From South Africa, with feeling

Print edition : October 23, 1999
R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

SEATED under a life-size painting of Mahatma Gandhi in the Durbar Hall of the State Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, Winnie Madikizela Mandela looked very much the survivor that she is today in her own country.

"We know him as a man wearing the English gown. You remember him in the image of a frail old man wearing a loincloth and holding a walking stick. He is ours, as much as he is yours," the unlikely guest in Kerala during this year's Gandhi Jayanti celebrat ions, was reminding Indians of Mahatma Gandhi.

The setting seemed tailor-made for the South African MP and president of the Women's League of the African National Congress (ANCWL), whose bold and vitriolic leadership had triumphed over years of political and racial harassment, controversy and persona l pain to make her a symbol in her own right in the new South Africa.

"South Africa is as much our homeland as it is yours. But there is very few of you there," she said, speaking at a reception hosted by Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar and his Cabinet colleagues and senior State officials at the Secretariat.

Kerala Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar presents a memento to Winnie Mandela in Thiruvananthapuram.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

In many ways, Winnie Mandela's comments during her three-day visit to Kerala last fortnight, her first to India, to inaugurate the Millennium Festival (a four-month educational and cultural programme organised by the Kerala Children's Film Society), were reflections on the role she played in defiance of the apartheid regime, her fall from the heights of popularity to controversy, censure and criticism, and an indication of the role that she was possibly evolving for herself in the new South Africa, afte r her divorce from Nelson Mandela.

Winnie Mandela, who was on one occasion at the centre of a virulent controversy over a speech she made supporting "necklacing" (burning suspected government collaborators to death by putting a blazing tyre around their neck) and arguably the most powerfu l and poignant voice against apartheid during the worst years of the racist regime, said she had no regrets about the violent course the freedom struggle had to take in her country. The South African freedom movement had desired a non-violent transition of power and had great respect for Gandhian principles. But the racist government had tried to deal with it with an iron hand. That was why the country's path to freedom was one of pain and violence. The ANC resorted to violence because peaceful means ha d taken it nowhere. Violence was the only language that the enemy understood, she said.

Speaking at the local Press Club, she said that South Africa was today reeling under the after-effects of apartheid, which had devastated the economy. "Apartheid was a very expensive system to maintain with its need for separate institutions, schools for example. The new government inherited a legacy of extreme poverty and unemployment. The crisis in the gold market also affected South Africa."

While seemingly conceding that she was not in the political mainstream anymore, Winnie Mandela claimed that she continued to represent the voice of millions of black south Africans who are yet to benefit from the country's transition to democracy. Accord ing to her, revolutionary slogans alone could not help the new government bridge the gap between the poor and the rich. "One had to be realistic and practical. The ANC had promised a million homes in five years, free education and health care - but it co uld not deliver because of the state in which the country's economy found itself in." She said that South Africa was therefore inviting multinationals to improve its economy and to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, to create jobs and improve the lot of its people.

According to her, the legacy of apartheid was a big gulf between races of people in her country and there would be racial tension in South Africa for a long time to come. It was not easy for those who enjoyed privileges to relinquish them. But the govern ment today does not discriminate between its people in terms of language, nationality or race. There is no such thing as South African Indians. There are only people of South Africa."

Winnie Mandela spoke with no bitterness but with deep emotion on some of the controversial chapters of her life - the kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei in the months before Nelson Mandela's release from prison, and her divorce from the President. On the killing of Stompie she said that the truth had been established that a police informer had killed the child in order to tarnish the image of the ANC. She said she was not aware of any other allegation against her other than that she had fought the apartheid regime physically and politically, and she was never going to apologise for that.

Winnie said in answer to a question that she would have very much liked to drop her surname 'Mandela', but that the people of South Africa would not let her to do that. "They want me to drop my maiden name instead," she said. She described her relations with Mandela as "good", even though the patriarchal society of which she was part of made women lose their individuality. Women were overshadowed by their husbands. "It occurred to me that I have to be an individual. The political worker that I am today is not Mandela's creation. I am a product of the struggle against apartheid and the ANC. I would love to be me." She said she still respected Mandela as a leader of the freedom struggle, and he was indeed the symbol of the South African struggle. But it was Mandela who should explain why their divorce had come about, she said.

Addressing separate audiences in Thiruvananthapuram, Winnie Mandela expressed her concern for issues of women's empowerment, crimes against women, unemployment, education, housing and the threat of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) as a conseque nce of the erosion of cultural values. She said that though she was impressed by Kerala's achievements in the matter of empowering women, it was clear that India had a long way to go in this field even after so many years of freedom. She said women all o ver the world faced similar problems.

At the Gandhi Jayanti celebrations organised by the KCFS and Asianet, she told a gathering of children: "Do you know what racism is? Do you know how lucky you are? You have education. You have freedom. In South Africa, the racist government had denied ed ucation to our children. We did not have even the right to sit near a white man. The colour of the skin decided which school you will study in. Children were separated from their mothers. Thousands of mothers were sent to jail. We were not even allowed t o walk freely. Before 1990, I was not even allowed to leave the country. The racists had considered me as their enemy. South Africa's history was rewritten by children who had sacrificed their childhood."

She said she was fulfilling a cherished desire by visiting India for the first time. "When Nelson Mandela was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award, Indira Gandhi had told my friend Fatima Meer how wonderful it would have been if I had come to India to rece ive the award. But I too was a prisoner then and could not get a passport," she said.

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