THULI MADONSELA: Winnie — an inimitable symbol of resilience
To dwell only on Mam’ Winnie’s weaknesses is to miss her greater contribution to the process of realigning justice in this country
Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, affectionately referred to as Mam’ Winnie or simply Mama, was an exemplary leader who epitomised the use of power and privilege in the pursuit of justice.
Tortured, banned, banished and isolated, Mam’ Winnie remained resolute in the pursuit of social justice, transcending the notion of justice as "just us". If anything, she lost favour with some of her colleagues because she was not prepared to look the other way as others were left behind, while state resources were being plundered by some at the centre of power. She refused to give a ride to the proverbial scorpion — and paid the price. She truly was "a flower that bloomed in adversity, a baobab tree that refused to bow down to the wind".
When I heard the news of the passing of Mam’ Winnie, I was on a koppie at a nature reserve, marvelling at a splendid sunset while joyfully snapping pictures.
Though death is something that awaits all of us, nothing prepared me for the news. Just the other day, we had seen pictures of this timeless beauty wearing her Methodist church uniform at a Good Friday service. I struggled to make sense of it all. Suddenly the beauty of the sunset faded, the magnificence of our surroundings vanished and nothing else seemed to matter. How could such a colossal personality blow out like a candle? My Thuma Foundation issued a condolence message the next day, and it took me about 10 takes to mumble something for the recorded message.
Revisiting the sunset pictures later, after I’d visited her family, I began to make sense of Mam’ Winnie’s sudden exit from life. If the sentiment that best captured my thoughts is that "the sun must set in order to rise", it helps to think that Mam’ Winnie was one of the brightest stars in the galaxy, who placed SA on our pedestal of hope at enormous personal cost.
She never wanted her enemies to see her broken. She wanted to remain a symbol of strengthThuli Madonsela
It has taken Mam’ Winnie’s passing for her star to rise. Only in death have we opened our eyes to the complexity of her life and the personal sacrifices she made for SA. While she was alive, many critics focused only on her feet of clay.
But truth be told, which epic leader does not have feet of clay? Even Madiba had his weaknesses but, with him, we did what Khalil Gibran advises: to not judge the mighty sea by the frailty of its form.
Though I occasionally went to Mam’ Winnie’s house in Vilakazi Street, where we had "mohabulo" (struggle discourses) in the 1980s, I never met her at the time as she had been banished to Brandfort. Our host was Themba Khumalo, a journalist and his then partner Baby Tshawe, who lived in one of her backyard rooms.
But from the moment I got to know about Mam’ Winnie, it was clear she was the epitome of resilience. In a book I have been writing forever (under the working title No More Tea Makers) about women leaders who paved the way, Mam’ Winnie features as the inimitable symbol of resilience.
My childhood friend and comrade, Pinkie Mthembu, who passed on while working for the SA National Defence Force, worshipped the ground Mam’ Winnie walked on. Her room at the army barracks in Thaba Tshwane was an ode to Mam Winnie, pictures lining every wall.
Depths of compassion
When I finally met Mam’ Winnie and established a friendship with her, I discovered that she had unparalleled depths of compassion.
She passed on just as we were due to meet again. Our last sit-down meeting took place a few hours after the day on which Tata Mandela’s will was read. In her quintessential "Winnie style", she hid her pain, though I sensed it. She focused on mine. She had been relentlessly cheering me on during the Nkandla fallout and was there to support me at the height of the state-capture backlash.
I remain with so many questions for her. How could she exit so unceremoniously? One of her sisters, the last born in the family, provided some wisdom. She said Winnie did not blow away like a candle in the wind.
She made the quintessentially Winnie grand exit. She never wanted her enemies to see her broken, bowed, down on her knees. She wanted to remain a symbol of strength and hope in the pursuit of justice. Asisoze samulibala. May her soul RIP.
• Madonsela is chair of social justice at Stellenbosch University and founder of the Thuma Foundation