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‘Her defiance inspired me’: Desmond Tutu pays tribute to Winnie Mandela

04 April 2018


Dr Desmond Tutu and Winnie Mandela at the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he chaired

Dr Desmond Tutu and Winnie Mandela at the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he chaired

THE South African campaigner Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who died on Monday aged 81, was a defining figure in the struggle against apartheid, the Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Dr Desmond Tutu, has said.

“She refused to be bowed by the imprisonment of her husband, the perpetual harassment of her family by security forces, detentions, bannings and banishment,” he said. “Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists.”

The present Archbishop of Cape Town, Dr Thabo Makgoba, sent his condolences to her family. “ I am humbled to have known her,” he told the Anglican Communion News Service. “I admired and respected her. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.”

He went on: “She certainly played her part with great courage. Yes she made some mistakes — but let us forgive her and honour her for what she did. She served her country and her people. When she spoke at rallies, she was so articulate, so articulate. She wasn’t scared at all.”

On Monday, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, tweeted that her death was “a very gutting day for me and many who campaigned against Apartheid! Life threw the worst at her! She kept the faith and may she rest in peace and rise in glory! Glad we prayed together!”

Mrs Mandela died in a hospital in Johannesburg after a long illness. Born to Methodist parents in 1936, in Bizana, Pondoland, in the Eastern Cape, she became the first qualified black medical social worker at Soweto’s Baragwanath Hospital, where her research into infant mortality rates drew her into activism. She married Nelson Mandela in 1958 and they had two daughters, Zenani and Zindzizwa.

A biography by the Nelson Mandela Foundation notes that, from 1961 she was “subjected to an almost uninterrupted series of legal orders that curbed her ability to work and socialise”. In 1969/70 she was detained in solitary confinement for 17 months under the Terrorism Act, which she described in her book 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69.

Her imprisonment was noted by the then Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Trevor Huddleston, Lord Soper, and others in a letter to the Church Times on 13 March 1970.

They write of Mrs Mandela’s acquittal and re-arrest, and conclude: “We call on all who oppose racialism to remember Sharpeville, to remember that another Sharpeville could happen any day in South Africa, and also to remember that the works of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain needs concrete evidence of support and participation.”

PA/ReutersWinnie Madikizela Mandela appeared at the annual conference of the ANC in December 2017

Anné Mariè du Preez Bezdrob’s biography, Winnie Mandela: a Life, says that Mrs Mandela became an Anglican after receiving support from an Anglican priest, the Revd Leo Rakale, described as her “spiritual adviser” during the months when her husband was on the run in 1961/2. He was the first to visit her in prison.

But the Bishop of Johannesburg, Dr Steve Moreo, described her this week as a practising Methodist who “used her strong ecumenical links to reach out to other denominations, not least that of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa in general, and the Diocese of Johannesburg in particular.

“There were many occasions when her insight and background information assisted the Anglican Church in the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s to be part of a Christian witness in bringing about the demise of apartheid.”

After helping to found the Black Women’s Federation and the Black Parents’ Association in the 1970s, Mrs Mandela was internally exiled to Brandfort, where the Archdeacon of Bloemfontein took her communion once a fortnight.

Dr Makgoba, then a young priest, also visited her, taking food and clothes, including track suits to be passed on to Nelson Mandela in jail. “She was living alone in this tiny council house with no electricity,” he recalled this week. “She could have been attacked at any time. She was so courageous.” He kept in touch with her during her last illness: “She was grateful. She used to say, every time she got an SMS from me, she got out of hospital.”

In Crying in the Wilderness: The struggle for justice in South Africa, published in 1982, Archbishop Tutu described the challenge of ministering to her, before the fall of apartheid: “I wanted to take her Holy Communion. The police told me I couldn’t enter her house. . . So we celebrated Holy Communion in my car in the street, in Christian South Africa.”

The Nelson Mandela Foundation notes that, unlike her husband, who spent 27 in jail, Mrs Mandela was subjected to torture while in prison, “and carried the damage of that ordeal through the rest of her life”. She represented “a generation of South African leadership that was exposed to the full brutality of the apartheid regime”. It acknowledges that, like her husband, she “made mistakes . . . had weaknesses”.

And it quotes remarks she made in 2014: The years of imprisonment hardened me. Perhaps if you have been given a moment to hold back and wait for the next blow, your emotions wouldn’t be as blunted as they have been in my case. When it happens every day of your life, when that pain becomes a way of life . . .

“I no longer have the emotion of fear. There is no longer anything I can fear. There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn’t any pain I haven’t known.”

In 1997, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard of allegations of human-rights atrocities perpetrated by her and the Mandela United Football Club, who acted as her personal bodyguards in the late 1980s.

She was urged to apologise by Archbishop Tutu, who made an emotional plea before the hearing: “I beg you, I beg you, I beg you, please, I have not made any particular finding about what happened. You are a great person and you do not know your greatness will be enhanced if you said: ‘Sorry, things went horribly wrong.’”

She subsequently apologised to the family of Dr Abu-Baker Asvat and the mother of Stompie Seipei, a teenage activist who was suspected of being a police informer, kidnapped by members of Mandela United, and murdered by one of them, who claimed that he had acted on Mrs Mandela’s orders. Mrs Mandela was convicted of the kidnapping and of being an accessory to the assault, although her six-year sentence was reduced to a fine and a two-year suspended sentence on appeal. She was also accused of ordering the murder of Dr Asvat, who examined Stompie at her house before he was killed.

This week, another former South Africa Primate, Archbishop Emeritus Njongonkulu Ndungane, described her as one of South Africa’s “most courageous anti-apartheid activists”.

“Although Mama Madikizela-Mandela made some well-documented errors of judgement during her life, she remained committed to the vulnerable, and was often the first at the scene of a tragedy to provide comfort and compassion to those impacted by it,” he said.

The South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced on Tuesday that Mrs Mandela would be given a state funeral on 14 April, with a national memorial service three days earlier. He described her as “an abiding symbol of the desire of our people to be free”.

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