At war: After returning to Soweto in 1985 from her banishment to Brandfort, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela took to wearing military-style outfits. Picture: MBUZENI ZULU
At war: After returning to Soweto in 1985 from her banishment to Brandfort, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela took to wearing military-style outfits. Picture: MBUZENI ZULU

The documentary turns yesterday’s heroes into villains, measured by today’s sensibilities

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s death has generated fevered and many-sided debate that maps ideological and other fault-lines in SA.

Feminists, keen to downplay critiques of Madikizela-Mandela, argue that her death is of the same order as Nelson Mandela’s; EFF leader Julius Malema castigates anyone who refuses to endorse everything she did; the ANC and its Women’s League are desperately rewriting their relationship with "Mam’ Winnie".

United Democratic Front (UDF) critics of her excesses have been silenced; and critics such as the DA are desperately hoping they remain under the radar rather than be exposed as unwilling to show even a shred of empathy for her.

Pascale Lamche’s documentary Winnie — shoddy work that hoodwinked judges at the Sundance Film Festival to ignore its bias and give it an award — has raised temperatures further.

Hypocrisy, opportunism and cowardice are drowning out circumspect considerations of her legacy, and the situation has rapidly descended into farce.

Madikizela-Mandela was an inspirational figure for many until she created the Mandela United Football Club — and for some time after she did that. She was defiant, fearless and unbowed in her struggle against apartheid, and the concentrated effort of the apartheid regime could not make her submit. She transformed herself into a war machine that necessarily ignored nuance to wage a battle she was determined to win. She operated a schema in which there were only enemies and comrades, nothing in between. Any criticism of her actions could only have been produced by the enemy.

This period of war was also a period of tragedy, and people who fail to see this fall into many traps: they laud the indefensible, refuse historical specificity and overlook the difference between the just and the unjust.

Lamche’s film is guilty of a number of these mistakes. It fails to contextualise the events it presents, providing few dates, locations or related contemporary events. Relying only on a stream of images and interviews, it does not present a narrative, which allows an implied narrative to suggest itself.

It fails as a biography and as an analysis. Rather, it works to identify scapegoats, relying on sensationalism to draw viewers.

The director shows little understanding of the political movements and forces that straddled the battle to retain and overthrow apartheid and takes "Winnie’s side" at all costs, presenting anyone who crossed her as a villain.

It presents her missteps as heroic actions and resorts to a sort of reverse anachronism — using the concept of patriarchy in a manner that turns yesterday’s heroes into villains, measured by today’s sensibilities.

The documentary presents Madikizela-Mandela as a victim of the UDF and ANC. But to understand these relationships, deeper digging is required.

For years Madikizela-Mandela subscribed to the ideas of the Black Consciousness (BC) movement, of which many in the exiled ANC were suspicious. She was in touch with BC leaders throughout the 1970s before her Brandfort exile, when the ANC had a marginal presence in the country.

She was in frequent contact with BC leaders such as Aubrey Mokoena, Kenneth Rachidi and later Azapo leaders such as Dr Joe Veriava. She formed the Black Women’s Federation with Fatima Meer, Bertha Smith and Sally Motlana, and the Black Parents’ Association with Nthato Motlana after June 1976.

Madikizela-Mandela was in Soweto when the students rose in 1976 — an event that had little to do with the ANC and was largely a result of the insurrectionary climate created by the BC movement, particularly the trial in 1975, when Steve Biko held SA in thrall while testifying for a week about BC ideas.

Suspected of inciting the students, Madikizela-Mandela was banished to Brandfort in 1977. There she was hounded and prevented from establishing relationships with neighbours. She took to drink and her health failed. On one occasion, suffering from pneumonia, she refused to forgo her visit to Mandela on Robben Island, despite Veriava’s advice that she was too ill to travel.

When she was suffering from hypertension, she battled to find a doctor in the Free State who would treat her, but was eventually befriended by a sympathetic white doctor. He was found dead at the scene of an accident. Others who visited her were harassed or arrested. A clinic she ran with Dr Abubaker Asvat, who belonged to the BC movement, was destroyed.

These experiences transformed her from a firebrand into what many regarded as a reckless warlord, especially when her hatred focused on informers and sell-outs whose activities were increasingly costing comrades lives. She returned to Soweto in August 1985 and took to wearing military-style outfits.

By this time the UDF had begun what would prove to be the final push against apartheid. While representing a resurgence of the Congress tradition and the waning of the BC movement, the UDF had a complex relationship with the ANC. Many of its activists declared allegiance to the ANC, but it was organised in a far less hierarchical and more democratic manner than the exiled movement.

UDF activists established relations with ANC leaders in myriad ways. Madikizela-Mandela was reportedly in touch with Chris Hani, and other activists were secretly communicating with Oliver Tambo, Thabo Mbeki or Umkhonto weSizwe leaders such as Mac Maharaj and Joe Slovo.

There was some competition between these leaders, all claiming the authority of the ANC and receiving advice or instruction from different elements in the exile community. This proved to be a source of conflict for Madikizela-Mandela.

According to her friend and lawyer Priscilla Jana, in her book Fighting for Mandela: "She recognised only her husband as leader, not Oliver Tambo and the leadership running the organisation from Zambia."

Madikizela-Mandela’s April 1985 declaration in support of necklacing drove a wedge between her and many struggle leaders. In Harare, Tambo announced: "We are not happy with the necklace. But we will not condemn people who have been driven to adopt such extremes." Privately, he urged Motlana to get Madikizela-Mandela to temper her statements.

Jana also writes: "In the mid-eighties she could have been a natural leader of the newly formed UDF when it brought together a powerful coalition of civic society, church leaders, students and workers. But they did not ask her to even join. She was too independent, too much for them to handle, impossible for them to control. It was both her weakness and her strength."

The Stompie Seipei murder finally alienated Madikizela-Mandela from the UDF. Lamche’s documentary treats this episode in a glib, selective fashion. It does not even mention the assassination of Asvat, the "people’s doctor" who examined Stompie — and then feared his own assassination. Asvat was murdered in 1989.

This issue was the most significant factor in her subsequent relations with the entire struggle community — the UDF, the ANC and the BC movement.

But Lamche’s documentary suggests all the people critical of Madikizela-Mandela conspired in patriarchal fashion to keep her from power. She regards Madikizela-Mandela’s account as truth and does not interrogate it. She implies that UDF leaders were effectively in league with the apartheid state’s disinformation campaign Stratcom and that the negotiation process to end apartheid was a sell-out of the struggle.

Lamche elides the heart-rending conflict of loyalty felt by UDF activists, as she does the complexities of the transition period and compromises that had to be made to bring peace to SA. Instead, she plays to a populism that relies on an ignorance of history — an ignorance the documentary worsens.

The new generation of feminists who celebrate Madikizela-Mandela are wrong to see her as a victim of patriarchs. She was far too strong for anyone to stand in her way, and there is ample evidence she was never in Mandela’s shadow. Rather, it appears he tiptoed around her and supported her at the trial for her role in Stompie’s abduction, to the disappointment of many in the struggle.

Malema’s hijack of the Madikizela-Mandela bandwagon is consistent with his populism. His method is the one he used when he drove Zuma’s wagon: jump up to join the side with mass appeal; appear to lead it by identifying scapegoats; and accuse manufactured enemies of betrayal.

Malema was absolutely right, though, in saying several ANC and ANC Women’s League leaders who dumped Winnie shed the biggest tears at her funeral — but he failed to mention many others had been silenced by the mood he helped engender.

Lamche’s documentary has contributed to that silencing. Former government minister Sydney Mufamadi broke that silence when he confronted her on Monday about her selective presentation of Madikizela-Mandela’s history without giving a right of reply to the people she had criticised.

The complexities of Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy will haunt SA for some time and they will only be dissolved by an honest consideration of her history — no matter how painful for a nation desperate for heroes.