When I heard the news that Winnie Mandela had died, I was sad. She made a significant contribution to the struggle against apartheid, but I didn’t intend to blog about it because I didn’t know her well enough, and thought I could leave that to people who knew he and could tell her story.
But what has struck me since then is not Winnie Madikizela-Mandela the person, but rather the Winnie phenomenon. And the phenomenon indicates to me that something has changed in our society and our culture, and the change does not seem to be a good one.
The first thing that struck me was that after her death most of the people who had anything to say about he either had nothing good to say about her, or they had nothing bad to say about her. And the few public commentators who did mention both the good and the bad were attacked by the other two groups, heach of which lu8mped them with the other.
There was a kind of polarization there that, it seems to me, had not been there before. For one group, anything written about Winnie had to be hagiographical or it was worthless. And for the other, nothing good that she had ever done could outweigh the evil, whether real or imagined, or planted by the SB.
The second thing that struck me about it was the personality cult.
Nelson Mandela was sometimes praised for many things, but he always shrugged off personal responsibility for them. He would say that if he said anything good he was speaking on behalf of an organisation, the ANC, and that he was simply enunciating policy decisions of the ANC. It was not anything good on his part, but rather he was part of an organisation that was trying to make a better life for all.
And there was a time, in the 1990s, when that really did seem to be true.
I do think that the ANC made some bad decisions in that time, among the worst of them was the abandonment of the RDP, which Nelson Mandela himself had said, right after the 1994 election, was not negotiable. But that too was a collective decision. It wasn’t just Nelson Mandela arbitrarily changing his mind.
The media helped to develop a personality cult mentality.
Day after day, week after week, they presented politicians as celebs. They reported who was in and who was out, who was favoured and who was disfavoured, and the merits of the policies they espoused were not reported on. One didn’t even know what policies they espoused until much later.
So the Winnie phenomenon that has emerged after her death seems to be all about polarisation and personality cult; whether her persona is regarded as good or evil. Those who are not for Winnie are against her, and those who are not against her must be for her.