by AKANI CHAUKE
JOHANNESBURG – DEPENDING on which side of the fence you are on, Winnie-Madikizela Mandela, who has passed away in Johannesburg after a long-term illness, was a unifier-cum- liberation icon, if not one of the most divisive figures of her time.
There has been an outpour of grief from around the world after the former wife of the first democratically elected president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, breathed her last at the Milpark hospital, aged 81.
Eulogies have hailed the deceased as the Mother of the South African Nation, a selfless fighter, feminist and struggle icon that sacrificed the best years of her life to the emancipation of all oppressed in the country.
The tribute paid by Moussa Faki Mahamat, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), who expressed great shock and profound sadness at the death, underlined Madikazela-Mandela’s impact beyond South Africa’s borders.
It was in recognition of her formidable contribution to the fight against oppression that the commission conferred on her lifetime achievement award
Faki said she would forever be remembered as a fearless campaigner who sacrificed much of her life for freedom in South Africa.
Until independence was gained in 1994, she never relented in her struggle or wavered in her commitment, despite imprisonment, banishment and decades-long seperation from her then husband during his 27-year imprisonment.
“The entire African Union family joins the continent in grief at the passing of Winnie Madikazela-Mandela,” Mahamat, the Chadian diplomat, who conferred the lifetime award, said.
In South Africa, torn apart by political tensions ahead of elections next year and the emotive issue of expropriation of land from mostly white farmers without compensation, among other prevailing issues, her death has come as a unifier.
Political foes have put their differences behind them to pay tribute to one of the country’s most political prominent figures.
Although born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela in Bizana in the Eastern Cape province and spent her later years in Orlando, Soweto, City of Ekurhuleni, east of Johannesburg, basked in the glory of a long-standing relationship with the struggle heroine.
Mayor Mzwandile Masina recounted how during the 1980’s, she helped setup self defence units in various townships in and around the former East Rand, as a response to the sporadic violence during the apartheid era.
On the dawn of the new democracy, she cast her vote in Phola Park, Thokoza, East Rand as a result of her close activism in the area.
In 2016, the municipality run by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), of which she was a member, granted her its highest honour, The Freedom of the City Award, for her contribution to the liberation struggle.
“As a city, we shall continue preserving her legacy,” Masina pledged.
The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), which enjoys frosty relations with the ANC, lauded her as a true freedom fighter and an iconic South African.
DA leader, Mmusi Maimane, said throughout the struggle, she sacrificed much, constantly finding herself harassed by the apartheid state, banned, arrested and detained in solitary confinement.
“.. all which failed to break her spirit and commitment to realising the dream of a united, democratic, and non-racial South Africa,” Maimane said.
The Economic Freedom Fighters stated, “Mama Winnie Mandela is the stone that the builders rejected. She is the first black female president South Africa was deprived of.”
Madikizela Mandela nonetheless courted admiration and controversy in equal measure.
The controversies would overshadow her iconic role in the liberation of her country from the yoke of apartheid.
Most damning was the final report of the South African Truth and Reconciliation commission, issued in 1998, that “Ms Winnie Madikizela Mandela politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC)” and that she “was responsible, by omission, for the commission of gross
violations of human rights.”
MUFC acted her personal security detail.
In 1989, it abducted 14-year-old James Seipei (also known as Stompie Moeketsi) and three other youths. Seipei was accused of being an informer.
In 1991, she was sentenced to a six-year jail sentence later reduced to a fine on appeal.
More legal and personal problems included the conviction for fraud and theft as well as her split and eventual divorce from her husband in 1996.
It is against this backdrop a new opposition party “warned” the public to be aware of” the storm that will follow” her death.
“A carefully co-ordinated series of stories and lies will dominate the media to discredit this struggle icon in the following days to come,” the Black First Land First stated.