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

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