By Carl Niehaus
Dear Mamma, few people have made the sacrifices that you have made for our liberation. It is worth remembering that you were only a young woman of 23 with two little girl-children when your husband was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. It was only 26 years later that any semblance of normal contact between you could be resumed when he was finally released. For those 26 years the struggle was your life. You never contemplated going into exile.
More than anyone else you became the visible symbol of internal and resolute resistance against the apartheid regime. Madiba was imprisoned and silenced, but you were not to be silenced, you spoke loudly and clearly for him and the banned African National Congress. Not a day passed that you were not harassed by the security police.
Many a time it must have come close to becoming too much, but you never allowed yourself to be intimidated or to show fear for them. Millions of people, inside and outside South Africa, drew on your strength and maintained their commitment and courage because of you. You are truly the Mother of our Nation.
Let us not forget the house arrests, imprisonments, and physical and mental abuse. Banishment to the lonely and dusty Free State town of Brandfort, months and months of detention and solitary confinement. Very few would have maintained their sanity; most of us would not have survived at all …
Of course all of this had to leave deep wounds and scars. The strength of a person should not be measured by an ability to be a robot-like armoured machine, but as a vulnerable human being who has the courage to face up to evil and torture as a person of flesh and blood who feels the pain and suffers the injuries; accepting the awful risk of having to carry the wounds and scars for the rest of your life. Mamma Winnie, that is the courage that you displayed so amply and selflessly.
Yours has not been a shiny, stainless steel-like existence; the scars and flaws of deep hurts and an injured life have all been so publicly visible … There have been far too many, even some who have been part of our struggle and should know better, who have been quick to pass judgement on you.
People who would not have remained standing for a moment, not even to speak about keeping walking, if just a fraction of what you had to face came their way. The Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor sings in the song “Jeremiah”*: “Who will care for my people in their want? They address words to my poor people as though they are nothing. Saying ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace … so many long years of giving my blood. Days without number I dressed their wounds”, and then proceeds with: “a bride will not forget her jewels, a maid not her ornaments, but you have forgotten me.”
Fortunately many have not forgotten or rejected you. Many know that you have been there for us and dressed our wounds, and that we are honour bound to be there for you.
One of the greatest victories of our struggle has been the achievement of a constitutional and law-based democracy. Yes, all are equal before the law … but there is no way that all, as distinguished between struggle heroes and former (and sometimes not even so former) apartheid apparatchiks and apologists, can ever be equal in our care and understanding.
Some of the most painful words that have ever been addressed to me came from someone I greatly care for, who recently wrote: “… you [and by implication she meant many of my fellow comrades too] cannot demand that based on your history in the struggle we must all behave differently toward you.”
I replied: “Should the consequences of what happened during the struggle not impact on how one copes and behaves, or doesn’t? It is such a ‘nice’ hard luxury for those who have not been part of the struggle to argue like this, while now reaping its fruits. … Is there not something like trying to understand how one got damaged, and how desperately one is trying to survive? If this does not impact on how people try to understand how you behave – is that correct? How does one ever heal if this is the case? … The God that I believe in is not hard and unbending. No, He does not condone wrongdoing, but He understands history and the consequences and impact of hurt and the core of His being is love and forgiveness.”
Mamma Helen Joseph, Oom Beyers Naudé, your ex-husband and comrade, Madiba, and so many others understood this. I pray that one day that very dear person, who so uncomprehendingly wrote me those harsh words, and so many others in our nation, will understand it too.
I know that you do not want sympathy (you are too strong and proud for that!), but you do deserve all compassion and understanding, and especially acknowledgement and respect for the immense contribution that you have made to the liberation of our country.
Mamma Winnie, in this your seventieth year I salute you, and as Sinéad O’Connor sings: “I couldn’t thank you in a thousand years if I cried ten thousand rivers of tears.” The refrain of the song is: “I want to make something beautiful – something lovely – for you.” I so pray that all of us will find the understanding, and generosity of spirit, to make this year something lovely for you.