Hero or tyrant? How the World does not Respect Winnie Mandela’s Legacy

Who exactly is a hero? The individual who saves a life? The one who puts a smile on someone’s face? The one who commits a crime to protect themselves or others? A hero is a peculiar thing. The press coverage of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s death this week has definitely shown us how complicated and subjective “hero status” can be.

Winnie Mandela who this week died at the age of 81, kept the torch alight for her husband’s apartheid resistance for majority of the time he was in prison. She married Nelson Mandela at the age of 22 and stood by him when he was convicted and imprisoned for life in 1964 for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. During her husband’s 27 year long incarceration, Winnie Mandela led an international campaign calling for him to be released and served as her husband’s link to the outside. She continued the struggle against apartheid and in 1969 was jailed for almost 18 months in solitary confinement. In 1977 she was banished to the remote town of Brandfort in South Africa’s Free State.

Winnie Mandela clearly endured a lot in her life to fight against apartheid. Through her imprisonment she was punished and denied a family life for her then husbands imprisonment. She was tortured, none of us can begin to imagine how hard it must be to be placed in solitary confinement for an extended period. Her torture included denying her sanitary products. Throughout these ordeals many have noted that she showed great courage.

Although she helped to usher in a new and more equitable South Africa for the black population, over the years Winnie Mandela was entangled in a number of controversies.  In December 1988, her security detail, known as the Mandela United Football Club kidnapped four boys who belonged to another apartheid party. One of the boys, Stompie Moeketsi, was murdered a few days later. In relation to this incident, in May 1991, Winnie Mandela was sentenced to six years in prison for kidnapping. The sentence was later reduced to a fine.

She continued to be  prominent political figure. In 1993, she was elected president of ANC’s womens league and in 1994 became the deputy minister of arts and science in South Africa’s first multi-racial government led by her former husband. She was expelled from this position a year later but returned to parliamentary office in 1999 until her resignation four years later after she was convicted of theft and taking out bank loan. Her conviction for theft was overturned as no personal gain had been derived from her actions.

The controversy continued, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission accused her of human rights abuses during the apartheid years. In her years that followed, she continued to clash with leaders of the ANC.

Reports of her legacy have highlighted her controversies. This has overshadowed the role she played in ending apartheid. I in no way condone violence however it is key to note that many heroes in the past have perpetrated violence and have been hailed as heroes. Western heroes such as Churchill have accomplishments that have come out of war. Apartheid was wrong. It took strong individuals such as Winnie Mandela to stand up against it.

In our remembering of Winnie Mandela and her legacy, let us not forget the role she played in the apartheid movement. The worlds reaction speaks volumes about who is afforded forgiveness and hero status. Clearly not a prominent apartheid leader.


–Featured image | Winnie Mandela at her 80th birthday celebrations | Government ZA: flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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