2018-04-05 05:00:39 UTC
Tue 3 Apr 2018 15.00 BST
Last modified on Tue 3 Apr 2018 22.00 BST
Heroes are curious things. Ours have roots in the ancient Graeco-Roman
sense of the concept, which places a premium on military victory.
What’s problematic is how many of our heroes embody an inherent level
of violence, as is unsurprisingly the case with people whose main
accomplishments arise from war. We are tolerant about people who
regarded the working classes as an abomination (Wellington), the
transatlantic slave trade as a good idea (Nelson) or Indians as
repulsive (Churchill), because we think the ends – defeating Napoleon
or Hitler – justified the means.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, as the press coverage of her death this
week shows, is not entitled to the same rose-tinted eulogy as our
white British men. She is “controversial” and a “bully”. One newspaper
columnist was boldly willing to abandon his usual restraint in not
writing ill of the dead specially for this “odious, toxic individual”.
The media reports have raised the horrific murder of 14-year-old
Stompie Moeketsi, though few have been unduly troubled by the fact
that this was a crime she always denied any involvement in, or by the
ample evidence of the lengths to which the apartheid regime went to
infiltrate and smear her and her followers.
South Africa's 'Mother of the Nation', Winnie Madikizela-Mandela dies
Sadly, I suspect much of the newly discovered outrage sparked by
Madikizela-Mandela’s death has little to do with any recent conversion
to the cause of Black Lives Matter, or accompanying grief for the fate
of little Stompie – one of so many black children who lost their lives
during the brutality of apartheid and the struggle against it. What
it’s really about is a reluctance to admit that apartheid was so
wrong, and so entrenched; and that without the resilience and vision
of Madikizela-Mandela, and those of her ilk, it would not have been
Britain’s heroes are allowed to have waged war. The warriors against
white supremacist oppression, on the other hand, are not. When, for
instance, I questioned Piers Morgan over the appropriateness of having
a 50-metre column in Trafalgar Square to commemorate Admiral Nelson,
he spat that Nelson Mandela has a statue despite being a “terrorist”.
When I debated with a renowned naval historian over his adulation of
the admiral, the argument wound its way to Haiti – the only example in
history of slaves successfully overthrowing their masters and
establishing their own republic – and whether this was a victory for
the enslaved over their oppressors (my view) or a tragedy for the
plantation owners who were killed in the process (his).
There is no end to the contortions in our psyche. Who now – outside
South Africa, where I have heard its demise lamented more than once –
would defend the apartheid regime? It’s easy to condemn in hindsight.
Yet we have forgotten what it actually takes to overthrow such tyranny
when the legal and moral force of a sovereign state was on the side of
white supremacy. Columnists did not cut it. Activists could not have
done it. Peaceful protest did not do it. Sports boycotts, books,
badges and car boot sales did not do it. It took revolutionaries, pure
and simple. People willing to break the law, to kill and be killed.
Our ambivalence about apartheid is the elephant in the room
It took women such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. She was, as the
world’s media have had to be repeatedly reminded this week, not an
“activist”: she was a leader in a liberation struggle. She survived –
during more than 35 years of apartheid – surveillance, threats,
harassment, arrest and imprisonment, 491 days in solitary confinement
and eight years in exile. The methods of torture used against her
included, according to one account, denying her sanitary products so
that she was found, in detention, covered in her own menstrual blood.
I doubt the Daily Mail, recalling Madikizela-Mandela’s life this week
as “blood-soaked”, appreciated the irony of this choice of phrase, nor
that of judging her – rather than the apartheid regime she helped
overthrow – the “bully”.
Our ambivalence about apartheid is the elephant in the room. As a
nation, one of our techniques for glossing over this uncomfortable
fact has been overly beatifying Nelson Mandela, whose posthumous glory
has always struck me as coming at the cost of forgetting the others.
Who now remembers the names of Robert Sobukwe – the profound
pan-Africanist whose medical treatment for fatal lung cancer was
obstructed by the apartheid government, or Elias Motsoaledi, convicted
at Rivonia alongside Mandela and not released from Robben Island until
26 years later.
Winnie Mandela was loved and loathed, but she earned her place in
history | Ralph Mathekga
We consider Nelson Mandela to be safe because of his message of
forgiveness, because of truth and reconciliation, because he accepted
the Nobel peace prize with apartheid-regime president FW de Klerk –
decisions to which Madikizela-Mandela was fundamentally opposed. She
was a radical until the end. Each rejection of that radicalism is an
endorsement of the tyranny she fought against.
But is it surprising that we endorse it? An endless litany of heroes
were either architects of, or happy to take part in, the very
apartheid Madikizela-Mandela sacrificed so much to help end. Among
them are those at the centre of our current statue wars – Cecil
Rhodes, Lord Kitchener, Jan Smuts – all immortalised on prominent
plinths. It’s hard to resist the conclusion – comparing the fact that
it’s these people whom we immortalise, and those such as
Madikizela-Mandela whom we demonise – that we are still undecided
about which side of history we, as a nation, are on.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Denmark this week unveiled its first
statue of a black woman. It does not commemorate someone who fed
neatly into diversifying the existing order – the limited kind of
black hero we in Britain seem willing to accept – but the “three
queens” of the Caribbean island of St Croix, who led an unprecedented
revolt against Danish colonial rule. Doing so requires Denmark to take
a new look at its true history, seeing through its 20th-century
rebranding as a liberal bastion that saved Jews from the Nazis, and
whose empire was “not as bad as others”.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. We see ourselves as a
moral, decent and rights-respecting nation. But when we are tested for
our true moral grit, we keep failing. The death of Madikizela-Mandela
is another opportunity to choose between a narrative of white
supremacy and the one that overthrew it. If the media coverage of her
death is anything to go by, this is, apparently, a deeply
• Afua Hirsch is a Guardian columnist