Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died Monday at age 81. As she is eulogized, there will be many who point to her perceived failures. They will call her a “firebrand” and point to her “radical” political views. Most damning, they will say she was a convicted kidnapper, a corrupt politician and an adulterous, violent woman. Many will compare her with her ex-husband, Nelson Mandela. He will be cast as an angel, while she will be painted as the she-devil who almost took him down.
Hers was a life marked as much by racism as sexism. That she was able to meet both head-on is a testament to her fierce spirit. Madikizela-Mandela had strong feminist instincts. She challenged patriarchy not only in words but also in deeds, and she suffered for it but seemed never to worry too much about how she was perceived by her opponents. She was, to the very end, a remarkably independent woman.
To be sure, Madikizela-Mandela was controversial. She was convicted of kidnapping and assaulting a young activist named Stompie Seipei during a period in the late 1980s when she was often in the company of the notorious Mandela United Football Club — a group of bodyguards who both protected and betrayed Madikizela-Mandela.
Madikizela-Mandela was part of the complex politics that dominated the South African landscape as the apartheid regime cracked down on activists. She was deeply enmeshed in smuggling guns and other contraband in and out of the country, and had been imprisoned, detained and banished on numerous occasions. These bold acts made her a hero to black South Africans. They understood that like many other leaders and members of the African National Congress (ANC) party, Madikizela-Mandela was in the difficult position of having to lead a revolution while dealing with intense personal trauma.
The primary difference between Madikizela-Mandela and others was that she was a woman. Though she lived in a deeply patriarchal society, her stature and popularity were simply unrivaled. Her defiant attitude was profoundly destabilizing to men within her own movement as well as in the broader white society she was challenging.
She had been married only a few years when her husband was sentenced to life in prison. Her two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, were both just a few years old. Instead of collapsing, as others might have, the woman who was the first black medical social worker in the country became a powerful spokesperson for racial justice. She had a knack for articulating both her intense disdain for the architects of apartheid and her fury at the injustice that had specifically been done to her husband. She was thoroughly unapologetic and crystal clear.
While Nelson Mandela became the most recognizable prisoner of conscience in the world, his wife had one of the most recognizable voices on South African radio. She was fully supportive of the ANC’s decision to burnish Mandela’s reputation and status — to deliberately create an icon the world could rally around. She did much to keep his name and story alive.
Mandela was canonized long before he emerged from jail in 1990. His wife, however, was demonized — taking the fall for speaking when he could not.
For close to three decades, no one saw Mandela’s image. In his place stood Madikizela-Mandela. She took on the role of mourner in chief — grieving for a husband who was imprisoned while giving voice to the pain of black South Africans and articulating their daily losses.
Madikizela-Mandela was punished far more severely for her missteps than her male comrades were for theirs. Although many men had sexual liaisons with women who were not their partners, none of them were shamed for their behavior. Madikizela-Mandela’s desire for companionship could hardly have been described as unreasonable given her husband’s decades-long imprisonment. Still, she faced vitriolic criticism when news of her love interests was leaked by spies. In the aftermath of her split from Mandela, there were attempts to cast him as a saint and her as a sinner.
Many people outside South Africa find it difficult to understand why Madikizela-Mandela garnered such widespread support among black South Africans.
In some ways, she represented a sort of South African everywoman. She was powerful and loving and fiercely protective of her children. Like many black women who raised children alone under apartheid, Madikizela-Mandela knew how to survive arbitrary arrest and humiliation, harassment and bullying. Black South Africans saw themselves in her very public struggles.
Madikizela-Mandela never fully adjusted to post-apartheid politics. She rarely attended Parliament and did not seem to enjoy ministerial responsibilities; she had thrived in an era of rage and discontent. With a democratic dispensation in place, she only occasionally made pronouncements that affected politics.
Still, in recent times a restive mood has settled over the country. Mandela’s attempts to bridge the chasm between white and black South Africans are being tested by a new generation of South Africans who have grown up in a grossly unequal society. There is a renewed militancy in South Africa’s politics, and the embrace of honesty — regardless of its costs — may well be Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy.
Perhaps it is right that in death she finds her place at the center of a politics of resistance again — immortalized as the Pied Piper of defiance, a woman who lived life on her own terms and spoke truth to power.
Sisonke Msimang is a South African writer. She is the author of “Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home”.