Saturday, April 7, 2018

Former Canadian diplomat mourns for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

She was a woman of all walks of life who could not restrain her temper once she noticed an African iks being molested by a member of the minority regime of the then a despotic Apartheid system of South Africa. The Canadian diplomat Gary Bedell first met Winnie Madikizela-Mandela when she accompanied Nelson Mandela on his first visit to Canada and the United States, shortly after his release from Victor Vester prison. Bedell developed a deep friendship with Madikizela-Mandela - a woman he describes as "bigger than life" - that spanned over two decades. It was the summer of 1990, and Gary Bedell found himself standing on a New York City sidewalk arguing with Winnie Mandela. The wife of Nelson Mandela was adamant. She had made her own indelible mark as an anti-apartheid campaigner, a central member of the struggle, during her husband's long imprisonment. And so she would indeed be attending an important meeting with business leaders at the World Trade Centre with the rest of his delegation. He was definitely not going to appear instead on The Phil Donahue Show, as planned.  "Send somebody else to go talk to the housewives of America,"

 Nelson and Winnie Mandela on his release from prison in February 1990

 Mr Bedell recalls Mrs Madikizela-Mandela telling him. "Why does it have to be me?"  Mr Bedell was sympathetic, but Mr Mandela had urged him: convince her. "She was not going. Stubborn as she was," the former diplomat recalls. "In the end I just said: 'You're going to be the one to lose because it's going to be a blank screen and it's going to say: Winnie Mandela didn't show up.'" Mrs Madikizela-Mandela relented, and her appearance on the talk show - broadcast at the time to almost 200 cities across the US - was a triumph. "Leading crowds in her 'Amandla!' (Power!) chant and hailed from midtown television studios to Brooklyn street corners as an inspiration and a role model for African 

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, then-wife of Nelson Mandela, addressing a meeting in Kagiso township in 1986

American women, the anti-apartheid leader delivered potent messages with unflappable dignity," The death of South Africa's veteran anti-apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at the age of 81 has sparked a national debate about how she should be remembered. The more traditional sections of society, including her staunch supporters, want us to remember her as a faultless woman. Others, particularly those who are still in the trenches fighting the old battles in favour of white supremacy, want us to remember Mrs Madikizela-Mandela as a violent and deeply flawed individual. 

Nelson Mandela, Gary Bedell, and Winnie Mandela

But anyone who wants to truly understand the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela I knew needs to go back in time and trace the steps of humiliation she suffered under the racist system of apartheid. She was a freedom fighter; a revolutionary who was at the coalface of the anti-apartheid struggle - not an armchair activist who waged a revolution on Twitter or Facebook. She was left to raise two young daughters when her husband of four years, Nelson Mandela, was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison on the notorious Robben Island prison. The Canadian diplomat - tasked with organising Nelson Mandela's first visit to Canada when he was months out of prison - had met the Mandelas just weeks before. Mr Mandela - still coming to terms with the new realities of his freedom - was grateful for Mr Bedell's advice on protocol, and they developed a rapport. 

Winnie Mandela being arrested in 1991 while staging a protest calling for the release of detainees on hunger strike

He also appreciated Mr Bedell's ability to appease Mrs Madikizela-Mandela's "fierce personality", once joking that the diplomat handled her better than he did. So Mr Mandela asked Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney if Mr Bedell could continue to accompany the couple, joining them on their visit to the United States. Mr Bedell and Mrs Madikizela-Mandela soon formed their own bond over mutual attempts to ensure Mr Mandela, then 72, was given enough time to rest during their whirlwind three-week US tour, which included a ticker tape parade along lower Broadway and celebrities and politicians jockeying for his time. Mrs Madikizela-Mandela too was good, he remembers, showing political instinct and a natural charisma, charming journalists who tried to press her on scandals back home. But amidst the pomp of the tour, Mr Bedell noticed the couple had a naïveté about them. At a glittering celebrity fundraiser in New York, hosted by Robert de Niro, attended by the likes of Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, and Spike Lee, Mr Bedell says: "Winnie turned to me and whispered: 'Who are all these people?'" 

Winnie Mandela and Gary Bedell

 He also noticed early strains between the newly reunited pair. Mrs Madikizela-Mandela was a "very vivacious and passionate woman" and the man she had married had aged during his 27 years in prison.  "You almost got the sense he was more of a father figure to her than a husband at that stage," he says. Those tensions were more obvious when, a few months later, Mr Bedell flew to South Africa at Mr Mandela's request to develop a training programme for protocol staff and to reform their security teams. The challenges Mr Mandela faced as he led the African National Congress in its negotiations for an end to apartheid and worked towards forming a new, multi-racial democracy were obvious. Mr Bedell says nobody carried more pressure than Mr Mandela in the years between 1990 and 1992. "In private he often exploded," he says. "The language was incredible, like a truck driver. Mrs Madikizela-Mandela had her own personal trials. She had been frequently detained during her husband's incarceration - jailed and placed in solitary confinement for her activities, banished to a rural area by apartheid authorities, her house burned down.  She raised the couple's daughters alone.  Her resistance in those years led to her being dubbed the "Mother of the Nation". In her family's recent words, she became "one of the greatest icons of the struggle against apartheid".  "All I know is I am terribly brutalized inside. I know my soul is scarred," she said. Now, she was feeling pushed aside as her husband campaigned for a moderate path towards his goal of national reconciliation.


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