At a time when new President Cyril Ramaphosa is trying to restore faith and credibility to the South African government – another strong link with the far off days of pride, struggle and sacrifice, more than half a century ago, has passed into history.
In many ways Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who has died aged 81, reflected both sides of the struggle for liberation in South Africa: on the one side its stoic pride in resisting the dark forces of apartheid; on the other, the grim and often far from noble struggle on the streets of the townships against the last, vicious, kicks of the security forces.
There are two images -of Madikizela-Mandela making the clenched fist black power salute – that sum up her defiant support of the struggle and her husband Nelson Mandela.
The first was taken on the steps of the Palace of Justice, in Pretoria, in 1963, at the so-called Rivonia Trial as he faced the death penalty on charges of sabotage. Madikizela-Mandela, fresh-faced and determined, held the salute in the face of police who had tried to intimidate her and even attempted to stop her wearing her traditional dress to court.
Fast forward to February 1990 when Madikizela-Mandela again made the same clenched fist salute as she walked hand-in-hand with her freed husband into cheering crowds outside Victor Verster Prison, near Cape Town.
That joyous day also saw the beginning of the end for the couple’s marriage that began back in 1958 and ended in 1996. Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison as a pragmatic negotiator determined to heal his broken nation; Madikizela-Mandela remained a flinty, feisty, hard-liner and these differences mixed with domestic issues, ushered the couple towards divorce.
Few could blame Madikizela-Mandela for her tough stance in politics. She was dragged through the mill by the apartheid authorities and spent more than 18-months in solitary confinement where she was forced to lie naked on a cold concrete floor. Police hammered on doors and searched her home, like clockwork, she was tortured by special branch thugs and her children were taken from her. When she was freed, the authorities banished her to Brandfort, a small town in the Free State, where she suffered years of isolation and intimidation, including the fire bombing of her home.
Madikizela-Mandela’s image was undoubtedly tarnished by violence linked to her bodyguards from the infamous Mandela United Football Club. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission – the hearings that tried to heal post-apartheid South Africa – found Madikizela-Mandela to have been linked to violence in the grimy days of the township struggle.
Yet Madikizela-Mandela threw many of her latter years into causes that cemented her nickname : Mother of the Nation. She shrugged off criticism for failing to attend Parliament and being slow in paying rent to remain defiant until the end.
Madikizela-Mandela died in Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, the very hospital where her former husband fought for his life in a health scare in 2011, in the early hours of April 2. She leaves two daughters: Zindziswa and Zenani.