ANC no longer owns past
The past is no longer what it used to be. There was a time when the past was a straight line. There were good guys and there were bad guys.
The apartheid monster was exactly that – monstrous.
And the African National Congress was noble, shiny, valorous and, well, always right.
The past could be relied upon to weave magic. Come election time, you could haul out your stalwarts and your glorious achievements and parade them before the adoring populace. The ANC did not need posters and complicated political messaging. The past was always there to do the hard work.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s death complicates all that. As she was laid to rest, some of our heroes were remembered not as such great heroes anymore, while some villains got a second lease on life.
For the ANC, Winnie was in life largely “ungovernable”. She did not do politics the ANC way – where the “movement” was paramount, where edicts from the top were sacrosanct.
When the ANC issued an edict from Lusaka for her to disband the notorious Mandela United Football Club, she told them to go jump in the lake.
She defied the party and tried to stand against Jacob Zuma in 1997 for the deputy presidency of the party. In Mandela’s cabinet, she charted her own path.
For the past 20 years, the ANC essentially walked away from Winnie Mandela and guaranteed her only one thing – a parliamentary seat and salary. She got no love, no kudos, not much acknowledgment. When Thabo Mbeki swatted her aside at a rally in the 2000s, there was no one except today’s much-maligned journalists to express outrage.
So last week’s ANC events attempting to honour and almost beatify Winnie were interesting. They were interesting because none of that stuff washed.
The organisation which had not lifted a finger as her Brandfort “cell” (the house she was banished to) fell into ruins, despite R3-million being allocated to it being turned into a museum, was scrambling to appear as if it was always there for her.
Ace Magashule told a memorial that she hadn’t been honoured in life because that was not ANC tradition – apparently in the ANC you have to die first to be honoured.
The past week has been extraordinary for the sheer straining by the ANC to appear central or relevant to Madikizela-Mandela’s later life. In death, Winnie has been as uncomfortable for the ANC as she was for the organisation in life.
The public pronouncements of adoration have been fulsome. But where were they the past 20 years?
The truth is that the ANC chose Nelson Mandela and not Winnie. It was Bantu Holomisa, Julius Malema and a few others – Tokyo Sexwale, perhaps – who were a constant presence by her side.
It was thus a totally un-ANC grouping that owned Winnie these past two weeks. Was she a feminist icon? It was the energetic young feminist movement built around some elements of the global feminist consciousness that fought for her to be remembered in this way. It certainly wasn’t the incoherent and ideologically confused Bathabile Dlamini.
Was Winnie smeared and victimised by the apartheid establishment? It wasn’t the ANC that pushed this narrative to “take back” Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy.
It was the EFF and others. The ANC shrilly jumped on the bandwagon much later.
So what does this all mean? The ANC’s dominance of our political landscape has always been largely because of its reliance, like so many other liberation movements, on history. It owned the history and could tug on all our heartstrings through this history.
No more. Haul out Winnie and she belongs to the feminist movement, to the young radical movement that animates the EFF and the old radicals of the Pan Africanist movement.
Does Winnie belong to the ANC? Look at Magashule, who did nothing about her Brandfort house yet spent R20-million on his send-off from the Free State. Then look me in the eye and tell me you honestly believe she does.
So next year’s election will be interesting for the fact that the ANC may not find its struggle history as useful as it used to be. Its record since 1994 will be what is under scrutiny. The past no longer belongs to it, and it is no longer what it used to be.