The death of Winnie Mandela: A reflection

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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is dead. After poet laureate Keorapetse (Willie) Kgositsile and musician Hugh Masekela, she is the third iconic South African linked to the ruling African National Congress to pass on this year. But a little more than two decades after the election of her former husband, Nelson Mandela, as president heralded the birth of a new, united, post-apartheid South Africa, it is her death that has revealed – yet again – how divided South Africa is.

I first met Mrs Mandela in 1994. She was the deputy minister for arts, culture, science and technology and I had been appointed as one of four advisors to her boss, the minister. In terms of the Government of National Unity (GNU) prevailing at the time, political parties that won more than 10% of the vote in the first democratic elections would be entitled to cabinet positions, the number of which would be proportionate to their respective shares of the votes.

Thus it was that the ANC assumed the majority of the cabinet positions, the New National Party gained six posts and the Inkatha Freedom Party three, with one of the latter – Ben Ngubane – being appointed as the minister responsible for arts, culture, science and technology.

With the new government inheriting an apartheid-era civil service, cabinet agreed that each minister could appoint advisors to assist with the development of new policies for their respective portfolios. Given my role at the time as the general secretary of the National Arts Coalition, a politically independent civil society network advocating for post-apartheid cultural policies – I was appointed by Ngubane as one of four advisors. It was as a result of this that the Arts and Culture Task Group (ACTAG) was appointed to consult broadly to solicit proposals for a new arts and culture dispensation, and that led to the adoption of the White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage in August 1996. But that’s another story.

Apparently, on hearing from the minister that he had appointed me as an advisor, Winnie Mandela questioned my appointment as being inconsistent with the post-apartheid era, on the basis of my Afrikaans surname, which raised all kinds of negative assumptions for her (as it still does, and this for people across the racial spectrum).

Deputy minister Mandela appointed her own set of advisors, including some of my friends and colleagues in the National Arts Coalition. It was they who informed her of my activist history, of my classification as “coloured” under apartheid, and of my role within the arts and culture lobby so that when we did first meet soon after, she was very gracious, having “heard much about” me, as she put it. She did not last long in her position as deputy minister, as she was fired after a few months by President Mandela for having undertaken an unauthorised trip.

While she remained a loyal member of the ANC, Mrs Mandela also maintained a fiercely independent position, often critiquing the party for failing its primary – black and poor – constituency. She courted controversy through her radical rhetoric and for the accusations of human rights abuses levelled against her, not least because of her high profile as the wife of the then still jailed icon, Nelson Mandela. On his release, and their subsequent divorce, Winne Mandela’s combativeness and default siding with the interests of the majority were regarded by some as the antithesis of Nelson Mandela’s more conciliatory approach to nation-building.

The very different circumstances that each encountered during the 27 years of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, with Winnie Mandela experiencing ongoing physical, emotional and psychological brutalisation by the apartheid government, understandably served to shape who they became, their respective attitudes and their outlooks on building a post-apartheid order. Yet while many find it hard to comprehend how forgiving Nelson Mandela was after 27 years of imprisonment, they – ironically – find it difficult to understand Winnie Mandela’s anger and bitterness after decades of banishment, torture and constant security police harassment.

Ben Ngubane, once a respected minister of arts, culture, science and technology, went on to be associated in recent times with the controversies at the country’s power utility Eskom and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC); he served as the chairperson of the boards of both entities. People change, some for the worse. Winnie Mandela remained consistent in her fight for, and in defence of, the interests of black and poor South Africans.

We all make assumptions, and even have strong opinions about people, based on a range of superficial factors (such as surnames) and reports (like those we read or hear about in the media). We allow ourselves to be influenced and to have our attitudes shaped by those who have the power and reach to do so, to see the world, and actors within that world, according to the value systems and ideas with which those in power are most comfortable.

We lack empathy, especially for those who look different, speak a different language, or may believe differently from what we do. We have difficulty in being generous, to give the benefit of the doubt to those who have experienced far more challenging lives and obstacles than we have, expecting them to operate according to our sense of morality and our “civilised” norms, even though we have been part of, and have been beneficiaries of, brutal, immoral systems that treated black and brown people in the most uncivilised manner, reflecting the unevolved gaps in our own humanity.

We do not have to condone or accept the wrongs and the mistakes of others, but greater empathy for and generosity towards particularly those who appear to threaten us by being different and believing differently from ourselves might go a long way towards understanding why people act in the ways that they do, and perhaps enable us to be a part of developing and implementing plans that will build a more just and more humane order, in which all our interests are secured.

Buro: NB
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