Despite all she contributed to the world, I wanted more from Winnie Mandela.
I wanted Winnie Mandela to be the perfect pacifist protester who overturned apartheid with superhuman nobility, but the reality of her life fell far short.
With her passing earlier this week, I pause to reflect on her markedly mixed legacy.
I suspect she did, too.
For more than two decades, Winnie Mandela was the face and the voice of her husband, Nelson Mandela. Nelson, an anti-apartheid South African activist, was locked away for 27 years in his struggle to bring justice for black Africans. In the days before social media, notes American activist Jesse Jackson, Winnie kept her husband — and their struggle for justice and equality for all people – in front of the world.
Her efforts were ultimately successful, and both her husband and her people saw justice. But in the process, Winnie lost something of herself.
Winnie died on April 2. She will be laid to rest this week and remembered by her people. But how will she be remembered? Her legacy is complicated. Some lessons from her life:
She had the moxie to fight oppression, even when oppressed.
While her husband was jailed, Winnie continued to fight against South Africa’s official policy of apartheid, a system of discrimination based on race. While fighting against the government, Winnie herself was tortured, exiled and jailed, once even serving eighteen months in solitary confinement in Pretorial Central Prison. The beatings she endured left her with lifelong pain, physically and mentally.
Her struggle and her sacrifice were ultimately successful, and South Africa began the long, slow process of transitioning away from an all-white rule and to multi-racial rule in the late 80s and early 90s. Winnie was on Nelson’s arm when he was released from prison in 1990.
While fighting oppression, she became the oppressor.
Years of struggling left deep marks on Winnie’s soul. She surrounded herself with a brutal team of henchmen known as the Mandela United Football Club. These personal bodyguards became her enforcers, ferreting out those they suspected to being “informants” against the anti-apartheid cause.
The “football club” tortured and murdered alleged informants. Their youngest victim was just 14 years old. Their most brutal and notorious method involved dousing victims with gas, securing them with tires, and setting them ablaze.
In the midst of fighting for justice for black Africans, Winnie herself unleashed a wave of black on black violence.
While Nelson Mandela adopted a more conciliatory posture in the struggle for freedom, Winnie became more hard-lined. It wasn’t the only separation for the two; they divorced two years after Nelson was released from prison.
She expressed regret.
As South Africa sought to heal from the deep wounds of its past, Winnie came to regret the brutal methods she endorsed in the quest for an end to apartheid.
“Things went horribly wrong,” she told the Truth and Reconciliation Committee that met in 1997 under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
“The world is a more violent place than when I came into it. To the extent that I played a role in bringing that about, I am sorry,” she later said in a speech in Birmingham, England.
I wanted Winnie Mandela to be an uncomplicated hero. I wanted her to be the perfect peaceful protester, nobly holding forth and benevolently serving the poor and the oppressed. I wanted her to meet the evil of her oppressors with stoic and placid resolution. I did not want her to push back with a violent response of her own.
The truth is, we want that from all of our heroes, and most of them fall far short. In Winnie’s case, the reality was dark and violent, a reflection of the violence that was visited on her. We’re left trying to sort through and redeem what was good, and somberly naming what was not.
If I had a chance to talk to Winnie Mandela, I would have to ask about her regrets. What would she do differently given the chance?
What would you do differently, if you were given the chance?