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Gaping wounds and the clamber to contain the Winnie fallout

- Susan Booysen

In the wake of the rush to claim pieces of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the landscape of South Africa’s present has been reshuffled.

What seemed after the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela passing to have been a potential “windfall” for the ANC became a far more complicated, layered and loaded project. The possibility remains of Winnie being the symbol of an ongoing struggle against an evil that is greater than the problems that afflict the ANC circa 2018. 

The clamber to do justice to the complex, often contradicted life and times of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela took weighty turns in the last week.

First, the local screening of the documentary Winnie catapulted the apartheid-era third force into the present of political instability. Second, Julius Malema’s charge at the funeral service that some ANC structures, especially the ANC Women’s League and the Mass Democratic Movement, had betrayed Madikizela-Mandela halted the neat revisionism of the eulogy heydays.

These “sub-structural” developments were anchored in the undeniable major societal, political culture change that took root in South Africa in the first two weeks of April, since the death of Madikizela-Mandela. Jointly they poked away at the scar tissue that had covered wounds of the past, including the wounds that resulted from the dark operations of clandestine apartheid forces.

The attempts, in the words of the ANC’s Nomvula Mokonyane, to cast Winnie as a compromised and divisive figure in history, were reminiscent of a Stratcom operation. Next, abruptly, figures from the despised, evil Stratcom operations of the 1980s (that were the bane of both Madikizela-Mandela’s and the whole of the Mass Democratic Movement’s lives) leapt off the screenshots of Pascale Lamche’s documentary, and reverberated in her opinion piece comment on how well these operatives were supposed to have trusted her, and shared reliable information with her.

Then the floodgates opened. With the period of mourning drawing to a close, the time for truth and a sprinkling of setting records straight arrived. The ANC managed some containment in its own structures but the fallout was tangible. On the first front, former safety and security minister Sydney Mufamadi relived history, questioning the documentary’s reliance on suspect apartheid era (possibly still at it) covert operations sources. These were the last persons imaginable to rely on for authentic pronouncements on the ANC at the time.

The most dedicated and honourable of journalists, Thandeka Gqubule and Anton Harber, got the short end of the stick. Building on the Stratcom documentary narratives, Madikizela-Mandela in an interview with Huffington Post in 2017 (video clip since withdrawn and apologised for) mentioned their names as journalists critical of her past … and the perception took hold that these journalists were among those who worked with, or had been used by, Stratcom to discredit many in the internal struggle. Gqubule is initiating legal proceedings to clear her name – and has drawn attention to the “fascist streak to take aim at journalists”.

On the second front, ANC Women’s League members set out to clear their names after standing accused by Malema of having sold out the Mother of the Nation by resigning from the Women’s League structure rather than serve under her after allegations of corruption and mismanagement (she was elected WL president in 1993 and re-elected in 1997; these actions preceded her 2003 conviction related to bank loans obtained on behalf of non-existent ANCWL employees for which she received a fully suspended sentence). The ANC main body stopped the Women’s League media briefing on Monday. Deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte called on the women not to fall prey to acts of provocation on the Madikizela-Mandela legacy.

Both these sets of events played in on the bigger historical change that has been unfolding: the post-death revisionism that reconstructs Winnie in purist terms and finds its anchors in multiple wounds of the past that have not yet healed, in the words of Michael Lapsley. Opposition to the reconstruction is interpreted as a narrative of racism, as also referred to by Struggle stalwart Denis Goldberg. Obviously, racists thrive on Winnie’s faults and flaws, which give the racists justification to discount her peace-making, bridge-building, caring for the poor and brave (many say fearless) resistance to injustice. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s words that Winnie’s own wounds made her easy to relate to, her own pain having enabled her to reach out, suggested a gentle and accommodating way to relate to the Winnie legacy.

Whichever way Winnie is positioned, it is crucial that the demented words of apartheid agents do not determine the narratives – as was happening through the interview and documentary words, latched onto by the some self-proclaimed inheritors of the Winnie mantle. It is ironic that those who were responsible for damaging Madikizela-Mandela at the time of the 1980s’ political crisis, the agents of apartheid, murderers from the heart of that system, are now contending for the honours to frame the history of the era.

Hence, what seemed at first after the Madikizela-Mandela passing to have been a potential “windfall” for the ANC, the passing of an icon central to an important phase of the Struggle, became a far more complicated, layered and loaded project. She could have been the symbol of the ongoing struggle, a seamless reminder to South Africans of the hardships that demanded ongoing struggle, in unison. The possibility remains, however, of Winnie being the symbol of an ongoing struggle against an evil that is greater than the problems that afflict the ANC circa 2018.

Director Lamche’s documentary, and her writings around it, probably did South Africans the favour of reminding them that the past is not over – that the agents of the apartheid state, including many who were lodged in its covert structures, are still amongst us, at least as recently as the manufacture of the documentary. Crucially, and perhaps by design, perhaps not, they found revenge in the type of destabilisation that has been reinserted into South African politics in the last few weeks. It is an instability that is still to unfold fully: it could trigger greater reflection and determination to bring deeper change, or it could foster an unravelling of South Africa’s frequently fragile social-political compromises.

There are no party-political winners. The ANC’s gain of refreshed repositioning in relation to the Struggle, through Winnie’s death, is tenuous. Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters have slandered both professional journalists and credible political leaders, using the information peddled by former security agents who compete for the “credit” of having killed Ruth First in the 1982 letter bomb (Craig Williamson conceded to his role at TRC hearings; in reported communication with Lamche one of her key sources, Paul Erasmus, brags about him having sent the bomb).

In the wake of the rush to claim pieces of Winnie, the landscape of South Africa’s present has been reshuffled. There are new racial wounds, new doubts in public narratives about healing and forgiveness. The last two weeks have been a magnifying glass onto the past. It will be a treacherous and delicate path to get back to a new present, and future.

Susan Booysen is a Professor in the Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was originally published on the Daily Maverick.