Farewell Winnie Mandela, Mother of South Africa

South African anti-apartheid warrior Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, known as the Mother of the Nation, has passed away in South Africa. Mandela was a Member of Parliament, co-founder of the ANC, and defender of the weak and the defenseless until the moment of her death. And now, the endless questions about her life and influence will be asked aloud. Although retired, South African archbishop, Desmond Tutu hailed Winnie Mandela as "a defining symbol of the struggle against apartheid" the day she died, it wasn’t always thus. So, what went wrong?

Madikizela-Mandela’s role in the kidnapping and killing of teenage activist, Stompie Seipei, is a charge she has denied vehemently until her last breath. In 1991, she was convicted and fined for some shadowy role in the killing. Jerry Richardson, a shady apartheid era police informer and member of her security detail, swore that Mandela had an ancillary participation in the death of Seipei. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission looked into 18 alleged human rights violations involving Mandela’s notorious soccer club, the Mandela United Football Club, of which Stompie was a member.

Retired archbishop Desmond Tutu said she was a "defining symbol of the struggle against apartheid.” He added: "her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists." And yet, the relationship with Desmond Tutu and Winnie Mandela was shaky. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission inquiry in 1997, Winnie ultimately apologized, at the prompting of now-retired Archbishop Tutu, for how "horribly wrong" things went during the latter part of the struggle against apartheid. But she felt towards the end of her life that Tutu was grandstanding, trying to minimize her leverage in the upcoming elections. In the end, she was never given a full cabinet position in her former husband’s post-apartheid cabinet.

I know this, as on Saturday I attended a screening of Winnie sponsored by African American Women in Cinema and SAG-AFTRA as part of the 11th Annual #SWANDay event at SVA. No one in attendance had any idea that in the near future Winnie would pass away. The film did much to dispel the sinister veil that hangs over the life of Winnie Mandela, one of the most misunderstood heroes of the African liberation movements of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

The film’s director Pascale Lamche “attended” via video chat. She spoke strongly in defense of Winnie Mandela and against the founding fathers of South Africa for shuttering her to the periphery of power once they took the reins of the country. Pascale Lamche noted that during her conversations with Mandela, she never forgave Tutu for his grandstanding, for “begging” her to apologize, and thus render her politically damaged goods.

In the last few decades of her life, Mandela supported and was supported by the leftist wing of the ANC. She was very critical of the centrist, patriarchal wing of the ANC, which largely kept her – and the young non-establishmentarianism – out in the cold. "The ANC of our forebears has disappeared," she said in a recent interview. "Every day you open a newspaper, there are stories about this corruption, capture of the state, the ANC is also captured ... This is the news we read today about my ANC." Nelson Mandela, for all of his formidable abilities as a statesman and freedom fighter for justice for his people, was an old school patriarch. Born into the Thembu royal family in 1918, he belongs, for all his greatness, to a cosmos in which wives were there to support their husband’s ideals. Winnie, perhaps even more so by virtue of the struggle of having to support herself and her people against a totalitarian regime, was born to be a leader and an anti-apartheid activist. By the time Nelson left prison, he had spent 27 years of their marriage in prison. Two years after his release they divorced, largely, according to the film, because he was publicly cuckolded by the revelation of Winnie’s lover, lawyer Dali Mpofu. Filmmaker Pascale Lamche noted on Saturday the bitter irony that once Nelson Mandela secured the Presidency, he essentially collaborated with Afrikaners to marginalize Winnie Mandela under the guise of their shared views on the role of women in humanity and the in government. Although the marriage was over, the politics remained. Even racism, it seems, can be set aside under a shared common goal of chauvinism.

There were some beautiful moments in the documentary. Although there was acrimony between Nelson Mandela and Winnie – mostly over his wounded male ego that she had taken on a lover while he was unjustly jailed – there was love. Winnie raised amazing, well-centered, and fiercely loyal children, who were strongly featured in the documentary. Finally, Winnie and Nelson Mandela’s last wife got along famously. Pascale Lamche went as far as calling their relationship “sisterly.” In the end, she was the “Mother of South Africa,” the feminine counterpart to Nelson Mandela. Her heroic struggle as a single mother fighting against the apartheid regime led to South Africa becoming the vibrant, if unfinished, democracy that it is today.

Rest in power, Winnie.

Cover photo via The Independent UK