The wonderful Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, South African anti-apartheid activist and feminist, died on April 2.
Rarely has the death of a revolutionary figure, barring Fidel Castro’s on November 2016, caused as much division as Madikizela-Mandela’s.
While internationally many gushed about her, sections of “global whitehood” and “white South Africa” denounced her and even celebrated her death.
As is the standard these days, a war between the two sides erupted on social media.
There are the lesser, but equally emotional issues: Did infidelity on Madikizela-Mandela’s part lead to divorce with Nelson Mandela? Her supporters say it is a one-sided view, given that Madiba – at least the younger one — too was a philanderer.
And then, the more serious ones: The murders that were carried out, according to the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation, of even children during the anti-apartheid struggle on her orders; and the corruption allegations that dogged her in the post-apartheid era.
It is understandable that racists and supporters of apartheid would hate Madikizela-Mandela, so there’s little need to dwell on them.
The more interesting side here are Madikizela-Mandela’s supporters. In trying to paint her an angel who did no wrong, they are actually taking away her struggle legitimacy. This is because while angels might join revolutions, they never win.
Once, in a moment of monumental stupidity, I briefly forgot that inconvenient truth over coffee in my office in Kampala with a friend, a low-key gentleman of a fellow who fought in the bush with President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) in the early 1980s.
I asked him if he killed anyone in the bush. He was taken aback, but recovered quickly, stood, and pulled up his shirt. His torso had several bullet scars.
“What do you think?” he asked.
My failure had been to look at him only as a gentle soul, not a freedom fighter who fought a bloody war. Heroes are often also flawed, and the nice men and women who vanquish our enemies for us and we shower them with flowers when they return home in a victory parade, go to dark places to win those wars.
The people we should be terrified of are not the Madikizela-Mandela’s. It’s the angels who win wars. The best thing that happened to South Africa is that, in the end, too many of their liberation heroes were people like Madikizela-Mandela, Jacob Zuma, and other regular “comrades.”
Because they were flawed heroes, they limited the prize they could demand at the end of apartheid. If they had ridden to victory like Mao Zedong, there would not have been a rainbow nation. They wouldn’t have made any concessions.
Also, the ANC would not have become the only liberation movement in Africa that, at the very start, embraced a competitive multiparty democracy.
The things critics are heaping on Madikizela-Mandela and other activists like her, and their recognition of their flaws, was one big part of why they accepted a limitation on their powers.
Where freedom fighters have been angels and saviours, we have had strongman rule and, in later years, they invariably become presidents for life.
The best thing that happened to South African democracy, is that Madikizela-Mandela & Co. were fallen angels. We should love them for it.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser site Africapaedia and Roguechiefs.com [email protected]