Opinion: Why Winnie Mandela must be celebrated as an African feminist icon

Winnie Mandela dies at 81
Winnie Mandela dies at 81

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Winnie Mandela dies at 81 02:07

Zimbabwean-born Farai Gundan is a speaker and commentator on the role of women in Africa. She's a graduate of the master in public administration program at Harvard Kennedy School and an Edward S. Mason Fellow. She serves on the board of advisers for the Harvard Africa Policy Journal. Farai is a Young Global Leader and a Dangote Fellow. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)The struggle for racial equality in South Africa was not necessarily fought on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and other prominent political activists spent the better part of 27 years.

Apartheid was battled  predominantly on the streets of South Africa, and the fight was led by  the fearless  Winnie  Madikizela-Mandela,  then  the young  wife of freedom fighter Nelson Mandela.
It was  Madikizela-Mandela  who  reminded  the nation and the world  of the urgency  to resist racial injustice toward Africans. She remained on the front lines  to demand freedom, not just for the  political  prisoners,  but also  for the 40 million  black and brown  people that  made up the nation of South Africa.
    While the  people sang songs about Nelson Mandela, it was  Madikizela-Mandela, unbowed, courageous and  unyielding, who  kept the  untethered hope of the people  focused and alive  during  the horrors perpetrated by the apartheid regime.
    "They think because they have put my husband on an island that he will be forgotten. They are wrong. The harder they try to silence him, the  louder I will become,"  she said at the time.
    Farai Gundan
    And louder she became, giving a face to the struggle against racial apartheid and an impassioned voice for the  countless number of  people killed during the apartheid era.
    Through this, she earned the title, "Mother of the Nation." It is telling that she chose to live among the people  in Soweto until her passing.
    However, she  paid a huge price for freedom; the  "order"  to silence and punish her as it were,  continued well past  the country's  1994  transition from apartheid to majority rule.
    While we cannot really know what transpired in the Mandela marriage, it appears her  own husband could not forgive her misdeeds, yet he was able to  forgive the apartheid  system and government. The couple divorced in 1996, two years after  Nelson Mandela was sworn  in as the country's first black president.
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    Winnie Mandela publishes prison journal

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    For most  people, this was hard to reconcile; the irony of the perceived mistreatment of  the  woman  who helped to  usher in freedom and  birth a free nation, now  sidelined and punished publicly and ferociously, through a media onslaught.
    It appeared her failings were far greater than her contributions during the fight for freedom; a  double standard women  continue to face even today.
    Although she played a  pivotal role  in the country's quest for  independence, her  political journey and fight  for freedom was complicated and  best  understood within the context of the South African patriarchal system. 
    The beasts of patriarchy and  misogyny  were deeply entrenched cultural  practices and norms  within  all the races in South Africa;  Black, white, Indian, and colored (mixed race).  Women were and are often seen  and treated  as second-class  citizens in a country dominated by  men.
    She had to navigate these complex systems  and cultural practices  as best as she knew how,   (in May 1977  for example,  she was banished  from  Soweto, in Johannesburg,  to another  African  township outside the  Afrikaaner  dominated  town of  Brandfort, in Orange Free State).  
    The African feminist icon  had been  thrust into the epicenter of the struggle in 1964 when her husband was sentenced to life in prison on charges of treason. 
    Madikizela-Mandela herself  was  jailed,  thrown in  solitary confinement (where she was denied sanitary towels so that the blood  dried and  caked on her body),  hounded like an animal,  tortured,  beaten up and  harassed by the apartheid  police who stripped her of her humanity  and womanhood. 
    Although she was granted visitation rights, Mandela had no physical contact with her husband for nearly  22 years.  Left without options,  she embodied the indomitable spirit of many African women who simply would not back down  against the threat of annihilation through death, imprisonment, sexual or physical violence,  isolation, or  torture.
    "We are the mothers whose babies were shot on our backs and sometimes we fell with those babies.  The atrocities that have been committed by [the apartheid  regime] arise in every mother such bitterness which you cannot put into words,"  Madikizela-Mandela said in an interview. 
    Madikizela-Mandela was no perfect heroine -- there were various reports of alleged heavy drinking, extramarital affairs, allegations of assault and kidnapping related to her political activism in the early 1990s and theft and fraud in the early 2000s, but these have to be seen against the realities of the atrocities  and relentless brutality  she faced at the hands of the apartheid regime. 
    The most serious of these include the  allegations of the 1991 kidnapping and assault of 14-year-old ANC youth activist, Seipei "Stompie"  Moeketsi  who  was suspected of being an informer to the apartheid regime. 
    The  teen activist's  body was found in a field near Madikizela-Mandela's  Soweto home with his throat cut and was allegedly killed by Jerry Richardson, coach  of the Mandela United Football Club  and  her chief bodyguard.
    Richardson was rumored to be a police informant (which he later admitted  was true) and  rumored to have  killed  Moeketsi  to cover his own tracks because  Moeketsi  may have known about this and it is alleged he killed the boy so Madikizela-Mandela would not find out.
    Richardson is currently serving life in prison for the 1989 murder of  Moeketsi. 
    Madikizela-Mandela had always vehemently denied the charges against her  and requested the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings to clear her name.
    In her own words, Madikizela-Mandela said that she  became a "product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy." 
    Analyzing  Madikizela-Mandela's political contributions and personal failures through a  one-dimensional  lens, as is often done, reinforces the very cultural practices and belief systems against women she  also fought against.
    In a memoir, "Part of My Soil Went With Him," published in 1984,  Madikizela-Mandela  wrote about the severity of her banishment to Brandfort.
    "I am a living symbol of whatever is happening in the country, " she wrote. "I am a living symbol of the white man's fear. I never realized how deeply embedded this fear is until I  came to  Brandfort." 
    The banishment  was intended to isolate her and demoralize her from political activism.
    The Special Branch terrorized her. She lived under 24-hour scrutiny and surveillance, but continued to defy restrictions imposed on her daily movements by using white-only public amenities  and buildings, educating people, both black and white, about the struggle.
    In her book "100 Years of Struggle: Mandela's ANC," Heidi Holland, a South African journalist and author, suggested that Madikizela-Mandela was perhaps driven half mad by security police harassment; they frequently invaded  her home with impunity.
    Without a doubt, Mandela's unwavering resolve against a system that was established to decimate the majority black population, often stood in conflict with cultural norms and expectations for a woman; she was known to publicly challenge white police officers (male and female), "What are you doing here, killing our people? What are you arresting our people for?" she would say in her frequent confrontations with the authorities.
    We must not make the mistake of using her moments of weakness to define her legacy.
    The narrative on  Madikizela-Mandela has been defined by white South African male anger in suppressing the African female expression.
    In some respect, her  life has been a sustained  assault on what the African female voice should be.
    Like her Xhosa name,  Nomzamo, which means "she who endures trials," she  endured the struggle against apartheid until the end.  
    South African President Cyril Ramaphosa  said of  her, "She was stubborn on behalf of our people because she knew that out of her stubborn disposition, she would be able to inspire millions of South Africans.

    "Winnie Mandela leaves a huge legacy. As we say in African culture, "a  giant tree has fallen."