyond here, I am sure hers will be great.

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