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.