The moral problem of Winnie Mandela

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From freedom fighter to tyrant and struggle icon, Winnie Mandela's life was complex and remembering her could pose a moral problem. Former political prisoner, Paul Trewhela, reflects on the late leader's life and the moral issue such a reflection could hold for many. 

Winnie Madikizela Mandela was not a safe pair of hands.

True, life was far easier, calmer and less frightening and stressful for her husband in his almost 30 years on Robben Island and in other prisons than it was for her, during those decades of their marriage. Whether looking after their children on her own, working with activists in Soweto ahead of the June 16 school students uprising, in her 18 months in Pretoria Central Prison where she was tortured, humiliated and kept in solitary confinement, or during the eight years in which she was banished to Brandfort, her “little Siberia”, life was much harsher for her. I think my fellow white former political prisoners would agree.

There is no question that she provided inspiration across those decades under the apartheid regime. All praise to Winnie Mandela for her outstanding, exceptional courage and daring, her unrelenting defiance.

But courage and defiance alone do not define the quality of a political leader. Hitler had no lack of courage or daring when he marched straight ahead into the gunfire of armed police on 9 November 1923 during the Beer Hall putsch in Munich, when the man marching arm-in-arm with him was shot dead, dislocating Hitler's shoulder.

Life took a heavy toll on her. When she returned to Soweto in 1985, drinking heavily, she sought and acquired personal power by instituting a reign of terror over an already terrorised people. She returned as a psychopath.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was not wrong when it concluded in 1998 that she was “politically and morally responsible” for “gross violations of human rights” committed in Soweto by her youthful Stormtroopers, the Mandela United Football Club. The TRC stated she was “implicated directly in a range of incidents – including assaults, abduction and the murder and attempted murder of at least a dozen individuals”.

When horrific evidence was presented against her day after day in the Rand Supreme Court in 1991, leading to her conviction for the kidnapping and assault of four young men, one of them the murdered 14 year-old Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, Mrs Mandela dismissed the evidence as “ludicrous hallucinations”.

That was after Stompie's fellow kidnapped colleague, Katiza Cebekhulu, had had “his teeth punched out by Winnie's boys and his face drenched in boiling water,” before being “whisked out of South Africa to Zambia by the ANC three days before the trial began,” as one of South Africa's most reliable reporters of that time, John Carlin, reported later, in 1997.

Cebekhulu was then held secretly in prison for two years without trial in Lusaka, by order of President Kenneth Kaunda, to prevent him giving evidence to the court. That evidence was crucial. As Carlin reported, Cebekhulu told him Mrs Mandela had “forced him to join in the beatings of Stompie and the other boys, how he had seen Mrs Mandela finish Stompie off with a sharp, shiny object”.

Directly accusing Mrs Mandela of the murder of Stompie Seipei, this gross abuse of the South African legal process and of his civil rights prevented Cebekhulu’s evidence from being tested in court. Today he remains an unheard witness.

By the time of the interview, Winnie Mandela’s intended prison term had been reduced on appeal to a suspended sentence of two years and a modest fine. Ms Xoliswa Falati – Mrs Mandela’s co-defendant in the trial, who was sentenced to four years in prison for kidnapping and assault, and who died of pneumonia in 2009 – later stated: “I served a jail sentence for her”.

She later told the British journalist Andrew Malone, who covered the trial: “If you did not follow Winnie Mandela’s orders, you would die.” Mrs Mandela had “the blood of African children on her hands,” Falati told the TRC.

Malone reported: “Falati took me to a mineshaft, a mile deep, where she said Winnie’s goons would take the bodies from the torture session after Winnie had decided whether they should live or die. Some were accused of being spies for the white apartheid police; others she simply didn’t like.”

In the most direct attack on Christian witness by any South African political leader in the last century, Winnie Mandela also publicly accused the Rev Paul Verryn, whose parish was in Soweto, of homosexual and paedophile abuse of the four youths – including Stompie –whom she and Falati were convicted of kidnapping and assaulting. It was a ferocious smear.

The quality of what I called “psychopathy” did not end there. Despite her crimes against others, and for which she escaped punishment, in a major sense it worsened in old age, and is possibly even more threatening to the people of South Africa now, after her death.

In an interview published in the London Evening Standard in 2010, when she was 73, she used her continuing political authority to challenge the negotiated settlement and the Constitution which has preserved a relatively high degree of social peace and stability in South Africa.

The angry, raging woman told the interviewer:

“This name Mandela is an albatross around the necks of my family. …

“Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much 'white'. …

“I cannot forgive him for going to receive the Nobel [Peace Prize in 1993] with his jailer [FW] de Klerk. Hand in hand they went. …

“Look at this Truth and Reconciliation charade. He should never have agreed to it. …What good does the truth do? How does it help anyone to know where and how their loved ones were killed or buried?

“I am not sorry. I will never be sorry. I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything.”

There is no more Christian repentance here than with Hitler, or with Stalin. Nor is there a recognition of moral and spiritual disorder in the global sanitising of her image, as in the film Winnie by the French director, Pacale Lamche, which presents her as a feminist icon, or in her apotheosis to a kind of secular sainthood in South Africa.

Her official memorial service will take place at the Regina Mundi Roman Catholic Church in Soweto on Wednesday 11 April, and special state funeral proceedings will be held at the Orlando Stadium in Soweto on Saturday 14 April.

The Economic Freedom Fighters, which she backed before her final illness, declared she was the “first black female president South Africa was deprived of … suppressed by the patriarchally dominated liberation movement and its complicity with the white minority establishment.”

Imagine.

Image: Marco Verch/Flickr


© Spotlight.Africa 2018

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

 

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The moral problem of Winnie Mandela