Once upon a time, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s admirers thought of her as the “mother of the nation” of South Africa. Today, Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela, stands convicted of massive theft and faces sentencing to up to 15 years in jail by a court appointed by her own party, the ruling African National Congress (ANC). This on top of a previous conviction for kidnapping (which, but for the politics involved, should have been a conviction for murder and kidnapping). Simply put, the “mother of the nation” is a career criminal.
Winnie’s nature is nothing new. From the early 1980s she was using anti-apartheid supporters’ financial help to maintain a life of luxury, encouraging the infamous “necklacing” of that decade (the practice of placing a rubber tire filled with gasoline around the neck of suspected apartheid collaborators and setting it on fire), and running a gang of adolescent thugs grotesquely called Mandela’s United Football Club, etc. (Her husband eventually divorced her for adultery after he was released from prison.)
Nor is Winnie the only prominent South African “freedom fighter” involved in criminal affairs. Alan Boesak, another hero of the anti-apartheid struggle, was also convicted of stealing money from the cause (for his and his white mistress’s use). A general sense of corruption within the ANC is common in South Africa—making that party just another among the depressingly familiar list of permanently elected organizations destroying Africa. As encouraging as it is that Winnie was convicted, it is equally troubling that she remains popular even though she has now been convicted twice of serious crimes.
Even more troubling, Winnie has been elected to parliament twice (in 1994 and 1999) and to the leading forums of the ANC largely on the basis of her popularity with the youth wing of the ANC. Indeed, she is the poster girl of South Africa’s “lost generation”: the generation now in its thirties who at her incitement eschewed schooling in response to the irresponsible slogan of “No education before liberation.” These uneducated masses are now the main reason South Africa is at the very top among the world’s most violent nations, as confirmed by a November 2002 UN report (Pretoria has not released statistics recently). With a huge number of guns available, the country leads in rape, carjacking, murder, armed robbery, and assault. These are Winnie’s constituency: the unemployed and unemployable—unless they are hired by the National Defense Force or police under their affirmative action policies, and thus free to pursue a criminal career legally armed and in uniform.
Madikizela-Mandela was convicted this week of 43 counts of fraud and 25 of theft involving $120,000 from the African National Congress Women’s League, which she heads. But outside the court, “Madikizela-Mandela was met by a group of about 30 students, chanting ‘Viva Winnie viva,’ with raised fists. Madikizela Mandela smiled at the group and raised her fist.” (AP, April 24, 2003)
Winnie’s prominence and political significance raises the general issue of South Africa’s future. During the unregretted apartheid era, South Africa’s elites saw the country’s future as being part of the West, which they felt irrationally kept them aside. Both the Afrikaans speakers who supported the system and their English-speaking opposition tried, or pretended to try, to follow Western patterns. The idea was that South Africa, a Commonwealth member (if suspended) that enjoyed cooperative relations with the United States, etc., was part of the vaguely defined “West.”
The non-elite view of the country’s future, radically represented by groups such as the quasi-Maoist Pan-African Congress, saw the country as part and parcel of the Third World in Africa (whatever that continental demarcation might mean), and were thus opposed to all that is Western and “exploitative.”
This brings us to the ANC, which is not really a “party” in the usual sense but more an umbrella “movement” of ideologically disparate groups united by the desire of power. Within the ANC, Winnie was a typical opportunist. She liked money, enjoyed Western luxuries, wore couture fashion, and thrived on media adulation, while also encouraging some practices commonly associated with African politics: terror, violence, and one-party rule. Not surprisingly, given the influence the unreconstructed South African Communist Party (SACP) has always exerted within the ANC, Winnie represents the ANC’s totalitarian wing.
It is too early to say whether the ANC’s leadership has yet made a choice between South Africa’s being a Western or an African country. The corruption, tolerance of criminality, and irresponsibility of the leaders -- President Thabo Mbeki Mbeki, it will be recalled, still claims that he does not believe the “thesis” that AIDS is caused by HIV, or even that it is a virus -- suggest an “African” choice. But its still relatively independent judiciary, free press, and refusal to emulate neighboring Zimbabwe’s racist, anti-white, and economically suicidal policy of confiscation of white owned farms, and its encouragement of foreign investment suggests otherwise. Hence the confusion when Nelson Mandela bizarrely accuses the United States of being guilty of “racism,” or when President Mbeki tries to negotiate between Washington and Baghdad. Pretoria supports some of the worst human rights violators in the name of African solidarity, and yet has by far the most liberal constitution in Africa: homosexual rights, no capital punishment, etc.
It is precisely this confusion that ultimately explains South Africa’s absence from the space it occupied for decades up to 1991 on the front pages of Western newspapers. And then there is the Western media’s reluctance to admit that past heroes like Winnie and Boesak were just crooks taking advantage of an ideological, liberal fashion.
Winnie’s conviction is also a challenge to President Mbeki. His options are to do nothing, as a Western leader would, or to do the “African” thing: pardon her because of her political influence. That would be an insult to Africa, a demonstration of South Africa’s descent into the third world, and a disappointment for all those who placed their hopes for African renewal on an apartheid-free South Africa.