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Winnie Mandela: Charming, Arrogant-- and an Embarrassment

February 26, 1989|Charlene Smith | Charlene Smith reported on resistance politics in South Africa for 13 years. She is temporarily residing in Argentina, working on a book.

BUENOS AIRES — "Those 18 months in solitary confinement . . . " Winnie Mandela pursed her lips, her eyes hard and far away, "bruised my soul. If I had had a weapon, I would have fought my way out."

Mandela told me that in a 1986 interview. Perhaps, in a tragic way, "fighting her way out" is what she has been doing for the past few years. She has become an increasing embarrassment for the internal and external South African liberation movements. Like a caged tiger with no way of taking revenge on her tormentors, Winnie Mandela has turned on her young, her people.

Foreign correspondents report from South Africa that she has long been considered "the foremost woman spokesperson" of the anti-apartheid movement and the "mother of the nation." They could not be more wrong. Winnie Mandela was banned and could not be quoted within South Africa for two decades. When her banning and banishment orders were finally lifted and she assumed a public role, she fast became a source of consternation to the anti-apartheid movement. She was kept aside except for ceremonial occasions and the African National Congress told her to keep her mouth shut unless she stopped contradicting the organization's policy lines.

A vivid example occurred in 1986. In 1984-85, dozens of government collaborators and police informers were executed by the "necklace," a gasoline-soaked tire put around the victim's neck and lit. But it became increasingly apparent that government assassination squads were using the technique to try to provoke so-called "black-on-black" violence between rival groups, and that the "necklace" was making anti-apartheid work fraught with contradictions abroad. Then Oliver Tambo, the longtime leader of the exiled and banned African National Congress, called in his annual Jan. 8 address for an end to the practice.

Necklacing stopped. In February, 1986, at a funeral for victims of police shootings, Mandela made her "with our matches and necklaces we will liberate South Africa" speech. Black South Africans argued over whose call was more valid.

Winnie Mandela has not been referred to as "the mother of the nation" for a long time by anyone other than cliche-ridden journalists. In resistance circles, she is referred to as "Her Highness." Albertina Sisulu, the wife of Nelson Mandela's lieutenant, Walter Sisulu, who has been imprisoned with Mandela since 1964, is the real "mother of the nation." She has, if anything, had a far more traumatic time than Winnie Mandela, and has been tireless in her anti-apartheid work.

Dr. Abu Baker Asvat, the doctor who examined the three surviving boys abducted by Mandela's "football team" (her unofficial bodyguards called themselves the Mandela United Soccer Club), was shot to death in his clinic three weeks ago by "unknown assailants." Albertina Sisulu, a nurse, worked for the doctor for many years. Asvat was committed to racially exclusive black consciousness, while the Sisulus are committed to the non-racial goals of the ANC. They were united in their belief that the needs of the community were paramount and that political differences were that and nothing more. True democrats, they could live with people of opposing views.

Winnie Mandela cannot. She is beautiful, charming and arrogant. Some believe her football team was involved in the murder of Asvat, others are doubtful. (Mandela has always had bodyguards, of one kind or other, but the "team"--which rarely played football--was something different; Winnie saw herself as a symbol of power, and insisted that the team was needed for her personal safety.) Right-wing death squads have been active in recent years and Asvat has long been a target. The doctor, regrettably, is probably a victim of people who would like to see internecine killing between blacks, and in particular the rival political factions to which he and Sisulu belong. There is only one bloc that stands to gain from this.

Winnie Mandela has been revered and feted less for herself than for what she symbolizes--Nelson Mandela, a man beloved by his people. He holds extraordinary power over the hearts of South Africans against apartheid and he is the symbolic key to the liberation of all South Africans. I don't believe the South African government will ever release him. His incarceration symbolizes the imprisonment of all South Africans behind the high walls of apartheid. His release would signify the symbolic release of black South Africans. It would, I believe, set in motion an unstoppable wave heralding the final days of apartheid.

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