- - Tuesday, April 3, 2018


Winnie Mandela, who died Monday at age 81 after a lengthy illness in her native South Africa, was different things to her family, to Africa and to the world. CNN described her as an “anti-apartheid crusader.” The BBC called her an “anti-apartheid campaigner.” Some newspapers described her merely as “controversial.” The Rev. Jesse Jackson said she was the “face of hope and courage.” For years after her husband’s imprisonment she was the unfortunate face of a just cause. The kindest description was “the former wife of Nelson Mandela.”

The former Mrs. Mandela was charitably called “firebrand.” Born in a rural area of the Eastern Cape to a relatively privileged family, she was educated at a Methodist mission school and later a social work school. In 1958, she married Nelson Mandela and both were devoted to ending apartheid.

She was less forgiving than her husband. Not for her the principle of nonviolence as taught by Martin Luther King. After Mr. Mandela was unjustly imprisoned in 1964, she became the face of the African National Congress, the movement that destroyed apartheid. Sympathetic biographers conceded that, in the verdict of the left-wing London Guardian, “she had difficulty in fulfilling the role.” With a weakness for alcohol and subject to violent outbursts, she was once prosecuted for assault on a 9-year-old child, eventually acquitted, and remembered as besmirching an honorable cause.

She endorsed “necklacing,” an extraordinarily cruel punishment, as a legitimate weapon against those suspected of co-operating with the police. An automobile tire, filled with gasoline, placed around the neck of the suspected informant and set alight, was impressive punishment. She preached no mercy. “We have no guns,” she told a rally. “We have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol. Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country.” A firebrand indeed.

Jerry Richardson, her bodyguard over the years, testified at South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established after the end of apartheid, that Mrs. Mandela sometimes ordered him to flog and torture a prisoner and often participated in beatings. She was ultimately sentenced to six years in prison for her part in two slayings, the punishment later reduced to a small fine.

She was a white-collar criminal as well. In 2003, she was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for fraud and theft, though that sentence, too, was suspended. She was appointed deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in 1994 but less than a year later she was ousted for “corruption.” She and Nelson Mandela remained married for the 38 years that he served in prison, where he was often mistreated and sometimes brutally so, and were reunited on his release from prison.

Soon after Mr. Mandela returned to the conjugal bed the man who endured hell on earth decided he could no longer endure life with her, and filed for divorce. It was the beginning of schism between them. Mr. Mandela had become a powerful moral example, preaching reconciliation with the white minority as the only path forward for the country. She was far less willing to concede anything in the pursuit of a way for the two races to live together in a prosperous and bountiful land.

She even scolded her ex- for accepting the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. De Klerk, who had overturned decades of apartheid and led the white National Party to seek a partnership for black-and-white peace. “I cannot forgive him for going to receive the Nobel with his jailer de Klerk,” she said. “Hand in hand they went. Do you think de Klerk released him from the goodness of his heart? He had to. The times dictated it, the world had changed, and our struggle was not a flash in the pan, it was bloody to say at the least. We had given rivers of blood.

Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much white. It has a few token blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded.” But at Mr. Mandela’s funeral in 2013 she imposed herself on the rites as the grieving widow, even though Mr. Mandela had married again, standing at the coffin.

She no doubt died happier with the current reality in South Africa. Attacks on white farmers have spiked, and there are rumblings in the parliament about expropriating more white-owned land. Political events in South Africa are trending Winnie’s way. But the moving finger writes, and history is not written in permanent ink.

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