Winnie Mandela and South Africa deserve better than to be reduced to a hot take about identity

We should be arguing for a more nuanced understanding of the past, not whitewashing torture and murder. 

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Afua Hirsch has written a surprisingly thoughtless piece about the life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s second wife and a key figure in the struggle against the apartheid regime, in which she laments that Madikizela-Mandela is not seen as a hero, a luxury that would be afforded to her were she a white man, such as Winston Churchill or Horatio Nelson. 

There are a number of problems with the article, but for many, they can be reduced them to three items: a rubber tyre, a lit match, and a gallon of petrol, the three components of “necklacing”, a grisly method of extra-judicial execution in which people were killed by having a rubber tyre filled with oil forced around their neck and shoulders, which was then lit, resulting in a prolonged and painful death. 

Necklacing was used to kill those suspected of collaborating with the apartheid regime, a method designed to kill, to punish and to discourage others. Although the African National Congress, the main official organisation of resistance to apartheid, condemned the practice, Madikizela-Mandela explicitly endorsed it in 1986, telling a crowd that “with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country”. In addition, not everyone killed by the practice had actually committed acts of collaboration: as is always the case in periods of war and occupation, some were simply accused for other reasons.

One of the few things that Hirsch gets right in her piece is that the end of apartheid in South Africa would not have come without a measure of political violence. But, in her piece, this is presented as some new insight, as opposed to what it is: the consensus opinon among the bulk of historians and indeed South Africans in general. It’s often forgotten by people in the United Kingdom with little knowledge of the apartheid regime that when Nelson Mandela was arrested and put on trial – a trial in which he faced the risk of the death penalty – he was arrested and charged for planning to use explosives and to train others in the use of explosives as well.

Indeed, much of Nelson Mandela’s three-hour speech at his trial, a rhetorical triumph that is now largely remembered for its final sentences – “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” – is an explicit argument for why he chose to abandon entirely non-violent struggle.

The debate over Madikizela-Mandela’s life and legacy is fundamentally not a general one about whether the armed struggle was a necessary precondition of the end of apartheid, but a specific one about whether the methods that Madikizela-Mandela sanctioned were needlessly cruel. This incorporates the actions – including the torture and murder of a 14-year-old boy – of her retinue, the Mandela United Football Club. The group used violence and intimidation (and not merely against agents of the apartheid regime), which Madikizela-Mandela was found by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to have moral, if not operational, responsibility for.

It is entirely right to see Madikizela-Mandela’s life and legacy as a complex one, in which many of the actions she supported and directed were immoral and unnecessary.

But while that is one problem with Hirsch’s piece, it is not the only one. More significant and troubling is that it appears to have been written with only a tourist’s level of interest in the country’s internal politics and debate. Indeed, the central argument that Madikizela-Mandela is not seen as a hero for her role in the struggle is one that can only be made if you have never turned on a radio or picked up a South African newspaper. Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president and the ANC’s incumbent leader, but a politician generally on the other side to Madikizela-Mandela in debates over the party’s future, hailed her as “mother to our nation”, “one of the strongest people in the struggle”, and lamented that “a giant tree has fallen”. His predecessor, Jacob Zuma, again described her as a “mother to our nation and to our organization”. Graca Machel, Mandela’s third wife, said that she would “continue to serve as a guide” and inspiration even after death.

Even the leader of the main opposition, the Democratic Alliance, has hailed Madikizela-Mandela as “an icon”, saying that “to the people of this country, certainly the continent and to freedom lovers all over the world, this is a sad day indeed”. The closest you can find to a critical voice is former president Thabo Mbeki, who hailed the work she did as part of a “collective”, but also reminded people that the ANC tried and failed to get her to disband the Mandela United Football Club.

So when Hirsch says that Madikizela-Mandela “would be” seen as a hero were she white, I am not clear who the audience she believes would be sold on her if this were the case. South Africans? Right-wing commentators from the United Kingdom who couldn’t pick the South African president out of a line-up? British politicos whose understanding of the struggle against South Africa is, at best, confused?

It’s a shame, because there are several far more interesting discussions to be had about history and remembrance, not least that much of political discourse seems unable to remember its past beyond a “Nicholas Cage: good or bad?” style binary. (Nelson Mandela: good. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: bad. Winston Churchill: good. Neville Chamberlain: bad.)  It seems to me, looking at the South African eulogies to Madikizela-Mandela that that problem extends to South Africa as well as the United Kingdom.

That’s a problem, because nuance and empathy, are in of themselves values that lead to more tolerance and compassion of one another. We’ll be a better society only if we have a nuanced understanding of what Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela actually did, not if we simply argue for a further extension of whitewashing to the horrors of the past.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.