Winnie Mandela: Charming, Arrogant-- and an Embarrassment

<i> Charlene Smith reported on resistance politics in South Africa for 13 years. She is temporarily residing in Argentina, working on a book. </i>

“Those 18 months in solitary confinement . . . “ Winnie Mandela pursed her lips, her eyes hard and far away, “bruised my soul. If I had had a weapon, I would have fought my way out.”

Mandela told me that in a 1986 interview. Perhaps, in a tragic way, “fighting her way out” is what she has been doing for the past few years. She has become an increasing embarrassment for the internal and external South African liberation movements. Like a caged tiger with no way of taking revenge on her tormentors, Winnie Mandela has turned on her young, her people.

Foreign correspondents report from South Africa that she has long been considered “the foremost woman spokesperson” of the anti-apartheid movement and the “mother of the nation.” They could not be more wrong. Winnie Mandela was banned and could not be quoted within South Africa for two decades. When her banning and banishment orders were finally lifted and she assumed a public role, she fast became a source of consternation to the anti-apartheid movement. She was kept aside except for ceremonial occasions and the African National Congress told her to keep her mouth shut unless she stopped contradicting the organization’s policy lines.


A vivid example occurred in 1986. In 1984-85, dozens of government collaborators and police informers were executed by the “necklace,” a gasoline-soaked tire put around the victim’s neck and lit. But it became increasingly apparent that government assassination squads were using the technique to try to provoke so-called “black-on-black” violence between rival groups, and that the “necklace” was making anti-apartheid work fraught with contradictions abroad. Then Oliver Tambo, the longtime leader of the exiled and banned African National Congress, called in his annual Jan. 8 address for an end to the practice.

Necklacing stopped. In February, 1986, at a funeral for victims of police shootings, Mandela made her “with our matches and necklaces we will liberate South Africa” speech. Black South Africans argued over whose call was more valid.

Winnie Mandela has not been referred to as “the mother of the nation” for a long time by anyone other than cliche-ridden journalists. In resistance circles, she is referred to as “Her Highness.” Albertina Sisulu, the wife of Nelson Mandela’s lieutenant, Walter Sisulu, who has been imprisoned with Mandela since 1964, is the real “mother of the nation.” She has, if anything, had a far more traumatic time than Winnie Mandela, and has been tireless in her anti-apartheid work.

Dr. Abu Baker Asvat, the doctor who examined the three surviving boys abducted by Mandela’s “football team” (her unofficial bodyguards called themselves the Mandela United Soccer Club), was shot to death in his clinic three weeks ago by “unknown assailants.” Albertina Sisulu, a nurse, worked for the doctor for many years. Asvat was committed to racially exclusive black consciousness, while the Sisulus are committed to the non-racial goals of the ANC. They were united in their belief that the needs of the community were paramount and that political differences were that and nothing more. True democrats, they could live with people of opposing views.

Winnie Mandela cannot. She is beautiful, charming and arrogant. Some believe her football team was involved in the murder of Asvat, others are doubtful. (Mandela has always had bodyguards, of one kind or other, but the “team”--which rarely played football--was something different; Winnie saw herself as a symbol of power, and insisted that the team was needed for her personal safety.) Right-wing death squads have been active in recent years and Asvat has long been a target. The doctor, regrettably, is probably a victim of people who would like to see internecine killing between blacks, and in particular the rival political factions to which he and Sisulu belong. There is only one bloc that stands to gain from this.

Winnie Mandela has been revered and feted less for herself than for what she symbolizes--Nelson Mandela, a man beloved by his people. He holds extraordinary power over the hearts of South Africans against apartheid and he is the symbolic key to the liberation of all South Africans. I don’t believe the South African government will ever release him. His incarceration symbolizes the imprisonment of all South Africans behind the high walls of apartheid. His release would signify the symbolic release of black South Africans. It would, I believe, set in motion an unstoppable wave heralding the final days of apartheid.


To her credit, for most of the more than three decades that Winnie Mandela has had to be a papier-mache mask for someone else, she has done a worthy job. Her rebellion is probably not only intense hatred of the white regime that has persecuted her for marrying the man racists most fear, but a heartfelt cry from a woman who has never been allowed to be herself. Yet none of this excuses her role in the abduction of the four youths and the ultimate murder of 14-year-old Stompie Mokhetsi Seipie.

The internal democratic movement has taken the initiative in doing what has long been discussed privately by high-level anti-apartheid activists: What is to be done with Winnie?

Their rejection of her now has showed that a post-liberation South Africa will not be another tin-pot state. The anti-apartheid struggle is being waged by intensely principled people; although they closed ranks around Winnie in the past while privately worrying about her, they have drawn the line at her recent conduct. They see it as unbecoming for the wife of the man to whom every black South African looks as their future and example.

Winnie Mandela has suffered, but thousands have suffered more. They have not become laws unto themselves.

So much for the woman who recently built a mansion in Soweto bigger than many in Johannesburg’s luxurious white suburbs. What of Stompie Seipie, the child who died?

In 1986, more than 30,000 South Africans were detained by the security forces. More than 40% were children, some as young as 8 years old. Three--ages 11, 13 and 15--died in police custody within nine days of their detention. Hundreds were tortured. Electric shocks applied to the genitals, wrists, nipples and earlobes of children as young as 10. At Diepkloof Prison near Johannesburg, children won a court order against the police who herded them into small cells and tear-gassed and beat them with batons.

For nine months in 1986-87 I computerized and kept the records of the now-banned Detainees’ Parents Support Committee on child detainees. When I began the list, Stompie had already been detained for some time. I occasionally deleted other names, but Stompie, detained when he was 10 years old, always remained on the list. Finally, media exposure to the plight of young children in detention forced his release.

He came into the small, crowded support-committee office in church-owned Khotso House (the House of Peace, destroyed by a bomb last year). He was such a small, beautiful, confident child. My redheaded 2-year-old son was in the office. Stompie knelt and spoke to him, picked him up and laughed with him.

Stompie Seipie was a strong, brave little boy, far older than his years who saw one too many bodies shot in the street outside his home. He learned too many truths too early.

So many children have died in the South African conflict (last week a 13-year-old girl was added to the list, in a slaying that may be linked to the Winnie Mandela controversy). It will take us decades to fill the hole this has left in our society. Among the most tragic is the death of Stompie Seipie, badly beaten, his throat slit.

Primo Levi, the Italian Jew interned at Auschwitz, devoted the last years of his life to writing reflections on the Holocaust. He wrote in his last book, “The Drowned and the Saved”:

“Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured . . . . We would like to think that in time any pain can be absorbed, rationalized, given a place. But gratuitous violence is not like childbirth; it serves no purpose and refuses to be forgotten.”

It not only refuses to be forgotten, it sometimes fills the victims with a desire for revenge that, in time, as we have seen with child abuse and the Palestinian uprising on the West Bank, may explode against other victims.

In South Africa, all are victims of the institutionalized violence of apartheid, the real evil in a country that has wept too much and will cry much more before we rid our beloved land of this curse.