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the Toronto Star

Winnie and MLK: Their Fight was Right — and It’s Not Over

The pursuit of racial equality in South Africa and the United States, begun decades ago, still resonates today.

Winnie Mandela, the ex-wife of South African anti-apartheid fighter and former president Nelson Mandela, died on April 2 after a long illness at the age of 81. They are seen here at a 1990 rally in Soweto celebrating Nelson Mandela’s release from jail.

Winnie Mandela, the ex-wife of South African anti-apartheid fighter and former president Nelson Mandela, died on April 2 after a long illness at the age of 81. They are seen here at a 1990 rally in Soweto celebrating Nelson Mandela’s release from jail.  (Trevor Samson/Getty Images)

Fifty years ago this week, the civil rights struggle of Martin Luther King Jr. ended tragically with his assassination on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. As this was happening in 1968, the struggles of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in apartheid South Africa were only beginning.

The dramatic stories of their lives were being remembered this week in the world’s media, but often in selective, self-serving ways. Largely lost in this haze of popular history was what linked them together. 

Although living far from each other in distant worlds, these were two profoundly radical, even revolutionary leaders whose withering analyses of their societies’ racism endure to this day.

With Martin Luther King, his life was celebrated in the U.S. on Wednesday’s 50th anniversary of his death. But he was largely being recast as a widely loved non-violent moderate, instead of what he was at the time of his death: an increasingly unpopular critic of a corrupt and unequal economic system.

With Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who died Monday at the age of 81, she too was being selectively recast in the Western media. To many outside of South Africa, she was being remembered primarily as the former wife of South African icon Nelson Mandela — and a puzzling figure who kept becoming embroiled in controversy and scandal.

But to many within South Africa, she was far more than that, and the widespread sadness at her passing was evidence of that. 

While her husband was in jail — and kept silent — between 1964 and 1990, Winnie was the spirit of the resistance, the young mother who refused to be broken. By surviving decades of torture and cruelty by South African police, including long periods of internal exile and solitary confinement, she was an inspiration to generations of South Africans.

Charlene Smith, a South African biographer of Nelson Mandela, described Winnie as “the conscience of a nation” who deserves empathy: “When Mandela went to jail, he was comparatively safe compared with the perilous life she experienced. The apartheid state punished her because of him … She was tortured beyond anything anyone should endure.”

Winnie was also far more radical than her former husband, and was at times critical that Nelson Mandela didn’t move more forcefully to eliminate poverty still suffered by black South Africans.

In a similar sense, Martin Luther King Jr. was also becoming more radical in the final years of life as he dwelled on America’s inequality — and was therefore increasingly unpopular among the American political establishment.

In fact, before his death in 1968, “King was well on the way to becoming a pariah,” according to Gary Younge, author of a book about King and editor-at-large for The Guardian

“By the long, hot summer of 1967,” Younge writes, “King had, in the midst of the cold war, moved on to questioning capitalism.” He quoted King as saying in August, 1967: “We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society.” 

None of that was recalled by America’s leaders in the tribute to Martin Luther King on Wednesday. 

In South Africa, there will be a memorial service and a state funeral for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela next week. 

South African satirist Trevor Noah said that people haven’t forgotten that, when Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders were in jail, the movement was held together by women, led by Winnie:

“I grew up in a world that was very matriarchal and where women were the most dangerous freedom fighters that existed. Nelson Mandela was an icon but the police in the country were afraid of Winnie Mandela. We had a phrase in South Africa that we still use today: … ‘You strike a woman, you strike a rock.’ ”

In the fullness of her life, Winnie was flawed and imperfect, more of a victim of apartheid than a victor over it. But for many, she was their “rock” during South Africa’s darkest hours, and the outpouring of grief next week is expected to be enormous.

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Tony Burman

Tony Burman

Tony Burman is former head of Al Jazeera English and a freelance contributor for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyBurman

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