The significance of Winnie's passing

RW Johnson on why the "liberation narrative" overwhelmed all critical commentary on Madikizela-Mandela's life

What is the meaning of the huge national event that Winnie Madizikela-Mandela’s death became? The newspapers were mainly devoted to this day after day. The funeral itself was a major media event, carried by national TV and radio. ANC and EFF came together at the funeral, an unprecedented event in itself and clearly this could presage the re-unification of the two movements – which, we are told, was Winnie’s dying wish. Jesse Jackson flew out from America for the event. Even Caster Semenya, far away on the Australian Gold Coast, pledged her victories with clenched fist salute to Winnie. It was, to coin a phrase, a great disturbance in the Force.

When news of Winnie’s death first spread there was considerable negative comment about the long litany of crimes associated with her name. But gradually at first and then deafeningly, such commentary was overwhelmed by the liberation narrative casting Winnie as South Africa’s St. Joan. Soon even “independent” journalists were buying into this, referring to her as “Ma Winnie” and the Mother of the Nation. Indeed, those who had raised doubts over Winnie’s legacy were soon castigated as reactionary white males (though the children who died at the hands of Winnie’s Football Club were all black), apartheid agents and Stratcom operatives. This included even such unlikely figures as Max du Preez, Nomavenda Mathiane and Anton Harber. All that such figures could do was to plead their innocence: reversing the dominant narrative was now out of the question – and this was the narrative faithfully echoed by the international media.

So powerful was this “liberation narrative” that many people who knew all too well the darker side of Winnie’s reputation found themselves singing her praises, almost competing with one another in their depictions of her as saint and heroine. Most prominently there was Cyril Ramaphosa, who as a member of the Mandela Crisis Committee in 1989 had to look into not less than 16 murders attributed to Winnie and her Football Club. (The sudden rush to attribute these entirely to apartheid agents should be dismissed. Whoever was the final paymaster of certain members of the Football Club, Winnie was still the one who gave the orders.) Ramaphosa had to swallow a great deal in order to make his funeral oration but he seemed to have no difficulty at all in ignoring a large number of unfortunate truths in order to do so. This is a warning for the future.

One should remember, too, that for all Ramaphosa’s attempts to achieve a reconciliation with Malema, he it was who was in charge of the investigation which resulted in Malema’s expulsion from the ANC. The ANC very seldom expels anyone so one must presume that Malema’s sins were exceptional. But suddenly these are not only forgotten; they never existed. This too is a warning.

The same was true of Thabo Mbeki. The TRC conveniently held public hearings into Winnie’s alleged crimes in late 1997 at the same time that Winnie was running for the post of ANC deputy-president, something Mbeki was determined to head off. And the TRC hearings certainly helped achieve that. To hear Mbeki praise “Ma Winnie” no one would know he had ever had the slightest reservation about her. But in Mbeki such silver-tongued hypocrisy hardly comes as a surprise.

In truth, the ANC narrative about Winnie has switched to and fro many times. When she first emerged as a persecuted victim in the struggle, the publicity was massively favourable. However, by the mid to late 1980s her activities were causing so much embarrassment to the ANC that Tambo publicly denounced her over her “matches and necklaces” speech and also ordered her to dissolve the Football Club. Her defiance of such dictates cast her in a very bad light with the ANC. Then came Mandela’s liberation and his historic walk to freedom, hand in hand with Winnie: suddenly she was a heroine again and Mother of the Nation.

This didn’t last long – she was too unruly and undisciplined, often publicly contradicting the ANC line. But after 1994 she became an ANC MP and a junior minister – until her open defiance of Mandela’s instructions caused him to sack her. By this time too he had initiated divorce proceedings, disgusted by Winnie’s endless infidelities and misbehaviour. Inevitably, this also caused her eclipse from ANC favour too. She continued to make waves on the far left until she was thoroughly taken to task by the TRC. She re-emerged from these hearings a somewhat diminished figure, but nonetheless took up a prominent role in campaigning for Thabo Mbeki and the ANC for the 1999 national elections.

Not long after this she was prosecuted for commercial fraud for which, notionally, she might have served a several year jail term. This was, of course, out of the question and she got off with a suspended sentence on appeal in 2004. Winnie continued to provide good news copy as she contested Mandela’s will, fought the rest of the Mandela family and so on.

That is to say, the ANC has seesawed repeatedly over Winnie and its most recent conversion to all-out mourning for the Mother of the Nation is merely the latest twist in a long saga.

The real significance of Winnie’s passing is, however, not really to do with the rights and wrongs of Winnie but with the way in which the rhetorical narrative of revolutionary defiance quickly eclipsed all else, thus showing that it remains South Africa’s principal public narrative. The speed with which it dispelled all alternative narratives and the way in which it quickly “domesticated” so many ‘independent’ journalists and media demonstrated its power and its hegemony. Even Nelson Mandela now drew criticism for having so thoroughly rejected Winnie.

In one sense this is peculiar because, of course, there was no revolution. For thirty years and more there was much clenched fist saluting, dramatic gesturing and talk about “the seizure of power” but the truth is that most of this was play-acting. A virtual cult of the AK-47 arose – celebrated even in song by Jacob Zuma – and many ANC leaders enjoyed being photographed in military fatigues carrying an AK. But, of course, there was never a point when MK forces directly battled the apartheid forces in a shooting match. They didn’t even throw bombs – they left them in parks and supermarkets. There is no record of Jacob Zuma actually using a machine gun, despite all his singing about it. And MK operatives never wore military uniforms inside South Africa.

But the fact remains that a whole generation and more was brought up in this play-acting. Its spirit of defiance exactly matched the feelings of the young in the townships and it was a heady mix. It was, moreover, the approved style not only in the movement but throughout the Soviet bloc and the Third World. This was authority indeed. With this went a certain style of rhetoric – ultra defiance, ultra assertion, maximal demanding, replete with formulaic chants (“Amandla!”) and songs. Moreover the movement adopted the language of revolution, not just of liberation. The measure of everything was whether it was revolutionary.

In one sense this tradition came to an abrupt halt in 1990 when power was peacefully shared and transferred – by negotiation. But this worked several ways. It left a whole generation, roused to revolutionary fervour – but with nowhere to go, the tradition cut off in mid-air. This was so obviously unsatisfactory and disappointing that both SACP and ANC politicians tried to show continued adherence to “revolutionary” values. Militants still called one another “comrade” and claimed to be “good revolutionaries”. Politicians talked about the National Democratic Revolution. And, everyone agreed, the very worst thing to be was a counter-revolutionary.

It was more play acting – but in a way it was very serious. First, the lesson learned was that comrades had mobilised and shouted and marched and taken violent action – and the walls of Jericho had indeed fallen down. This vindicated and legitimated this style of action. Henceforth every group in a society with a grievance knew how to behave in order to gain attention. But second, if the revolutionary tradition was to continue in an era when all the movement’s leaders were doing office jobs and making money, there had to be revolutionary leaders, radical tribunes of the people, Chris Hani, Peter Mokaba, Julius Malema – and Winnie Mandela.

Of course, in theory the SACP tried to position itself as the revolutionary party to the left of the ANC. But over time it became so thoroughly compromised that such a notion lost all its force. It was, after all, not long ago that Blade Nzimande was leading an SACP demonstration in favour of Zuma’s Nkandla palace which was described as an example of “rural development”. It is difficult for any political purpose to survive such self-satire. In addition, of course, the EFF displaced the SACP and took over its electoral space.

This then was the psychic meaning of Winnie’s passing. The leader of the revolutionary tradition had died so that tradition had to be celebrated and re-affirmed. All attempts at narratives which were at variance with that had to be simply swamped and over-ruled. Indeed, anyone who suggested there were other sides to Winnie was obviously a counter-revolutionary and a Stratcom operative (yes, a quarter of a century after the end of apartheid, Stratcom was suddenly back to life). And so powerful was this tradition that not only the ANC had to bow to it but so did the media and a large number of people who knew better.

Inevitably, in the funeral arrangements that followed, Malema played the role of crown prince for he it was who would carry on the tradition. ANC politicians played hard up to that, appealing for Malema to rejoin the ANC (Winnie’s somewhat implausible “dying wish”) – partly just to show how much they remained onside with the revolution. Malema played the role fully, angrily declaring that he saw “enemies” there, people who had once dared to criticise Saint Winnie. This made him the arbiter of the situation. For ANC politicians the effect was intimidating: they greatly feared being thus cast as counter-revolutionaries. Hence the pathetic performance of Sydney Mufamadi a few days later as he frantically tried to distance himself from the police investigation instituted into Winnie’s activities at the request of Tony Leon, while he was Minister of Safety & Security.

This great psychic disturbance is now over and life can gradually return to normal. What remains to be seen is how far Malema will succeed in taking over Winnie’s mantle, what uses will be made of Winnie’s name and how much further the revolutionary tradition can be projected into our non-revolutionary reality.

RW Johnson