In 1988, I found myself in a peculiar situation. Four years earlier, I had fallen in love and had a child with a man who soon after had to leave the country, in order to save his life. For my own protection, I was never fully made aware of what the situation was about, but I knew that we were all in danger, for something my partner did not do.
As a mother and the financial head of my immediate and extended, I had to be strong and carry on as if all was well. As a Singer and Performer, it fell on me to bring hope, joy and comfort to others through my work, whilst deep inside I was pained and frustrated on every front. As a 36 year old woman, not so bad looking, I would sing and dance on stage, entertaining and making happy, crowds of adoring fans and then go home alone, lonely and depressed. But I would carry on, fighting to have my partner’s name cleared.
Some people, highly placed, with connections to the Government, at the time, were very helpful. They intervened, though unsuccessfully. If they could not intervene, they at least heard me out and offered encouragement, people like MKO Abiola and Alhaji Maitama Sule.
Others took advantage of the situation, to humiliate me. A NewsMagazine Editor who now publishes a foremost Nigerian Newspaper, invited me over to his office, ostensibly for an interview about the Music Industry. He ended up not publishing a word I said, but wrote extensively about my relationship with my then beleaguered partner. A journalist friend read this piece like many others and the next time she saw me, moved quickly away, asking me not to sit near her as she did not want to be identified with me. I was shunned by many.
Late one night during this period, I was as usual alone, watching a TV Movie/Documentary( Television was a close companion of mine), about the political travails of Nelson and Winnie Mandela in Apartheid South Africa. I was deeply moved. I cried my eyes out, with the realization that as difficult as my life was, it could not be compared with what Winnie Mandela was going through.
I was no Winnie Mandela for sure, but I could identify with her loneliness and some of her pain. That night, I could not sleep. I had to put my pain to a song. I needed to give something back to Winnie for the sacrifice of her life to the Apartheid struggle, in which every decent human being had a stake. I saw her sacrifice as a global one, made by an African Woman, brave and courageous beyond words, for her man and her country.
In a matter of hours, I had written the song “Winnie Mandela”. I called my Producer, Lemmy Jackson who quickly booked a recording studio and within weeks, we had completed the recording. It was embedded in the album “Dancing In The Sun”.
Nigerians loved the song and still do. When Nelson Mandela visited Nigeria in 1990, along with Winnie, following his release from prison, Nigerians sang along with me at the National Stadium, at a Command Performance, in honor of Madiba. A surprised and moved Winnie Mandela broke down in tears. Some journalists described it as the first time she had been known to cry in public.
After the memorable rendition, Mrs Mandela thanked me with a light kiss on the lips while her husband gave me a fatherly hug.
As a young African Tour Guide at the United Nations who conducted visitors around the United Nations Headquarters in New York in the late 70s, I was decidedly anti Apartheid. I made the extra effort of attending meetings wherever the issue was debated. In the Security Council, Trusteeship Council, and the General Assembly , to remain informed about developments in Southern Africa.
Before deciding to return to Nigeria in 1980, I had been enlisted as a UN Electoral Officer in Namibia. South Africa was the Administrative entity of the South West African Territory, which had been under the colonial control of Germany, during the League of Nations, before World War 2. Had South Africa not reneged so many times on its promise of Independence for Namibia, perhaps my life would have taken a different trajectory, as a UN Electoral Officer there. However my visual exposure to the Movie/Documentary of the Mandelas, brought home to me, the savagery of the brutality meted out to a woman, Winnie Mandela, for standing on her rights, by her man and her people. She was defiant, in the face of unbelievable physical, emotional and mental torture, humiliation, intimidation and threats to her life and that of her two young children did not stop her. She did all in the absence of her husband, Winnie Mandela stood her ground. With uncommon courage, she faced down White South Africa, a killer regime and insisted on freedom or nothing. She kept hope alive for her husband and the ANC. Winnie was often yanked away from home in the middle of the night, without being allowed to arrange for a relative to take care of her small children and not knowing for some time, whether they were dead or alive. That is enough to break any mother. But she carried on.
Winnie Mandela spent months in solitary confinement, in small spaces, and in remote areas. She was not allowed to bathe or use sanitary pads during her periods. She made friends with and had conversations with the ants and cockroaches in her tiny cell, for company.
I had the honor of attending the Inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first Black President of South Africa. By that time, Winnie’s relationship with her husband had soured as she was accused of all manner of atrocities. Yet no one stopped to take stock of what she had gone through and how much she may have been affected and even damaged by the very inhumane and degrading treatment White South Africa gave her.
I took time to speak with a White South African driver on the way to the Inauguration and it became clear to me that even more than Madiba himself, White South Africa feared and despised Winnie Mandela and the threat her fiery spirit and charismatic leadership posed to them and their future in South Africa. My taxi driver had no kind words for her and not surprisingly so.
As we exited the Inauguration grounds awash with a new hope and expectation of the possibilities accruable to Black South Africa, I could not help but rue the demonization of Winnie Mandela. At a time when there should have been a torrent of accolades and appreciation for her sacrifice for the freedom that had come, there was hatred, fear and denial.
I had hoped to see Winnie, center stage at the inauguration but I did not, not at the Pre-Inauguration Breakfast with the Heads of States and not at the stadium. I felt sad leaving without even sighting her. Just then, came the first shout of “Onyeka!” then more and Rear Admiral Allison Madueke, another member of the Nigerian Delegation pointed to the towering figure of a woman and a younger lady, screaming and running down to where we stood. It was Winnie Mandela and her daughter, Zindzi. The receding stadium stood still, for moments, wondering who this person “Onyeka” was, for whom Winnie Madikezi Mandela was displaying such excitement. But the three of us were engulfed in a group hug, still screaming and all talking at the same time. Winnie kept shouting “you came”, “you came”. She knew that she was the reason I came to South Africa, not Madiba.
In the report of Winnie Mandela’s death by CNN, there was a news clip of a recent interview where a Reporter asked Winnie Mandela, if the liberation struggle had been worth the sacrifice she made. I saw what was for me a most poignant moment.
Winnie Mandela, with a residue of defiance simply answered “Yes! We won”. I also saw the pain underneath the facade.
Rest In Peace, my dear friend, rest in peace. Indeed you won. May your Soul find succor at the feet of the Lord. We will not forget your sacrifice, your bravery, as you took on an evil force on our behalf. Thank you, Winnie Mandela. Rest In Peace.
WINNIE MANDELA SONG