The living room of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto home in Johannesburg is all Nelson Mandela – there are portraits, photographs and perpetual reminders of South Africa’s first black President on the walls, floors, tables and showcases.
Yet, the most enduring mental image of Mandela and Winnie is from that bright afternoon on 11 February 1990, when Mandela, in a brown suit and tie, stepped out of the Victor Verster prison in Cape Town, one fist punching the air in a victory salute, the other holding Winnie’s hand.
We meet Winnie in her home in November. She is misty-eyed when she talks about Mandela’s final days, but smiles when reminded of that headline-grabbing moment when he was set free. It is a moment she revisits often, as it signalled the dawn of a new era in South African politics.
February marks a quarter of a century since Mandela’s release from prison.
“Isn’t that amazing? It seems like yesterday,” says Winnie, now 78, when we mention it to her.
She is dressed in the traditional attire of the royal Thembu tribe, worn for a year in honor of Mandela’s passing. She says she will wear it until the ‘cleansing rituals’ on the first anniversary of his death observed in Qunu in South Africa’s Eastern Cape where he was laid to rest.
In December, after the ceremony, Winnie made headlines when she told reporters the Qunu property is rightfully hers, and did not belong to Mandela’s widow Graca Machel, who she famously said ‘owns a whole world’ in her native Mozambique.
She challenged Mandela’s estate, seeking rights to the Qunu home, claiming the land was given to her during Mandela’s imprisonment.
Winnie was married to Mandela for 38 years. The couple divorced in 1996.
During our first meeting in November, Winnie had reiterated that future generations should be reminded that the family’s legacy is not about commercial gain.
“The African National Congress was not the ANC Pty Ltd, as some members of the family think sometimes… every family has its problems, and there are those who seem to think the legacy of Mandela is associated [with] material things. It can never be that… The legacy of this family is a political legacy. Therefore, I thank God it will be carried on by this side of the family.”
“We need to remind future generations that the Mandela legacy is not what you can make out of his name… It’s not about creating entities that are going to give capital to you because you happen to have the last name as Mandela. That was never the case. Our legacy is political, it was never about material gain… It’s not about how many millions you can make out of exhibiting whatever [has] a Mandela face. It’s not about the statues popping up all over the country, it’s not about egos… I never ever wanted to be associated with such things… Ours was a political sacrifice, it was not material.”
Her second daughter Zindzi, also present at the interview, said that those who want to celebrate Mandela should do so thoughtfully.
“We understand that he didn’t belong to us alone. But we never thought that even in his passing, he will still really not be ours, because there are constant reminders… people choose to celebrate him in the way they think fit without thinking of what traditional protocols are required, without thinking that the most decent thing is to consult the family first,” she says.
It is no secret that the Mandela moniker is a money-spinner. His face has graced coins, billboards, paintings and commercials. It has often been reported in the country’s press that his legacy status has been hijacked by government, private institutions, even some members of his own family.
Zindzi claims that people come up with ideas and then go to the family for endorsement. She sees this as a total ‘disregard’ to his wishes.
“In some instances, we have been shocked at how distasteful some of the projects and concepts are, because very often, it’s more about the people themselves as opposed to his legacy. Dad distinctly said when he retired that ‘I want you to rely less on my personal image… and focus more on my legacy. The greatest gift you can give me is to start living my legacy and values in my lifetime and my sunset years…’”
“It is very important for people to always introspect when they are thinking of celebrating him and when they are thinking about living his values. And if they are not sure, just to respect the simple protocol of consultation. Like any other family, we would never embark on a celebration of another icon without recognizing that… he didn’t exist as a tree trunk without branches, he had family. And it becomes so hurtful when it is overlooked.”