This past weekend marked exactly two months since Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s passing on 2 April earlier this year. And while the media coverage of her life and final days has gone quiet, her memory is still very fresh in my mind, as well as what we can learn from her in our day-to-day lives.
The first time I met Mama Winnie I was a young, ambitious social worker doing research on employee well-being and the experience of social workers in South Africa in the mid-90’s. I went to see her at her office and was surprised when she not only granted me the hour interview that I had requested but spent more than two hours with me relating her past experiences as a social worker.
She was very interested in my work and as we spoke about the challenges of the profession and the importance of not forgetting the grassroots, her passion for community development and care for people shone through.
This confirmed a much earlier experience I had of her. Growing up in Soweto during the political unrest of the 70’s and 80’s, I was always aware that her house on Vilakazi Street was a place of safety. I was a student at Orlando West High School at the time, which was close to her house. When children would run from the security police, she would stand at her gate, a protector of the marginalised and at-risk.
In my university days I studied with her youngest daughter, Zindzi, at the University of Cape Town and much later in my working life became friends with her older daughter, Zenani. I have memories of Mama Winnie as a warm mother and grandmother, not only to her children but to all who crossed her path.
In social gatherings, it is easy to talk about middle class issues, but I remember how she was always quick to bring the conversation back to the masses, always giving you an impression of the bigger picture beyond herself. In her home, she would make sure everyone was comfortable. She would give the most loving hug and beautiful smile, never hesitating when someone asked for a picture with her, no matter their level or position. She would even help them pose to get the best picture with her – much to the delight of the ordinary people who often saw her on television and wondered what type of person she was beyond the media persona. At her core, she was an extremely loving, caring and warm person.
Yet she also knew how to direct her anger and fury against injustice. She wouldn’t waver. In the TRC hearings, her responses were not what most people wanted to hear. Yet she was true to herself and what she was feeling at that time. This shows the complexity of the journey and reminds me to take time to understand similar emotions in our world today. I hear her fury in the stern voices of students leading #FeesMustFall, in the women leading the #MeToo movement and in other struggles against inequality.
Looking at her story it is easy to say ‘she should have done things this way or that way’ but I often ask myself – what if it had been me in her shoes? What if I was the one who went through what she went through? Her life was on display 24 hours a day. Invasion of her privacy was a constant feature in news items –almost numbing society to it. While privacy is regarded as a fundamental right, in her case, it was glossed over as if she deserved less.
In the diversity work that I do and as a Christian, one of the core principles is to withhold judgment, especially when we only have a piece of the full story. Many people have shut their ears to the real Winnie, and reach wrong conclusions.
But here are the things that I remember. One of the constants in our community was that whenever there was a death she would buy groceries for the family and would be there, crying with them, sitting with them. Sis Nomzamo, as she was warmly referred to, made an impact without announcing it, and without cameras or media to publicise it.
Whether in solitary confinement or fighting injustice, she was never ambiguous about her position or her passion. She was very clear about the things she cared about – the underdog, and our marginalized communities. She wasn’t fearful and didn’t stay silent even in her own party. Her unwavering beliefs made her fearless in the face of criticism. Her resilience as a community leader reminds me of a comment by former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda who said, “If you want to get hold of the honey, you must be prepared to be stung by the bees.”
I’ve often asked myself how she survived solitary confinement, constant negative narratives about her life and the many other sacrifices along the way. And the conclusion I’ve reached is that she never lost her vision for a better future. Even in the darkest days, she would keep saying, ‘Mandela will be free and will lead this country’. She was truly the light and candle for him, and for the rest of the country. She was not a silent partner. Neither was she a bystander.
Do we have that level of vision? Are we unwavering and fearless in our passion for a just and equal society that cares for the most marginalized? Are we willing to withhold quick judgments and take the time to understand and care for each other in the full extent of our humanity? Are we willing to forego being rather than compromise what we believe in?
Mama Winnie was a person who defied a one-dimensional perspective. To truly know her and honour her legacy we must be willing to accept the complexities of our human condition – the interplay between love and hate, fury and grace, passion and perseverance.
What I have learned from this leader is that old African saying (in my Setswana language) that states: “Mma ngwana o tshwara thipa ka fa bogaleng.” Loosely translated it means ‘a mother holds a knife on the sharp end if required to protect her children.’ With her, it was not just an African idiom but what she lived by.