CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Her legacy contested in death as in life, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela — an anti-apartheid activist and the former wife of Nelson Mandela who was known as “the Mother of the Nation”
The funeral was organized by the African National Congress, the governing party that for decades strove to keep her at arm’s length.
The funeral drew luminaries like the leaders of the Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou Nguesso, and of Namibia, Hage Geingob; as well as British model Naomi Campbell and American politician the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Since her death April 2 from a prolonged illness, the ANC, along with its political rivals, has set out to claim Madikizela-Mandela as one of its own, but it was clear for all to see at the funeral that her friends and supporters were not interested in forgiveness or a rapprochement.
“To those of you who vilified my mother, don’t think for a minute that we’ve forgotten,” said Madikizela-Mandela’s daughter, Zenani Mandela-Dlamini, in a defiant tribute. “The pain you’ve inflicted on her lives on in us. Praising her now that she’s gone shows what hypocrites you are.”
A fiery leader with mass appeal, Madikizela-Mandela came to represent a more radical strain of liberation politics than her former husband’s conciliatory “Rainbow Nation” ethos, placing her beyond the orthodoxy of the ANC during the final years of apartheid. But her message resonated with millions of dispossessed South Africans, commentators say.
“She was an African woman who in her attitude, her words and her actions defied the very premise of apartheid ideology and male superiority,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a eulogy Saturday. “Proud, defiant, articulate, she exposed the lie of apartheid.”
“As we bid her farewell, we are forced to admit that too often as she rose, she rose alone,” he added. “Too often, we were not there for her. She bore witness to our suffering. She bandaged our wounds. We did not do the same for her.”
Madikizela-Mandela’s reputation was seriously damaged by accusations that she had ordered the murder of a 14-year-old boy in the township of Soweto — a charge of which she was later acquitted, though she was convicted of kidnapping — and an acrimonious split in 1992 from Mandela amid accusations of infidelity.
In 2016 the ANC had her presented with one of South Africa’s highest honors, the Order of Luthuli in Silver, for her “excellent contribution to the fight for the liberation of the people of South Africa,” but only since her death has the party made concerted efforts to be associated with her.
“She was the most authentic voice of people’s war against apartheid,” said David Makhura, premier of Gauteng province, at the funeral Saturday. “Her abiding fidelity to the masses and the ANC is the stuff made of legend. Death has not defeated her.'’
Flags stood at half-staff across the country and the government arranged a series of official memorials, including a mass event Wednesday that was moved from South Africa’s largest Catholic church to Orlando Stadium to accommodate the crowd. At that event, poet Mzwakhe Mbuli hailed her as “the embodiment of courage. The embodiment of resilience. The embodiment of strength.”
On the same day, the Economic Freedom Fighters, a rival party headed by former ANC Youth League President Julius Malema, held a separate memorial in the town of Brandfort, where Madikizela-Mandela was exiled in 1977 after the Soweto uprisings.
“Winnie Mandela is better than the government of the ANC combined,” said Malema, who is seen by many as an heir to Madikizela-Mandela’s combative tradition, while speaking at her former home.
At the request of Madikizela-Mandela’s family, and despite objections from the ANC, Malema also spoke at the funeral Saturday.
Calling his party “the sons and daughters” of Madikizela-Mandela, he leveled stinging criticism at the governing party.
“You were persecuted by the apartheid regime and disowned by your own,” he said, to cacophonous cheers. “You didn’t know that your organization had been rendered incapable of loving you back.”
“We know what they did to you,” he added. Then, addressing members of the ANC who had been hostile to Madikizela-Mandela, he said: “We see you in your beautiful suits. Betrayers, we see you.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.