Progressive intellectuals in South Africa, when asked what they think of Winnie Mandela, most often respond: it’s a complex story. Complexity is sometimes an excuse for avoiding a principled judgment, an uncomfortable truth. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was a victim and a perpetrator of violence. These two books draw opposite moral conclusions from the same life story. Sisonke Msimang boldly states that she wants to ‘redeem Ma Winnie’, while Fred Bridgland dedicates his book to the ‘little’ and ‘unimportant’ people who were the victims of her actions. The children and young men of the Mandela United Football Club, which she ran, hardly ever played football, but served as her bodyguards and vigilante enforcers, intimidated by her status and power. They were then caught in a legal spider’s web ‘through which the big flies pass’, in Bridgland’s analogy. In an imaginary dialogue with Winnie, Msimang resurrects the big fly, the heroine of the struggle, the ‘mother of the nation’. As she told me in an email, Msimang wasn’t trying to investigate Winnie’s crimes but to find out what she means to South Africans, as ‘someone who was both enormously loved and deeply polarising because of her choices, her gender and her political actions’.
During the many speeches at her five-hour funeral service on 14 April 2018, nobody even hinted at Winnie’s wrongdoing, what has been euphemistically called her ‘dark side’. The 40,000-seat Orlando Stadium in Soweto was packed with singing and swaying mourners. Previous ANC presidents – Mbeki, Motlanthe, Zuma – sat stony-faced in the front row, and only the new incumbent, Cyril Ramaphosa, appeared relaxed, occasionally smiling at the sea of boisterous singers dressed in red miners’ overalls – members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). When the EFF’s self-styled commander in chief, Julius Malema, was announced the applause lasted for three minutes. Then he bellowed his first words: ‘Long live the defiant spirit of Winnie Mandela, long live! Forward to expropriation of land without compensation, forward!’ He laid bare the rift within current South African politics between those who still support the compromise negotiated in 1994 between the apartheid regime and the new non-racial order – as endorsed by Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and the ANC – and those who view it as a sell-out.
Before her death Winnie was the EFF’s lodestar, instrumentalised for electioneering purposes. Her former husband, Nelson, the universal icon, had been downgraded for allowing himself to be seduced by so-called ‘white monopoly capital’, which has come to include much black capital as well. A growing black bourgeoisie and professional bureaucracy parallel their white counterparts in the private sector in rapaciousness. White capital extols the free market; black capital uses the state for accumulation and legitimation through legislation under the banner of Black Empowerment. In the long run the ANC is likely to split and Ramaphosa’s faction will coalesce with the liberal Democratic Alliance, while the ANC nationalists align themselves with the EFF.
The United Democratic Front (UDF), a loose conglomerate of anti-apartheid civil society organisations (churches, unions, students, political parties, sports clubs, the white women’s protest group Black Sash), although not technically affiliated with the ANC, acted in support of it throughout the 1980s when the ANC was still banned. At the time, Ramaphosa was a prominent UDF member and head of the mineworkers’ union. UDF members were harassed and many protest organisers arrested, killed by pro-apartheid forces, or wounded in street clashes. Despite this, they were protected to some extent by their standing in the community and their commitment to non-violence, and because of the attention being paid around the world to apartheid South Africa. After 1990, the UDF was absorbed into the ANC’s ‘all-class alliance’. This was, perhaps, a strategically unwise move. Today, the historically illiterate EFF – children during the dying days of apartheid – denounce the UDF’s veteran activists as traitors. At the funeral Malema invoked Winnie:
Big Mama, some of those who sold you to the regime are here! They are crying louder than all of us who cared for you. Mama, the UDF cabal is here! The cabal that rejected and disowned you! … Some of them have played prominent roles in your funeral. In a funeral of a person they called a criminal … a person they were ready to humiliate in front of the whole world. Mama, I’m waiting for a signal on how we should treat them.
The persistence of inequality, combined with the large-scale looting of state resources by ANC officials, gives the populist EFF an underestimated potential for growth. The party places itself outside the South African consensus and in its 2019 election manifesto declared: ‘We are not part of the 1994 elite pact. We are a completely new generation, with new demands. And our demands, unlike those of the 1994 generation, will not be postponed. We refuse to be silenced with so-called reconciliation … We demand the economy now!’ It has also demanded that Cape Town airport be renamed in honour of Winnie. When the ANC rejected the proposal and offered a list of alternative honorees, an EFF spokesperson responded: ‘They did this just to rob us of the first black female president the country deserved. It is clear they are scared of her, even in her death.’
Msimang, an academic born to exiled South African parents in Kenya, now lives mostly in Australia. She is sympathetic to Winnie, defensive and understanding. Bridgland, on the other hand, a veteran foreign correspondent (for the Sunday Telegraph) and an expert on Jonas Savimbi’s Angolan rebel movement, relies on field research, contacts, interviews, court records and the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He describes Winnie’s most egregious crimes in vivid detail, most crucially the killing of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, together with the abduction and torture of other young homeless people in Soweto in the late 1980s. This episode, Bridgland writes, drew a nervous response from the UDF crisis committee, which had been formed on the instructions of her imprisoned husband to rein Winnie in. The divided and embarrassed ANC leadership exiled in Lusaka sent mixed messages. Most condemned the gruesome practice of‘necklacing’, advocated by Winnie, while others endorsed it as the ‘will of the people’.
Bridgland’s description of the murder of Stompie Seipei is based on witness reports by football club members:
Each time a boy fell on the floor he was kicked until he rose. The more they begged for mercy, the more the assaults intensified. Eventually Stompie fell unconscious. Someone poured water over him and [one of the persecutors] told Winnie that things had gone too far. She took no notice and began whipping Stompie yet again, telling him and the others, ‘you are not fit to be alive.’ She stopped, put her hands beneath Stompie’s armpits and ordered Cebekhulu to take hold of his legs and help her lift him high above their heads. From there Stompie was thrown down on the concrete floor. This was repeated several times … Each time Stompie was dropped, sometimes on his head, Winnie and her football club are alleged to have shouted, ‘Breakdown’, all the time singing ANC anthems so that neighbours would not hear their cries and wailing.
Winnie also besmirched the reputation of a Methodist priest called Paul Verryn, who used the manse beside his church in Soweto as a shelter for homeless young people, sometimes accommodating up to forty youngsters, in three rooms, including his own bedroom. Envious of his popularity – he was one of the only whites living in Soweto – and jealous of his outside financial support, she accused Verryn of sodomising his charges. The rumours had started when Verryn expelled a boy for disobeying the house rules, and the boy responded by saying: ‘I will make you pay for this.’ Winnie used the gossip to plant a housekeeper, in the hope of implicating her rival. Verryn immediately reported the boy’s accusations to the Methodist authorities, which cleared his name after a thorough investigation. His innocence was confirmed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and also by Bishop Peter Storey in his recent and very frank autobiography, I Beg to Differ: Ministry amid the Teargas.
In 1989 Winnie ordered the murder of Abu Baker Asvat, her own physician and a popular Indian community doctor, who would have been the most damning witness in the case of Stompie Seipei, because he had examined the dying victim. Asvat’s killers, Zakhele Mbatha and Thulani Dlamini, were told by Winnie that they would advance the cause of freedom by getting rid of him: she provided a gun and promised them R20,000 each. Arrested and tortured by the South African police, they were required to sign a prepared confession to the effect that their motive had been robbery. Years later, Mbatha appeared in chains before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and begged Tutu and the Asvat family for forgiveness. Asvat’s brother began sobbing uncontrollably, Bridgland reports, but Winnie ‘turned to her advisers and laughed’. In light of all this it is baffling when Msimang asserts that ‘no link has ever been established between Dr Asvat’s death and Winnie Mandela.’ And although it’s true, as Msimang also writes, that Winnie ‘was never convicted of murder’, she was found guilty in 1991 of kidnapping Stompie Seipei and others (she was given a suspended sentence).
Bridgland maintains that Winnie escaped a prison sentence in these two trials because the courts and police came under political pressure not to upset the impending deal between Nelson Mandela and the apartheid regime. Crucial evidence held by the apartheid authorities, such as tapped phone conversations and witness statements, were withheld. This allowed the defence to argue falsely that Winnie was not in Soweto at the time of Stompie’s murder but in Brandfort, three hundred kilometres away. Eight years later at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing this false alibi was repeated, with help from the redoubtable Albertina Sisulu, the wife of Walter Sisulu, who had been imprisoned with Mandela on Robben Island. Albertina had been a nurse at Asvat’s clinic and heard the shot that killed him, but during the hearing, in Storey’s words, she ‘sought refuge in forgetfulness rather than identify her own handwriting on the card that proved Winnie had visited Dr Asvat’s surgery when she claimed to be in Brandfort’. National reconciliation seemed occasionally to require a blind eye to be turned to perjury, and the negotiated revolution depended on Nelson Mandela’s co-operation, which might have wavered had his wife been jailed.
Msimang attempts to redeem Winnie, yet admits to being conflicted, uncomfortable, even ‘ashamed of her having been implicated in violence and my response to it’. She argues, however, that Winnie was ‘more defined by her triumphs than by her scars’. Reflections on resilience, strength and perseverance alternate with praise of Winnie’s outspokenness and complaints that women in South Africa were ‘seldom seen’, while men were ‘overbearing, taking up space’. Not that Msimang is oblivious to Winnie’s faults. ‘Her errors and violent rages, her tears and tantrums, remind us that women’s sins are no better or worse than the sins of men.’
Msimang rejects psychological explanations – post-traumatic stress disorder included – for Winnie’s behaviour and argues that her motivation was almost exclusively political, driven by the need to step out from the shadow of her supposedly politically compromised husband. She wants us to look at Winnie ‘as a figure of strength without judging the moral contours of how she used that strength’. In Msimang’s assessment, Winnie epitomises the free woman – ‘free of guilt, at least, and that is a freedom few women can fully inhabit’. She praises her, too, for her refusal ‘to be dragged down by the memories of the boys who trailed her in these awful years’ – or, to put it less euphemistically, who were murdered on her watch. Honouring the memory of these victims would have meant acknowledging her transgressions, but the grudging apology forced on her by an avuncular Desmond Tutu during her subpoenaed appearance before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997 was set up by her lawyers. In his autobiography Peter Storey, who helped lead the church’s opposition to apartheid and was involved in selecting the TRC’s members, calls it the ‘low point in the commission’s life’, and writes of watching ‘my friend Desmond Tutu humiliate himself’ by begging Winnie to admit that ‘things went horribly wrong’. Even worse was the staged spectacle that followed: the mothers of some of the victims were dragged onto the stage to embrace Winnie and offer her forgiveness.
Winnie’s actions have to be judged in the light of what she went through during her husband’s 27-year incarceration. But Msimang fails to resolve a crucial contradiction in her argument: if Winnie was indeed the independent, free and politically committed person she portrays, she can also be held responsible for her deeds – something Msimang refuses to do. She writes that she finds it ‘deeply uncomfortable to acknowledge Winnie’s involvement in Stompie’s death, and in the disappearances of Lolo Sono, Siboniso Tshabalala (and other forgotten victims), while also holding her up as a hero’ in other respects. It’s true that the transition to democracy was shot through with hypocrisy, but does this justify Winnie’s refusal ‘to be judged by people who would swallow the crimes of others and not let her get away with murder’?
Both books give short shrift to Winnie’s final period in the public eye. Made a deputy minister in the ANC’s first government in 1994, she was dismissed less than a year later under suspicion of corruption. She was sidelined by the ANC, but retained her parliamentary seat until 2003 without attending sessions more than once or twice. In a revised edition of his 2003 novella The Cry of Winnie Mandela, Njabulo Ndebele observes that at a certain point the logic of oppression becomes indistinguishable from the logic of resistance, and that ‘resistance also displays a capacity for its own evil.’ If that remains unacknowledged, particularly by the younger generation in Julius Malema’s EFF, which is steadily gathering support, then the new society is based on a dangerous myth. A heroine without blemish has no place in any honest account of a nation’s history.