Winnie Mandela was a revolutionary. Winnie Mandela was an activist. Winnie Mandela devoted her life to fighting against racism in apartheid South Africa.
But when Winnie died this past Monday, she became ‘complex’, complicated, a woman who was latching onto the Mandela name for her own personal gain. That is how the media chose to honor her and dismiss the decades of life she sacrificed in the name of equality and human rights.
We have no problem praising male heroic figures who have had controversial personal lives, but the same rule almost never applies to female figures. Gandhi was well known for his disdain of Africans, and we all know about Martin Luther King Jr’s many extra-marital affairs. But we know better than to define these figures by their tumultuous personal lives; they are, after all, humans like us. And despite the complex histories of such figures, we still choose to highlight their accomplishments over their own personal faults.
We have to understand that Winnie Mandela lived through one of the most horrific and violent eras in modern history. She made it through apartheid South Africa- as a black woman. So for Al Jazeera to dismiss her as controversial, or for the Daily Mail to call her a ‘blood soaked bully’, is not only distasteful but insulting to the decades that Mandela devoted to fighting against apartheid.
Winnie Mandela’s approach to apartheid was unlike her ex-husband, who for the most part, espoused non-violence as a means to dismantle the regime. Winnie was a revolutionary who called for the most radical approach to ending apartheid. But can we really blame her? During her life, Winnie was subject to extensive torture, imprisonment, and even solitary confinement- all in the name of the anti-apartheid struggle. In her later years, many condemned her for supporting the South African governments seizure of white-owned land. But when you have seen and lived through the gross injustices and violence that Winnie did, it becomes easier to understand why she maintained her radical viewpoints towards the end of her life.
This isn’t to say that Winnie was a saint or that she didn’t play a part in the violence that the apartheid regime necessitated at times. As the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee published in their report, Winnie was indeed held accountable for the human rights violations she played a role in. And when it came to crimes that Winnie denied she was ever involved in, she still apologized to victims and their families during the TRC commission.
It isn’t fair that the media continues to demonize Winnie, even in her death. Most of us will never know what it was like to live through such a brutal and oppressive regime, and we will never experience the abuse that Winnie was subject to. No, Winnie was not perfect and we are not saying she was. But there is no doubt that she deserves recognition and respect for what she sacrificed in the struggle against apartheid.