Winnie and the necklace

John Kane-Berman says Madikizela-Mandela was both the victim and perpetrator of cruelty

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: mother of exactly what?

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who died last week, was both the victim and the perpetrator of cruelty. Once victimised by the police, she later became untouchable.

In 1969 the National Party (NP) regime subjected her to the cruelty of solitary confinement in detention without trial for almost 18 months. In 1977 it banished her to Brandfort in the Orange Free State and kept her there for eight years. The security police also subjected her to many other forms of intimidation and abuse.    

More than 20 years later, the tables had been turned. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was conducting hearings into the activities of Mrs Madikizela-Mandela's bodyguards in the Mandela United Football Club in the late 1980s, two police generals stated that the police had handled her with kid gloves. The security branch in Soweto had come to regard her as "untouchable".

By then secret talks between the NP government and the African National Congress (ANC) were under way. Mrs Madikizela-Mandela's earlier treatment by the NP government turned out to have been as futile as it was callous. And although her bodyguards in the so-called football club were much feared in Soweto, the police evidently feared her as well.

Although Mrs Madikizela-Mandela was convicted in 1991 of kidnapping 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, a suspected police informant who was murdered by her bodyguards, her six-year prison sentence was replaced on appeal with a fine and a suspended sentence. The TRC claimed that club members were responsible for various other killings and criminal activities, but little was done to probe any of this much further.

Tributes to Mrs Madikizela-Mandela have focused on her role in the anti-apartheid resistance movement. Some have mentioned the notorious football club. But they have largely ignored her endorsement of killings using the "necklace" method, whereby a tyre is thrown over the victim, who is then doused with petrol, set alight, and burnt alive.

Speaking in Munsieville on the West Rand in 1986, she said, "With our matchboxes and our necklaces, we will liberate our country." Although she later denied that she had said this, several journalists heard her say it and reported her words around the world. Helen Suzman, who was a close friend, described it as "reckless and highly irresponsible".

Necklacings first occurred in 1985. By 1992, more than 500 people, almost all of them black, had been put to death by this method. The victims were often suspected informers or other alleged collaborators. Sometimes they were schoolboys who tried to write exams in defiance of boycotts which the ANC called in the name of "no education before liberation". Other victims included members of rival political organisations.

The necklace played an important role in the reign of terror that the ANC, along with its allies in the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the South African Communist Party, the United Democratic Front, and Umkhonto we Sizwe, inflicted in Soweto and other townships as part of the "people's war" from the mid-1980s until the change of government in 1994. The objectives were to make the black townships ungovernable, while at the same time (successfully) using skilful propaganda to blame the NP government for all the violence.

In public, the ANC was equivocal about necklacings. One official told a London newspaper that "collaborators" had to be eliminated and if "the people decided to use necklacings to eliminate enemy elements, we support it". Confronted at a conference in London in 1987 by a direct question on necklacing, the organisation's president, Oliver Tambo, said the ANC "disapproves of this but understands how it came about". He added, "We will try to dissuade people but the police had been burning people to smear the ANC. I hope it will one day be something of the past, but when it goes the regime will have lost a very powerful weapon against the ANC."

Typically, of course, Mrs Madikizela-Mandela seldom indulged in such mealy-mouthed equivocations. She also had great influence among the youth in Soweto and elsewhere.

Her encouragement of the necklace should not be overlooked amidst all the eulogies which have greeted her death.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.