This month marks the loss of two great black activists from different parts of the globe. Winnie Madikizela Mandela, passed away in a Johannesburg hospital this month, she was 81. She is considered as the mother of the movement against the apartheid regime and often referred to as Mama Winnie. She is known for being South Africa’s first black president’s wife, who kept his name and the struggle alive while he was imprisoned for 27 years. Describing her as Mandela’s first wife, however, does not do justice to her contribution to the struggle or her personal achievements. She took part and organized protests across South Africa; she was a fierce supporter of freedom to the extent of losing her own. She was tortured, jailed, banished and constantly harassed. And later, she was not given the recognition she deserved by those in the ANC. Her legacy was tainted by one particular issue, abduction, assault and murder by the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC).
The MUFC were a group established by Winnie as a place for disenfranchised youth to feel at home, organize, and socialize. They also worked as her security and protection and had even moved with her. Rumors about the MUFC’s abduction, kidnapping and assault against pupils, and the name of one of them, Stompie Seisei, who died in the hands of MUFC, would taint Winnie’s legacy as clarity lacked on her knowledge and involvement in his murder.
The second black activist who was assassinated 50 years ago this month is Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior. He was one of the renowned leaders in the civil rights movement in the United States and his legacy lives on today. He fought for justice, equality and led a non-violent movement in a time that was nothing but violent against him. He was in and out of jail, suffered beatings and constant harassment. It all culminated in his assassination on April 4, 1968 in a motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Being such huge figures in history defining movements, both Mama Winnie and Dr. King attracted the attention of the security and secret service departments of their respective governments. In South Africa, there was Stratcom a group within the apartheid government that was specifically tasked to create and carry out disinformation campaigns. This included propaganda, fake news as well as smear campaigns against those fighting against apartheid. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under the watchful eye of Edgar Hoover was constantly keeping an eye on Dr. King. One of the common ways that the secret services kept track of the movement but also the leaders of these movements was through keeping track of their communications by taping their phones or reading letters or other communication methods. But there was another way they kept track of them, it was through the recruitment of informants.
The existence of informants was known and leaders of movements kept a very close knit circle with regards to information about their next move and decisions affecting the trajectory of the movements. After their deaths, information about informants surrounding Dr. King and Mama Winnie emerged. For Dr. King, one of the main informants was his trusted friend and photographer, Ernest Withers. He followed him everywhere, he even attended strategy meetings.
For Mama Winnie, the previous head of Stratcom, Paul Erasmus who was an operative, revealed that the majority of MUFC were informants. This has certainly come in as a shock to those in South Africa. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Jerry Richardson, coach of the MUFC, officially came out as an informant. However, it was unknown the extent to which Stratcom had penetrated MUFC.
These revelations had me thinking about movements and informants and legacies of leaders. The struggle is in fact real!