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Opinion: Criticism of Nelson Mandela unjust

Winnie Mandela blames her ex-husband for letting down black South Africans, but is he guilty?

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela sits next to her former husband, Nelson Mandela, and his wife Graca Machel in the parliament gallery in Cape Town on February 11, 2010 during a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the release of Mandela from apartheid prison. (Schalk Van Zuydam/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — In an interview published by London's Evening Standard earlier this week, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela accused her former husband of betraying black South Africans.

The sensational interview with Nadira Naipaul, wife of author V.S. Naipaul, echoed around the world, but then Winnie issued a statement denying the interview. Naipaul said she stands by her story.

Whether true or not, the controversy deserves scrutiny. After all, few have enjoyed Nelson Mandela’s saintly reputation while still alive. Of course, no one should be above criticism. Those who lived in South Africa in the 1990s remember Mandela as a man of peace who strove for reconciliation between the races. But this same Mandela also refused to stop and to condemn atrocities committed in the name of the African National Congress (ANC) against other black organizations — the Inkatha Freedom Party in particular. 

Thousands of black South Africans died between Mandela's release from jail in 1990 and his assumption of the presidency in 1994. As John Kane-Berman of the South African Institute of Race Relations explains in his "Political Violence in South Africa," South Africa’s descent into a low-scale civil war and the ANC’s nonchalant use of increasing violence to obtain political concessions from F.W. De Klerk’s government must partly be laid at Mandela’s door. 

That, of course, is precisely the kind of criticism that Winnie would never dream of making. Winnie, after all, was never shy about sacrificing other people to accomplish her political aims.

“With our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country,” she famously quipped in 1985, referring to the grisly township practice of looping burning tires around the necks of suspected apartheid agents. Indeed, many alleged government informers (none ever formally accused or tried) perished that way. And when the time came for Winnie herself to get dirty — she was implicated in the torture and death of a 14-year old boy — she did that, too. 

Instead, Winnie’s broadside against her former husband had to do with money. According to the Evening Standard interview, she opined that “[Nelson] Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘white.’ It has a few token blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded … . Look what they make him do. The great Mandela … . They put that huge statue of him right in the middle of the most affluent ‘white’ area of Johannesburg. Not here where we spilled our blood and where it all started. Mandela is now like a corporate foundation. He is wheeled out globally to collect the money and he is content doing that.”