Winnie Mandela: The revisionist history of racism in South Africa

As tens of thousands of South Africans packed into Soweto’s Orlando stadium to sing the praises of their fallen ‘Comrade Winnie’, the crowd was treated to a service rich in political sloganeering. With the leadership of her former husband’s party, the African National Congress, headlining the triumphalist proceedings, a casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that the ANC were genuine in their mourning of the loss of the party’s symbolic first-lady. However, the high note on which the relationship between the ANC and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela ended on Saturday masks four-decades of conflict between the ‘Mother of South Africa’ and the nation’s founding party.

Much like Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s marriage, seemingly irreconcilable differences split Mrs. Mandela from the ANC and drove the two sides apart despite their shared connection in bringing about the post-apartheid South African state. However, with the death of Mrs Mandela, the ANC has seized the opportunity to revise the historical narrative as to her standing within the party and capitalise on the public outpouring of sympathy following her death.

As is common following the death of prominent figures, friends and foes alike have sought to associate themselves with the legacy of Mrs. Mandela. In death, divisions are often bridged unilaterally by surviving parties, as memorialisation and politically opportunistic revisionism go hand in hand with remembrance. The commemoration of Mrs. Mandela has been no different as the ANC used the occasion of her funeral to amend the relationship between the party and ‘Mama Africa’ within the nation’s popular consciousness.

The fractious divide between Mrs. Mandela and the ANC began during the 1980s and continued up until her death. With Nelson Mandela imprisoned, and most of his ANC party in exile, Mrs. Mandela positioned herself as the defacto leader of the anti-apartheid movement. Presiding over a violent militia known as the ‘Mandela United Football Club’, Mrs. Mandela reportedly endorsed the necklacing – the burning of people alive with petrol-soaked tyres – as an appropriate response to apartheid state collaborators and police informants. Ostensibly operating as her security detail, the Mandela United Football Club reportedly engaged in a campaign of kidnap, torture, murder, and assassination, which led the ANC government in exile to publically rebuke Mrs. Mandela after she refused to heed Nelson Mandela’s instructions to stand down.

According to testimony by her own bodyguards during the 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) proceedings, she directly ordered at least fifteen deaths, and stood by her declaration that ‘with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.’ The most infamous of Mrs. Mandela’s alleged atrocities was the murder of 15-year-old Stompie Seipei, who was stabbed to death after being accused of being a police informant. She was later acquitted of the murder after one key witness was abducted and transferred to Zambia, and another, a doctor who was due to testify that he examined Seipei at Mrs. Mandela’s home shortly before his execution, turned up dead. As a result of her connection to the Football Club death-squad outlined in the TRC’s 1998 final report, and the many charges of political and financial corruption subsequently brought against her over the following two decades, the ANC increasingly sought to distance itself from Mrs. Mandela.

While revelations of an organised plan by the apartheid era security forces to discredit Mrs. Mandala by exaggerating stories of her violence, which included the coordination of an officer named Paul Erasmus with both the British government and Vanity Fairmagazine, had somewhat softened opinion towards her within the ANC ranks, she was still regarded with derision by the party during its preparations for Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013. However, with her passing, both the ANC and Stompie Seipei’s mother appear to be comfortable to pardon her actions. Citing a desire for reconciliation, Joyce Seipei revealed that Mrs. Mandela had asked for her forgiveness and that she had agreed to the request in the name of God. According to Mrs. Seipei, Mrs. Mandela had worked to make amends by giving the family money to pay for the remaining Seipei children’s schooling and had even re-furnished the family home. While Mrs. Seipei said her much-publicised attendance at Mrs Mandela’s funeral was motivated by reconciliation, the ANC’s prominent role in the memorial seems to be driven primarily by political opportunism.

Calling Mrs. Mandela’s life one of compassion, and casting her as the nation’s conscience, ANC leader and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sought to entice her young, largely female left-wing following into the ANC fold. Similar to the revisionism witnessed globally following the death of her husband, the ANC has used her death to retrospectively rewrite history and place themselves within the warm glow of her remembrance.

The ANC’s gesture of posthumous reconciliation toward an individual it had publicly denounced in the past is not unlike the campaign undertaken by elements of British society following the death of her husband in 2013. However, in stark contrast to the cross-party outpouring of tributes after the death of Nelson Mandela, there has been a noticeable quit emanating from sections of British political society in regard to the passing of his wife. The reluctance of the British right to join the ANC in revising its attitude toward Mrs. Mandela beg questions as to the role of political gain and the issue of race in the collective remembrance of historical figures.

The tributes to Nelson Mandela led by then Prime Minister David Cameron in 2013 and echoed by Ed Miliband, Tony Benn, and Nick Clegg gave the impression that Mandela had always been a figure that transcended politics and race within the United Kingdom. However, for the Conservative Party, and its then leader David Cameron, this was far from the case. In the 1980s, as a cascade of international sanctions were levied against South Africa’s apartheid government, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to follow suit, declaring her support for the apartheid regime and denouncing Mandela and his ANC party as terrorists. Owing in part to her husband Denis’ business interests in South Africa, as well as her perennial distaste for left-wing politics, Thatcher’s vociferous admonition of Mandela inspired a radical resistance to the anti-apartheid movement by the British right. The Federation of Conservative Students, led by now Speaker of the Commons John Bercow, distributed material that included a call to ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’. Bullingdon Club member and future Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was amongst Bercow’s FCS ranks that actively campaigned to hang ‘all ANC terrorists’, and baited the party by referring to them as butchers.

With Cameron’s about-face concerning Nelson Mandela, which culminated in his calling Mandela a hero in 2013 while ordering Number Ten’s flag to fly at half-mast a sign of respect, a two-decade-long campaign of historical revisionism undertaken by the British right concerning Mandela’s memory was book-ended. Those who had demanded Mandela’s execution now praised the Nobel Peace Prize winner as having been a ‘great light’ in the world, and the triumphant narrative of Mandela as the globally celebrated father of the post-apartheid Rainbow Nation was entrenched within the historical record.

However, unlike in 2013, tributes to the life of Mrs. Mandela from prominent Britons seem to be coming almost exclusively from members of its Afro-Caribbean community. British-educated Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu featured prominently at Mrs. Mandela’s funeral, and Labour MPs David Lammy and Diane Abbott called Mrs. Mandela a ‘voice for the voiceless’ and a ‘heroine’ respectively. Apart from a glowing tribute by African-born Labour Peer Lord Hain, and a now-deleted tweet by Labour MP Naz Shaw, which included Mrs. Mandela’s infamous quote about ‘necklacing’ being the avenue to national liberation, the bulk of high-profile British condolences have been delivered by celebrities such as Naomi Campbell and Idris Elba.

With the pressing issues facing Britain at present it makes sense that the passing of Mrs. Mandela is not a top political consideration. However, the apparent lack of interest in using Mrs. Mandela’s death as an opportunity to leverage political advantage by the current Conservative government reveals an undercurrent of racial and ideological division that had supposedly been closed with the death of her husband.

It is clear that unlike in 2013, the British right does not view joining in the wave of revisionism and spirit of reconciliation sweeping across South Africa to be politically advantageous. The disparity in their response to the death of Mrs. Mandela as compared to her husband calls into question the authenticity of the praise they heaped on the latter following his death. Furthermore, it suggests that political division along racial lines is not an issue consigned to history, buried in the past along with South African apartheid and the man who defeated it, but rather one that endures in contemporary Britain.

The politics of remembrance and the use of memorialisation in revising historical narratives for political gain reveal subtle insights into societies and their power structures. That the ANC views reconciling itself with the legacy of Mrs. Mandela as advantageous demonstrates that the party believes catering to her base of young female supporters to be worth putting aside its previous misgivings about her actions. Alternatively, that British Conservatives do not see the opportunity to memorialise Mrs. Mandela as being able to generate a commensurate return in the form political capital suggests that their ideological backpedalling in regard to revising their stance on Nelson Mandela’s legacy was inspired by nothing more than political pragmatism.


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