So Winnie Mandela, child-murderer, doctor-murderer, fraudster, serial liar, faithless wife and traitor to her party, is finally dead. Clearly it is true that only the good die young, and Winnie did her best to ensure the truth of that maxim.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum? It is hard to apply this to someone like Winnie. Granted she spent over two decades under the horrible restrictions of a banning order in the Brandfort magisterial district and she did not abandon her commitment to the ANC. Doesn’t that count for something?
Of course it does — but not for everything. Anyone might be mentally disturbed by harassment on such a scale. Still, it could not have come as a surprise. A year before Winnie married Nelson Mandela, Mandela was facing trumped-up treason charges. Police massacres were frequent; detention without trial, banning orders and harassment on every level were prevalent. She knew perfectly what she was getting into, and when she went ahead with the marriage she knew that she was trading status for risk.
Moreover, loads of other people faced similar harassment. People act as if exile to Brandfort was the South African equivalent to Siberia, but it’s fifty kilometres from Bloemfontein on a good tarmac road, and not that far from the national road if you need to turn off, and it’s a middling-sized country town. No fun, to be sure, but nobody under a banning order could expect much fun.
So, how was it that Winnie morphed into such a monster when others didn’t?
One must speculate. Winnie came from a Transkei ruling-class family with a whopping sense of entitlement; she had never suffered the humiliation which her husband had suffered before the Special Branch knocked on her door. But after she emerged from jail and went into internal exile, she did so as the wife of the President, who could come back and save her — and thereafter she was the wife of the country’s chief political prisoner, who would someday emerge from jail and liberate everyone. Essentially, she was always the queen in exile — and the more her image was build up, and the more the Charterists began building networks of support for prominent, senior ex-ANC figures, the more her sense of entitlement, vanity and resentment at her ill-treatment was fed.
Then, when she came out of banning, everything changed about her situation — she was now in the limelight, surrounded by admiring supporters — but nothing changed about her attitude towards it. Everyone wanted to know what Winnie thought and said. Was she a proxy for Nelson? Did she have a hot-line to Oliver? In her mind, she was the centrepiece of events. “La Liberation, c’est moi!“.
It was natural that she should have a bodyguard. No doubt this was endorsed by the UDF and the ANC at the time, although they would probably not acknowledge this now. It was also natural that she should seek to make an emotional appeal to her audience, since she was not a particularly politically or intellectually experienced figure, whereas she had plenty of symbolic significance. But in the mid-1980s the basis for such an appeal lay in the “young lions” of SASCO and COSAS, from whom she drew most of her bodyguard as well as her support. These young men were naturally fantasists imagining that swaggering was a substitute for military skill and discipline, and that all they needed was access to weapons to transform themselves into an army of liberation. Naturally Winnie appealed to them, which was why she made speeches promoting violence carried out not by the liberation forces, but by anyone who could pick up a rock or a box of matches. In the echo-chamber which her life had become, she could hear no criticism of this.
Turning the bodyguards into the “Mandela Football Club” meant establishing Winnie’s own private urban guerrilla force, but one operating out in the open. Any realistic observer had to know that this could only be possible with the tacit consent of the apartheid regime, which can have had no illusions about Winnie’s character and her possible utility for their purposes. On one hand, the ANC knew that this could be dangerous because it was outside its own control. On the other hand it knew that this would be dangerous because it was liable to infiltration and misuse. Therefore, inevitably, there came a time when the ANC and the UDF had to call for it to be disbanded.
How could Winnie allow the dismantling of her toy soldiers? How could she admit that she had been wrong to commit murders and other crimes in the name of the ANC but without the ANC’s approval? She could only do this if she acknowledged that along with the privilege of being an ANC leader came the responsibility of subordinating her vanity to the control of the organisation — of exercising a much tighter discipline than had been expected of her when she was in Brandfort.
Most other activists would probably have done this, but Winnie’s self-centred vanity forbade this. Instead she ran around blaming everybody but herself, smearing her opponents and trying to garner support from the shattered remnants of open political organisation — and when the Football Club was dismantled by a combination of public outrage and police action — for once the ANC and UDF had disowned her, the secret police no longer found her actions useful, she had to scramble to escape punishment herself, but without ever acknowledging that she had done anything to deserve punishment.
So in a sense the monster which Winnie became was a monster created by circumstances, by misjudgements on the ANC and UDF’s part, and by Winnie’s own personality defects fostered by the conditions of the time. This doesn’t excuse her behaviour, but it renders it explicable. It also means that her failure to ever admit that she was wrong, her nefarious conspiracies against comrades within the ANC after the unbanning, and her subsequent abysmal performance as an ANC official, a Cabinet member, and an ANC MP, make a fair amount of sense. Competence requires a degree of subordination to the goal and the organisation pursuing the goal, and Winnie was never able to acknowledge the authority of anything except her own ego.
So why was it that she remained popular, at least in some circles? Well, which circles were those? Predominantly, they were the circles a) of PAC-oriented people like Patricia de Lille, b) of young or formerly young people critical of the compromises made by the ANC’s leadership under Mandela and Mbeki, c) of incompetents and crooks sacked, like Winnie, under Mandela and Mbeki. In other words, the combination is of deluded fantasists, nostalgic “if only we’d” dreamers, and outright crooks, all of whom saw, correctly, Winnie as a mirror in which they saw themselves, but a mirror which reflected their own ignoble failures and foolish boasting favourably. Outside these circles, Winnie enjoyed no serious support until she was safely dead.
Why, then, and for what purpose, was Winnie transformed into the great icon of the great struggle after her death?
A clue is in the people who were doing it. Obviously the ANC was in any case going to celebrate her death rather than ruminate over her wrongdoing and its complicity therein. Ramaphosa, shaky on his throne of platinum, naturally did not want to encourage criticism but rather promote a festival of unified love centred around his own magnificence. Therefore the stage was set for unthinking worship.
But this does not explain why the anti-ANC media and various public figures generally opposed to the ANC joined in. Arguably, this was because Ramaphosa’s corporate handlers were ready to go along with whatever Ramaphosa wanted in order to keep their puppet safely in power. Virtually none of these media and these figures has ever shown any interest in supporting real political activism (outside the corporate framework which they are paid to support). So their support for Winnie was not support for the ANC as a political entity with a political agenda, nor was it support for a radical transformation of society.
Instead, it was support for a conspiracy theory in terms of which a dead politician had been a “stalwart”, an “activist”, a “radical”, a “champion” and a “militant”. It should be noted that all of these terms could as easily be applied to a campaign in support of Adolf Hitler, who was all of those things. Apart from nebulous claims, or obviously false claims (like the pretense that Winnie had any positive impact on the ANC Women’s League, which a single glance at the League’s record refutes), none of the support for Winnie amounted to support for any real cause or policy issue.
Instead, the conspiracy theory reduced itself to the notion that the entire leadership of the ANC apart from a few scoundrelly types like Peter Mokaba, the leadership of the UDF, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were all “against Winnie” and collaborating with the apartheid regime in order to defame and discredit her. The immediate question which was never raised anywhere in the media was why this should have been the case. Obviously there was a campaign by the apartheid regime to exploit Winnie’s misconduct and criminal activities in order to harm the ANC, but why should anybody — except perhaps the TRC, dominated by white liberals and PAC members and therefore not friendly to the ANC and perhaps inclined towards collaboration with the old regime — wish to join in this campaign?
The reason why the question was not asked is that the entire notion was based on the idea that the ANC is a corrupt conspiracy against someone or other — ostensibly the “people”, who in this case amounts to the people with money who own the propaganda outlets and the political parties opposing the ANC. It is essentially the same as the political opinions of Judge Chris Nicholson and the smear campaigns emanating from the SACP and the Zuma camp against Mbeki and for corruption and incompetence to be promoted over integrity and ability. The connection with the corrupt and incompetent conspiracy-mongering Winnie is easy to see.
The sheer blindness of this anti-ANC attitude — which in effect reduces to the 2016-17 EFF position that anything anti-ANC must be good — is profoundly anti-political. Applied to an individual elevated to superstar status, one sees a sort of celebrity culture at work. Noam Chomsky has compared current political analysis with sports commentary (although most sports fans take their subject much more seriously, and apply much more skill and knowledge, than political commentators do to their subject) but this seems too kindly to current political culture. It is, rather, the elevation of unremarkable people — whether mediocre singers, mediocre actors or mediocre politicians — to superior status through marketing and the relentless repetition of their names in favourable contexts.
Obviously this also entails the denigration of people who might deserve better treatment. Again, this culture is in part about mobilising people to jeer at and attack anyone identified as the enemy (and by definition, unprotected and safe to mock and assault). Therefore the attack on the supposed conspiracy forces correlates perfectly with this practice. Rather than being told what was happening, the amnesiac populace are instead told that someone is good, with no reason or context necessary, and that other people are bad, and no evidence other than a propaganda video has ever been led to justify this in Winnie’s case. It is not necessary; the mob merely assembles, and chants the approved slogans like the sheep in Animal Farm.
Another part of the campaign, of course, is race and gender. Journalists — mostly black and female, but not exclusively so — proclaim that Winnie was a paragon of everything a black person and a woman should be. Therefore, they claim, the conspiracy against her is clearly a conspiracy of men and whites. Therefore again, no male and no white is entitled to criticise Winnie, while all blacks and all women must stand together to defend Winnie against this racist-sexist onslaught. The absence of the existence of any such onslaught, or of any justification for praising Winnie on racial or gender grounds, is not permitted to interfere with this propaganda — just as the absence of any real gender or race issues did not prevent the American elite from mobilising fools to support Obama and Hillary on gender and race grounds.
Thus the Winnie campaign shows us very clearly what the political agenda of our current ruling class is — the absolute and permanent disempowerment of the general public in the name of liberation, using compliant (or conveniently dead) black celebrity figures to mobilise ignorance, prejudice and sloth against anyone who dares to challenge the system. What a wonderful world we live in!