Monday, March 22, 2010

The conundrum that is Winnie Mandela

The Federal Theological Seminary, in Imbali, Pietermaritzburg, was an interesting institution. All the churches which sent students there saw it as a hotbed of political activism and theological radicalism and students which emerged from it, were regarded by their churches, routinely, with huge amounts of suspicion at best. Or awe, at worst.

The fact is, it was fairly middle-of-the-road. It had some theological greats in its history, but it also had dreadful bigots and dreary, self-seeking conservatives. The really radical figures which had passed through its portals, had long since left, by the time I got there. The seminary continued in their glory, while demonstrating very little of their courage and intellectual acumen. It was, in many ways, a fairly sad place. A place which pretended to be progressive, but acted out all the petty divisions of the mainline churches and where even the mildest excursions into progressive theology was shown a fair amount of disapproval.

But at the same time, some of the students were committed struggle people. They worked hard in the underground structures. They were sometimes arrested – causing panic in the rest of the student population, who would then resort to fervent prayer and concern, furrowed brows and occasional baskets of food delivered to the local jail.

One year, the Seminary did what everyone thought was a really radical thing. We invited Winnie Mandela to speak at the graduation. Now let me say immediately, that in the scope of things, at the time, it WAS a big thing. Immediately the security police became more interested than usual. The students got so worked up about it, that it seemed to me that some of them might need medication. The lecturers started positioning themselves, either as to who would be introducing her, or who would be welcoming her. The conservatives, and the would be radicals alike were swept up in the excitement of the event.

She kept us all waiting for about three hours. But did we mind? Not at all. Because the Mother of the Nation was visiting the Seminary. Did we mind that she looked either drugged or drunk when she eventually did appear? Not at all! She was the Mother of the Nation, after all. Did we even comment on the fact that she talked the biggest load of unprepared twaddle when she got up to speak? Why would we? The Mother of the Nation was speaking. And many of the students themselves were steadfastly resisting theological education because of the havoc they knew it would play with their prejudices.

In her speech, she revealed all the prejudices, all the conservatism and all the bigotry of someone who is not theologically educated (and I am talking in a theological context here). The students, most of them also bigoted, prejudiced and conservative, loved and adored her.

I was reminded of this, because a short time ago, our newspapers were filled with outrage at some of the things which Winnie has been saying (apparently a very long time ago – like August last year!). Mostly, the papers have been flabbergasted by her saying that Nelson Mandela, her former husband and soon to be Saint, had sold the poorest, (who are almost always black) – down the river. (Shock and horror!). The blogs, the newspapers, the twits and the airwaves all played in concert a symphony of disgust and reprobation. She was unhinged, resentful, way off-the-mark and easily dismissed as a loony tune. More than anything she was disrespectful to her former husband. And that is a sin of huge proportions. There is probably no forgiveness to be found. This time she has gone too far. Oh yes, she also called Desmond Tutu a cretin for forcing her to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation commission, which he headed.

I saw also, using Fatima Meer’s funeral as her stage, she has lashed out at the press, claiming that she never gave the Evening Standard any interview at all and spent a huge amount of time doing damage control from it.

Well, I suppose that is what happens when you have two personae – one for public consumption and the other for private. Because everything she seems to have said in the non-interview was for apparently only for private consumption. Just a pity the person to whom it was said was partially involved in a newspaper

Whatever the real reason, it looks as though she did actually say those things, not imagining that they were going to appear down the track in a newspaper. And for that reason, I think we should look at them a little more carefully.

Is it true, we need to ask ourselves, that her former husband, Nelson Mandela sold the poor down the river? What message did he think he was giving when he received his Nobel Peace Prize with his former captor? Is it not the case that the riches of the country have circulated in a very controlled, very small pond?

I don’t see anything particularly off-the-wall about that. It is what most of the people I mix with say all the time. They just don’t say it in print or in an interview.

The question is, are the things she said true or not?

Much as one may not like her, Winnie Mandela is far from stupid. She may be pig-headed. She may even be profoundly unwise to say the things she says - but she has never given a ten cent piece for public opinion. She may be a liar and she may even be guilty of most of the things she has been accused of. But one thing is for certain. No-one in the country is able to articulate, as she can, the general mood of the people. (And by “the people”, I mean those who are mostly excised from the general sway of political decision-making and power.)

And the reason for this is that wherever people are suffering, Winnie Mandela is there. And this is something they remember. And this is the reason they take her into their confidence. It doesn’t matter about her dubious history. It doesn’t matter that she was convicted of various crimes. The fact is, she cares about the poor – or at the very least – appears to care about them.

Did things change fundamentally for the poor when Mandela took over the reins of state? It is perfectly obvious that the nature of the political settlement required that virtually nothing would change in relation to the ownership of wealth. That was the point of Mandela accepting the Nobel Peace Prize with his former captor, FW de Klerk.

The effects of that settlement, on the poor, is that their economic situation remains dire, 16 years into democratic government. That, I am afraid, is the truth. It is a pity Winnie Mandela appears as unable to admit to telling it, as she was to her deeds before the courts and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is a pity, because it appears to be the truth, nonetheless.

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