Coverage of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s Death: Defaming an Anti-Apartheid Icon

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has long been revered by generations of South Africans as a revolutionary icon who led the fight against South Africa’s white minority rule during the country’s apartheid era.

Therefore, it was with grief that South Africans received the news of Madikizela-Mandela’s death. Despite her severe health complications, she continued her decades-long struggle against racial discrimination.

The heartfelt response on the part of the South African youth was overwhelming, as thousands remembered her as a true fighter, a dignified mother and a role model.

Others honored her perseverance in the face of what many deemed to be a continued government effort to silence any African voice fighting for liberation.

Initially, international coverage of her passing seemed to reflect the public’s grievous tone. U.S. publications such as The Washington Post hailed Madikizela-Mandela as a brave fighter under the apartheid regime, while The New York Times stated she had undoubtedly earned her place in the “Pantheon of South Africa’s liberators.”

Other major outlets from around the world adopted a similar approach and reiterated her triumphs as an activist whose life was characterized by her struggle for racial equality.

However, within these obituaries, the focus was mainly put on her title as Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife or the scandals which supposedly led to her downfall.  

This was made evident in the BBC’s obituary of Madikizela-Mandela. In its opening lines, the allegations of fraud, murder and dishonesty made against her were immediately brought forward.

In a similar fashion, Reuters introduced the anti-apartheid icon as “an iron-willed ideologue ruthless in her pursuit of revolution and redress.”

In addition, the Reuters article immediately compared her “radical” tendencies to Nelson Mandela’s passive ideology and, in turn, deduced that her savagery was the reason for their divorce.

Anton Harber, media professor at Johannesburg’s Wits University, explained that this phenomenon occurred due to news outlets’ decision to portray the revolutionary icon through two competing caricatures: “Winnie the extraordinary hero” and “Winnie the witch.”

These simplistic depictions erased all nuances and as a result, dehumanized Madikizela-Mandela in the eyes of the public.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the “apartheid-era propaganda machine”

At her mother’s funeral on April 14th, Madikizela-Mandela’s daughter claimed that the tone of news coverage was reminiscent of apartheid-era propaganda which sought to dismiss the activist by waging a destructive media campaign against her.

According to journalist Ra’eesa Pather, news outlets continuously reported on these same allegations of fraud, murder and torture in order to marginalize Madikizela-Mandela from her own base.

Information released in the documentary “Winnie” revealed that during the 1980s, a group of approximately 40 journalists formed part of a covert unit called Stratcom. The unit worked to release misinformation about prominent anti-apartheid figures at the order of the South African government.

One of the most prominent stories used as part of Stratcom’s media campaign against Mandikizela-Mandela was the murder of 14-year old Stompie Seipei.

The young boy who fought alongside the anti-apartheid activist was supposedly accused by her supporters of being a police informant. South African news outlets reported that in retaliation Madikizela-Mandela ordered Seipei’s killing.

The coverage of the murder was allowed by the South African government despite the restrictions placed upon the media during the country’s state of emergency.

According to Vic McPherson, former director of Stratcom, the reason why they exclusively lifted all restrictions on the coverage of Seipei’s murder was because it was deemed a necessary part of the psychological warfare that South African President P.W. Botha wanted waged against the “enemy.”

Despite it being later revealed that the individual who killed Seipei and then accused Madikizela-Mandela of orchestrating the execution was himself a police informer, the coverage of the crime deepened divisions among black South Africans and weakened the anti-apartheid movement.

In an interview shortly after the murder, Madikizela-Mandela told the public that these news reports were part of a unified effort to “destabilize the political situation in black communities.”

Furthermore, these divisions would allow them to retain power. Even if they released Mandela, in-fighting would inhibit any type of mass political mobilization.

The former director of Stratcom also revealed that the efforts to diminish Madikizela-Mandela’s character continued into the 1990’s when they worked on a documentary, in collaboration with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which depicted her as a black radical who posed a serious threat to national security.

As a result, Madikizela-Mandela was listed as an international terrorist by the American government and barred from entry into the country when her husband was to visit the U.S. after his release.

It became increasingly clear to many South Africans that the global attention that Stratcom brought toward the case was going to personally damage Madikizela-Mandela’s image and allow the apartheid-era government to achieve their ultimate goal of political neutralization.

South Africans reclaim Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy through Twitter

As South Africans shared the obituaries which, once again, reduced the activist to the brave yet brutal ex-wife of Nelson Mandela, they made clear that this was not the Winnie they knew.

Twitter users have actively defied the dichotomy of “Winnie the extraordinary hero” and “Winnie the witch” and instead portrayed her as a complex human being “who was not a saint but a revolutionary.”

In particular, many stated that it was highly important for international media outlets to understand that they must refrain from characterizing anti-apartheid figures when they know little about the suffering of black South Africans during this time.

Allowing her to be remembered with dignity would finally serve as a means to repay her for her endless fight against injustice.

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