What you need to know:
Many of the news outlets depicted Winnie Mandela as a woman who stood beside her husband in his fight against apartheid but also as one mired in scandal.
History depicts Nelson Mandela as an astounding freedom fighter.
In Mandela’s memoirs, he repeatedly credited his wife Winnie for his endurance, perseverance and ability to carry on with the cause while in prison.
On April 2, the breaking news of the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela spread internationally and many expressed deep sadness.
Winnie was married to the late freedom fighter and former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, for 38 years. But even after they divorced, the couple remained partners in ensuring a balance in the newly independent South Africa. They were actively involved in the then-ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.
Winnie joins — and even surpasses — the ranks of educated, strong, poised, gracious and courageous former first ladies who put their countries first and dedicated themselves to the political ambitions of their husbands to fight for a cause they strongly believed in.
It was not until 1994 that apartheid was defeated, and Winnie was an activist until this point, standing by her husband at his release from prison and inauguration as the first black president of South Africa.
Her death has been widely covered by Western media but in a largely negative tone. Many of the news outlets depicted her as a woman who stood beside her husband in his fight against apartheid but also as one mired in scandal.
History depicts Nelson Mandela as an astounding freedom fighter. He sacrificed his life behind bars at Robben Island, jailed by the apartheid government for 27 years. Upon his death, his memory was cherished across nations. Seven heads of state, former and serving, including United States President Barack Obama, attended the funeral service.
In Mandela’s memoirs, he repeatedly credited his wife Winnie for his endurance, perseverance and ability to carry on with the cause while in prison. He also recounted Winnie’s active participation in the recruitment of fighters to the Umkhonto We Sizwe military wing of the ANC. She was imprisoned multiple times, on many occasions in solitary confinement.
At the peak of Winnie’s resistance, the apartheid government banished her and their young children to Brandfort township, some 100 kilometres from her Johannesburg home. During multiple international interviews, she expressed Brandfort as “a prison at one’s own personal expense”.
At one point, she confessed to being open to defending her country by all means. This came shortly after the 1964 Sharpeville Massacre, where 69 unarmed youth were gunned down by the police as they peacefully protested.
At Brandfort, Winnie evolved into a strong political force, albeit labelled a communist. But in a remarkable turn of events, US President John F. Kennedy visited Winnie and recognised her as a key player at the beginning of a journey past apartheid. This was the first indication of hope for a post-apartheid South Africa.
Winnie was her jailed husband’s spokesperson. She often relayed his messages to party members. Notably, she prepared her eldest daughter, Zindzi, to give an iconic 1985 speech on behalf of her incarcerated father as Winnie was banned from public rallies and speeches.
Terrorist, communist enemy
In the 1980s, most African nations were independent yet the world remained ambivalent about South Africa’s fight for independence. US President Ronald Reagan labelled the ANC a “terrorist and communist enemy of a legitimate South African government”.
The security of the oil supply in the Cape of Good Hope fuelled Reagan politics and his foreign policy towards South Africa.
A few years after Mandela became president, the couple divorced, citing irreconcilable differences. Winnie never re-married but she remained active in the South African political scene, a true feminist and challenger of oppression in the African continent. She was fearless, strong and bold in the face of oppression.
It is, therefore, disconcerting that, in the era of global women’s empowerment and mobilisation of women leaders, particularly in politics, the feminist movement in the West, which stands for the liberty of women, leading marches across the world for the equality and recognition of women who have fought and prevailed in their fields, is silent about the passing away of such a legend.
The fight for women’s rights must continue. But we must move forward together to recognise and acknowledge the milestones of women everywhere.
Perhaps it is time to open dialogue on the inclusivity of the feminist movement in the West as pertains women from all backgrounds who have made a significant contribution to society.
Ms Kazungu, graduate student research fellow at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. [email protected]