After Mandela release from prison in 1990, everybody was excited. At last, freedom was in the air after a long journey of struggle and fighting apartheid.
“We were ecstatic and life was real again. It was just too much excitement,” recalled the late Winnie Mandela. But Winnie Madikizela’s happiness was short lived. The ghosts from the past would soon resurrect and she would endure both praise and despise. In 1991 she was found guilty of complicity for the murder of the twelve-year-old Stompie Seipei. Later, she was allegedly found guilty of adultery during Mandela’s imprisonment.
As if this was not enough, in 1994 she got divorced. The scandals Winnie faced were harming Mandela’s bid for the 1994 presidential elections. And so, Mandela separated from Winnie and gave a strong public declaration on the matter saying, “my love for her remains undiminished. However, in the view of the tensions that have risen owing to the differences between ourselves in a number of issues in recent months, we have mutually agreed that a separation would be best for each one of us.”
Mandela became the first black elected president of South Africa. He made Winnie the deputy minister in his cabinet, seen as a reward for her efforts to liberate him. A year later she was found responsible for mismanagement and she was dismissed.
From there on, things kept going horribly wrong for Winnie. She was called before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997 that was set up to investigate wrongdoings during the apartheid era. The 1988 Stompie Seipei murder case was in the public domain yet again. Winnie gave a forced apology, one which has been scrutinized by scholars. She had this to say, “It is true things went horribly wrong. I fully agreed with that. And for that part, of those painful years when things went horribly wrong and we were aware that they would affect us that led to that, for that I am deeply sorry.”
This was seen as a cold-hearted apology. Many scholars like Sheila Meintjes a professor in political studies have studied it. “There’s no question that that was a performance. It was an orchestrated performance I think,” told Sheila.
Others like Piers Pigou, a political analyst said Winnie considered TRC as a smear campaign against her bid for the senior position in the ANC. “Mrs. Mandela response throughout was that everyone was lying, everyone was mad or crazy or had some kind of vendetta against her,” said Pigou.
But Winnie would somehow turn her tainted image and her life attracted artists and even film producers. There’s a clothing line by her name, ‘Winnie Mandela Signature Collection’ by a South African designer. In 2013, ‘Long Walk with Winnie Mandela’ movie was released and in 2011 ‘Winnie’ was produced by a South African filmmaker Darrell Roodt. In South Africa’s opera scene, Winnie Mandela got recognition when Bongani Ndodana composed the Winnie Mandela opera in 2011.
“She has suffered tragedies and she has lived through some of the most fundamental periods of our progress to liberation. And for me this whole life she has led is a tumbler that is very operatic. So it was not a difficult thing for me to conceive of her life as an opera,” told Bongani.
Though she has endured praise and despise in her life, Winnie remains a respected figure in the South African society for her role in liberating and keeping her husband’s name alive while in prison and fighting the oppressive system, apartheid. “This is a woman who spent twenty-seven years on the frontline fighting to liberate her husband despite anything that happened then, the Stompie incident, the so-called lovers all of that stuff, who cares! The point is, if it wasn’t for Winnie Mandela, we wouldn’t be sitting in this garden now having this conversation. She was a champion of the liberation struggle in South Africa,” asserted Darrell.
But as things seemed to have calmed for Winnie, another tragedy struck, her husband died in December 2013, and unfortunately, Mandela had not included Winnie in his will. People sympathized with her but her subsequent reaction shocked the nation once more.
“Some people do see it as unfair that he didn’t provide some kind of symbolic gesture towards Mrs. Mandela. But her subsequent actions in terms of trying to get the house in Qunu, I think to portray her in an extremely negative light,” told Pigou.
But Winnie’s story is a deep one, one that will take time to be understood fully as Sheila sums it.
“It’s these contradicting elements that are fascinating about her. There’s still more to be written about her, to be said about her, more to be understood about her, that we can get a really rounded picture of this really remarkable person who suffered the enormous harassment, torture, but who through it all sought to remain with her dignity somehow intact,” told Sheila.