The 25th of May every year remains a special day on the calendars of African countries. It is the continent's priceless chance as a collective people united in a progressive collective consciousness to travel back in time armed with the unwavering resolve to subvert the assertion that people learn nothing from history. By revisiting Africa's history of liberation struggles during this period of Africa Day commemorations, the steadfastness and tenacity of all Africans who believe in progressive politics for Africa becomes evident. Africans are keen to learn from history. In such reflective times where internal contradictions are candidly confronted, the issue of drawing lessons from history is the most pressing question of the day for all Africans.
The prevalent hegemonic supremacy characterizing most African postcolonial political economies ostensibly aligns with the notion that "history ended". South Africa has, of late, witnessed a disastrous shift towards destructive and divisive right-wing reactionary politics; a kind of politics that is inundated with inflammatory anti-immigrant sentiments.
Instead of forging formidable alliances with the migrant working class from different African countries in tremendous unity, South Africa's subaltern classes teeter on the precipice of fascist ultranationalism fueled by rabid exceptionalism.
Straying Away From The Ideals of the Revolutionary Struggle
The extreme nationalism that South African politicians infect the urban working class and unemployed populations with is detrimental to the progress of Africa. The marked rise of right-wing populism - negating all revolutionary principles of solidarity that inspired and guided the struggle against apartheid rule - poses a dreadful peril not only to Southern Africa but the continent as a whole.
Xenophobic flames incessantly fanned by politicians ensconced in right-wing nationalist populism are gravely precarious to African progress and development. Far-right policies shaped by extreme nationalism decimate the lives of those deemed as undesirable elements blocking the progress of marginalized black South Africans.
With a ruling party that has sanctified neoliberal capitalism as the default order of South Africa's political economy - and how this order largely determines the overall economic outlook of the Southern African region - the illusory concept of the Rainbow Nation is obviously a perpetually elusive reality.
The opposition, which mostly mirrors the ruling elite's right-leaning political and economic ideas, does not do any better. Right-wing nationalist populism, and populist-leftism have become the tickets that South African politicians bank on during electoral campaigns and seasons.
Reliving Africa's History of Independence Cures Right-Wing Nationalist Populism
When South Africa was on the verge of winning political liberation from the fetters of apartheid rule which had dehumanized black Africans, the possibility of the Rainbow Nation becoming a massive disillusionment was consistently raised. Struggle icons such as Joe Slovo warned about this.
The recourse against populist politics lies in reliving the radical and methodological consciousness of revolutionary leaders who sacrificed everything to fight for a free Africa. Leaders who sacrificed everything to give back black Africans their dignity, self-worth, and total emancipation. Africa Day gives us this indispensable opportunity to reflect on what it means to be African; and why the fight against insidious neocolonial comforts is a relentless one.
Struggle icons such as the magnetic, radical, fiery, and misunderstood Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela then come to the fore.
As South Africa continues to edge towards calamitous far-right populism, going down the memory lane allows us to immortalize Winnie-Madikizela Mandela, who to many people in the world embodies the symbol of "an extreme militant or radical liberationist."
By reliving her radical politics in which she became a misunderstood symbol of resistance irredeemably entwined in pernicious masculinity and the contradictions of a capitalist African postcolonial country, an optimistic way for South Africa might become clear for all to see.
A Return To The Radical Politics of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
Madikizela-Mandela is adored and revered in the hearts of many Africans. To others in the rest of the world, her revolutionary and somewhat complex legacy commands the same profound respect. Mam' Winnie remains one of Africa's foremost struggle luminaries.
Her incontestable leadership for the liberation of black Africans in South Africa within the limitations of ANC's political ranks, and in the face of a Draconian and diabolical apartheid regime, is unparalleled in her own right. It crowns Winnie with her own political persona where she was not simply "Nelson Mandela's wife".
That she was "tapped on the shoulder by history in the person of Nelson Mandela" is a reality that does not invalidate her impassioned, solidaristic, radical, empowering, progressive, and non-conformist revolutionary credentials as a principled leader during the struggle for freedom and in apartheid and post-independent South Africa. And for leading a life solely devoted to the struggle for liberation against a hellish and barbarous apartheid settler regime (led by the murderous National Front), Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was subjected to a life of egregiously dehumanizing punishment.
Her personal life was wrecked by the imprisonments, tortures, a two-time internal exile, and heartless vilification and slander aimed at erasing her enduring legacy from history. In the middle of life-shattering tempests, she never lost her undying loyalty to the struggle.
The imprisonment of her husband Nelson Mandela (locked away at the infamous Robben Island for 27 years), coupled with deflating days of the early 1990s in which she was involved in the death of Stompie Seipei marked low points in Winnie's life. In a period spanning 13 years, she only experienced 10 months of life without a banning order.
In 1991, she was convicted of the kidnapping and assault of Stompie Sepei in a high-profile and extremely publicized court case that was exploited by her enemies as a vilification and slander exercise to cast aspersions on her character and political standing. Madikizela-Mandela was a powerful portent of revolutionary political, economic, and social change.
South Africa's patriarchal hegemony - white male supremacy and ANC's male-dominated 'bourgeios democratic' leadership - sought to tear her spirits into shreds to stop her radical politics metamorphosing into complete transformation for the oppressed masses; black Africans in South Africa. She was strongly disliked. And she had to be tamed.
In Winnie, the ANC was blessed with one of the greatest leaders of her generation. Faced with the monstrosities of the pitiless minority settler regime with their rabid [legalized] racial segregation policy of apartheid, her revolutionary spirit lives on in the 'popular consciousness' of South Africa's black majority.
History will not forget her "unbreakable defiance in the face of police raids on her home, twenty-four hour surveillance, repeated banning and house arrest orders, imprisonment and torture in solitary confinement. Throughout all this she remained unbroken and unbowed. She was the living embodiment of the slogan 'wathinthi’ bafazi wa thinti’ mbokodo' – you strike a woman, you strike a rock. No other political leader in SA history, man or woman, has endured such persecution."
A Militant Activist Who Refused the Stereotype of the "Dutiful and Patient" Wife
It was the "raw rage and absolute fearlessness" that made Madikizela-Mandela a fierce political leader with her distinct yet organic radical and militant politics. Some ANC comrades disliked her defiant and rock-solid militant aura, but by embodying such a militant and emancipatory position, Winnie was able to carve her own distinct leadership style and political identity independent from Nelson Mandela.
She actively took part in the 1958 march from Soweto to Johannesburg to protest the introduction of pass laws for women, a protest march that was organized by equally revolutionary heroines Adelaide Tambo and Lillian Ngoyi. During one of Winnie Mandela's many confrontations with apartheid state apparatuses of repression, she physically pushed a white policewoman and reproached her dastardly attempt to take away her grandchild. She castigated white male police officers who tried to arrest her, and in 1990, while on a victorious tour American tour with her husband, she proclaimed that that she was ready to "go back to the bush and take up arms" if the negotiations for ending apartheid were deleterious to the interests of the black majority. This radical and militant political leadership makes Winnie one of Africa's foremost revolutionary icon.
Although Winnie Mandela had made early contact with political work as a trainee social worker in Johannesburg, her 1958 marriage to Nelson Mandela - she was aged 22, and her Nelson was 38 - entirely thrust her into the acrimonious politics of the revolutionary struggle against apartheid. But before she had enjoyed the comforts of a present husband with a close family, her husband was locked away at Robben Island, only to be released in 1990.
She could not just play along to the "Nelson Mandela's wife" role while subserviently awaiting her husband's release. Instead, she continued where the imprisoned stalwarts left off with unprecedented activist momentum. She worked "openly" with other inimitable leaders of her time such as Steve Biko. She worked with the Black Consciousness radical activists (the ANC's old guard, many of them incarcerated, banned, or exiled were averse towards alliances with the Black Consciousness movement). She also worked closed with Chris Hani of the South Africa Communist Party.
The 1976 student uprising was blamed on Madikizela-Mandela; she had offered immense help and solidarity to the activists who were at the forefront of the uprising. Her punishment was ruthlessly heavy-handed: after being detained, she was banished to the remote Free State town of Brandfort. Where it was expected that her spirit would be crushed, she transcended these monstrosities and went on to radicalize the town's black residents, and recruited combatants into ANC's armed wing, breaking the rules of her banishment in the process.
Her style of politics after 1986 when she returned to Soweto from Brandfort retained its militant and charismatic outlook, but "with little accountability". The rise of the trade union movement in the form of COSATU, a trade union federation characterizing solid mass movements against racial oppression since the 1950s, meant that individual charismatic inspiration that Winnie Mandela radiated to black Africans was eroded. With increased militant politics, she housed a political gang, the Mandela Football Club. It included her bodyguards who arbitrarily differentiated those loyal to the cause from the traitors: abductions, kidnappings, assault, and revenge killings became the order in Soweto. Even other male political leaders had embraced this style of politics.
The deaths of Stompie Sepei and Dr. Abu-Baker Asvat were the boiling points. Because she was a woman of fierce charisma and radical militancy, Winnie suffered the most. Publicly humiliated and excluded from the warmth of a post-independent South African black leadership, it is now becoming evident that Winnie was a misunderstood victim of the "dirty tricks" employed by the apartheid regime in the 1980s. And that ultimately, South Africa's political independence belonged more to the people, and less the leadership (which capitulated to the whims of private property and free-market economics). Alluding to the chaos of the 1990s, an obituary by Reuters referred to how Madikizela-Mandela had turned from being South Africa's "mother" into becoming its "mugger".
Winnie's Radical, Militant, and Emancipatory Activism Should Inspire Change in Africa
History vindicates Winnie Mandela for playing her role; that at a time when most of South Africa's political leadership had their revolutionary potency weakened by imprisonments, exiles, and bans, she fearlessly stood up to fill the void. She became the "personification" of the ANC and the whole struggle to break free from apartheid. From adorning the umbhaco traditional amaXhosa dress, towards a preference for military fatigues and heavy afro hair, she became the icon of black nationalist ideologies and black consciousness.
Her radical politics transcended the confines of South Africa's borders as she rose above South Africa's exceptionalism, which has now morphed into far-right nationalist populism with catastrophic ramifications. Her nationalist tone never faded, given how she became increasingly disappointed with ANC's abysmal failure to alleviate the plight of South Africa's poor.
Only a return to the radical, militant, and empowering politics of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela offers an optimistic recourse for holistic redress, not "conciliatory" neoliberalism which she strongly condemned soon as it became evident that the ANC's "Rainbowism" was never going to be capable of overthrowing capitalism in South Africa.
As Sean Jacobs (the editor of Africa is a Country) wrote, "It is important to defend Winnie Mandela’s memory from right-wing caricatures. But if we insist on disregarding the complexities of South Africa’s liberation history, we are in danger of becoming the people we criticize — and undermining our own political project."