Winnie Mandela, a true African patriot
Among her accomplishments, she was a custodian of her people’s history and heritage
MUCH has been written about Winnie Madikizela-mandela, the selfless Struggle icon who during apartheid remained resolute and steadfast in the face of adversity. However, most writers have not paid attention to the fact that she was a custodian of our history, culture and heritage.
Madikizela-mandela was deeply inspired by the Pondoland revolt which unfolded in the Transkei between 1950 and 1961, in which peasants rose against the ever-increasing control of the government and its collaborators. This revolt in her home area added further conviction to her vehement struggle against apartheid.
During my several visits as the chief executive of the National Heritage Council to Madikizela-mandela in Soweto, she spoke with pride of the gallantry of the Pondoland peasants in their pursuit of freedom and justice. She often drew parallels between the Pondoland revolt and the 2013 Marikana tragedy in which protesting platinum miners were mowed down by the police in Rustenburg. Lessons, she strongly believed, could be drawn from both incidents.
The preservation of records, such as letters, was also important to the Mandelas. Such letters, they knew, carried both historical and sentimental value. Today historians, researchers and others are immersing themselves in these letters, hoping to produce groundbreaking work on the iconic family.
Writing to Madikizela-mandela, then his wife of just over two years, on June 23, 1960, Mandela informed her how attached he was to the first letter she wrote to him while he was incarcerated.
“My Darling,” his letter opens, “one of my precious possessions here is the first letter you wrote me on December 20, 1962 shortly after my first conviction. During the last 6½ years I have read it over and over again and the sentiments it expresses are as golden and fresh now as they were the day I received them.”
The feeling was mutual: “My Darling,” Madikizela-mandela wrote to her husband on November 12, 1969, “My glorious surprise was the lovely anniversary card which was given to me on the 26 October, quite appropriately two days before I was to be charged.
“Words are too shabby to describe the sentiments it evoked in me. I have been re-reading it since in the solitude of my cell and each time I get a new meaning (of) life.
“The battered and torn envelope in a way told many tales and is the very symbol of the harsh reality of the past 11 years, with no regrets.”
In their effort to preserve their history, the Mandelas welcomed photographers such as Alf Khumalo in their midst to photograph their family. These photographers became at one with the Mandelas. Today, the Mandela family photos are a challenge to all of us to archive family albums as part of one’s heritage.
Such photographs include those depicting Madikizela-mandela being arrested by the apartheid police. Another shows her at a funeral during apartheid times, fist clenched and the coffin of a deceased cadre resting on her shoulder. Another portrays her and Nelson Mandela at a rally, both with fists clenched.
Reflecting on detention in 2012, Madikizela-mandela asserted: “Being held incommunicado was the most cruel thing the Nationalists ever did. I would communicate with the ants, anything that has life”. She added: “If I had lice … I would have even nursed them. That’s what this solitary confinement (does to you); there is no worse punishment than that.”
Anywhere in the world, attire is a symbol of identity and belonging. This showed in Madikizela-mandela’s proudly African style. Missionary institutions such as Shawbury, where Madikizela-mandela studied, played a significant role in the education of blacks. However, they were not without controversies. For example, missionaries often frowned upon African culture and customs, particularly clothes, the obvious and distinctive marker of African identity.
Through her colourful African style of dressing, Madikizela-mandela undid the stitches of colonialism, decolonising our minds and demystifying the view that European culture was supreme. Whether she chose to don umbhaco, traditional attire for Xhosa women, or the embroidered African dresses worn in many parts of Africa coupled with necklaces of beads, Madikizela-mandela’s presence was proudly and vividly proclaimed.
The doek formed part of her traditional attire, becomingly wrapped around her head, enabling her natural beauty to blossom and her disarming smile to fill a room with warmth.
Coupled with her immaculate African attire was the fact that Madikizela-mandela was an excellent singer, leading in the singing of Struggle songs with dedication and conviction, inspiring those present to join her.
Though Madikizela-mandela was in her twilight years, her wisdom was still sought after. Thus her untimely death has left a deep void. However, we should take pride in the fact that she has lived a meaningful life, dedicated to the struggle against apartheid, and that her spirit was never broken by the apartheid masters.
Mancotywa is the chief executive of National Heritage Council. the