I was too young to have any significant memories of the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe. But in the 1980s, I was old enough to bear witness to the struggle against apartheid that was going on across the Limpopo, in neighbouring South Africa. Some of our young schoolmates were kids of exiles living in Zimbabwe. Their struggle was our struggle, too just the Zambians, Mozambicans and Tanzanians had shared the burden of our struggle.
Two names were ever-present on our radio and television news bulletins: one was Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the other was Winnie Mandela. Both were phenomenal in their own ways. I knew there was a man called Nelson Mandela, Winnie’s husband, who had been in jail since the early sixties, which at that age was like another generation back. There were not many images of him except a black and white picture which was used everywhere. It has stuck to memory. Everywhere, it was Free Nelson Mandela!
But it was Winnie Mandela who kept the flame and name alive. She and those who remained outside never stopped knocking on the doors of apartheid. She had an indomitable spirit and I admired her courage. My young eyes also saw that she was very beautiful. I liked Winnie and I hoped that one day I would meet her.
That day came in 2013. I was not a small boy anymore but words cannot describe how I felt in her presence. I had accompanied my boss, Morgan Tsvangirai to South Africa for one of many regional engagements. There was a football tournament in South Africa and on that day there was the final of the African Cup of Nations.
I learnt a bit about “football diplomacy” on this day. All the big people come to such events, ostensibly to watch the football match but really it’s an informal platform to meet, exchange notes and strike deals with peers. They are important “political” occasions to do business without the constraints of formalities associated with meetings.
So, as the water-carrier that I was, I hopped along and found myself in the company of these big men and women, in the section of the very very important people, as they are called. As it happened my seat was not far from Mama Winnie Mandela’s. It was good enough. But at half time I grabbed a moment and we shook hands and chatted a little and told her how much I admired her sacrifices during the struggle. She was very gracious. I was too embarrassed to ask for a photo but the image will forever remain etched in my memory.
Some will say, but Magaisa you’re sugar-coating a complex life. We all have faults and Mama Winnie is no exception. As I have said before, at the end of our lives there is a balance sheet, with assets on one side and liabilities on the other. We strive to count more assets than our liabilities.
I was privileged to have met the icon in person. Many people were in awe of her former husband, Nelson. I was in awe of Winnie. Perhaps it’s because of those 1980s images of her and others fighting a vile system on the streets of Soweto. There was so much violence, blood and death in Soweto sometimes I thought it would never end.
That the system of apartheid eventually succumbed is partly because of efforts of people like Mama Winnie Mandela. But even as apartheid fell in formal terms, she never lost sight of the fact that its effects were still in place and would take time to dismantle. There was, and there is, still work to be done. The baton has been passed on to a new generation. Rest in peace Mama Winnie Mandela.