Winnie and Post-Truth

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The Cambridge Dictionary defines the phenomenon of post-truth as “relating to a situation in which people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts”. It is a phenomenon that has taken the world by storm since the advent to power of the current President of the United States of America, Donald Trump.

Sadly, the phenomenon of post-truth is not confined to the USA or the West. It has also permeated Africa and South Africa in particular. Take the case of the late struggle icon, Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who passed away several weeks ago.

Just like the rest of us, the late Madikizela-Mandela was not a saint and did not pretend to be one. One thing that we need to acknowledge about her is that she had a complex life that none of us would wish even on our worst enemies. To have been married at a tender age of 23 and to have the joy of living with your spouse snatched from you is an unwelcome prospect. Add to that the constant harassment from the security police, arrest, detention and being sent to unfamiliar territory (Brandfort in the Free State) where the people talk a different language from yours.

Quite amazingly, Mama Winnie was able to bear all of this with remarkable equanimity. Not only that, she was able to move around and do her duties as a former deputy minister and a Member of Parliament with hardly a chip on her shoulder.

From the day that she passed on print, broadcast and social media has been inundated with opinions about her as a person and her putative ‘bad character’. Reams of columns and a myriad of posts on Facebook and on Twitter have been written about her role in the Stompie Seipei murder, the activities of the infamous Mandela football club, her infamous incendiary statement of liberating the country with “tyres and boxes of matches” and her marital infidelities. This has been done by people who know full well that our culture frowns upon speaking ill of the dead when they cannot vindicate their words and actions.

The recent revelations by erstwhile police commissioner, George Fivaz, that there was no evidence linking the late Mother of the Nation to the murder of Stompie Seipei, should have not only shocked us but made us to realize the power of propaganda. Also, former police “dirty tricks” operative Paul Erasmus admitted on national television (eNCA) that police conducted a relentless campaign or operation of besmirching the name of Mama Winnie.

In an operation, sanctioned at police security branch headquarters level or higher, a mixture of fact and fiction was leaked to local and international media on her alleged marital infidelity, on criminal activities of her ‘football club’, and on the death of Seipei. These are the ‘facts’ that most of us swallowed hook, line and sinker when they were reported.

Now that they have shown to been nothing but fiction, we are in cognitive dissonance. Our minds have an image of Mama Winnie as the ‘devil incarnate’ and cannot associate her with any good. We have been ‘socialized’ by the propaganda of the Security Branch to see the late Mama Winnie as an epitome of evil. Indeed, as pointed out elsewhere in this article, Mama Winnie was never a saint but we need to cut her some slack. Mama Winnie was fighting against a system that had been declared by the United Nations as a crime against humanity and its proponents were prepared to go to great lengths in order to defend it. Killings, banning, torture, propaganda and even death were par for the course.

The confessions made by Fivas and Erasmus though belated, especially that of Fivas, are underwhelming. One begins to ask several questions, particularly on the Fivas confession: why now? Would it not have been better to have made that ‘confession’ when Mama Winnie was still alive? What about the damage that has been done to her reputation?

Whereas society in general puts much emphasis on reputation, philosophers advise that character is more important. Reputation is conferred on an individual by media and society from achievements whereas character is a result of upbringing and lived experience and is generally inbred. Reputation can be short lived but character sticks with the person until he or she shuffles off this mortal coil. Character is revealed in crisis situations and it is not determined by them but honed by experiences. Mama Winnie revealed a remarkable character in the face of a concerted onslaught against her and her family that not many of us would have been able to do.

Her death has revealed our hypocrisy in smiling back at her while she was alive and opening a Pandora’s Box of her misdemeanours when she is late. We have religiously clung to the belief that she was evil despite not having empirical evidence of that.

She never climbed rooftops to declare her goodness but the poor and downtrodden among whom she lived know of her role in their lives. Whenever there would be fires in shack dwellings she would be the first to arrive and last to leave. She embodied social responsibility as she assisted many a destitute individual as evidenced by clips played on national television. Maybe we would do well to emulate her selflessness and spirit of sacrifice as we move on to construct a better society. As a flawed individual, she did her part and was not much concerned with her reputation. Someone once said: “sometimes people try to expose what’s wrong with you, because they can’t handle what’s right about you”.

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