I have been wanting to write this article for a while but I have been putting it off because I was concerned that instead of it being a celebration of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela it would wind up being an anti Madiba diatribe. This is mostly because of the frustration I have felt towards what has become a cult of personality of this great leader (Madiba) established by those around him and the international media, somewhat adulterating the liberation struggle in South Africa to centre it on a single man ultimately undermining the suffering and struggles of other person of colour (POC) South Africans who were not “lucky” enough to have attained international and national love and adoration for surviving such hardship and challenging the inhumane and oppressive racist system that was apartheid. I feel I have reached a point where I can finally attempt to write a piece that celebrates one without necessarily attacking the other because far be it from me to besmirch one of the greater liberation leaders on the continent.
On a continent like ours that has a vast and painful history of oppression, occupation and exploitation and whose legacies still exist today it is no surprise that there are many s/heroes that feature in this history that fought for the liberation of the indigenous peoples of this land. Although in this struggle towards freedom, both men and women played crucial roles in mobilizing, organising and fighting for this freedom, it is mostly just the men who are acknowledged, celebrated and immortalised. This is true in many countries across the continent and it is true in South Africa.
On December 5, 2013, Nelson Rolinhlanhla Madiba Mandela journeyed on and joined his peers and comrades who had gone before him in the land of the ancestors and the whole world mourned. He was indisputably a great man and a true leader. He was also man and leader fortunate enough to not only have had the support, strength, comradeship and guidance of his fellow struggle s/heroes but also that of his second wife and partner Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela-Mandela.
Often times in public discourse, particularly in the international spaces, sole accreditation for the realisation of a free and democratic South Africa goes to Madiba at the expense of all others, particularly Winnie, who fought just as passionately and valiantly against the apartheid government.
Many people choose not to give Winnie the recognition and credit she deserves for the tremendous role she played in not only fighting the oppressive racist system while her husband sat in a jail cell on Robben Island serving a life sentence but also in bringing the world’s attention (the same world that at that time considered Madiba a terrorist) to the plight of her husband and that of millions of other person of colour South Africans under this oppressive government. People are quick to forget and dismiss the greatness, strength and value of this woman’s contribution and choose to isolate and focus on the negative choices she made during this time of struggle while at the same time deifying her late ex-husband erasing any all of his own flaws.
Winnie Madikizela Mandela was born Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela in rural Transkei and later moved to Johannesburg to become the first brown (black) social worker in South Africa. Because it is not easy to translate indigenous vernacular names into another language particularly English, without actually losing the true meaning, essence and the nuances of the name I am often loathe to even attempt it but nevertheless I will try to do so here as I believe it (her name) beautifully and aptly captures this exceptional Xhosa woman that is Nomzamo Winnie Mandela. The name Nomzamo is an isiXhosa name that can be loosely translated to mean “she who will go through/ challenge trials” or “she who will always try or make an effort”.
Mam’ Winnie completed her degree in social work in 1955 and although she was offered a scholarship for further study in the USA, she turned it down and opted for a position as the first qualified Black medical social worker at the Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg instead. It was during the research she had carried out in Alexandra Township to establish the rate of infantile mortality while in this position that she became interested in politics. In the mid-1950s, she became involved in the African National Congress (ANC) and in 1957, she met Nelson Mandela.
When Winnie met and ultimately married Mandela in 1957 she was still very young; just 21 years old; and it was not long after their marriage that he went underground and was subsequently captured and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1962 leaving her to raise their two young daughters and in addition to that, to pick up the baton from her husband and lead the struggle against the apartheid regime. She hardly knew her husband or rather knew a life with the man she loved as husband and wife:
“I had so little time to love him. And that love has survived all these years of separation … perhaps if I’d had time to know him better I might have found a lot of faults, but I only had time to love him and long for him all the time.” – Winnie Madikizela Mandela
During Madiba’s incarceration Winnie also endured victimization and traumatization from the apartheid government and instead of cowering and submitting, she rose to fight back creating her own legacy during the struggle. She was regularly detained by the apartheid government. She was tortured, subjected to house arrest, kept under surveillance, held in solitary confinement for seventeen months and banished to a remote town called Brandfort in the Orange Free State. Madiba’s biography titled “The Long Walk to Freedom”, a double entendre that alludes to his incarceration on Robben Island as well as the oppression of the POC people of South Africa under colonialism and apartheid should not just be viewed as a journey that only Madiba embarked on and endured alone but one shared by other South Africans, especially his wife. Because people have conveniently and wrongly chosen to view the late Madiba as a demi-god they ignore the struggles of all other South Africans, including his ex-wife, under this regime and consider his suffering and sacrifice to be the only and greatest of all, undermining their pain, anger, suffering and own sacrifices.
In his new book ‘Knowing Mandela,’ John Carlin positions himself as judge and juror of Winnie where he paints her as a philandering villain (read trollop) and Madiba as the blameless victim who’d never had his fare share of indiscretions and extra marital dalliances particularly during his first marriage to Evelyn Mase. His rather blatant attack on Winnie (and her daughter Zinzi) is obviously informed by patriarchal thinking that seeks to wrest from women their sexual autonomy and agency and use different yard sticks from those of men to measure one’s morals and this can be seen when he says:
“I tried asking them why they did not talk to Mandela about her waywardness”
Not only does he pass judgement on Winnie’s deviant behaviour as a woman but he also chooses to not offer up a similar critique of Madiba’s own similar behaviour prior to his incarceration. One thing that Carlin conveniently decided to omit in this analysis of the demise of the wonder couple’s marriage is that Madiba himself was also guilty of stepping out on his first wife Evelyn who unlike him had been very physically present as well as emotionally available to him. He also does not take into account the conditions under which this marriage (to Winnie) had to exist i.e. Madiba had been sentenced to life in prison and Winnie was very young when her husband went away and so they spent most of their marriage apart; divided by an oppressive system, metal bars and the glass screen of the visitor room at Robben Island.
When her husband was sent away and her life became a battle field, she courageously picked up the mantle and continued the fight started by her husband and Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Ahmed Kathradaand, Raymond Mhlaba and many others and fought it alongside them. It can be (over) simplified to that while her husband was reading and theorising about the struggle, she was out in the world living it everyday. For instance, between all the victimization from the apartheid government, she managed, during the 1976 youth uprisings, to establish the Black Women’s Federation and the Black Parents’ Association and in 1977 she helped set up a crèche and a clinic in Brandfort with Dr. Abu Baker Asvat all of which made her constant target.
It is important to note that as she transformed into a warrior and struggle leader, in addition to her reproductive roles as a (to a great extent single) mother and a wife, she remained a woman and like all other women (and men) she also yearned and longed for lingering caresses and deep passionate kisses from another; at a time when those of her love and husband were far out of reach, locked away, possibly forever. She succumbed to these needs, as many have done before her and as many more have done since and these people include Madiba. What people like Carlin seem to assume is that were the roles reversed Madiba would have remained faithful even though his track record in this department suggests otherwise.
Some have come out and said that she should have divorced Madiba if she found it difficult to be faithful under those conditions and although that argument carries some moral merit it negates the fact that it was Winnie staying with him and their undeniable love for each other that helped Madiba soldier on. It kept him going and possibly her as well and things might have turned out differently not just for these two individuals and those close to them but for the whole country had she had followed Evelyn’s example and walked out.
However, her affairs are not the only thing that have tainted her image but fraud allegations in 2001 as well as the accusations of kidnapping and ordering the murder of a 14 year old boy, James Sepei, as well as the murder of the doctor who examined him, Dr. Abu-Baker Asvat are also great stains on her legacy. These allegations, particularly those of kidnapping and murder are very grave and I in no way condone them but I believe it is important to take into consideration the fact that although the struggle in South Africa was not considered a war by most, it was a time of war nonetheless and as in most other situations of conflict many other world leaders also have blood on their hands although they do not seem to be judged quite as harshly and one can’t help but wonder if it is because they are men and she a woman.
It is not my intention to vindicate or condone Winnie’s less admirable actions through this article but merely to, not only, highlight that she was not merely an auxiliary contributor to the liberation struggle of South Africa in a secondary role to that of her late ex – husband’s but that her role, as well as that of many other women who are often relegated into the shadows of their male counterparts, in the struggle was equal to his and that her shortcomings were no greater than his and other men who enjoy honourable hero status regardless of their own inequities. Men like Nelson Mandela, F.W. De Klerk, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Barrack Obama etc. It would appear that people tend to judge women more harshly and are more reluctant to give them their due especially if they do not fall easily and comfortably into their relegated (by patriarchy) roles. Strong, passionate, independent, intelligent and opinionated women. Women like Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.