CAUGHT up in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, I, too, sang:
Bring back Nelson Mandela.
Bring him back home to Soweto.
I want to see him walking hand in hand
With Winnie Mandela -- tomorrow!
And when that scene actually took place on Feb. 11, 1990, few were happier than I that, as Mr. Mandela took his long walk to freedom, Winnie was there by his side, beaming, triumphant.
To American blacks in need of superheroes, Nelson and Winnie were perfect -- so perfect that America's favorite dad, Bill Cosby, had the grandchildren on his television sitcom named Nelson and Winnie.
One of my greatest fears was Nelson Mandela, so long a cause -- a myth more than a man -- would fail to live up to our Q expectations, much like Alfred Dreyfus. Some 84 years before, Dreyfus, a French military man, had left Devil's Island after more than a decade of imprisonment on trumped-up charges he was a spy for Germany.
Mr. Mandela, whose cause was championed by intellectuals, entertainers, athletes and politicians, has fared much better in his post-imprisonment public life than Dreyfus, whose cause had been similarly championed by a left-leaning set but whose rectitude and conservatism made him pretty much a dud as a longed-for, anti-establishment symbol.
Mr. Mandela, who has disappointed only in that he is not a messiah, has maintained his heroic status, a man seemingly as noble now as when he issued his parting words April 20, 1964, during the trial that led to his imprisonment. Back then he said:
"I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
A forgiving man
Yet in our admiration of him -- especially his ability to forgive those who were responsible for his long imprisonment on Robben Island -- we have conveniently forgotten, or have chosen to overlook, that freedom ain't free.
Nelson was a freedom fighter whose friends included -- and still include -- antagonists to America like Moammar Khadafy. In becoming "the father of a nation," as he put it in his 1994 autobiography, he neglected his wife and his children upon his ++ release from prison.
But, saddest of all, Winnie -- Mother Africa that we wanted her to be -- was not a good or faithful wife to Nelson. Upon their divorce, we learned she had refused even to share a bed with him, though we now know she had no such reluctance with other men.
Winnie was -- and remains -- a figure who evokes great sympathy. After all, during the decades her husband was in prison, she was tormented by the white supremacist regime, imprisoned and even sent into internal exile in a bleak, remote part of South Africa. Nelson wrote in his autobiography, "My wife's life while I was in prison was more difficult than mine."
South Africa's extraordinary Truth and Reconciliation Commission is now looking into allegations Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, as she is now known, took part in human rights abuses, including more than a half-dozen murders. Of all the horrors of the apartheid years that have been exposed as the commission offers amnesty in exchange for full disclosure and genuine expressions of remorse, this current phase is most painful to monitor from afar.
Would that freedom did not exact such a high price. But freedom ain't free, and Winnie is hardly the saint we'd have her be.
E.R. Shipp is a New York Daily News columnist.
Pub Date: 12/15/97