In a desperate effort to claim the memory of Winnie Madikizela- Mandela for themselves, both the ANC and the EFF have recast her history in ways that, not surprisingly, make them out to be heroes and everyone else villains. REUTERS
In a desperate effort to claim the memory of Winnie Madikizela- Mandela for themselves, both the ANC and the EFF have recast her history in ways that, not surprisingly, make them out to be heroes and everyone else villains. REUTERS

One of the great fiction writers of our age, Stephen King, once wrote, "When it comes to the past, everybody writes fiction." One of the most irresponsible, duplicitous and outright false narratives of what happened in the past has become an issue of the moment in the wake of the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

In a desperate effort to claim the memory of Madikizela- Mandela for themselves, both the ANC and the EFF have recast her history in ways that, not surprisingly, make them out to be heroes and everyone else villains.

The controversy includes the publication of a documentary on Madikizela-Mandela’s life by a French film maker, Pascale Lamche. The documentary sought to examine her rise and fall within the movement and includes an interview with her subject in which Madikizela-Mandela claims some journalists "did the work of Stratcom", the apartheid-era organisation designed to weaken the forces fighting for democracy and freedom. In a follow up interview with Mandela by the Huffington Post, she named three journalists who she believed had done this: the former editor of the Weekly Mail, Anton Harber, and two of the journalists working for the paper at the time, Thandeka Gqubule and Nomavenda Mathiane.

But the problem was that the controversy surrounding Madikizela-Mandela’s involvement with the Mandela United Football Club had become a real issue within the Soweto community where she lived

Madikizela-Mandela has always believed that sinister forces were behind the accusations against her and had good reason to do so since the incident all but destroyed her political career. But the fact is, she was as much responsible for her fate as was the apartheid security branch, an issue that was at the time wrenching for the internal Mass Democratic Movement and the external ANC. The gooey documentary fell for the "Winnie as wronged hero" narrative hook, line and sinker. The documentary didn’t even bother to speak to those accused by Madikizela-Mandela of a really heinous act, and neither did many of the media organisations that subsequently republished the documentary or parts of it.

The facts, inevitably, are different. At the time, in the mid-80s, everybody in the independent media was all too aware that dirty tricks were part of the arsenal of apartheid-era intelligence operatives. But the problem was that the controversy surrounding Madikizela-Mandela’s involvement with the Mandela United Football Club had become a real issue within the Soweto community where she lived.

Publishing this story was an act of enormous bravery precisely because of the accusation that is now being falsely peddled by parties like the EFF. The journalists were consequently careful not to make the story the lead story at the time and discussed extensively whether there was a danger they were being used by the apartheid security police.

At the time, they had every reason to wonder. Everybody knew there were spies within the journalistic community whose agenda was explicit, as it later turned out, to foster this kind of news. But the story was just undeniable and it was strengthened by the fact that the internal and external anti-apartheid movement was enormously upset with Madikizela-Mandela about what she was doing.

Madikizela-Mandela had every incentive to blame the media for her predicament and, rather typically, took no accountability for her own actions. At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the head of the commission, Desmond Tutu, practically begged Madikizela-Mandela to apologise for what happened. She refused and would only say "things went horribly wrong". The commission itself found that she had been politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by the Mandela United Football Club, which was essentially her security detail.

None of this means there was no involvement by the apartheid-era security branch. This organisation had a history of trying to plant false stories, and it did hire journalists. More sinisterly, it also hired infiltrators who were often encouraged to claim other members of the organisation were spies, particularly to draw attention away from themselves.

But if there was any involvement in this case, it hasn’t ever been demonstrated. The journalists named went on to have long and proud careers in which their integrity was proven time and again, in difficult and dangerous circumstances. Now what we are left with is Madikizela-Mandela’s claims against three enormously brave and reputable journalists who correctly believed that struggle icons were not above scrutiny.

It is shameful that the dozens of newsroom spies that actually did exist go unmentioned, yet a few people who were unquestionably not spies are targeted. If justice can be found, Lamche, the EFF and all those who made these false accusations will pay for their irresponsible and unfounded claims.

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