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Despite being rejected at the ANC conference, Winnie Madikizela Mandela remains a strong political force in South Africa. From her virulent opposition to apartheid to her militant motherhood and strong political involvement in the women’s league of the ANC, Ms. Madikizela Mandela has ridden the tide of fame and failure. Apart from analyzing the changing role she has played in shaping the country, this article examines the nature of leadership in South Africa in the post-apartheid era. (dkc)

vol 13 no 4

Winnie Madikizela Mandela: Tragic figure? Populist tribune? Township tough?
Sheila Meintjes

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 4, August 1998
Page 14



Sheila Meintjes is Senior Lecturer in Political Studies, University of the Witwatersrand.

In 1991 Winnie Madikizela Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela, the most prominent leader of the African National Congress, faced criminal prosecutors in the Rand Supreme Court in Johannesburg. The fourth accused in the case of kidnapping and assault of youths including Stompie Seipei, she was acquitted of assault but found guilty of kidnapping. Ever since then there have been questions about her role in the assaults that occurred in the back rooms of her home in Soweto, in the disappearance of Lolo Sono, and in the death of Stompie Seipei, whose decomposed body was found months after his disappearance. What is intriguing is that the rumours of violence and assault against these and other youths, both at the end of the 1980s and earlier, when she was banished and living in Brandfort, and subsequent evidence of fraud and corruption which emerged in the early 1990s, did not end Winnie Mandela's political career. Despite ostracism by the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) at the end of the 1980s, Winnie Mandela has remained a strong political force in South African politics. Not even her divorce from Mandela affected her popularity and support. Although she did not win nomination to the Deputy Presidency of the ANC in December 1997, she remains President of the ANC Women's League, a member of the ANC National Executive Committee and an ANC Member of Parliament.

How are we to understand her unique power and position? The conventional explanation is that she has become an icon of black feminine suffering and a symbol for strength and courage. She was also a hugely romantic figure; beautiful and cruelly separated from her husband, Nelson Mandela. Hers was the great political love story and tragedy of our time. Divorce has simply enhanced the image of her tragic life. In South Africa, her symbolic appeal is reinforced by her consistency in providing moral support at funerals and trials. She also reflects popular sentiments in her political rhetoric, especially in her criticisms of the slowness of delivery and social transformation under an ANC-led government, and in her outspoken empathy for the poor.

Such factors do help to explain the extraordinary political resilience of Winnie Mandela, as we will see in this article. At one level, in fact, her story is easily told (even if more difficult to evaluate). From a shy social worker to prominence as Mandela's beautiful wife and mother of his two daughters, Winnie was ultimately propelled into an independent public and political role. This very independence became a matter of contention as the circumstances of political struggle against apartheid in South Africa required considerable organizational discipline. The tension between the moral position of Winnie as Mandela's wife and her militant independence was at its height during the late 1980s. This article attempts to explore how the interrelationship of the private world of wife and mother and the public life of political activist created the powerful populist leader Winnie has become.

It was as the wife of South Africa's most symbolic icon of the struggle against apartheid repression that Winnie Mandela first acquired a special place in the political realm. Then, in circumstances over which she had little control, she learned to manipulate events and people and to act in ways that would serve her interests. Over time she became a very skilled political actor, this taking her well beyond the subsidiary role normally accorded to women within the nationalist framework. Her political independence and leadership developed gradually in different contexts. And there were also two aspects to how she perceived her interests and how she acted. In public, she was always the dutiful wife, whose interests were, in principle, subservient to the political objectives of the movement. Her personal and private needs, however, were more complex. She was lonely and vulnerable, even insecure and yet her ability to withstand the attacks of the state revealed a strong and defiant woman. Her beauty and vulnerability attracted men, but she was trapped in her public role as Mandela's wife. And she did, at times, find solace with other men.

Nevertheless, she always publicly framed her political actions in terms of liberation, and she has always seen herself as a loyal ANC member. Not that the issue of loyalty has been altogether unproblematic. For Winnie also viewed herself, during the apartheid years, as having the responsibility of being the most public representative of her husband. This created tensions between her and the organization's leadership, who, as we will see below, preferred most often to interpret her role in narrow symbolic terms rather than in active political ones. To this have been added other, more recent, sources of tension, also explored below, that further exemplify the dynamics of the on-going transformation in Winnie Madikizela Mandela's political position - while raising a host of questions about the nature of leadership in South Africa in the post-apartheid period.**

Forging a political role: 1958 - 1976

One can identify two stages in the initial process that forged Winnie Mandela's political role. The first was a somewhat brief period of political education as a young social worker and wife of a national leader. This education came in the form of constant police harassment and violation of her privacy, as well as detention for her activities in the women's anti-pass campaign in 1958. Mandela also encouraged her to participate in the ANC Women's League, the appropriate place for wives.

Once Nelson Mandela was detained in 1961, Winnie entered the second stage when she became, as his wife, Mandela's spokesperson. And here the first inkling of the ambiguities in her position emerged. An independence of mind and even different ideological thinking surfaced when Winnie met the press. Yet she had never been party to political debates inside the ANC itself. Her position and statements revealed greater militancy as well as a stronger Africanist position than that adopted by the ANC. But they also revealed a determination not to be personally broken by the forces of apartheid, and to encourage others to take up the struggle against apartheid as her husband had done.

Winnie Mandela's political apprenticeship was over when she was banned. She had to report to a police station once a day, and to be at home between 6 pm and 6.30 am. She became a political figure in her own right, though silenced by her banning order. Politically in the limelight, her banning at the same time limited any discussion about her political stance, or any collective relationship she might have begun to develop with other political activists. Mandela's final arrest and imprisonment, first for four years, then in 1964 for life, cast Winnie Mandela as the lonely and vulnerable political wife.

The reverence she is accorded as victim of the apartheid state, which ceaselessly abused her natural rights by detaining her, banning her, casting her out of her community, and generally making her life a misery is well-deserved. Emma Gilbey's biography sympathetically draws out the terrible conditions of merciless harassment Winnie was subjected to. She shows how in the face of this ceaseless victimization, Winnie drew on inner resources to harden and inure herself against fear of the police and of the humiliations inflicted by the apartheid state. But Gilbey also points to how Winnie's somewhat willful character was shaped by her experiences. Initially her lack of political experience and knowledge had made her feel shy and awkward with her husband's comrades. She was unable and unwilling to receive advice and guidance from them. Then when Mandela was imprisoned for life she found herself virtually unemployable. She was left to cope with extremely difficult circumstances on her own and she began to work clandestinely for the ANC. She participated in underground meetings and organized the printing and circulation of roneoed pamphlets.

The work was dangerous. Her movements and activities were closely monitored by the Special Branch. Everybody associated with her was under suspicion. In 1969 she was arrested and tried under the 1967 Terrorism Act. It transpired that the Special Branch had infiltrated her political cell. Twenty two others were tried with her. Their treatment in detention was terrible. Solitary confinement, lack of hygienic washing facilities, poor food and physical assault combined to undermine the mental and physical health of the detainees. These were to become commonplace for most political detainees. Winnie was no exception and after days of sleep deprivation and continuous interrogation, the police broke her as they did everybody. Remarkably, she refused to cooperate with the court process, and wouldn't enter a plea. The outcome was acquittal after a bizarre charade of being tried under two separate laws which counsel for the defence showed to be illegal.

Politics in the 1970s changed the relationship between the state and the oppressed. Black Consciousness (BC) had emerged as a powerful movement amongst the youth, which spawned both the South African Students Organization (SASO), led by Steve Biko and others, and the Black People's Convention. Trade union militancy also resurfaced. Winnie was on the edge of these developments, hampered by banning, police harassment and periods of imprisonment for breaking her banning orders.

Surprisingly, for a brief period in 1975 Winnie's banning order was not reimposed. She used her freedom from restraint to attend meetings with BC leaders, to identify with their cause by attending their trials and to make fiery speeches. She warned that black people were impatient and resentful. Her words were prescient. The 1976 Soweto uprisings provided Winnie with a strategic opportunity to place herself in an open leadership position. She urged the parents of protesting children to organize themselves in the newly formed Black Parents Association (BPA).

Militant motherhood, 1976 - 1989

By casting her activities within the symbolic role of motherhood in the Black Parents Association, Winnie was able to establish a powerful moral and political leadership role, a role she might not have been able to assume so easily had she not been the mother of the Mandela children. Parental roles became politicized in the wake of police action against children. The BPA raised funds, organized burials, and mediated between students and authorities in schools. Winnie visited police stations, and harangued the police. She helped organize meetings and she spent hours with bereaved parents. She also recruited students into the ANC and helped them to leave the country. But her activities were cut short by arrest and detention. The police meanwhile detained hundreds of students who were tortured for information about who was behind the protests. Many of the students reported that the police tried to implicate Winnie as the main force behind the uprising. From this time Winnie's authority as a political figure began to grow and laid the basis for her renown as the "Mother of the Nation."

On 16 May 1977, Winnie was banished to a dusty Afrikaner dominated town in the Free State where she was unceremoniously dumped at house 802 with her youngest daughter, Zinzi. There was no running water, no electricity, and the house had no floors or ceilings. The town was hostile, and the people spoke mainly Sotho, Tswana or Afrikaans, and hardly any Xhosa, which was Winnie's home language. Winnie took a provocative stance, and would spend hours in the white shops goading the shop-keepers.

Her life was lonely, however. Her youngest daughter was sent away to study, whilst her oldest daughter had married a Swazi Prince and moved to America. Helen Suzman captured the isolation when she wrote that Winnie waited outside the local telephone booth between 10 am and 4 pm waiting for calls from friends and relations. But when friends, like Helen Joseph, Barbara Waite, Ilona Kleinschmidt, and others came to visit her in Brandfort, they were harassed and often taken to court and imprisoned.

Her political independence and leadership role was also developing in this context, however. Gradually, she established a rapport with locals, especially young people, managing to politicize what would normally be conventional, private activities. She set up a creche, a clinic and feeding schemes for the children of Brandfort, with the assistance of Dr. Abu Baker Asvat (in whose death she was later allegedly implicated). In the process, she also offered political education. Her home became both a school and a refuge, particularly for young children. (More problematically, it seems to have become the locus of a particularly violent form of discipline. Justified by her position as mother of her household, this was also an ominous foretaste of things to come.)

In 1980 Winnie's political profile began to change as the ANC launched the "Release Mandela" Campaign - even as the tension, mentioned earlier, between her symbolic and active political roles also became most problematic. Because of her independence, the ANC had some reservations in choosing to draw Winnie in, but the movement felt that her symbolic role was important. Certainly the ANC participated actively in the creation of the myth of Winnie as the "Mother of the Nation," even as her banishment to Brandfort reinforced the legendary status as national symbolic icon that gained her so much political status in the liberation movement.

The campaign substantially altered the material aspects of Winnie's desolate and depressing existence as international media attention focused on her living conditions. But ANC leaders also had begun to find that they were unable to contain her words and actions. This was a tension that would be exacerbated with the emergence in the 1980s of an alternative internal political movement, the United Democratic Front (UDF), which espoused the objectives of the Freedom Charter and thus presented itself as the legitimate representative of an underground ANC in the popular imagination. The claim to be the authoritative voice of the ANC inside the country had become a source of contestation. And Winnie's controversial statements were to prove an acute embarrassment for both the ANC and the UDF, particularly as the need to maintain a united position was a priority. Public dissent has never been easily managed by the ANC.

1983 formed a turning point in the struggle for liberation in South Africa with the emergence of the United Democratic Front (UDF). In the same year Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, on the mainland in Cape Town. A year later troops were patrolling the townships. The ANC Kabwe conference in 1985 believed that the conditions for a People's War were at hand. Winnie Mandela's house in Brandfort was burned down in August whilst she was away visiting her doctor in Johannesburg. She never returned. Instead, she took advantage of changed circumstances to stay in Johannesburg. In November 1985, Mandela became ill and the first discussions about his release began to take place. Winnie's own restrictions were relaxed in December but she was still arrested for breaking the terms of her banning and, in early 1986, was charged for refusing to leave Johannesburg. An international uproar ensued and some months later Winnie's case was shelved.

The Mandela United Football Club

It was then, during those twilight years of apartheid from 1985 to 1989, that Winnie Mandela turned from victim to alleged perpetrator of atrocities. For she was seen at least to condone, at worst to lead, the youth who lived on her property - a group known from its formation in January, 1986, as the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC) - in a supposed war against impimpis and informers. In the turbulence of militant student activity, a state of emergency, and the invasion of townships by the army and police, her home became one of many loci of refuge. It was also an environment of mutual suspicion and fear, and competition for power. The discourse of the protection of motherhood and family life cloaked the reality that in that context the conventional notions of childhood did not exist. Children were themselves political actors. Winnie perceived her role in terms of providing a disciplined, controlled framework within which those children would pursue their lives. She fed and clothed them, she sent them to school, but she also used them as errand-boys for her political activities. For the former she won both respect and power in the township. When the authority she wielded over the youth in the MUFC assumed a more violent form, she also became feared by some township residents.

The role of the MUFC has been much debated in South Africa, in the courts, in the press, and most recently in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Its members behaved like war-lords and thugs in the strife-torn wards that made up Soweto. They were not, however, the only group operating in Soweto, and some of the violence derived from rivalry and power struggles between gangs. But it is the role of Winnie Mandela in the violence in Soweto, and in that which occurred in her own backyard, that has been the subject of court cases and of particular concern to the TRC.

Much was also made of the two incendiary speeches which Winnie Mandela made in April 1986. In one, she called for an end to the tears of mourning, and in the other, at Munsieville, she called for stones, matches and petrol: "Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate our country." At the TRC hearings and earlier, during her trial in 1991, she denied that these were calls for retaliation and elimination of the enemy. At the time, with the country in a state of civil unrest, the ANC in exile distanced itself from her statements and reprimanded her. And Winnie, clearly feeling herself to be more in touch with events inside the country than were the exiled ANC leaders, paid little heed to these pleas.

Back in Soweto, political rivalry between different factions was probably the reason for a raid on Winnie's Orlando house by a group of angry students in February 1987 and again in July 1988 when it was burned to the ground. It may also be one of the reasons for the tragic events which occurred at the end of 1988 when youths were abducted from the Methodist Manse and the priest, Paul Verryn, was accused by Winnie of sodomizing youths in his care. Verryn was a popular figure in the township whose house was a refuge for young activists. It was

a time of great paranoia, and some of the youths at the Manse - in particular Stompie Seipei - were accused of being spies. Publicly, this reason was given for their abduction. But privately senior members of the Crisis Committee, set up at the behest of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela to deal with the "hostages" held in Winnie's house, believed that Paul Verryn was framed by Xoliswa Felati and Winnie.

The accounts of these events are by now well known, and will not be repeated here. What is of significance for our purposes, however, is the way that the developments crystallized the ambiguities and problems embedded in Winnie's position. The issues concern the relationship between underground operatives working inside the country, the ANC in exile, and the internal opposition, particularly its leadership. The outcome indicated the enormous symbolic and moral power held by Winnie Mandela. Nelson Mandela from prison issued orders to Winnie to release the youths. She simply ignored him. Neither Church leaders like Bishop Storey, head of the Methodist Church in South Africa, nor Reverend Frank Chikane, head of the South African Council of Churches, nor Dr. Nthatho Motlana, the family's personal physician, friend and Soweto civic leader, nor leaders of the UDF, appeared able to insist on the release of the youths, despite grave concern for their very lives. Storey felt that to invade her back rooms might bring not only the internal opposition movement into disrepute, but might damage the Methodist Church itself. No one was prepared to call Winnie Mandela's bluff, and challenge her authority.

The police did not intervene either. It emerged in the TRC hearings that Jerry Richardson, who played a key role in the assaults and murders which occurred at the end of 1988, was a police informer. The UDF had suspected that the MUFC had been infiltrated by the police and had tried to warn Winnie about the possibility. She steadfastly ignored their warnings and placed her faith in the very man whose activities were most undermining her political credibility. One can argue that the notion of motherhood had been taken to its political extremes in the life and death struggles in the war-torn township where Winnie lived. Conventional morality had been usurped by codes of war in which normal processes of law and order no longer held. But the fact remains that amidst the rather murky ambiguities about who had the authority to give orders in the name of the ANC, Winnie's power went unchallenged. The morality of a just war seemed, too, to give carte blanche for leaders to punish those who broke faith and became informers. Her own power had become almost unassailable in its moral symbolism of "militant motherhood," as the paralysis which attacked the Crisis Committee attests.

Personal and political survival: 1990 - 1998

For all the enormous publicity and sensationalism about Winnie Madikizela Mandela's public and private life, she remained an enigma. Catapulted, as we have seen, into Mandela's political life when he was banned and on trial for treason, her experiences created a well of pain and bitterness which, combined with anger and rage, created a "dark side." At the same time, her suffering enabled her to empathize with the oppressed in general. She herself has written and spoken about the experience of torture and psychological disintegration which accompanied her detention in 1969. She maintained that it hardened her, "It is in fact what changed me. What brutalized me so much that I knew what it is to hate."

That hatred bred a leader of great courage during the apartheid years. In the post-apartheid aftermath, Winnie's extraordinary political survival was also based on a combination of astute political instinct and almost sexual personal charisma.*** For a chronology of Winnie's activities during the eight years from 1990 - 1998 does provide evidence of quite remarkable political resilience in the face of personal crises and political scandals that evoked strong opposition inside the ANC itself. This was not new, as we have seen. But once Mandela was released from prison his support, for a time, cast a long protective shadow over what would for others have been a political nemesis.

In August 1990, Winnie was appointed head of the Welfare Department of the ANC, in charge of repatriating exiles. Welfare NGOs petitioned the ANC against her appointment. Even the ANC National Executive Committee tried to remove her. But Mandela blocked these attempts personally. In 1991 he came to her trial and conviction for kidnapping. Then in 1992 she was accused of misappropriating funds from her department. Public scandal was accompanied by personal scandal, including a squabble with Xoliswa Felati and evidence of an affair. Mandela's problems in his private life threatened to derail his political credibility and ability to lead the ANC. He was forced to declare his marriage at an end in April 1992, following which Winnie resigned all her positions in the ANC. Her political fortunes were at their lowest ebb, or so it seemed.

But in 1993 Winnie made a remarkable comeback when she was elected President of the ANCWL. In December 1993 the ground swell of support for Winnie surprised and shocked the ANCWL and the ANC. With personal disaster staring her in the face, she lambasted the ANC for being out of touch with the people. This won her support and leadership of the ANCWL against the "other" mother of the nation, Albertina Sisulu. Winnie's participation in the ANCWL appeared to many to be one of political expediency rather than one of a commitment to women's issues. But this reading misses the significance of the nature of her support. She symbolized the experience and suffering of many women whose family life had been virtually destroyed by the apartheid system. Alone she had faced the state, with two little girls to bring up, and little means for doing so. Though this symbolism of "Mother of the Nation" now appeared to have crumbled, Winnie's position as long-suffering wife now came to the fore.

Winnie Mandela was now a Woman Wronged. She was wronged by her husband, by her own organization, the ANC, as well as by the system. Her political, if not her personal, fortunes began to rise. She now showed an acute opportunism in fostering a political support base of her own amongst the poor, especially women. The timing of this show of support and solidarity at the ANCWL Conference meant that the ANC could not ignore her when it came to drawing up the election list in December 1993. She was rewarded with the position of Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in the first post-apartheid Government of National Unity.

But in power Winnie showed less political wisdom as she began to abuse her position. She was sacked in disgrace from her post for a range of misdemeanours, including an unauthorized trip abroad, using her position to foster the interests of her daughter, and using state vehicles without authority. At the same time questions of financial mismanagement and malpractice in the League led to the resignation of eleven executive members. The ANC suspended all funding to the League. Rumours of fraudulent acquisition of funds for one of Winnie's private projects, the Coordinated Anti-Poverty Programme, also circulated. Then in August 1994 Nelson Mandela announced that he was divorcing Winnie. Media reports about Winnie were salacious and damning, although for her supporters this merely served to reinforce their perception that she was being persecuted.

Winnie's response was to attack the ANC and the government for lack of delivery on its promises, particularly with respect to the poor. She criticized the movement for its growing elitism, its nepotism, its deafness to COSATU's criticisms of the government's economic policies, and its electoral system. Once more, her role as champion of the rights and demands of ordinary people enhanced her popular appeal.

In April 1997, she was again voted in as President of the League at its Conference, despite efforts of the ANC to support a rival candidate. But the League was much weaker than it had been before. Many of its branches had become moribund. The leadership struggle had been divisive, in spite of public pronouncements of unity. Yet the League was the first to submit a nomination for the Deputy President of the ANC: Winnie Madikizela Mandela. This time, however, the ANC moved to ensure that Winnie's chances of acquiring a leadership position were diminished. Because nominations had to come through ANC structures, her nomination was rejected on the constitutional ground that the League was autonomous. Her only chance now rested with the nomination procedure at the up-coming ANC Conference in December 1997. Preparations for this conference were elaborate for this was the first since the ANC had been in government, and also the last before the 1999 elections. There were two preparatory policy conferences. Winnie began her own campaign outside ANC structures to garner support. Her strategy was once more to attack the leadership for failing the people.

The ANC responded that she had every right to seek nomination and to challenge the organization. This was healthy debate. But in October 1997 she went too far. She accused the ANC of being soft on crime and called for the death penalty. Winnie received a stinging rebuke in the press from Steve Tshwete, a senior NEC member, and Minister of Sport. He rebuked her for being a populist leader of little substance. She had little respect for rules and regulations, and since the ANC had been in government she had made not a single contribution to debate in the ANC, sitting silently in discussions. He criticized her for refusing to take responsibility, as other ANC leaders had, for abuse of human rights by the movement during apartheid. Her populism, he suggested, was undermining the revolution. (The Star, 20 November 1997).

A few days after this attack, the TRC hearings into the MUFC began. The events of 1988 and 1989 were replayed in the press, on radio and on television. Special reports daily recorded the allegations of witnesses and survivors against her. Winnie, beautifully groomed, sat calm and mostly impassive next to her lawyer throughout the three weeks of damning indictments. At the end she accused the TRC of conducting a witch-hunt against her, and conniving to destroy her political career. Archbishop Desmond Tutu literally begged her at least to admit that "things went horribly wrong." Hesitatingly, she mouthed his words. In the immediate aftermath, she found that much of her moral support had disappeared.

When the ANC Conference opened on 16 December 1997, speculation about her chances was at the forefront of media interest. Crowds of youth and older women greeted her arrival each day, sporting tee-shirts and scarves depicting her image. But this noisy support did not translate into numbers at the moment of nomination. Although Winnie tried to consult with "structures," the Chairman, newly elected ANC President Thabo Mbeki, refused to allow this. She was forced to withdraw her nomination.

While Winnie was subsequently elected to the NEC, her support was substantially reduced. I was at the Conference and when the results of the elections were announced in the early hours of the morning, Winnie seemed to be in a state of near collapse. She could barely walk up to the stage and she was helped by some of the delegates. There was such an air of dejection and lifelessness about her that one really wondered whether she would survive. A few months later, however, she spoke at the South African Press Club, and gave a strong speech lambasting the way the press dealt with the changed political environment. Ever the survivor, Winnie was fighting fit. We have not seen the last of her as a powerful political force in South Africa.


** This article draws most of its information from the excellent book by Emma Gilbey, The Lady: the life and times of Winnie Mandela (Vintage, London, 1994), from newspaper reports in the author's private collection, and from my attendance at the TRC hearings and at the last ANC Conference during 1997. The interpretation and analysis which I have tried to make here has benefited from long discussions with Shireen Hassim. The inadequacies are all mine.


*** Her great beauty gave Winnie Mandela a sexual power which few women in public possessed. Her sexual liaisons have been the basis of salacious reporting, and point to the existence of a moral double standard when it comes to women leaders. The sexual aspect of Winnie's power has been less explored, however, and needs to be more thoroughly researched. More generally, this may require an analysis which accounts for the gendered dimensions of political leadership, including the intersection between sexuality and power in women leaders, but this is beyond the scope of the present article.


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