By Tinashe Mawere
Winnie Madikizela Mandela
Examining narratives at the time of Winnie Madikizela Mandela’s death made me realise how unquestioning most of us are about what she represents. During her lifetime she was popularly known as Winnie Mandela, the ‘Mother of the Nation’. She is a striking figure not only in South African and African politics, but also in terms of the politics of gender and the politics of history. Winnie was born on 26 September 1936 as Nomzamo (‘She who tries’) Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela in Mbongweni, Bizana, a rural village in the Eastern Cape. Her parents were both teachers, with her mother having converted to Christianity, while her father had more African traditional beliefs. She was the fourth of nine children. Her mother died when she just nine years old, leading to the break-up of the family, with Winnie and her siblings being sent to live with different relatives. Winnie was exceptional for her time in terms of her educational achievement.She was head girl at her school in Bizana, before completing her secondary education at Shawsbury Mission School, in Qumbu. She then went on to study at the Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg, and graduated as the top student of her class in 1955. Several years later she would obtain a bachelors degree in international relations from the University of the Witwatersrand 1 .
Winnie first found employment as a social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto: she was the first black woman to occupy a social work post at this institution. Her experience as a social worker both there and in the Transkei led to her becoming conscientised regarding the link between poverty arising from racism and the high African infant mortality rate in South Africa, which motivated her to become more politically involved. In 1956, while living in Johannesburg, Winnie met Nelson Mandela, who was then working as a lawyer and a human rights activist and was a prominent leader of the African National Congress (ANC). Winnie married Nelson Mandela in 1958, and they had two daughters in the three years that they were able to live together. Following Mandela’s conviction on charges of treason in 1963, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. During the 27 years that Mandela spent in prison in the Cape Winnie raised their daughters on her own, having to make a return journey of 2 400 km every time she was permitted to visit her husband in prison. Winnie faced ongoing harassment from the apartheid security forces during her separation from Nelson Mandela, including detention without trial and torture by the security police, as well as periods of imprisonment for defying her banning orders. In 1967 Winnie was arrested and kept in solitary confinement for seventeen months. For the first 200 days of this period of isolation, she had no formal contact with another human being at all aside from her interrogators 2 .
In 1977, following the Soweto student uprising in the previous year and a resurgence of resistance to the apartheid regime, Winnie was again placed under house arrest and exiled to the isolated Free State town of Brandfort, where she could not speak the local language and felt very isolated. She returned to Soweto in 1986 and resumed her political activities. Following the unbanning of the liberation movements in 1989, and the freeing of various political prisoners, Nelson Mandela was released from Pollsmoor Prison in February 1990. Winnie served in Mandela’s cabinet after the first democratic South African elections, and was a member of Parliament for many years thereafter. The couple were divorced in 1996. Winnie died of kidney complications on 2 April 2018 at the age of 81 years 3 .
Negative descriptions and the evil woman
Narratives about Winnie at the time of her death evoked divergent images of honour and dishonour, and mirrored gendered discourses in South Africa and globally as different commentators scrambled to position her. Winnie’s negative and positive characteristics were seen in relation to the particular characterisation that commentators gave to Nelson Mandela. While Winnie’s heinous acts 4 cannot be condoned, it is foolhardy to see these as defining her without taking into account the context of the South African liberation struggle that partly created her. While acknowledging her heroism and her human flaws, it is essential to consider the masculine notions of heroism and the struggle narrative that ‘great men’ wanted to build, which needed voices that did not fit this narrative (such as Winnie’s) to be silenced or erased from the record. Winnie was used, abandoned and exposed in order to restore gendered South African identities. She became a sacrificial pawn to preserve the ‘politics of the balls’ and of manhood which the leadership of the liberation movements had decided should be the face of the struggle.
Generally the media has blamed Winnie for the breakdown of her marriage to Mandela. In discourses regarding their divorce, Nelson has been projected as a ‘saint’ who unfortunately found out he had married a problematic wife. The divorce was seen as a blessing as it cleansed the nation of ‘contamination’. One journalist’s article describes Winnie as ‘the controversial former wife of the legendary Nelson Mandela’. Winnie’s life is imagined in terms of ‘controversies’ while the life of Nelson Mandela is seen as ‘legendary’. The headline of one article calls her an ‘ex-wife’ rather than a ‘former wife’ (as she is described in the body of the article itself). The use of ‘ex’ may suggest visual and auditory images of an ‘axe’ cutting down the cancerous branch of a giant tree 5 . In contrast, when Nelson Mandela died, he was not described in such overwhelmingly negative ways. Mandela’s sexual life never came under scrutiny, nor was it used to discredit him, despite the fact that he married three times, had several extra-marital affairs, and is known to have fathered at least one child outside of marriage. It is interesting that the sexual life of men is usually not subject to scrutiny while that of women is always under a critical masculine gaze. Winnie’s sexuality has been policed in relation to her perceived identity as the mother on the nation, owing to her being seen primarily as Mandela’s wife.
Media stories at the Winnie’s death employed many negative phrases regarding Winnie’s character. These included: Winnie Mandela, the controversial wife of …. and Winnie Mandela, controversial ex-wife of … Other stories deprived her of her personal identity and centered her life on the widely acclaimed Nelson Mandela. These included: Winnie Mandela, the wife of South African human rights icon and President Nelson Mandela … and Winnie Mandela, former wife of Nelson Mandela…, as well as: Anti-apartheid campaigner and former wife of Nelson Mandela dies… Article headlines such as Winnie Mandela: the turbulent life of the woman who went from ‘mother of the nation’ to ‘mugger’ imply that Mandela’s absence during his long term of imprisonment and later on their separation and divorce turned Winnie into something else. This kind of discourse glorifies the institution of marriage.
Most narratives about Winnie are polarised around her heroism and the erasure of her heroic character. Both these positions centre on the character and person of Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, who has been iconised both in South Africa and globally. A great challenge is that most of the narratives mimic idealised fairy tales, implying that political leaders are either perfect heroes or absolute villains. Although Winnie was an anti-apartheid activist in her own right, and despite the fact that she was herself imprisoned, banished, restricted, placed in solitary confinement and tortured, narratives describing these events nevertheless construct her history along the lines of supporting her husband’s cause or being a poor substitute for him during his absence. Her sacrifices are constituted in the dominant wifely narrative typical of men and women in the South African liberation struggle, i.e. the wife provides support and is constantly loyal to her male partner, and she is expected to make sacrifices for the sake of the family and the nation.
This is not unique to the South Africa liberation struggle. In Zimbabwe, women who are seen as heroic are those women who were wives to great men such as Joshua Nkomo, Simon Muzenda, Robert Mugabe and Leopold Takawira. The womens’ service to the nation is narrated according to how they supported their husbands, how they demonstrated their loyalty both to their husbands and to the political struggle, and their preparedness to sacrifice for the husbands and for the nation. This is the reason why in Zimbabwe no women without close links to great men have been recognised as heroines in their own right.
In most of the media stories regarding Winnie’s death, photographs used for front-page stories reflect a discourse of male greatness seemingly preventing recognition of women who were heroic. For example, despite the media issue being Winnie’s death, a huge Nelson Mandela figure and a tiny Winnie figure are used to narrate Winnie’s diminutive (i.e. less
important) story within the greater story of Nelson Mandela. In her life, Winnie fought hard to be her own person, rather than being overshadowed by Mandela. In one interview, she asserts, “I am not Mandela’s product … I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy” 6 .
After the breakdown of the marriage of Winnie and Nelson Mandela, some narratives erased her heroic participation in the founding of the South African nation. Such narratives depict Winnie as an estranged wife, i.e. as an unfaithful and adulterous woman who betrayed Nelson Mandela. Winnie’s sexual life while Mandela was in prison became a central issue for those who castigated her, since her sexual liberty struck at the core of national loyalty and the national idea of the ‘purity’ of women. Winnie was seen as having failed to live up to the expectations of wifehood, i.e. of what was expected of her as a ‘mother of the nation’. While there are reports of Mandela testifying how much he loved Winnie, one is tempted to assume that pressure was applied to Nelson Mandela to abandon Winnie and to divorce her, given Winnie’s disqualification from being a ‘mother of the nation’. In the context of Mandela being the ‘father of the nation’, Winnie’s supposed betrayal of Nelson Mandela is related to the betrayal of a nation through its women. Winnie’s defiance of notions of sexual purity in the context of Mandela’s 27-year absence and her independence of thought challenges strongly held clichés regarding marriage. By breaking away from a great man such as Nelson Mandela, Winnie enables us to imagine the seemingly impossible.
The argument which needs to be made is that Mandela too was not perfect and that veneration of him as a great and saintly leader reflect an incomplete understanding of him. Hence there should be no sacred cows when it comes to scrutiny of public figures. This notion undermines discourses surrounding supposedly ‘great’ men such as Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe who are seen as almost saintly and without human weakness. Winnie’s ongoing importance as a struggle leader can be seen in later developments in her life, such as her expression of support for the Economic Freedom Front (EFF), which articulates the importance of embracing meaningful economic transformation for the marginalised majority.
The allegations that Winnie was guilty of murder and her fraud convictions are usually cited as an antithesis to her heroism. It is interesting that in South Africa men who have been accused of national betrayal are allowed to continue to occupy positions of authority and to be revered. Nevertheless, the almost universal admiration of Nelson Mandela has in recent years been tempered by public acknowledgement of his shortcomings, such as his sexual infidelity, what some critics describe as the excessively conciliatory position he took in negotiations with the apartheid regime in the 1980s (which has enabled great economic inequality to persist subsequently), and certain unwise policy decisions while he was President (e.g. largely ignoring the growing HIV/AIDS pandemic) 7 . However, he is still largely credited as being the doyen of democracy and of human rights, and the creator of a new South African national identity. Jacob Zuma became president in the context of accusations of corruption and fraud, and held on to power in the midst of a range of other accusations of corruption, including ‘state capture’. The current South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is also not a saint. He has been accused of benefiting from capital monopoly, which has disadvantaged most South Africans. There have also been allegations that he was implicated in the Marikana massacre, in which where 34 mine-workers were killed and 78 seriously injured by police opening fire during a strike.
It, therefore, seems that certain acts are permissible only for men, but for women, and that women who engage in such behaviour are stigmatised and vilified. Women’s lives are expected to be more constrained than men’s. When women cross certain boundaries they are seen as having defiled bodies. What defiles Winnie to the extent of erasing her publicly recognised activism is not the crimes that she committed, so much as the policed body which is involved.
Narratives regarding Winnie’s heroism have not assisted in challenging masculinised notions of heroism. These accounts usually define Winnie only in relation to Nelson Mandela. What is then implied is that Winnie derived heroism from her association with Nelson Mandela, with heroic elements diffusing from Mandela through to Winnie. When the process of diffusion came to an end at the time that they separated and divorced, Winnie’s heroism became ‘controversial’.
Even after her divorce, when Winnie reclaimed her maiden name of Madikizeka, she nevertheless held onto the surname she had been taken on her marriage to Mandela. It is possible that she could not imagine herself existing if she were to lose the name she had helped to make famous. The carrying of ‘great’ names by women, even after divorce, suggests wrongly that women’s greatness is derived from the men with whom they are associated. They become appendages of these men, and hence greatness is projected as essentially a masculine virtue. One of the recent nominees for ANC president, in competition with Cyril Ramaphosa, was Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma, who retained her ex-husband’s surname. She did not abandon it because the name was linked to powerful masculinised discourses of tradition and nationalism.
Winnie, a stubborn pawn on a political chessboard
Winnie is a product of a polarised society with gendered straight-jacket identities. Rather than being understood as an individual within a complex world with multiple determinants, she is seen as having failed to do the impossible, i.e. to transcend a world that she had no ultimate control of, a world where, like a pawn on a chess-board, she was vulnerable to being sacrificed for the greater good. The history of the South African struggle for liberation has largely been dominated by, and has recorded, the acts of great men (e.g. Mandela, Tutu, Mbeki, Sisulu, Tambo), in a manner that complicates notions of manhood since these great men have generally been moderates and can be even considered emasculated. The contributions of spirited women such as Winnie, who seem to burst out of the normative domain of womanhood, have largely been ignored or downplayed. Winnie exhibited a fighting spirit and a liberation ideology that both overshadowed much of the ANC leadership and also opposed the male-led ANC policies of moderation and compromise in addressing colonialism and apartheid. Winnie retained popularity among the ordinary people of South Africa as well as among the younger generation. Winnie is not merely a modulation of Mandela’s voice and image in his absence: she has transcended his identity to embody her own struggles, including the struggles of women, of the younger generation and of all those still suffering the effects of colonialism and apartheid. The notions of infidelity, fraud and violence that have been used to blacken her name are not determined by a moral consciousness or a desire for justice, but by the wish to erase Winnie from history and to bury all that she stands for. Winnie became the face of the uncompromised South African struggle. Her actions undermined the compromised negotiations of great male struggle veterans. She deflated the egos of these great men and challenged masculinity. In this vein Winnie’s affirmative and confrontational energies had to be policed and sacrificed, in order to rectify the notion of the forgiving and moderate black South African, epitomised by Nelson Mandela. The commentary following Winnie’s death directly and insidiously reflects a masculinised history and the hypermasculine constructions of South African nationhood. Even those who appeared to be sympathetic to Winnie exhibit and reinforce a gendered account of history and a gendered nationalism that strengthens the ‘politics of the balls’.
1 Du Preez Bezrob, A.M. 2005. Winnie Mandela: A Life. Johannesburg: Penguin Random House.
4 In 1997 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under Archbishop Desmond Tutu implicated Winnie in the
abduction and killing of several young people by the Mandela Football Club in the 1980s. She was dismissed
from Mandela’s Cabinet for allegedly mismanaging social welfare funds, and she was also implicated in the
disappearance of R1 million from the ANC Women’s League when she led that organisation.