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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: Mother Of A Nation by Armstrong Williams

From 1988 to 1991, as Vice President of Government and International Affairs at B&C associates in High Point, N.C, I traveled extensively to South Africa and spent a significant amount of time with Winnie Mandela.

It was a chaotic time. Threats against Winnie's life were frequent. I was there when her home in Soweto was burnt to the ground. On another occasion, the government prohibited Winnie from celebrating the birthday of her imprisoned husband (she later revealed that hey had threatened to blow up the residence of any residence housing the celebration). Winnie defied the order. Some business associates and I accompanied her to the home of a journalist, who had offered to host the celebration. While we were there, screams rang out from the adjoining rooms. Our heads snapped around.

On the dirt road outside of the house were hundreds of South African soldiers, with guns and shields brandished.

"What should we do?" I asked.

"Son, Pray," responded the President of B&C Associates, Robert Brown.

Mr. Brown then dialed the ambassador, who ordered the troops to disperse. We left. The following morning, the house was blown to shreds, killing the journalist and his family.

Winnie responded to this constant threat of violence by surrounding herself with a small cache of militants-largely comprised of ex patriots who had stood along side Mr. Mandela.

Derisively dubbed "Winnie's soccer boys," these thugs followed her everywhere. Even as she publicly spoke about the need to curb racial violence and to help South Africa huddle together as a civilized society, she dispatched her "soccer boys" to intimate her enemies. Often, they would storm violently through the suburbs in intimidation efforts. The message was clear: Winnie was not a woman to be trifled with.

There were many nights when the soccer boys would get drunk and stumble around the Soweto home, scaring guests and pounding on parked cars. They would run into the street and holler chants, then stumble back to their quarters. They were the gangs of Soweto and Winnie was their leader.

As I now read about Mrs. Mandela, age 66, being found guilty on 43 counts of fraud and 25 of theft, I am not surprised. In fact, I don't think anyone who was around Minnie during her turbulent 27 year struggle against apartheid, would be surprised to hear that she has been sentenced to jail. An undercurrent of violence and theft has surrounded her most of her adult life. Even as she earned the adoring nickname "Mother of the nation," it was widely rumored that Winnie was using her "soccer boys" to intimidate her enemies and pilfer funds.

I witnessed the repressive Apartheid regime. I saw how it twisted inward the hopes of South Africa's majority black residents. I saw its arbitrary and brutal face up close. I watched as residents of Alexandria were forced to drink from sewers because they had no running water.

I know that Winnie did what she had to do in order to survive a violent and repressive government. Much of her life was spent on the defensive. Having finally achieved a position of power and authority, she lashed out at everyone in sight.

I understand her anger and her pain. I understand that apartheid created her. I also understand that she must now accept her jail sentence, if South Africa is finally to achieve a nation of laws, not people.

Armstrong Williams can be contacted via e-mail at:

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

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