Winnie Mandela: Hero and villain

When the death of Winnie Mandela was announced, a childhood friend spoke fondly about what I imagine was our joint encounter at a distance during our university days with the warrior, beautiful lady, and powerful woman.

The death of Winnie was / is profound. She was a global personality and had name recognition and star appeal all over the world. But I had long since become disengaged from her appeal and that of Madiba and if truth be told I was firmly in the camp of the believers in the futility of human endeavor. But lets leave that futility for another time.

About a week after Winnie died, I read this article http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5590109/Winnie-Mandelas-words-final-interview-died-revealed-Nelson-split.html and I shared with friends on a feisty group I belong to. The arguments were passionate and enlightening. And I believe the conclusion was that Winnie deserved all the accolades she has so far received but the discussions about her life deserves nuance as it is complex. Winnie’s life had a lot to cheer and a lot of murk.

I believe humans are generally predisposed to not speak ill of the dead. Although we generally make an exception for Hitler, Mussolini, Emperor Hirohito, Pol Pot, Idi Amin etc. A section of the British population will make the same exception for Mrs. Thatcher. There were quite a few unsavory things said when she passed away. Similarly with Nigerians of the Yoruba race. Abacha was fair game. He was the Real ‘Oku Igbe’.  Loosely translated by me as ‘dead piece of shit’.

Reading the article referenced above, brought back the Winnie & Nelson Mandela charisma that enthralled me.  It also reminded me of the injustices of apartheid. I felt proud to remember the frontline role Nigeria played in the dismantling of apartheid.

Life is tough as it is, cancer, world poverty, violent conflicts etc. have no solution. To then add a layer of injustice like apartheid on life’s problems was a blatant injustice deserving of retribution in my eyes back then. I was disappointed that Nelson Mandela chose reconciliation but as I have grown older I have come to understand and appreciate the path Nelson Mandela trod.

The biggest flaw of Winnie’s position in my opinion was not to recognise the need for reconciliation on the terms negotiated by her husband and equal partner in the liberation race. Yes Winnie was as big as Nelson in bringing apartheid to an end but winning the war is one thing, you have to win the peace as well. Winnie won the war, Nelson won the peace but sadly Winnie still wanted to continue with the war figuratively speaking.

Winnie’s stance is understandable. She bore more of the physical brunt. She was hunted and was treated like an animal by the apartheid regime. It is conceivable that they could have killed her if they had a chance to get away with it. While Nelson and the other older men suffered loss of liberty and ill health in prison, Winnie was almost alone in providing point of reference leadership on the outside and it appears as if her scars never healed.

Sadly, negotiations or mutual destruction end all human conflicts. South African economy was sophisticated and complex and relied on the global financial markets more than any other economy in Africa. Nobody will hand over the keys of such an economy in a negotiation to vengeful men.

While apartheid as the status quo was no longer an option, without negotiation it wouldn’t have ended even if there was all out civil war. Exacting retribution the way Winnie anticipated could have led the country down the path of a civil war. So the grown up choice was what Nelson eventually settled for. Even with that choice, the country remains deeply divided today amongst the political children of Nelson and Winnie.

While Winnie’s stand for justice first and Mandela’s stand for peaceful transition first are both understandable, it is instructive that Nelson’s path led to the Presidency and global reverence which helped the resurgence of South Africa economically and politically in the post apartheid years while Winnie ended up with not very much politically and materially. I am not saying money is everything but while I think Nelson was extreme in his reconciliation I also believe Winnie was extreme in her holding on to the injustices. If you had a choice on whom to deal with, I believe the average person will choose Nelson. And the world and the Afrikaans who held the strong hand collectively chose Nelson.

A part of me wonders if Winnie would still hold to her strong views if she had been as financially successful as the Cyril Ramaphosas of South Africa. Of course Cyril is now the President of that country and he made an absolute mint from the Black Economic Empowerment program he helped negotiate as part of the terms to end apartheid.

Reports of Winnie’s appearance at the Truth and Reconciliation committee did not portray her in good light. She appeared too aloof and was never able to accept fully that things were not done rightly. I was appalled she got involved with the so-called ‘Death Squad’ and the murder of the little boy. I understand that in all violent conflicts, lines are blurred and this makes it difficult to fairly judge. But you must realise that in a proper war and under the Geneva Convention, it is a war crime to harm a child. Her denial of the wrong things that happened during the truth and reconciliation committee while understandable from the reality of the violent conflict of that time and some element of self-preservation, smacks of a cold-hearted person.

I hope history is fair to Winnie. Rather than criticise too much. I think we should hold our counsel and if you are so inclined remember her for all the good she meant to you.

Of greater importance to me as a person though was the breakdown of the marital relationship between Nelson and Winnie. It speaks to our outwardly pious stance especially in Africa. To some Winnie was wrong to have had a romantic relationship with another man. To others it was unreasonable to expect her to be without her conjugal rights for 20+ years.

Personally, I can understand the pain of realising that your spouse cheated. But considering she had to wait for over 20 years to have conjugal relations, I think any spouse should be forgiving that their partner cheated. But I think it was wrong that she did what she did openly. The openness of the extra marital affair appears to be the crux of Nelson’s decision to part ways.

Forgive me for being cynical. If she was discreet. I think he would have found another excuse. The world we live in today is quick to forgive men’s indiscretions. The wider world is still a man’s world. Powerful men are enabled to keep their adultery private. This is less so for women. Both men and women often negatively judge women. Men receive less of this.

While I think Nelson should have forgiven if she was discreet, you can see the derision the world holds women who forgive their cheating spouses. Hilary Clinton is the best example of this. Mrs Trump is getting it now in retaliation for the attacks on Hilary. Victoria Beckham, Beyonce etc. have all been caricatured in the media for letting women down for forgiving cheating spouses. You can imagine the derision a full-blooded African man like Nelson would have experienced if he had forgiven a spouse who cheated openly. In contrast, the world forgives men a discreet affair even in circumstances where the husband is a total cad.

It is sad though that a great man like Nelson Mandela who appears to have the patience of a saint couldn’t forgive adultery but could forgive racially aggravated murder. I understand greater good and all that but it makes me despair at the complexity of human nature and romantic relationships.

In conclusion, I will also want to share this article, which I consider balanced and defends Winnie.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/03/winnie-mandela-hero-white-protest-apartheid?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Facebook

Hopefully leads to the oft-reported saying that there is no known way to make omelettes without breaking eggs.

Baba Grumpy works in financial services in the United Kingdom. He blogs mostly about football at http://babagrumpy.blogspot.co.uk. His Twitter handle is @BabaGrumpy