Ex-wife criticizes Nelson Mandela – and many South Africans agree

Nelson Mandela ‘let us down,’ the London Evening Standard reported ex-wife Winnie Mandela as saying. Many black South Africans expected more economic progress by now.

Schalk van Zuydaml/AP/File
In this Feb. 11 file photo, Winnie Mandela, left, alongside her former husband former President Nelson Mandela, center, and his current wife Graca Machel attend the opening of Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa. Winnie Mandela was quoted this week in a British newspaper interview saying the former President had 'let us down.'

Just days after honoring her former husband, Nelson Mandela, for his courage during the anti-apartheid struggle on the 20th anniversary of his release from prison, Winnie Mandela was quoted this week in an interview in the London Evening Standard, saying the former South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner had “agreed to a bad deal for the blacks.”

“Mandela did go to prison and he went in there as a burning revolutionary,” she told journalist Nadira Naipaul, wife of acclaimed writer V.S. Naipaul, in the Evening Standard interview. “But look what came out. Mandela let us down.”

The African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party to which both Nelson Mandela and his ex-wife Winnie Mandela belong, refused to comment, saying that they wished to speak with Mrs. Mandela first to ascertain whether the comments in the newspaper were actually hers. Mrs. Mandela was said to be unreachable by phone, while traveling in the United States.

It would be very easy to chalk up Winnie Mandela’s statements as merely the utterings of a bitter ex-wife who had grown apart from her husband during the 33 years of their 38-year marriage that he spent in prison; who had borne the brunt of the apartheid government’s repression as an above-ground ANC leader; who felt betrayed when her husband didn’t back her during a fraud trial, and a murder trial involving her raucous band of young bodyguards against a teenaged boy; who had difficulty adjusting when the post-apartheid limelight shifted from Winnie to Nelson.

Progress, but not enough

But Winnie was speaking for many black South Africans, who had been told to expect economic prosperity, better homes, schools, and health care; who wanted not only political freedom but a complete rearrangement of the power structure in South Africa, where the black majority was truly in control.

That, after 15 years of majority rule, still hasn’t happened.

“There does seem to be some semblance of truth to what she says,” says Adam Habib, deputy vice chancellor of University of Johannesburg, and a prominent South African political observer. “In terms of the settlement [with the apartheid-era government] poor people were not sufficiently taken care of. The rich people’s interests were protected, without the poor people’s living standards improving substantially.”

The frustration is evidenced by the almost-daily headlines of what are called “service delivery strikes.” Residents in black townships, tired of failed promises of electricity, clean drinking water, functioning schools, and other basic government services, have increasingly taken their frustrations to the streets. Some townships like Meyerton and Balfour shut down for days and even weeks, their roads blocked by burning tires, their streets filled with angry young men with sticks, throwing stones at local police. If they blame the government, they are blaming the ANC. And if they are blaming the ANC, they are also blaming the ANC’s top icon, Nelson Mandela.

While Mandela left power in 1999, and his successors Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma have done less than was expected in spreading out the benefits of South Africa's booming economy to the poorer black majority, many South Africans feel that it was Mandela who lost the narrow window of opportunity to strike a hard bargain with white South Africans and transform the country's economic power structure.

“This name Mandela is an albatross around the necks of my family,” Mrs. Mandela told Mrs. Naipaul. “You all must realize that Mandela was not the only man who suffered.”

An enduring icon

“Mandela is now a corporate foundation,” she said, adding the even Mandela’s daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, have to go through “red tape” to book a meeting with their own father. “He is wheeled out globally to collect the money, and he is content doing that. The ANC have effectively sidelined him, but they keep him as a figurehead for the sake of appearance.”

This is not the image of Mandela one often sees in the South African news media – which generally prints smiling portraits of the ailing leader, who now mostly lives in seclusion with his second wife, Graca Machel – and it is certainly not the view of most white South Africans, who were relieved that their own worst fears of a bloody campaign of revenge of blacks against whites was forestalled by the old revolutionary’s power of gentle persuasion. Even black South Africans often sport T-shirts of Mandela as nostalgia for the hopeful days of early black majority rule, and a kind of rebuke to the next generation of apparently corrupt ANC leaders

Did he do the best he could?

It is easy, after all, to suggest that Nelson Mandela should have pushed whites to give up control of the economy. But at that time, Mandela had his hands full just keeping the country from tipping into civil war. In townships, ANC youth were battling with the ethnically based Zulu party, the Inkatha Freedom Party. In white Afrikaans-speaking communities, white militia groups threatened to launch a coup. Bold redistribution of wealth and power, in those times, could have broken whatever trust was needed to lay the foundations of a tolerant, multicultural society and a prosperous economy.

So while white South Africans may be shocked at Winnie’s statements, casual conversations with black South Africans of all economic levels reveal that plenty of people share Winnie Mandela’s bitter disappointment with Nelson Mandela.

“He should have stayed in office a second term, and he should have bargained harder to get a better deal for the majority,” a black South African businessman who is a member of the ANC said recently. “We have freedom, but the wealth remains with the whites, and the lives of ordinary blacks in the townships have not improved that much.”

“The question I pose is this, ‘What is the alternative?’” says Mr. Habib, the political analyst. “The liberation movement could make townships ungovernable. But they could not defeat the apartheid machinery. So I see two scenarios. You either get the South Africa of 2010, with all its warts and with all its problems. Or you get Israel-Palestine. For me, I say South Africa of 2010 is still better.”

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