Winnie Mandela has been on my mind, all week.
I campaigned against apartheid in my student days at Oxford. It was my cause, my Number One Cause (although there were others – it was, after all, during the Cold War Years. Those were difficult times). I suppose that in some ways, at that time, I treated that soul-destroying period in South Africa almost as an abstract. I was not thinking about the personalities involved – the human beings engaged in the struggle, day in day out, suffering hatred, persecution, humiliation and often physical attacks. I didn’t do so until many years later, when I came to live in Jamaica.
The visit of Nelson and Winnie Mandela to Jamaica in 1991 is one of those experiences that will stay in my consciousness forever, I know. For us personally, it was not an entirely pleasant experience; on that night at the National Stadium, we left the bleachers section under painful circumstances, which I would prefer not to think about too deeply. I remember the breathless anticipation on that hot July evening. It was a long wait, but people were patient. I recall also that it was one of dancehall deejay Beenie Man’s first appearances, during the extended entertainment section that kept us amused. His performance was so completely inappropriate for the occasion that he was booed off stage.The euphoria was so strong and the joy of the crowd so palpable as the Mandelas entered the stadium in an open top car, surrounded by agitated security personnel, that it prompted Mr. Mandela to exclaim, quite spontaneously:
“This is the happiest day of my life!”
Now, Winnie. Jamaican politicians have all produced eulogies, fine words. Others have hailed her with wildly effusive praise; she was everything, the consummate rebel, the perfect warrior. Some have said: “Yes, she was an important figure in the anti-apartheid struggle, but…” I agree with this commentary by James Moss-Solomon in the online Public Opinion: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
However, Winnie for me was not quite any of these. She was a woman, living in extraordinary times, who found herself doing extraordinary things. She took the proverbial bull by the horns.
Eight years later, Winnie visited Jamaica again. By this time, she was divorced from Nelson. Her interview with Flair magazine was candid, almost raw. She declared herself still married to the African National Congress (ANC) – but her second “physical” husband let her down. Moreover, she sounded frustrated by the amount of work still to be done to fight injustice. She did not entertain lightweight questions (unfortunately typical of this publication) about her “skin tone” and “beauty secrets,” and what she does for “fun and relaxation.” She was still angry, she said; almost every comment leaked disappointment. She had not achieved what she felt she needed to. She did not see the change she wanted. Her people remained poor.
She told Flair in 1999:
Throughout the years of my struggle, the individual Winnie has never sought glory. I would like to be remembered as an ordinary freedom fighter who fought for the liberation of her people. And that fight has never stopped because the greatest revolution every freedom fighter is faced with today is the liberation of her people from poverty. That struggle seems not to have been worthwhile if our people are still poor.
It is Nelson Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel’s tribute – more of a personal letter, from one woman to another – that touched me the most. It is not long, but it says everything that can be said, from a place of deep understanding that none of us would be aware of. Here it is:
It is with a heavy heart that I address you today.
As I struggle to accept your transition, I take solace in the fact that you have risen to become one of the brightest stars in the sky where you will remain ever present and radiantly shining. You will continue to serve as a guide to your loving family, your grateful nation, our beloved Africa, and indeed, the world.
The extraordinary life you led is an example of resilient fortitude and inextinguishable passion that is a source of inspiration to us all of how to courageously confront challenges with unwavering strength and determination.
Thank you for your brilliant wisdom, your fierce defiance and your stylish beauty.
Fortunately, stars shine brightest during the darkest of hours. I know you will continue to illuminate our sky, even through the storms and clouds. Your legacy will be an uplifting beacon from which we can continue to draw guidance and strength during difficult times.
You loved our people unconditionally and sacrificed so much for our freedom. It is my prayer that as befitting tributes are paid to you both at home and abroad, all of us will internalise the values you helped to mould and birth into existence.
As a nation, I hope we will stand tall and proud, and as uncompromising as you were in the defence and protection of our rights. As one of our brightest stars, continue to be the lioness that protects your children and your grandchildren. Warm their hearts so that while your transition may shake them, it does not break their spirit.
Your legacy is everlasting. Take a well-deserved rest in peace, my BIG sister.
Love and Respect Always,
Your little sister, Graça.
While we are on this Earth, we do the best we can. Shine on, Winnie Mandela.