Winnie Mandela dies at 81

South African activist and politician Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has died at the age of 81.

Posted: Apr 3, 2018 4:35 PM
Updated: Apr 3, 2018 4:40 PM

In 2010, when Alice Walker was in South Africa to deliver the annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, I was invited to interview the great American writer. It was Walker's first visit to the country, and for reasons I could not fathom at the time, the director of the Steve Biko Foundation presented me with a list of subjects that were off-limits. Top of the list was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

"Why not Winnie?" I asked, aware that the author of "The Color Purple" had forged a bond with South Africa's "Mother of the Nation" that stretched back many years.

Because those are the rules, said the director, or something to that effect.

Madikizela-Mandela, former wife of famed anti-apartheid leader and later South African president Nelson Mandela -- and an anti-apartheid icon in her own right -- was a complex figure. In the end, what she came to represent for the liberation movement to which she dedicated her life was its unvarnished and even more uncomfortable truths.

As it turned out, the answer to my question as to why Madikizela-Mandela was off-limits was contained in an essay that Walker had composed in 1991. Titled "How Long Shall They Torture Our Mothers?" the piece dealt with the death in January 1989 of 14-year-old black South African activist Stompie Seipei -- and specifically, with Madikizela-Mandela's subsequent conviction by a South African court for the kidnap and assault of Seipei.

Seipei was suspected of acting as a police informer, which would have been seen as a betrayal to the liberation struggle. Though Madikizela-Mandela claimed she was taking the young boy away from an abusive situation, she was sentenced to six years.

Walker was adamant that Madikizela-Mandela had been set up. "What to make of this," she wrote, "except to recognize that the courtroom and press, as instruments of a white supremacist, fascist state, are merely the continuation of torture by other means."

Six years later, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the hearings set up by the South African state to deal with the historical injustices of apartheid, Madikizela-Mandela acceded to the pleas of liberation icon Desmond Tutu and admitted to the nation and the world that "things went horribly wrong" on that January day in 1989. In the TRC's final report, she was held "politically and morally accountable" for the human rights violations that resulted in Seipei's death. The commission judged that she was "implicated" in the murder, and that she allowed her home to be used as a place for assault and mutilation.

While Madikizela-Mandela never served time in prison for the incident -- her sentence was reduced to a fine -- it would stain her reputation for the rest of her life.

But, on the day of her passing, it is worth remembering that the Seipei saga -- perhaps more than any other event before or since -- exposed the deep hypocrisy at the heart of the "new" South African state. The hypocrisy is this: in democratic South Africa, whites would continue to get away with murder.

Because, although she grudgingly acknowledged the wrongdoing, Madikizela-Mandela refused to offer the "full truth" to the TRC -- and it was this fact, not the fact that former apartheid president P.W. Botha refused to even testify, that doomed the commission to failure. Consequently, in 2018, we have a situation in South Africa where only two people have served jail time for the crime against humanity known as apartheid.

In 2008, it was revealed that senior members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) had ordered the country's chief prosecutor not to put apartheid-era security policemen on the stand. Why? Because these men knew -- and could publicly divulge -- the darkest secrets of the ANC, secrets in which the likes of Madikizela-Mandela might be intimately involved.

In any war, of course, atrocities are committed by both sides. But Madikizela-Mandela, who was hounded and harassed by the apartheid police for three decades, would remain unrepentant about this reality to the end.

"(Nelson) Mandela let us down," she told a UK newspaper in 2010. "He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks."

Was Walker aware of these subtleties when she visited South Africa for the first time eight years ago? Probably not. In her writings on the "Mother of the Nation," she remained intent on lionizing the woman; no acknowledgment was ever forthcoming that Madikizela-Mandela may have borne any responsibility for the death of a 14-year-old boy.

But there was one thing that Walker did get right. In her poem "Winnie Mandela: We Love You," she referred to her heroine as "Lucy."

This, she explained, was the name given by paleoanthropologists to the fossilized skeleton of the most ancient, recognizably human figure ever found -- "a female being who lived on the African continent some three million years ago." What Walker was suggesting was that Madikizela-Mandela was as much "of" Africa as this enigmatic, matriarchal First Lady.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Confirmed Cases: 34211

Reported Deaths: 2125
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion9761576
Lake3573186
Allen160069
Cass15877
St. Joseph126634
Elkhart126228
Hendricks116671
Hamilton115493
Johnson1097108
Madison58659
Porter53428
Bartholomew50834
Clark49741
LaPorte43023
Howard40428
Tippecanoe3933
Delaware38536
Jackson3821
Shelby37122
Hancock33127
Floyd31839
Boone31635
Morgan27824
Vanderburgh2662
Montgomery23817
White2338
Noble22821
Clinton2271
Decatur22431
Grant21022
Dubois1993
Harrison19422
Henry17211
Greene16924
Vigo1688
Dearborn16821
Monroe16712
Warrick16628
Lawrence15924
Miami1401
Putnam1367
Jennings1304
Kosciusko1271
Orange12622
Scott1193
Franklin1108
Ripley1086
Marshall1021
Carroll932
Daviess8516
Steuben832
Wayne785
Fayette777
Newton7710
Wabash772
LaGrange762
Jasper661
Washington521
Clay511
Jay500
Fulton491
Randolph473
Rush462
Pulaski460
Jefferson451
Whitley413
Starke393
DeKalb371
Sullivan351
Owen341
Brown331
Perry320
Wells310
Benton300
Knox280
Huntington272
Tipton251
Blackford252
Crawford240
Fountain212
Switzerland200
Spencer201
Parke170
Adams171
Posey160
Gibson152
Ohio130
Warren121
Martin110
Vermillion100
Union90
Pike60
Unassigned0167

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Confirmed Cases: 118917

Reported Deaths: 5330
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Cook771193603
Lake8238288
DuPage7620368
Kane6259176
Will5510273
Winnebago220955
McHenry153972
St. Clair112180
Kankakee90045
Kendall77819
Rock Island65124
Champaign6277
Madison57259
Boone44117
DeKalb3994
Sangamon34829
Jackson28210
Randolph2694
Peoria2218
McLean21813
Ogle2033
Stephenson2012
Macon19419
Clinton18617
Union15510
LaSalle15013
Whiteside13912
Iroquois1314
Coles12615
Out of IL1181
Warren1150
Jefferson10116
Grundy982
Knox980
Monroe9511
McDonough8711
Lee811
Unassigned800
Cass730
Tazewell725
Henry690
Williamson661
Pulaski560
Marion500
Jasper457
Macoupin452
Adams441
Perry420
Montgomery391
Vermilion391
Morgan361
Christian354
Livingston342
Jo Daviess320
Douglas270
Fayette203
Ford201
Jersey201
Menard200
Woodford192
Mason180
Washington180
Hancock170
Mercer170
Carroll162
Shelby161
Bureau151
Schuyler130
Bond121
Franklin120
Clark110
Crawford110
Fulton110
Moultrie110
Piatt110
Brown100
Cumberland100
Logan100
Wayne91
Alexander80
Henderson80
Johnson80
Effingham71
Massac70
Saline70
Greene50
Marshall50
De Witt40
Lawrence40
Richland30
Stark30
Clay20
Edwards20
Gallatin20
Hamilton20
Wabash20
White20
Calhoun10
Edgar10
Hardin10
Pike10
Pope10
Putnam10
Terre Haute
Clear
65° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 65°
Robinson
Clear
66° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 66°
Indianapolis
Clear
63° wxIcon
Hi: 71° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 63°
Rockville
Clear
62° wxIcon
Hi: 72° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 62°
Casey
Clear
65° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 52°
Feels Like: 65°
Brazil
Clear
65° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 65°
Marshall
Clear
65° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 65°
A great Sunday on tap!
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

WTHI Events