Winnie Madikizela-Mandela‚ a stalwart in the fight against apartheid‚ died on Monday April 2 2018 in Johannesburg. Picture: SUPPLIED
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela‚ a stalwart in the fight against apartheid‚ died on Monday April 2 2018 in Johannesburg. Picture: SUPPLIED

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who died on Monday, was a divisive character in life and is proving so in death too. But beyond the acrid debates about how she is "seen" or "understood" stands a powerful, iconic, somewhat misunderstood, somewhat flawed figure who had an enormous influence on South African politics. For that alone, we all owe her a debt of recognition and honour, even if those sentiments incorporate the requirement of forgiveness too.

To Madikizela-Mandela’s many supporters, she could do no wrong, even when doing wrong because of a depressingly frequent response to many of the dilemmas into which she was willingly and unwillingly thrust. To her many enemies, she could do no right, even though her resilience and passion were just two of her very obvious strengths.

It is a rare person who contains contradictions so grand that her weaknesses were also, in a way, her strengths and her strengths sometimes mutated into weaknesses. In a life filled with ironies, Madikizela-Mandela endured with superhuman strength not only her own incarceration but the incarceration of her husband, Nelson Mandela, for 27 years, only for her marriage to fall apart two years after he was released from prison.

For those who would castigate Madikizela-Mandela for her choice, it is worth bearing in mind the awful fate inflicted on her by the apartheid authorities

Arguably, her greatest political act was selflessly keeping the name of her husband alive while he was in prison. But doing so involved its own internal contradiction because as soon as he was free, her notional political function all but fell away.

To add irony to irony, Mandela himself was torn not only by his wife’s infidelity but by her politics of hatred and anger. The duo constituted a kind of yin and yang of South African politics, representing in their own way the supremacy of revenge over reconciliation and vice versa.

For those who would castigate Madikizela-Mandela for her choice, it is worth bearing in mind the awful fate inflicted on her by the apartheid authorities: incarceration, torture, banishment and living for years under a banning order aimed at isolating her from her political supporters. This in addition to living a kind of distant parallel life with her husband whom she could visit only infrequently and always separated by a pane of glass.

Yet Madikizela-Mandela somehow always managed to make things worse. There is a good chance the apartheid security forces used her wilfulness and anger to try and split the struggle movement, yet even the most active supporter cannot but acknowledge her active contribution in this process. Her anger made her impressively defiant, but also a tempestuous liability.

People in Johannesburg expressed condolences to the Mandela family on April 3 2018 after the death of South Africa's struggle stalwart, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

The lowest point was perhaps the notorious Mandela United Football Club incident. Even before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, hardly an instrument of apartheid oppression, Madikizela-Mandela refused to show remorse for abductions and murders carried out in her name. Only after pleading from anguished commission chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu did she admit grudgingly that "things went horribly wrong".

And they kept going wrong. Her frustration and anger only grew over the years. She became progressively more angry and distant from the ANC, the party she once declared she was married to, and happily so in contrast to her own marriage. How corrosive that must have been to her psyche.

How embarrassing that must still be to her political spouse. It is no wonder she is championed now with real feeling not by her own party but by the EFF, the radical group she openly supported. In a sense, she divorced twice, and was twice embittered by it.

Yet, she did reconcile with her actual former husband during his final days, displaying once again the courage she always had. In the end, Madikizela-Mandela deserves to be honoured if not for her politics then at the very least for her personal resilience, courage and fortitude. May she achieve in death the peace that eluded her in life.