When news broke on April 2 that South Africa's iconic anti-apartheid leader Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had died at the age of 81, the media went to work characterising her life.

But in the days after her death, many took exception to the way her obituaries read.

Much of that coverage either reduced Madikizela-Mandela to the "former wife of Nelson Mandela" or made her a caricature of an angry, vengeful woman who had lost her way - rather than considering her decades-long struggle to end white-minority rule in South Africa.

"The obits were flat. They just didn't have the kind of work that should've been done for this individual," says Gugulethu Mhlungu, a host with Radio 702, "if you were relying on, I think, media coverage, it wasn't substantive."

In the 1960s, the African National Congress (ANC) was banned with many of its leaders in jail or in exile. The apartheid government had forbidden the media from covering the ANC in any way that was deemed to advance its agenda.

With no visible leadership, in person, or in the media, the liberation struggle hung in the balance. It was Madikizela-Mandela, a young mother at the time whose husband was serving a life sentence on Robben Island, who picked up the mantle.

She kept that voice alive at a time when it really went dead inside the country.

Anton Harber, media professor, Wits University

For all those years that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, Mama Winnie, as she was known, moved to the front line in the fight against white-minority rule, earning her the respect of her people and the ire of the apartheid-era government.

"She kept that voice alive at a time when it really went dead inside the country," says Anton Harber, a media professor at Wits University. According to him, Madikizela-Mandela seemed to live without fear at this time, speaking out for her jailed husband and for the banned ANC.

Over the next two decades, the apartheid-era government went to great lengths to silence Madikizela-Mandela. She was kept under constant surveillance, harassed, frequently jailed and spent months in solitary confinement where she was reportedly tortured and demeaned.

In the end, the government blamed the 1976 Soweto uprising - which claimed the lives of hundreds of black youths - on Madikizela-Mandela, and in 1977 she was banished to a small farming town called Brandford.

Eight years later, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela defied the government and returned to the media spotlight. This time, the world saw a different side to her - with ratcheted up rhetoric, a new militancy.

By the mid-1980s, political unrest and violent uprisings were widespread, the armed struggle against apartheid was intensifying - but so was the propaganda war.

The apartheid government created a covert unit called Stratcom tasked with waging psychological warfare on black South Africans by - in part - discrediting their leaders in the media. There were as many as 40 journalists working directly or indirectly for Stratcom who would deliberately disseminate misinformation and propaganda about Madikizela-Mandela.

"The government pretended it was conducting this war by parliamentary rules. When in fact, it was conducting a dirty war," says Sean Jacobs, an associate professor at The New School. 

Three days before Madikizela-Mandela's funeral, a documentary called "Winnie" aired in South Africa. Using interviews with former Stratcom agents, it showed how the unit had orchestrated the media campaign against Madikizela-Mandela.

For many viewers, it illustrated how insidious the apartheid government could be and quite how damaging the coverage was because, even after Madikizela-Mandela's death, it still reverberated.

For author Sisonke Msimang, the documentary provided an opportunity for South Africans and their media to have a more nuanced discussion about the life and legacy of the anti-apartheid stalwart.

"This is not about whitewashing history and pretending that Winnie Mandela was a perfect warrior, it's not about pretending as though there weren't missteps that she made, but it is about broadening the view of what her contribution was to the history of this country beyond the years between 1986 and 1989."

Contributors:
Gugulethu Mhlungu, radio host and writer
Ra'eesa Pather, journalist, Mail & Guardian
Sisonke Msimang, author, Always Another Country
Anton Harber, media professor, Wits University
Sean Jacobs, associate professor, The New School

Source: Al Jazeera News