The death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at 81 brings a timely if grim reminder of the human costs of white-nationalist rule and intolerance inflicted on South Africa in the 20th century - a reminder that may be particularly useful for Americans right now.
When I first arrived in South Africa in the spring of 1970, I concluded that the apartheid regime had a lot to learn from the civil rights revolution that was bringing change to the American South, where I grew up. Today, it is the United States that has lessons to learn from “the rainbow nation” and, one hopes, from its new president, Cyril Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa, a trade union organizer turned successful businessman, was Nelson Mandela’s first choice to succeed him and to continue his inspiring policies of racial reconciliation and business-friendly practices. Instead, the radical political forces that Winnie, Nelson’s ex-wife, did so much to foster helped bring about a decade of blatant corruption, misrule and growing racial tension that Ramaphosa must now repair.
This is not to diminish the important contributions that Winnie made to the anti-apartheid struggle. She was for the 27 long years of his imprisonment Nelson’s voice and symbol to an oppressed public. While he suffered a barren but predictable life behind bars, she was exposed to sudden, absurd arrests, torture, banishment to remote villages and other scarring humiliations. It is perhaps no surprise that she emerged more embittered than he did.
She became over time dedicated to power and radical force, while he worked for justice and reconciliation. If she was fire, he was water. Their talents mixed to serve the cause of liberation from white-nationalist rule, as uprisings in South Africa’s townships, and foreign pressure, drove the economy into a dead end and the politicians to negotiation.
These differences were not tactical. Winnie was already a determined social activist when they met in 1957. Seeing her at a bus stop, Nelson immediately proposed lunch to the beautiful Winnie - even though he was married with three children. Nelson and Winnie were married in 1958 and divorced in 1996, two years after he became South Africa’s president.
Encountering Winnie was to sit across from an open bottle of nitroglycerin, which might tip over into unexpected and even explosive statements.
Her 1986 public praise for the tactic of “necklacing” - the burning of gasoline-soaked tires around the necks of suspected black informants - shocked many, as did her still murky involvement in a gang murder in Soweto.
Being in the company of her husband, an unfailingly warm, gentle and wise interlocutor, was exactly the opposite experience.
There was the time, for example, that I finished a conversation with him in New York in 1994 by insisting that he not accompany me down the long corridor of his hotel suite. He had just arrived from South Africa and seemed fatigued.
I had just entered that corridor when I heard the soft pad of his footsteps following me to the door to say a proper goodbye. The South African president was reminding me that he was also a Xhosa chief, with duties to visitors.
Under his successors, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, Mandela’s African National Congress party began to splinter into factions that fought over ideology, policy and, increasingly, the spoils of office. As a period of national mourning for Winnie is observed this week, Zuma will go on trial on corruption charges stemming from his ties to a wealthy family that, among other things, is accused of having secretly paid a London public relations firm more than $100,000 a month to inflame racial tensions in South Africa - to distract attention from Zuma’s problems.
That disgraceful playing of the race card did not work. The ANC expelled Zuma from office in February. The archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, on Easter Sunday gave this summary of Zuma’s efforts to restore race as South Africa’s political arbiter: “The past administration trampled our institutions and values. . . . We now live in a South Africa that has the same inequality” of opportunity, health care, social services and education “that our grandparents suffered.”
That verdict would have broken the hearts of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. It is a clarion call to Ramaphosa, who seems to be listening. He has sought to win public trust by releasing extensive financial records, resigning from companies that would present potential conflicts of interest and quelling racial tensions instead of exacerbating them. He turns away from the politics of anger and revenge - or, as it is called by some in this country, “counterpunching.”
Jim Hoagland is a Post contributing editor.