The Methodist Church’s Bishop Gary Rivas calls struggle icon Winnie Madikizela-Mandela “Mama”, a name many who feel they owe her a debt of gratitude for the country’s freedom call her.
However, he is often chastised for doing so and in the wake of her death has even received death threats for calling her an icon.
He told News24 that he had received more than 20 threatening phone calls.
“[There] have been death threats – all of them telephonically, from anonymous numbers or burner phones and those are being followed up by authorities at the moment,” said Rivas.
“I think I have learnt that people will lash out at anything and try and draw in their [own] beliefs. For some people it’s beyond comprehension [that I had a relationship with her]. It goes both ways, black and white,” Rivas said in reaction to the backlash against his views.
Rivas first met Madikizela-Mandela in the late 1990s while he was stationed in Soweto and has grown to see himself as one of her many sons, and was one of the last people to have seen her on the day she drew her last breath.
An ardent churchgoer
The 81-year-old stalwart died on Easter Monday in hospital following a long illness.
“She was completely at peace, she was fine. The one thing about Mama, no matter how many times you went to visit her, I can tell you now that she never spoke about herself or her illness. She would discuss anything except the state which she was in – she completely deflected anything about what condition she was in,” he said of the liberation hero.
Rivas admitted that he had felt some worry for Madikizela-Mandela’s health, but assumed that in keeping with her fighting spirit she would be back on her feet soon – but that was not the case.
The bishop’s insights into the lesser known parts of the global icon’s life echoed those of family representatives and ANC leaders – not only had she refused to move from her beloved Soweto, but she was also an ardent churchgoer.
During Easter weekend her granddaughter Zoleka Mandela posted pictures of Madikizela-Mandela in the red, black and white of the Methodist Church after they had attended a service.
Although the life of the liberation hero has mostly been lauded, others have labelled Madikizela-Mandela unworthy of any praise and evil for the role she played during the apartheid struggle, especially in relation to the death of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei in 1989.
Recent claims have emerged that Jerry Richardson, who was convicted of Stompie’s murder and later died in prison, had not killed the teenager on Madikizela-Mandela’s orders but had done so to cover his own tracks instead, as he was a spy.
‘The opposite of what I expected’
Rivas has taken serious offence to this, saying it’s based on false perceptions and that those who criticised the icon had no clue what she was faced with at the time.
“I felt she was a hero, and I said as much… that she was a hero and an icon. Some racists and those who grew up in apartheid have a huge problem with who Mama was and they cannot actually believe that I would call her a hero and icon.
“I spoke about the government then, and how it would send troops into the townships to kill mothers, fathers, children indiscriminately. So white people [would] send white people into townships to kill – but there are some white people refusing to believe and accept that part of it (history).”
The church leader, who says he grew up privileged and among racists, admits he also initially had a different impression of Madikizela-Mandela before meeting her.
“I grew up with these perceptions of her and I remember specifically going to see her the first time and she was just incredible, she just spoke to me like she cared for me – asked me about my family. She was completely the opposite of what I expected,” said Rivas.
The two grew close following the death of Madikizela-Mandela’s great-granddaughter just before the 2010 World Cup, when he provided pastoral care for the family.
Speaking of his beloved Mama, Rivas said he hoped she would be remembered as South Africa’s strongest leader.
“I worry when I hear people talk about her being a strong woman leader, [it’s] just a sense of patriarchy that comes with it that just drives me completely insane. She wasn’t a strong woman leader, she was a strong leader full stop,” said Rivas.
The bishop said he hated hearing people speak of the icon’s strengths and weaknesses in the same breath.
“I wish they could speak of her in a way that is dignified and honours her like she should be honoured,” said Rivas.
Madikizela-Mandela will be laid to rest on Saturday at Fourways Memorial Park, where her great-granddaughter Zenani is buried.