MEDIA WATCH

The mystery of Winnie Mandela

It was easy to conclude that the media had found a symbol of black South Africa and did not want to expose flaws

GEORGE BAIN March 20 1989
MEDIA WATCH

The mystery of Winnie Mandela

It was easy to conclude that the media had found a symbol of black South Africa and did not want to expose flaws

GEORGE BAIN March 20 1989

The mystery of Winnie Mandela

MEDIA WATCH

It was easy to conclude that the media had found a symbol of black South Africa and did not want to expose flaws

GEORGE BAIN

Winnie Mandela's fall was a slow-developing story that nevertheless developed too fast. Here, one day, was a personable woman, with a shy smile and a voice full of patience and regret who, in the past couple of years, had become familiar to television viewers everywhere as a symbol of the black struggle in South Africa. The next, she was being denounced in her own community and made an outcast.

The first stories indicative of something wrong made me uneasy. To have something like that pop so seemingly out of the blue, one of two things had to have happened—either I had been more than usually inattentive or essential information had been missing in the reporting from South Africa. One insight I truly missed—and got only late in the day from a book review in an English magazine. It was that she had said once on television, “With our matches and with our necklaces, we shall liberate this country.” As the necklace—a burning car-tire around the neck of a victim—has been used by blacks on blacks as a sort of enforcer’s device, that statement would have quickened realization that this nice lady was not someone to let much stand in her way.

When the focus of the disaffection with her narrowed to the abduction of four youths from a church residence, perhaps by an ambiguous Mandela United Football Club, the story remained somehow still not quite right. Even if a gang of young men loyal to Winnie Mandela had committed a serious crime—club members have been charged with murder—it did not quite make sense that the first instinct of her own people would be to desert the person who had been called “the mother of the nation.” What would have seemed the more natural response, if her heroic image abroad reliably reflected popular devotion at home, would have been to denounce the accusers.

The gradual emergence in news stories of references to its being “not just recent events” that had brought her down, and to a “deeply rooted hostility,” and to allegations of “questionable activities” having circulated for years, scarcely helped. They only deepened the mystery of why nothing had been heard of these before. It was easy to conclude that the international media, aware of the biases of their public at home, had found in Winnie Mandela a convenient and appealing symbol of suffering black South Africa and were not anxious to expose flaws.

While easy—and not altogether wrong— that conclusion was also not altogether right. I have spoken since by telephone with three South African journalists. What follows is an amalgam of what they said.

Winnie Mandela was, to a point, the figure the world saw. True, her status derived largely from her being her husband’s wife. Nelson Mandela, the jailed leader of the African National Congress (ANC), remains the main symbol-bearer of the black struggle. But that was not to depreciate the fact that she had endured persecution with courage and she remained ready to speak out, at some risk, when others were not. At the same time, some less creditable bits of the Winnie Mandela story were swept under the carpet, in part because the media, when the reality diverges from the image, often find it difficult to “prick the image [they] have created.”

When Winnie Mandela returned to Soweto from banishment to a place called Brandfort in 1985, she associated herself with no organization and stood aside from its then-recently reinvigorated political activity. After a time, however, she started out setting up her own “structures”—of which the so-called football club seems to have been the physical manifestation. There is no evident reason to doubt that the football club was different from what would be called elsewhere someone’s “mob.” There were at least two allegations of rape by club members, and kangaroo courts presided over by the ostensible footballers became more assertive. By Mandela’s account, the 14-yearold Stompie Moeketsi, whose murder club members have been charged with, was taken in with three other youths to rescue them from sexual abuse at the church residence; the other proposition is that he was beaten, and his throat slit, as an informer.

The football club is also said to have straddled the outlawed ANC and the legal United Democratic Front and perhaps to have given food and shelter to ANC guerrillas. The guerrillas—average age, 19—would be naturally attracted to Winnie Mandela, as the wife of Nelson, who remained, although in jail, their spiritual leader and who himself had been a guerrilla before that. But even the existence of the football club came out only relatively late, even though “anyone could not have his nose at all to the ground and have any sense of what was going on in the country without being aware of some of the things Winnie was up to.”

Getting at the “why” of the seemingly dilatory reporting results is a quick course in the difficulties journalists face where there is censorship, where government information may contain a quotient of disinformation, where all the electronic media are at the disposal of the government, where there can be no telling what body (perhaps the Mandela football club) may have been infiltrated, and where to give sign of being in possession of information relating to the commission of a crime is to invite being subpoenaed, called before a magistrate, questioned {in camera and without resort to “privilege”)—and, if unwilling to testify, almost certainly sentenced.

One journalist, who holds that if people in Soweto itself had not begun to take action against the crimes of the football club, the media would never have got hold of the story, said: “As long as people feel that any exposure is only going to exacerbate their problems and increase the danger in their lives, things tend to remain rumors. You [as a reporter] have no protection if you can’t rely on victims of assault to come forward and stand their ground under pressure. That is true equally of people who allege assault by the police as of people who may allege assault by the Mandela football club. We [the media] can’t divorce ourselves from circumstances, and there are many circumstances that don’t make for good news coverage—[the risk of] reprisals, beatings, killings, subpoenas, those kinds of things.” It was not offered as an excuse, but an explanation.