Dr Makhubela is the CEO of Brand South Africa and a former anti-apartheid activist who went into exile at the age of 19. He returned to South Africa in 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and spent time living with the Mandela family in their Orlando home. In this exclusive article, Dr Makhubela shares his memories of the most courageous woman of our time.
I met Nelson and Winnie Mandela at a very turbulent and violent time in South Africa’s history. It was 1990 and although Mandela had been released from prison and exiles were returning in large numbers, no one knew what the future would hold.
Living in the Mandela family home in Soweto when I returned from exile was like living with family. Mam’ Winnie had accepted me as one of her children, just like she accepted so many and there was no part of the home that I felt I couldn’t just walk into.
Mam’ Winnie came across as a very strong woman. Sitting together at their breakfast table discussing the future of the country in the early 90s, I remember that she had her own opinions and her own mind. A lot of people tend to think of Winnie as Madiba’s wife, but she was Winnie the revolutionary in her own right and she had her own leadership qualities. She was the most courageous woman I have ever come across – totally fearless.
One important thing about Mam’ Winnie was that she was a link with ordinary people. People used to come and camp outside her home when they were attacked by hostel dwellers from rival factions. She would go and interact with these people. Sometimes she would go to where they had been attacked and evicted and bring them back to her house. She was very caring about issues that were affecting poor people and she comforted many.
She was not a procrastinator and it was one of her leadership qualities that stands out for me. Once she had made up her mind she would forcefully pursue her goals.
There’s no doubt that Mam’ Winnie was brutalised by the apartheid system. She was isolated from her husband and children, isolated from her inner circle and banished to solitary confinement inside and outside of prison. Sitting with her listening to her terrible experiences in prison and her visits to Mandela when they were not allowed to hug or touch was the most painful thing. These were the trials that really built rather than broke her character. She had to sacrifice her family and she experienced the worst things. I believe that’s why she was so fearless.
But she was not a vengeful person, and she understood the need for reconciliation. She understood that once you destroyed the apartheid system, the biggest challenge would have been dealt with.
Mam’ Winnie was a critical thinker. She was not only critical of the apartheid political system but she was also very critical about the things she was doing. She had a good sense of self-reflection in herself and her own environment.
She had wonderful ideas about South Africa’s future that helped lay a solid foundation for our democracy. The Bill of Rights is mirrored on preventing the kinds of human rights abuses that Winnie went through, such as detention without trial and solitary confinement. And our Constitution is built on the tears of women like her who wept for their children, the blood of those who paid the ultimate price and the sweat of the women and men who laboured for freedom without the promise of reward to ensure that future generations live in a better country.
Mam’ Winnie never massaged the truth to make others feel comfortable. She was at times seen as controversial but Mam’ Winnie made a bigger contribution because of her commitment to speak the truth and not to sweep things under the carpet. I remember in the 90s that it was she who raised the questions that ordinary people were asking: “Why are we negotiating with the people who are killing us?”
It is unfortunate that Mam’ Winnie was demonised during and after the struggle. This character assassination was started by the apartheid government, which was the most effective machinery for disinformation. When I heard what was being said about her it was clear to me that it was a deliberate effort to discredit her because she had an enormous following and the aim was to discourage her supporters. Over the years my suspicions about her being discredited by the security forces were confirmed.
Hers was a committed generation that looked for no personal gratification. They left us the heritage of a globally lauded constitution, and one which we need to continue to nurture. It is important that we help future generations to understand our constitution and the Bill of Rights because, with Mam’ Winnie’s passing, we are losing the generation of those who laid down their lives for a free and democratic South Africa.
The struggle generation of Winnie’s time wanted to ensure that there was never again abuse and oppression of citizens by a South African government. This was the contribution that they made for us. Now it’s up to us to give effect to the constitution and build on the foundation they laid.
The dispensation we have today is not perfect, but I believe we have a perfect foundation. We can pick up our ploughshares and build on. There is so much that still needs to be done while we have the poor amongst us, while people remain uneducated and economically disenfranchised.
Before Mam’ Winnie’s death she was optimistic about the country’s future and there are encouraging signs that our next phase of building has begun. We can honour her memory and sacrifices by ensuring that we improve on the South Africa that we were entrusted with.
Brand South Africa’s CEO Dr Kingsley Makhubela
Follow Dr Makhubela @klmmakhubela