Madikizela-Mandela funeral attended by tens of thousands

Last-minute compromise between family and ANC enabled party to address mourners

Only a last-minute compromise between the family of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and African National Congress (ANC) leaders enabled South Africa's ruling party to address mourners at the anti-apartheid activist's funeral on Saturday.

On Sunday, South Africa's City Press newspaper quoted unnamed ANC insiders as saying there was a "clear rift" between the Madikizela-Mandela family and the ruling party's leadership at the high-level send-off in Soweto, near Johannesburg.

Tens of thousands of mourners attended the public ceremony at the Orlando stadium on Saturday, where Madikizela-Mandela's coffin was draped in the national flag and given a guard of honour.

Leaders from across South Africa’s political divide also joined the anti-apartheid icon’s extended family to pay their last respects before she was buried at Fourways Memorial Park in Johannesburg.


However, her family was reportedly against the ANC’s participation in the funeral because the former liberation movement’s elites had historically refused to acknowledge the crucial role she played in ending apartheid.

In the end they agreed to allow one ANC official, Fikile Mbalula, to speak. ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa, who gave the official eulogy, spoke in his capacity as South Africa's president.

Madikizela-Mandela became a potent on-the-ground ANC leader in South Africa after her husband, former president Nelson Mandela, was sentenced to life in prison by the apartheid regime in 1964 for treason.


She was tortured, imprisoned and subjected to solitary confinement by state security forces over three decades. But she refused to be broken and kept the Mandela name in the public spotlight until her husband was released from prison in 1990.

The couple divorced in 1996 due to irreconcilable differences.

After apartheid’s demise Madikizela-Mandela was shunned by many political leaders, including those in her own party, because she had endorsed the killing of government informers during the 1980s.

Madikizela-Mandela died suddenly earlier this month aged 81. Since her death, the role she played, and methods she used, in opposing the apartheid regime have been to the fore of a broad public debate around her life.

Addressing mourners on Saturday, Madikizela-Mandela’s daughter Zenani criticised leaders who had led smear campaigns against her mother and isolated her, only to recognise her contribution to the struggle against apartheid after her death.

“It is so disappointing to see how they withheld their words during my mother’s lifetime, knowing very well what they would have meant to her. Only they know why they chose to share the truth with the world after she departed,” she said.

Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, a close confidant of Madikizela-Mandela's, did not hold back either, referring to those who turned their back on her as "traitors".

The former ANC youth league leader, who was expelled from the ruling party in 2012 for bringing it into disrepute, maintained they now appeared to mourn her death more than anyone else’s.

In his eulogy Mr Ramaphosa acknowledged the party had failed to recognise Madikizela-Mandela’s contribution to liberating black South Africans during her lifetime.

“I’m sorry mama that your organisation delayed in according you its honour, to this point in time and moment,” Mr Ramaphosa said before adding: “As president, I will propose that we award you the highest order of our movement, you richly deserve to be awarded.”

Bill Corcoran

Bill Corcoran

Bill Corcoran is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South Africa