Undaunted, unbound, defiant, resurgent and more heroic in death than in life — these epithets do not in any way express the emotional feelings of South Africa, especially among black Africans who had gathered in their thousands at Orlando Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg, to bid farewell to Mama Winnie, the Mother of the South African nation.
Describing her suffering and endurance, the national poet, Mzwakhe Mbuli, in his presentation of the courage and fortitude of Mama Winnie, said that she was no stranger to prison, exile, persecution, agony, sorrow, loneliness and deprivation of her husband on Robben Island for 27 years.
She had endured these and many others to defeat that inhuman apartheid system in South Africa.
She was vilified, demonised and sentenced by the corporate media that labelled her as the wicked leader of South African blacks. Then the humiliation that resulted in her divorce by a man whose name she kept alive for 27 years!
Had she been a man whose wife had been imprisoned for that long, perhaps no one would have raised a voice. But this is the world we live in.
The comforting response, in unison, was that the people of South Africa never abandoned her, because, even after the legal end of apartheid and her divorce, she did not move to live in the white suburbs, but decided to stay in Soweto so as to be close to the down-trodden majority of Africans, the “Wretched of the Townships”. They loved her because she loved them till the end of her life.
Listening to her personal assistant describing their life together and her last hours on earth, and the “national poet,” brought many a tear to the audience, not excluding yours truly! Her daughter, grand and great grandchildren spoke about her as if she was there listening to them.
I met her on several occasions when I was Uganda’s first High Commissioner to South Africa (1996-1999).
My first impression was her beauty, her poise, her dress and her demeanour. She embodied and radiated those qualities that characterise the African woman — Mother of the Human Race — mother, wife, grandmother, builder, provider, the unsung heroine who carries her entire world in her hands.
Even at those receptions which were hosted by President Mandela, her late arrival was always greeted with clapping and the media surrounding her.
I introduced myself to her, and she remembered Uganda as the country that hosted Mkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC armed wing, during their struggle against apartheid.
Last hours on earth
I think her life’s struggles are epitomised by the main character, Sarafina, a woman in the movie of the same name, who always praised, sang, suffered and fought for the release of Mandela.
Also the two women characters, one being the history teacher (Whoopi Goldberg) who explained that Napoleon was not defeated by the Moscow winter but the Russian peoples’ courage, determination and resistance, and that the first inhabitants of South Africa were not the Dutch settlers but the Africans who inhabited the land.
The other character is Sarafina’s mother (played by Miriam Makeba) who told her that she worked as a housemaid in Muzungu (white man) home to provide for her family whose husband was away in the trenches in Mozambique.
Mama Winnie’s trenches were in Soweto, Brandford, and keeping high the morale of the down-trodden in townships and mines dormitories scattered across South Africa. Without high morale, no victory can be won, not even with the best weapons.
The end of her life begins a new chapter in South African people’s struggle.
The “Rainbow Nation” has not radiated fully all of its seven colours. The sun’s rays cannot penetrate through the clouds of poverty, unemployment, landlessness and the intransigence to change of die-hard racists and corporate obstinacy. But a major step has been taken, thanks to her and people of South Africa of all races.
The baton has been passed onto President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government to continue with the major tasks of correcting the centuries-old injustices and bringing all South Africans into the 21st century as fully developed human beings.
That will be fitting epitaph to Mama Winnie’s life’s struggles and triumph.
Prof Rugumayo is a retired politician, former Minister in Uganda and was the first Ugandan High Commissioner to South Africa following the fall of apartheid.