Many of us have a narrative of Winnie Mandela, whether it's comforting, anxiety-laden or a maddening story. Parts of that story have undoubtedly been influenced by her own choices, her self- representation, her utterances, her decisions on who to associate with.
At the same time, much of what we know about her - as Winnie, as Winnie Mandela, as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela - comes to us mediated and remediated through wide-ranging circles of meaning-making.
A decade ago, before she and I were friends, I interviewed the socialist feminist film-maker Xoliswa Sithole, Peabody winner and twice British Academy of Film and Television Arts awardee. She became one of my best friends, telling me that although she initially wanted to maintain a career in front of the camera, she decided to start making her own plays because of the paucity of the kinds of roles she wanted to play.
She calls these “Angela Davis, Winnie Mandela kinds of roles”. I understood immediately what she was talking about - roles of women characters who have presence and voice. Such women are like Davis and Mandela: complicated, layered, uncontained.
Winnie’s complicated life is not for everybody. Sometimes, there are concerted efforts to make her smaller than she is. This, however, is not exclusive to the Winnie we see through her detractors.
In a 2013 article for The New Yorker, Nadine Gordimer wrote about Nelson Mandela, mourning his loss and recalling a conversation with him, told to her in a confidence the Nobel laureate now felt justified breaking after his death.
In that conversation, Gordimer recalled how devastated Nelson Mandela was by Winnie’s affair with activist Dali Mpofu, or that she had lovers while he was incarcerated for 27 years.
Gordimer’s narrative is of a heart-broken husband, disappointed at what he assumed was a loyal, doting wife. Gordimer is aware of the many ways in which the expectation of fidelity to a spouse locked up for nearly three decades is highly gendered and difficult, if not impossible.
Again, Musila’s valuable interjection here was to remind me that Gordimer highlights how hers and Mandela’s friendship is started off by her novel, Burger’s Daughter. After someone had sneaked the novel into prison for Mandela, he had written her a letter about it. The novel, she says, is about the challenges of children of revolutionaries, living under daily threat of imprisonment.
What is striking here, as Musila’s feedback underscores, is the irony of Gordimer’s lack of empathy and understanding for the burden of what Njabulo Ndebele, in his novel The Cry of Winnie Mandela, and Mamphela Ramphele, in her scholarship, had already described as political widowhood and its challenges.
Musila wrote to me: “In the piece, Gordimer chooses to recognise Mandela’s human vulnerability to hurt; and in the novel, daughter's vulnerabilities, but not mothers' and wives'; who, it seems to her, remain locked in their roles as dutiful mothers and political widows.”
I had missed this connection, not having read this novel since my Honours dissertation on Gordimer submitted in 1994.
The hurt Musila highlights is muted in Gordimer’s essay because hers is an attempt to speak about a different aspect of the statesman: the intimate life of her friend, to cast a light on aspects of his life that made him who he was, not just a heroic, saintly figure lost to the world. But the novelist achieves so much more than this.
She writes about Winnie in a specific way: her failure to be a good wife. For Gordimer to fully sympathise with her friend’s pain, she grapples with the source of his devastation: an unreasonable and yet real expectation of spousal fidelity in the face of a nearly three-decade absence.
Gordimer must also be aware of the enduring fascination with “waiting” women in South Africa’s political and literary cultures under apartheid. Often coded as “dutiful” wifehood, Mamphela Ramphele has much more aptly dubbed it “honorary widowhood”.
What Winnie fails at here, and what devastates her husband, is dutiful wifehood and honorary widowhood. It should be unsurprising that the man who is written as legitimate national patriarch should be devastated by this failure. The expectation of dutiful wifehood is designed to buttress heroic nationalism.
Winnie “fails” because she refuses the burden of symbolism. She insists on being a messy, flesh and blood woman. Across the world, feminist scholarship has consistently illuminated that flesh and blood women pose a problem for nationalism since they are interested in lives that are more than symbolic.
Many South African social media responses marked Gordimer’s revelation as inappropriate: betrayal of confidence or a snide comment on Winnie that both placed unreasonable expectation and flattened her at a time when she needed sensitivity, and by some this was seen as an open attack on Winnie.
Where Gordimer tried to shine a light on Nelson’s (heteropatriarchal) devotion, her readers focused their attention on who such devotion works against.
What is interesting in this essay, in addition to Gordimer’s full humanisation of her friend, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s ex-husband, is the way Madikizela-Mandela appears here, not as herself, but as proxy for something else.
Gordimer writes about Winnie to illustrate something that has very little to do with her.
The responses “in defence” of Winnie are not surprising because they echo her placement for many decades as “mother of the nation”.
This is after all what mothers of the nation are for: embrace and idolisation on the one hand, and defence on the other. But Winnie is a difficult woman.
She embraced and welcomed her status as “mother of the nation”, but did so conditionally.
In an article on July 1, 1993, in Weekly Journal, Nokwanda Sithole presents a Winnie, “wiping the tears of a nation. Is this the future leader of South Africa? Defiant, beautiful and unbroken, Winnie Mandela remains one of the most powerful activists in the world.”
The Winnie that Sithole writes about here is an activist, strong, iconic figure who has some access to heroic presence, even if she also knows that heroic masculinity is a trap for women.
For although heroic nationalism requires some form of violence, this violence is often a blot against women. Heroic nationalism tells us in whose hands violence is permitted, and reminds us of its taboos in very gendered ways. Nokwanda Sithole invites us to ask what it means to be a soldier and whether imaginatively it is possible to be a woman soldier. Sithole knows there are actual women soldiers. That is not the question she invites us to grapple with.
Winnie’s capacity for violence is the focus of Paul Trewhela’s essay, in which he declares: “Mrs Mandela continues to provide the stuff of comment. She remains a formidable political force, despite her conviction for kidnapping the murdered Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, and three other youths, and the scandal concerning her private life.”
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s is a contested life, with mostly two dominant narratives. On the one hand, she is proxy-wife for the proper activist, heroic husband, which makes her part dutiful wife and part appendage. On the other hand, she is only murderous mother, the most offensive transgressor.
Yet her popularity and her stature as a subject of constant fascination also suggests that there are endlessly complicated ways to see her. She is difficult to trap in one stereotype or archetype. Monstrous mothers are lenses that can work as effectively as dutiful wife to contain women. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela remains uncontained in ways that challenge those who admire her as much as they unsettle those who demonise her.
Given how effectively women are erased from memory of struggle and absented from official nationalist narrative, Winnie’s endurance is a significant study in bucking the norm in ways resistant to explanation.
Extracted from Reflecting Rogue: Inside the mind of a feminist by Pumla Dineo Gqola. Published by MFBooks, Joburg.