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South Africa | Winnie MADIKIZELA-Mandela/ The heirs of defiance

By Sisonke Msimang, author
Posted on Wednesday, 26 September 2018 12:38

Since her death on 2 April, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has loomed larger than ever over the South African political landscape.

In the past few weeks, as her supporters have leapt up to re-examine Truth and Reconciliation Commission archives and sort out the facts of her life from the fictions created by the apartheid intelligence community, Madikizela-Mandela’s contribution to the struggle for liberation has necessarily been re-evaluated.

It has become increasingly clear that in the late 1980s Madikizela-Mandela was surrounded by spies and informants. The decades of activism, trauma and banishment took their toll on the leader. Still, she was able to hold a hard line. The fear of Winnie Mandela and her supporters was a crucial factor that drove the National Party to the negotiating table.

Part of Madikizela-Mandela’s allure, indeed a primary reason she became so iconic, was her ability to articulate rage. For a new generation of South Africans, her traits of courage and principled defiance are clearly attractive. In part this is because there remain so many unresolved questions related to poverty and inequality. Despite the progress that was made in relation to the political dispensation, the majority of black South Africans live in poverty, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown dramatically in recent years.

Two decades ago many compromises were made to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy. In the process – and for reasons that were obvious at the time – voices that were pushing for stronger concessions on land were sidelined. The need for a political solution for a nation that seemed on the brink trumped considerations that might have had better socio-economic outcomes.

Today it is evident that the time to reckon with the bitter economic legacies of apartheid is long overdue. The needle on inequality will be pushed by the bolder and younger student leaders and political activists. While many regard Julius Malema as Madikizela-Mandela’s political heir, it is evident that there are many young people who have been inspired both by her courage and her militancy. In other words, Malema is not alone. It would be wrong to look only at the Economic Freedom Fighters to continue in her fiery tradition.

The moment to act is now

There is a new generation of community leaders who have been working on a range of issues, from health activism to service delivery blockages, and from local government accountability to urban evictions. Some of them are already adept at activism within the policy arena. Others are more sceptical of political machinations and have cut their teeth on the oppositional politics of student activism and service delivery protests. These are the real heirs of Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy.

It is interesting that Madikizela-Mandela’s spirit is so present at this point in time, a time when Cyril Ramaphosa – the recently inaugurated president – is finally in power. Ramaphosa played a key role in negotiating the settlement that created the more peaceful but deeply divided society he now governs.

In recent months, as the debate about land has taken on new fervour, Ramaphosa has been under pressure to toughen up his rhetoric. Seen as being cosy with business, Ramaphosa will have to convince an increasingly poor and restless population that he is working in their interests.

As he readies himself to address the long-standing questions of inequality that have plagued South Africa since 1994 – including the land question – Ramaphosa will need to be mindful that Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy of defiance and intransigence in the face of social injustice is alive and well in South Africa.

It was pure determination that kept Madikizela-Mandela’s flame burning through the long years of her husband’s imprisonment. A new generation of activists are ready to take up the mantle. What this means for South Africa’s future is a significant question for those who care about the direction of the country.

From the May 2018 print edition

Top photos: Fire and courage
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at an anti-apartheid rally in 1986
Credits Gideon Mendel/AFP

Sisonke Msimang is the author of Always Another Country: a memoir of exile and home

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