Never far from controversy, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's legacy raises questions over the state of the ANC's ideological project

Underlying all of the challenges is the fact the ANC traded control over the country’s economy in exchange for political power at the end of apartheid

epa06669414 The coffin of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is carried into Orlando stadium for the official state funeral in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa, 14 April 2018. Winnie Mandela, former wife of then South African president Nelson Mandela and anti-apartheid activist, passed away at the age of 81 at a Johannesburg hospital on 02 April 2018.  EPA/STR
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South Africa's struggle for liberation from minority rule is one of the most profound periods in human history. Yet the narrative of that struggle and its key actors are seldom discussed accurately. Their legacies are bitterly contested. Such is the case with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who was given all the pomp of a state funeral when she was buried last Saturday. Madikizela-Mandela, who died at the age of 81, was for some the essence of the struggle, while others saw her as an example of the worst excesses of post-apartheid South Africa. The debate about her legacy should facilitate a fresh discussion about the direction in which the country is heading and the challenges of this chapter in South Africa. But it is unclear if it will.

Best known outside the country as Nelson Mandela's ex-wife, Madikizela-Mandela was a struggle icon who advocated for armed resistance against the apartheid regime. In an attempt to downplay her husband's radicalism, many painted her as a radical liberationist, conveniently forgetting Mandela's own ideas on armed struggle. Regardless, Madikizela-Mandela was one of the most visible African National Congress leaders in the country during the late 1960s and 1970s.

After her husband was sentenced to prison, she crossed political boundaries by working with Black Consciousness Movement activists in defiance of ANC leaders who were at odds with the movement. The apartheid government blamed her in part for the 1976 student uprisings, imprisoned her and banished her to a remote town in the Free State. There, she organised black residents and continued to recruit for the ANC’s armed wing.

She faced the brutality of the regime while standing up to her own community as a woman. Sean Jacobs, a South African writer and an associate professor at The New School in New York, remembers footage of Madikizela-Mandela as a pallbearer, carrying the coffins of fallen activists. Such displays were reserved for men and her actions forced the ANC to reconsider the place of women in the struggle. Those simple acts are still remembered today, especially among ordinary South Africans.

In the mid-1980s, Madikizela-Mandela moved back to Soweto and became enmeshed in a new militant form of politics. The creation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, a national federation of black trade unions, resulted in a mass movement against apartheid. The fight was open now; boycotts took place across the country and there was no need for individual leaders such as Madikizela-Mandela. She returned to a political environment she didn't recognise and her response at the time continues to divide opinion in South Africa.

She began wearing military uniforms, moving with bodyguards and overseeing a gang called the Mandela United Football Club. This gang terrorised Soweto in search of “traitors”, kidnapped many and subsequently killed 14-year-old Stompie Seipei. In 1991, Madikizela-Mandela was found guilty of killing Stompie, but the sentence was reduced to a fine.

After apartheid ended, she was given ministerial posts in her ex-husband’s government, but was later dismissed over “irregularities” in her office. In 2003, she was found guilty of fraud and theft charges relating to loan applications for funeral policies in the ANC’s Women’s League, which she was leading at the time. Despite the corruption, she continued to break ranks with the ANC, especially over the Aids denialism of the Thabo Mbeki era in the early 2000s.

Underlying the debate over Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy is a conversation about the state of the ANC and its ideological project. After more than two decades of democracy, the ANC has not be able to deconstruct the economic foundations of the country. Unemployment is sky-high, millions of people live in poverty and wealth is concentrated in a small number of hands. Walking around parts of Cape Town, one would think apartheid has merely been updated. Rich and poor are separated while black labour remains exploited. Moreover, there is a clear lack of opposition politics.

The country's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has operated a staunchly anti-Jacob Zuma political platform over the last decade. With Zuma out of power, the DA is struggling to carve a platform that is genuinely different from the ANC. The Economic Freedom Fighters, the other opposition party, is also guilty of owing too much to anti-Zuma politics. Seizing on Madikizela-Mandela's struggle legacy, the EFF is the only party to use her radicalism and rejection of the ANC in any meaningful political framework.

The bigger problem is the ANC itself. Having allowed Mr Zuma to stay in power so long, the party was at risk of losing its singular ability to govern. But it seems to have remedied the problem at the last minute with the election of Cyril Ramaphosa. With the opposition offering no real alternatives, Mr Ramaphosa will likely secure the presidency for the ANC for the foreseeable future. But like Madikizela-Mandela, Mr Ramaphosa has a chequered political history that includes involvement in the killing of striking mine workers at the Marikana mine in 2012.

Underlying all of the challenges is the fact the ANC traded control over the country's economy in exchange for political power at the end of apartheid. Economic power and control over South Africa's most powerful companies were left in the hands of white businessmen. A select group of ANC insiders such as Mr Ramaphosa were given positions on the boards of these powerful companies, but ultimately the ANC negotiated away its economic clout in a manner that facilitated corruption.

Decades later, this corruption is unavoidable and constitutes the country's greatest challenge. Struggle icons such as Madikizela-Mandela highlight this tension and capture the pitfalls of liberation movements.