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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: For many South Africans, 'She was the movement'

The anti-apartheid icon, who passed away Monday, first came to national prominence during her then-husband's decades of imprisonment. But she carved her own legacy as one of the country's most important activists, embodying many black South Africans' pain under apartheid and their disappointments after it.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters/File
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela, smiles as she arrives for the 54th National Conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Dec. 16, 2017. Ms. Madikizela-Mandela, a leading anti-apartheid activist in her own right, died Monday in Johannesburg.

As South African universities erupted in protests over the rising cost of tuition in late 2015, it was hard not to see the echoes of the country’s past in the young demonstrators’ raised fists and fearless clashes with authority. And the students themselves took that history to heart, conjuring up the names of the liberation heroes who inspired their fight.

It was people like Mandela, they said, who taught them that the world doesn’t always bend towards justice – sometimes you have to twist it that way yourself.

But the students’ Mandela wasn’t Nelson, the peacemaker and father of their so-called “Rainbow Nation.” It was Winnie, the unapologetically angry activist to whom he was once married, who never shied away from telling South Africans that she believed their beloved story of racial reconciliation was a fiction.

“To me, it was a myth from the beginning,” she said to a reporter last year. “The rainbow color does not have black…. So it was really a facade that we were totally free, we are not.”

Among young South Africans, who had grown up in an increasingly unequal society, statements like that held deep resonance. At Wits University in Johannesburg, student protesters waved signs proclaiming themselves “Children of Winnie,” and at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town, activists went so far as to rename the campus administration building “Winnie Mandela House.”

For those students and many others, Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela, who died Monday in Johannesburg, embodied both the rage of being a black South African under apartheid and the biting disappointment, for many, of being a black South African after it.

Unlike Nelson Mandela, whom she divorced in 1996, Madikizela-Mandela remained until the end of her life publicly bitter about South Africa’s dark history and the shadow it cast over the country’s present. Meanwhile, she openly and repeatedly refused the roles that same history tried to cast her in – as the mother of a nation, as the moral compass of a liberation struggle, and finally, as an aging hero quietly fading into the past.

“She was independent. She spoke her mind. She wasn’t scared of anything or anyone,” says Sithembile Mbete, a political scientist at the University of Pretoria. “In a South Africa where black women are the lowest rung on the hierarchy, she defied white supremacy and white patriarchy, but also black patriarchy too.”

“I was not going to bask in his shadow and be known as Mandela’s wife,” Madikizela-Mandela wrote in her prison memoir, “491 Days.” “I said ... ‘I am going to form my own identity because I never did bask in his ideas.’ ”

And indeed, Mandela’s shadow she was not. The first black social worker at South Africa’s largest hospital, Baragwanath, she was already an activist when, in 1957, she locked eyes with a young lawyer with kind eyes and fiery politics at a bus stop. 

Their whirlwind romance was built on a shared passion for revolution. But in 1964, Mr. Mandela was sentenced to life in jail for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government – leaving Madikizela-Mandela alone to carry on their fight, and their young family.

As Mr. Mandela languished in prison, he faded into a symbol of the anti-apartheid cause.

“Ma Winnie,” on the other hand, was its living embodiment – broadcast again and again into the world’s living rooms as she delivered fiery speeches and tussled with apartheid police outside the couple’s Soweto home. (“What are you doing here killing our people?” she demands of a baby-faced white apartheid policeman in one famous clip. “I didn’t know about it,” he mumbles back.)

Nelson Mandela “was an old photograph to us,” says Trevor Dhliwayo, an activist who grew up in Soweto. “But as for her, she was the movement. She was always here.” 

In May 1969, she was dragged from the home she shared with her two young daughters and spent 491 days in solitary confinement under the country’s antiterrorism law. That experience, she later wrote, was “what changed me, what brutalized me so much that I knew what it is to hate.” Later, she was confined for nearly a decade to a bleak township deep in South Africa’s rural hinterlands, where police twice set fire to her house.

By the time she returned home to Johannesburg in 1985, her frustration was sharply palpable.

“This is now the right time to take your country. We shall use the same language the [whites] are using against us,” she said in a 1986 speech. “We have no arms, we have stones, and we have boxes of matches. With our necklaces we will liberate this country.”

The final statement was particularly ominous – the practice of necklacing was to throw a gasoline-soaked tire around someone’s neck and set it on fire, commonly used to kill black South Africans who were seen as turncoats. Three years later, a group of violent vigilantes who were working as informal bodyguards for Madikizela-Mandela slit the throat of a 14-year-old activist named Stompie Moeketsi, who they claimed was an informer for the apartheid government. She denied responsibility, but was convicted of kidnapping, though her jail sentence was later reduced to a fine.

When her husband finally emerged from prison in 1990, they grasped hands as they marched, fists raised, from the Cape Town prison. But the chasm between the lives they had led over the preceding 27 years quickly became evident.

As he preached the need for reconciliation and dialogue, she told an American talk show host she was prepared to “go back to the bush and take up arms” if discussions with the white government went sour. The two separated two years later.

In the years that followed, Madikizela-Mandela weathered new scandals, including fraud charges that led to her resignation from leadership positions within the ruling African National Congress.

But for many here, the impatience and disappointment she carried into South African democracy was far more relatable than her ex-husband’s insistence on forgiveness and reconciliation.

“Mandela let us down," she said in a 2010 interview. “Economically, [black South Africans] are still on the outside.”

And for many South African women in particular, she was an icon – a woman who had slashed her own path at a time when it was largely expected that female comrades would hang back and play a supporting role in the country’s liberation.  

“She was the original badly behaved woman,” says Ms. Mbete.

Among many observers, particularly outside South Africa, Madikizela-Mandela’s connections to apartheid-era violence tarnished that legacy of leadership. Indeed, there was a sharp dissonance between the throngs of mourners who gathered at her Soweto home Monday and Tuesday and the way she appeared on the pages of many international newspapers. Reuters called her a “ruthless ideologue,” and The Guardian’s obituary declared, “rarely can there have been someone who was called to greatness and yet failed that calling as decisively.”

She could be brutal – but it was apartheid that shaped that brutality, many South Africans argue.

“I think that South Africans see her in her full context and her full complexity,” Mbete says. Because the struggle against apartheid was an armed one, “there are very few of our heroes that are not linked to somebody’s death, that are not connected in some way to terrible violence.”

For instance, she notes, the last white president of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, presided over some of apartheid’s bloodiest years. And at the end of it, she says, “he got a Nobel Peace Prize. So it isn’t hard for people here to feel there is a double standard being applied to Ma Winnie.”

“I don’t think she wanted to be worshiped and I don’t believe we should see our leaders that way,” says Mr. Dhliwayo, the activist, standing in front of her home in Soweto Tuesday morning. “But you must understand that at that time we were living in a battle zone. And for us, she was on the front lines fighting for our freedom.”

In recent years, Madikizela-Mandela herself had considered her place in history. As the student protest movement heated up in late 2015, she met two leaders, Shaeera Kalla and Nompendulo Mkhatshwa. As TV cameras huddled around the three women, she offered them a pithy piece of advice. 

“Revolutions, you must always remember, always consume their heroes.”

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