I recall watching the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa in 1997. At the time Winnie was centred in a controversy over the Mandela football club and many other allegations levelled against her. Worst of all, she was accused of killing a young boy Stompie Sepei and from what I could make out of television reports, Winnie was a scary woman who had killed a teenager. Little did we know that no evidence was found to prove her involvement in any death, but as a child I feared her television image as a ruthless killer. However, when I finally met her in person, I met the absolute opposite of what I saw as a child. Winnie was the embodiment of love, a woman who stretched her hands to hug and kiss any one and everybody who came to visit her home. She never ceased to brighten up one’s day with that beautiful, infectious smile, followed by her referral to everyone as her ‘darling’. That love has touched the down trodden of South Africa, has given hope to the students who continued to fight for decolonisation in education and gave solace to the widows and orphans of the Marikana massacre when police opened fire on unarmed miners in 2012.
I always found her amusing as an elderly woman who would use contemporary terminology and phrases in a conversation, to an extent of using the “F – word” to express her astonishment on something. At 81 Mama kept herself young, adorned herself with her beads and never went anywhere without her make up “on fleak”. She was very defiant even in her later life and she kept her spirit very youthful throughout. In helping the preparations for her 80th birthday party I saw the her at her mischievous best. Since no one was looking and cameras were off she would stick her index finger in her cake and lick the icing from her finger. It dawned on me that, she has never been young and now with all the struggles gone she has all the time to relive her youth. The young woman subdued by circumstances of the past manifested and found expression in her old age and she flaunted her spirit with so much grace and vigour. Who would defy the most inescapable phenomenon of ageing? Only Mama Winnie could get away with that and she inspired us all to never submit to even the most natural phenomenon on earth.
Politics in South Africa remain a site of struggle for women against patriarchy, misogyny and all forms of discrimination. In September 2017, I had an honour to be one of the organizers for Mama Winnie’s 80th Birthday celebrations and I was invited to her house to provide her with a progress report on the preparations. Upon completing my report, she looked at me with pride written all over her face and told me that I am a professional through and through. That meant a lot coming from a woman of her stature but it meant even more that in my whole life I have been affirmed by only a handful of women, but here comes a giant of a woman to appreciate my work. In a world where women position themselves as agents of patriarchy and tearing each other down. Inspired by Winnie’s example I will try as she did to lift those after me and affirm them as they earnestly give their time and skills to the betterment of our country. She taught me to harness and honour the struggle and achievements women.
Shortly after getting married at 23, Winnie’s husband Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island. Winnie fought hard to keep the name of her husband alive working tirelessly in the fight against Apartheid. She never had the opportunity to be a young woman. Alongside keeping the legacy of her husband, she was a mother to her kids and continued to be an agitator against the unjust apartheid regime.
Though she is gone, I will carry that love she gave us and share it with those who never had the rare opportunity to receive it and those who still need love to face the ills of our society……yes she did not die, she multiplied.