South Africans bid farewell to liberation fighter Winnie Madikizela-Mandela on Saturday in a stirring funeral service at Orlando Stadium in Soweto, with power salutes, tribute songs, tears and cheers.
Supermodel Naomi Campbell choked back tears as she paid tribute to the woman many called the “Mother of the Nation.”
“I love you. Thank you,” Campbell said.
The funeral ended more than a week of mourning for Mandikizela-Mandela, one of the last of the generation of revered anti-apartheid leaders who won freedom for their people.
The succession of memorials and parades since her death on April 2 recalled the outpouring of grief in 2013 after the death of her former husband, Nelson Mandela, who became the face of the South African liberation struggle, partly due to her efforts.
The marathon farewell underscored Madikizela-Mandela’s ability to connect with a young, new generation of black South Africans, demanding radical change to overcome apartheid’s lingering toxic legacy.
Tough, determined, resilient and proud, she withstood imprisonment, solitary confinement, banishment and years of harassment by South African apartheid authorities.
Julius Malema, populist leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, paid tribute to Madikizela-Mandela this week saying, “Such people do not die. They live eternally because their seeds always survive the toughest of conditions. The seeds of a tree grew, even in concrete. They are indestructible.”
“She was rightly seen as the mother of this nation but Mama Winnie was much more than that. She was a heroine of the whole continent, a courageous symbol of resilience for all of us,” Campbell told mourners Saturday.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa paid tribute to her with the salute, “Long live, Winnie Mandela, long live!”
“She has been our big Mama throughout our life.”
Ramaphosa said the apartheid regime in South Africa tried to crush her by imprisoning and banishing her to the remote rural town of Brandt in 1997, but it could not do so.
“They wanted to see her broken, with bowed head and weakened cries, but still she rose,” Ramaphosa said.
“Proud, defiant, articulate she exposed the lie of apartheid. She laid bare the edifice of patriarchy. Loudly and without apology, she spoke truth to power.”
Ramaphosa called Madikizela-Mandela a giant, a pathfinder, a healer and an eternal beauty. He said she suffered, often alone.
“Through everything Mama Winnie endured. They could not break her. They could not silence her.”
When Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison on Robben Island prison and other African National Congress leaders went into exile during apartheid, Madikizela-Mandela took up the struggle, he said.
“She felt compelled to speak out when others were rendered silent. She felt compelled to pick up the spear.”
But the debate that raged on social media and in the comments columns of newspapers this past week underscored the divisions in South Africa over her role. Many argued that she was singled out for unfair criticism because she was a strong black woman. Some suggested a conspiracy against her. Others insisted the darker side of her story should not be brushed aside.
There was a troubling side to her legacy — including her support for the use of “necklacing” by struggle activists during the apartheid era to punish people suspected of being informers to apartheid security police. The practice involved fastening tires filled with gasoline around victims’ necks and setting the fuel alight.
Also controversial were the role of her bodyguards in Soweto in the 1980s, known as the Mandela United Football Club. They abducted people, held them at her home, beat them and tortured and killed some.
In 1999, her head bodyguard, Jerry Richardson, told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that on her orders, he had assaulted a 14-year-old boy, Stompie Moeketsi, also known as Stompie Seipei, for days in Madikizela-Mandela’s home in 1989, before killing the boy with garden shears. He said he also killed a young woman on her orders, and witnessed two other killings. The victims were suspected of being police informers.
Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of the boy’s abduction and of being an accessory to assault and was sentenced to six years in prison. Her sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal, with only the kidnapping charge upheld.
Nelson Mandela and Madikizela-Mandela, wed in 1958, were separated after news of her marital infidelity emerged following his release from prison in 1991 at the end of a 27-year term. They were divorced in 1996.
An online tribute message board conveyed the reverence with which many South Africans regard her.
“You redefined what it meant to be a black woman at a time when women were voiceless. We stand on your shoulders,” Leshoko Pelo wrote.
“Who can ever be able to forget a woman that was bigger than life! You have left an indelible legacy! No matter how much they tried to hide it, it simply emerged,” wrote Norooi Billie.
But Cape Town-based publisher and writer Palesa Morudu argued that South Africans would be denying history if they did not admit she was both a hero and villain.
“This period of national mourning has been as South African as it gets,” Morudu argued in the daily Business Day. “Adherents to the politics of adulation have been in close combat with those who avow the politics of condemnation. Some praise Winnie because she was a fearless fighter for justice and a feminist icon; others excoriate her because she was a violent egomaniac.”
The suffering of those killed by her bodyguards “should not be erased because Madikizela-Mandela has become a feminist icon,” Morudu wrote. “Let us celebrate the glory of her legacy, and condemn its horrors.”