Winnie Mandela was a hero. If she’d been white, there would be no debate


Peaceful protest did not end apartheid: it took revolutionaries. And it shouldn’t be difficult to choose between a system of racial supremacy and a person who helped overthrow it.

Heroes are curious things. Ours have roots in the ancient Graeco-Roman sense of the concept, which places a premium on military victory. What’s problematic is how many of our heroes embody an inherent level of violence, as is unsurprisingly the case with people whose main accomplishments arise from war. We are tolerant about people who regarded the working classes as an abomination (Wellington), the transatlantic slave trade as a good idea (Nelson) or Indians as repulsive (Churchill), because we think the ends – defeating Napoleon or Hitler – justified the means.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, as the press coverage of her death this week shows, is not entitled to the same rose-tinted eulogy as our white British men. She is “controversial” and a “bully”. One newspaper columnist was boldly willing to abandon his usual restraint in not writing ill of the dead specially for this “odious, toxic individual”.

The media reports have raised the horrific murder of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi, though few have been unduly troubled by the fact that this was a crime she always denied any involvement in, or by the ample evidence of the lengths to which the apartheid regime went to infiltrate and smear her and her followers.

 South Africa’s ‘Mother of the Nation’, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela dies – video

Sadly, I suspect much of the newly discovered outrage sparked by Madikizela-Mandela’s death has little to do with any recent conversion to the cause of Black Lives Matter, or accompanying grief for the fate of little Stompie – one of so many black children who lost their lives during the brutality of apartheid and the struggle against it. What it’s really about is a reluctance to admit that apartheid was so wrong, and so entrenched; and that without the resilience and vision of Madikizela-Mandela, and those of her ilk, it would not have been brought down.

Britain’s heroes are allowed to have waged war. The warriors against white supremacist oppression, on the other hand, are not. When, for instance, I questioned Piers Morgan over the appropriateness of having a 50-metre column in Trafalgar Square to commemorate Admiral Nelson, he spat that Nelson Mandela has a statue despite being a “terrorist”. When I debated with a renowned naval historian over his adulation of the admiral, the argument wound its way to Haiti – the only example in history of slaves successfully overthrowing their masters and establishing their own republic – and whether this was a victory for the enslaved over their oppressors (my view) or a tragedy for the plantation owners who were killed in the process (his).

There is no end to the contortions in our psyche. Who now – outside South Africa, where I have heard its demise lamented more than once – would defend the apartheid regime? It’s easy to condemn in hindsight. Yet we have forgotten what it actually takes to overthrow such tyranny when the legal and moral force of a sovereign state was on the side of white supremacy. Columnists did not cut it. Activists could not have done it. Peaceful protest did not do it. Sports boycotts, books, badges and car boot sales did not do it. It took revolutionaries, pure and simple. People willing to break the law, to kill and be killed.

Our ambivalence about apartheid is the elephant in the room

It took women such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. She was, as the world’s media have had to be repeatedly reminded this week, not an “activist”: she was a leader in a liberation struggle. She survived – during more than 35 years of apartheid – surveillance, threats, harassment, arrest and imprisonment, 491 days in solitary confinement and eight years in exile. The methods of torture used against her included, according to one account, denying her sanitary products so that she was found, in detention, covered in her own menstrual blood.

I doubt the Daily Mail, recalling Madikizela-Mandela’s life this week as “blood-soaked”, appreciated the irony of this choice of phrase, nor that of judging her – rather than the apartheid regime she helped overthrow – the “bully”.

Our ambivalence about apartheid is the elephant in the room. As a nation, one of our techniques for glossing over this uncomfortable fact has been overly beatifying Nelson Mandela, whose posthumous glory has always struck me as coming at the cost of forgetting the others. Who now remembers the names of Robert Sobukwe – the profound pan-Africanist whose medical treatment for fatal lung cancer was obstructed by the apartheid government, or Elias Motsoaledi, convicted at Rivonia alongside Mandela and not released from Robben Island until 26 years later.

We consider Nelson Mandela to be safe because of his message of forgiveness, because of truth and reconciliation, because he accepted the Nobel peace prize with apartheid-regime president FW de Klerk – decisions to which Madikizela-Mandela was fundamentally opposed. She was a radical until the end. Each rejection of that radicalism is an endorsement of the tyranny she fought against.

But is it surprising that we endorse it? An endless litany of heroes were either architects of, or happy to take part in, the very apartheid Madikizela-Mandela sacrificed so much to help end. Among them are those at the centre of our current statue wars – Cecil Rhodes, Lord Kitchener, Jan Smuts – all immortalised on prominent plinths. It’s hard to resist the conclusion – comparing the fact that it’s these people whom we immortalise, and those such as Madikizela-Mandela whom we demonise – that we are still undecided about which side of history we, as a nation, are on.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Denmark this week unveiled its first statue of a black woman. It does not commemorate someone who fed neatly into diversifying the existing order – the limited kind of black hero we in Britain seem willing to accept – but the “three queens” of the Caribbean island of St Croix, who led an unprecedented revolt against Danish colonial rule. Doing so requires Denmark to take a new look at its true history, seeing through its 20th-century rebranding as a liberal bastion that saved Jews from the Nazis, and whose empire was “not as bad as others”.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. We see ourselves as a moral, decent and rights-respecting nation. But when we are tested for our true moral grit, we keep failing. The death of Madikizela-Mandela is another opportunity to choose between a narrative of white supremacy and the one that overthrew it. If the media coverage of her death is anything to go by, this is, apparently, a deeply controversial choice.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here