Ma Winnie, my shelter, my shade

By Phindile Xaba

Winnie Madikizela might have been a fiery liberation icon to many, but to a young black woman journalist grieving the loss of her baby, she was a comforter, a shoulder to lean on, a pillar of strength, a mother.

It is an understatement to say I am deeply hurt and distraught. Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s passing has left me with deep sorrow and a broken heart. However, not all hope is lost. My consolation is that Mama Winnie’s’s passing has bequeathed an unparalleled legacy to generations of Iimbokodo to come, not only here in SA but all over the African continent and beyond. Since her passing last week the negative narrative about her life and her contribution to the liberation of this country has shifted, thanks to the vocal and energetic support young women (and men) have invested in defending her legacy. The world has come to know of a caring, powerful and independent woman, a mother, a comrade and a warrior.

A freedom icon and anti-apartheid leader in her own right, Mama Winnie has been described as a complex figure but she had the ability to fiercely engage issues of injustice in any form or shape and in the end achieve fairness. She was also deeply compassionate.

Like a 3000-year-old Baobab tree, she could be firmly rooted in the ground. She withstood the gashing winds and storms. She served as a shelter, a storage barn, transportation terminus, a vendor stall, and opened her home as a congregating place which provided indiscriminate shade. These were the anchoring characteristics of Mama Winnie.

As an African girl-child growing up in Soweto I looked up to Mama Winnie. As a young journalist, I was privileged to experience her as a woman who suffered no fools, and yet was a loving mother to many. Most found refuge under her warm embrace.

Hers was a voice unsilenced to the bitter end, which will reverberate beyond her grave. Her political legacy will live on as captured by inspirational author Shannon L. Alder who writes:

“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.”

This fallen heroine’s life is testament to the preservation of “Herstory”, that continued to rise above adversity for decades.

Heart of Gold

It is undisputable that Mama Winnie was an icon of note but on a personal level, she was a mother and a comforter. She sat at the feet of my bed for more than three hours, embraced me warmly, and rubbed my forehead with motherly affection, during my bereavement period, when my only son passed on in 2004. Despite the excruciating stab in the heart over the loss of a child, my three-month-old baby, she and her daughter Zindzi’s presence lightened the weight off my heavy shoulders. Hers were comforting words, from one mother to another, from a mother to her daughter who had just lost a child. The conversations were laced with humour to help me cope. Mama Winnie had the ability to pull another person from the abyss and lighten up what seemed like a hopeless situation. She was also the elder who came to my son’s funeral with Zindzi, a great sister and friend, and whispered into my ear in a soothing voice: “Please no public acknowledgements, I am here as your mother in struggle and in soul. Love you my daughter.”

Married to two husbands

She believed in public accountability and wouldn’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call me out when she believed my reporting was potentially harmful. She brought me back to the anchoring Journalism Code of Ethics, that of minimizing harm.

Mama Winnie also had a way to engage the media to roll the ball forward for the country’s cause whenever the opportunity presented itself. During one of the interviews I had with her while working for the Sowetan newspaper to document the impact of four generations of the Mandela Women – Mama Winnie, Zindzi, Zoleka and the late Zenani, she candidly spoke with maternal depth. When our conversation got to a point about caring for her children while Madiba was incarcerated, she looked me in the eye, and said: “All my life I have been married to two husbands.”

That right there was a goose bump moment for me, which left every bit of hair in my body standing. When I prodded her further, she said, with a hint of that regal smile: “I meant an absent husband, on the account of his incarceration by the apartheid regime. My second husband will forever be the movement (ANC), until my people are fully liberated. I remain committed to the end.”

Aluta Continua gender activism

Her passing has forced the world to reflect on what a treasure Mama Winnie is to this country, a complex figure to those who think her passing is an “end of an era” but for those empowered by her resilience this marks the beginning of a new era. Hers is a life-story that has gifted generations of women (and men) with an undeniable legacy that should help us keep her undying spirit inspiring all of us to continue fighting for gender equality; it should spur us on to amplify HER voice, and celebrate the strength and resilience of her as a woman.

In my heart of hearts Mama Winnie will forever remain the hallmark of the women’s struggle for liberation. Lala ngoxolo Mama Nomzamo!!!!

More stories in Issue 97

Winnie Mandela Unchained

By Sisonke Msimang

It is no mistake that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was the subject of the poetry of one of the finest American poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, who also happened to be a black woman. No, it is no mistake at all. Through Brooks’s pen we see Winnie Mandela both for what she was — the “ointment at the gap […]

Contributors

Phindile Xaba

She is a seasoned journalist and media practitioner across multiple platforms. She began her career in print media at age 17; and then moved on to explore the TV industry where she worked as a television production manager, scriptwriter, publicist, producer/director, language advisor/trainer and researcher, with some of her work being showcased on SABC, M-Net, […]

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