Gcobani Qambela
Gcobani Qambela

Winnie Mandela and the misrecognition of black women

Mail & Guardian columnist Verashni Pillay in “Five times Winnie Mandela has let us down” writes that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s quest to reclaim the Mandela Qunu home “is another embarrassing incident to add to her growing list of failures”. Pillay says there’s “historical revisionism happening in some quarters of our nation these days that brands Nelson Mandela’s second wife a revolutionary and heroic figure, it doesn’t take that much digging to remember the truly awful things she has been responsible for”.

Writing with Bose Maposa and Nadia Ahmadou in “Telling HERstory: Nomzamo Winfreda ‘Winnie’ Madikizela-Mandela and the politics of ‘celebration’ ”, we noted the long history of how Winnie Mandela’s contributions have been erased and the persisting doubts with which some view her. We invoked Esther Armah’s “Birthdays, Legacies, Love, Leadership: Letter to Winnie Mandela” where Armah ponders on white, liberal women and their disdain toward Winnie. On “re-written narratives”, Armah questions how “white women who claim a home in feminism, but failed to recognise [Winnie’s] revolutionary choices ultimately helped move a people to a political freedom and certainly enabled a man to become a symbol”.



Armah continues (to Winnie) that “we did not find the space to sanction your work through bloody revolution. You did not leave apartheid’s legacy with the glory your ex did. That wasn’t your story”. It is in this fashion that I choose to read Pillay’s misguided column on Winnie, who, despite being one of the most important liberatory figures in black history, is continuously being re-written out. Yet, this is a bit different, because the erasure is not being done by white liberal women but by an Indian woman. But in many ways it is not surprising.

There is a long historically contentious relationship between Indians and black South Africans. A large part is because some Indians historically have maintained the closest proximity to whiteness and white supremacy than an attachment to a (pro)black ethic. We can look at institutionalised apartheid and the effects of the “four-tier” system, which placed Indians the closest to white privilege and blacks at the furthest level of degradation. In this context, it is not surprising to find anti-Winnie Mandela sentiment and anti-black rhetoric especially common in white-supremacist drivel. This is the “unknowing” of Winnie Mandela.

In this unknowing of Winnie by Pillay, “necklacing” during apartheid becomes the perpetuation of a “culture of violence” instead of a response against an oppressive regime. Not to erase Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, and other people who were falsely accused of being “impimpi”/informers, we must still recognise the broader struggle against systematic violence against black people from the apartheid government in which necklacing arose. It was in a similar vein that Nelson Mandela’s earlier leadership established a military wing to the ANC, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), in recognition that non-violence alone could not free blacks from a state that found pleasure in testing brutality on black bodies. While MK was a specific response against the state, necklacing must be seen in its context as a citizen response to racialised state terror.

Like a true companion to white-supremacy, Pillay pushes further to perpetuate racist “angry black woman” tropes painting Winnie as “angry”, “twisted” and possessing a “warped moral compass”. This is done to delegitimise feelings Winnie might carry and put the blame on a black woman, and not the racist system to which she was responding. This trope is rooted not only in racism, but also sexism and doesn’t see anger as a survival strategy for black women. As Imani McGarrell writes, “black women often wear their anger like armour. Once the soul has been tainted with enough negative experiences, anger can be a good tool to keep more negativity from worming its way in”.

Winnie recently shared the loneliness and pain she experienced in the past. Despite this she stayed in the marriage taking care not only of her and Mandela’s children but also the extended family. Moreover as reported by TIME, she was not only at home looking after her family, but was a community builder, bringing clinics, schools and food to the people in her community, much of this work, TIME noted, has not been taken up by the government post 1994.

The contestation over the rights to the property in Qunu is a domestic issue touching on customary law. It is for the Mandelas to sort and has nothing to do with us, or Winnie’s public legacy. Moreover, trying to taint Winnie for parliamentary absenteeism from rumours or what “appears” or “seems” from a distance is lazy and unethical journalism, along with placing judgement on Winnie for “corrupt governance” when those allegations have never been proven true.

Blacks are not desperate for heroes and heroines. We come from a rich heritage of millions of ancestors living or dead who paid the ultimate price for us. Mam’Winnie will always be a part of our history, and will remain in many of our hearts a heroine — the mother to this nation.

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    • mina

      Call me stupid if you want, but I fail to see how black people necklacing black people is “a response against an oppressive regime”, which happened to be white. In fact, I see it as more oppression of the people who do not agree with your way of thinking. Do what I want or die.

    • Bonga

      Mam’Winnie Mandela is a complex character, i think your argument holds water and so does Pillay’s. however we cannot simply describe Mam’Winnie as a hero or a villain. Her story isn’t as clear cut as Nelson Mandela, she was made angry by a system- which was unjust- however she also made bad choices. so we really need to be careful how we talk about her role in History- do we celebrate it or do we merely remember because it was tanished?

    • Momma Cyndi

      Verashni Pillay is now white?
      How dare you tell me how I viewed Winnie Mandela or anyone else? You are neither white nor female. Growing up, I viewed this petite, beautiful, proud woman as a role model and a hero. The problem is that Harvey was right, you either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain. June 16th was the turning point to end apartheid, because they hurt children. The turning point for Winnie had the exact same root.

      War is a monstrous atrocity so why is it always so surprising when it takes good people and turns them into atrocious monsters? Winnie wasn’t as bad as she could have been and worse than I wish she was. What she lived through was enough to harden the softest heart. Despite the sympathy that I feel for her, as a woman and a mother, what she did cannot be forgiven.

      Maybe if Winnie (and the Mandela family) wants their past sins to be forgotten, they should stop being in the papers for all the wrong reasons. Qunu is not a private matter as it is being proposed that it become a National Heritage Site. Strangely enough, Winnie didn’t really notice she was divorced BEFORE the proposal.

    • Heinrich

      If one looks at the facts of how Apartheid was abolished – through concerted efforts by the global community as well as through efforts of local leadership and action groups – it seems rather pathetic to tag this woman as the “mother of the nation”.

    • @slave_born

      Thank you Gcobani! I read that piece and was quite disgusted. This obsession with writing out Winnie’s contribution in an effort to separate her from the “saintly” Madiba, is so frustrating. That they think we can easily forget who was leading and looking after us, whilst Madiba was sitting (pretty in comparison to uWinnie) in prison makes one constantly ask what the bigger strategy here is.
      And of course, it’s easy: It’s part of the narrative that seeks to de-legitimize any black (especially black women) contribution to the struggle that doesn’t tie in with the liberal agenda. Winnie was and is a strong woman who believes in Black independence and they can’t have that. The irony though, in her article against WInnie for going after the home in Qunu, where Winnie is claiming uMadiba committed fraud in acquiring it, whilst telling us that one of the five things she did to “let us down” were her fraud charges.They’re not interested in hearing about possible Madiba fraud. I have yet to hear one hater of Winnie calling for an investigation; they go straight to “she’s lying/disgusting etc”. Although, it’s truly not surprising. They can try and write her out all they want, but she carries a far brighter & glorious torch in our hearts, than Madiba could ever hope to. Keep Africans down!
      Same reason why we don’t hear about Japhta Masemola.
      As Malcolm X once said: “when your enemy suddenly turns around and begins to praise a man,…

    • http://africa.com Bikoan Thinker

      “Winnie Mandela We Love You,”
      Poem by Alice Walker

      If we had known you
      in a time of peace
      we would have loved
      your peacefulness
      your quite so deep
      it did not hear
      the call
      to fight.

      We missed our chance

      Winnie Mandela
      We love you.

      In a time of war
      we love your ferocity.

      We love your vigilance.
      We love your impatience
      with killers
      and charlatans.
      We love your hatred
      of the deaths of our people.
      We love your hatred
      of despair.

      Winnie Mandela
      We love you.

      We love your beauty.
      We love your style.
      We love your hats,
      and various lengths
      of hair.
      We love the passion
      in your body
      The fury in your eyes.
      When you smile
      we are amazed.

      We love your loyalty
      to Nelson
      the beautiful.
      Your attention to
      the children
      and the voluptuousness
      of the countryside
      which will be ours
      We love your memory
      of details.
      We love that you do not intend
      to forget.

      Winnie Mandela, “Lucy,”
      We love you

      for helping us recognize
      the eternity
      you’ve been with us before.

      Winnie Mandela, Sister,
      We love you.

      Yours is the contemporary face
      of the mother
      of the human race.

      Walker, Alice, Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems 1965-1990 (1991).

    • http://conflictedblackgirl.wordpress.com/ Zinhle Manzini

      Such a well written piece! Indeed, the narratives of the wives of past political leaders and even the current are rarely painted. Society has been quick to judge Mam Winnie harshly without remembering the context of her struggle.

    • Conrad

      So her opinion can be reduced to fact that she is Indian?

    • chibo

      In my opinion winnie is a little bit of heroine and villain, maybe we stand by her because she was betrothed to Mandela, but just like Mandela, history of apartheid aside, the great man was not a saint. Maybe we should research more on history before lashing out racial based arguments. We have issues we need to deal with, especially where race is concerned.

    • Dave Lowe

      Anyone who thinks of using “Mother of the Nation” and “Winnie Mandela” in the same sentence should read a book called “Katiza’s Journey” before continuing. The true story details happenings before, during and after the death of Stompie and the dreadful things that Winnie and the Mandela United Football Club did. She was the leader of the gang – without any doubt – and the only thing that kept her out of Jail was the fact that Nelson Mandela was the world-wide hero, about to be released. The powers-that-be at the time – on both side of the political divide – couldn’t afford to have a scandal involving Mandela & Winnie, so it was all swept under the carpet.

      As usual, Gcobani falls back on the Black vs White argument as a defense for what she did. Her affairs, fraud, theft and general illegal behavior are now forgotten.

    • Gandhi

      There are many things to be said about Mrs Mandela – a hero perhaps in her absolute certainty of her own rightness, her commitment to the struggle, and her sense that her commitment to the struggle absolved her from the norms of human behaviour. However the author’s comment on the race of Ms Pillay, and some tasteless comments about Indians, rather than engaging with a single one of the points that Pillay raised, is not what one expects from a generally fine writer.

    • Gandhi

      I would further add that Mrs Mandela in no way represents ‘black women’ nor do those who question her do so because she is black and female. Her unique attributes are those of ANC struggle values, which do not define all black women. It would be a misrecognition of other black women to associate them by implication with such a flawed hero.

    • obakeng

      Its very interesting the way people respond to this pillay person about Mam winnie but the simple truth is you Judge her on whose story her’s or your’s or the story that we supposedly are told its true…? I believe in the same things that She stands for and i say if Chris Hani was alive we wouldnt even be having a conversation that makes Mam winnie look Terrible! Dont listen to the media learn from the people who were there or read and understand history for what it is not what probaganda says it should be… We Honor someone who stood on her Believes and held hands of many families when they had lost their loved ones and yet still kept her children and extended family members together !

    • Pingback: Mother of the Nation or Lady Macbeth? | The Con()

    • The other Bloke

      Winnie Mandela was at war. At war with an oppressive regime, which, through the use of intimidation and fear, solicited collaborators amongst the disparate, anguished and frightened within the ranks of the very-same oppressed groups. Divide and Conquer, create doubt and inspire betrayal, rouse paranoia in the ranks of your opposition…these are well known and documented tactics throughout the History of Human kind at war with itself….Winnie was a Soldier at war, a leader of a people angry and hungry….Casualties are an unavoidable consequence of war. The liberals such as Verashni Pillay (nothing to do with race) will sooner forget such facts and cling on the dreamlike figure of Nelson Mandela and his Comrades, forgetting that Nelson’s first and Chief comrade was Winnie Mandela, she turned him into the the unbreakable incarcerated Iconic image that would be come the so-called father of the nation, why should she not deserve the title Mother of the Nation. It used to be that the history of the war is written by the victor, but now in the form of the Verashni Pillays’ of this Democratic and Free Society, so drenched in blood, so hard fought for.

    • Mapula

      Bonga and Cyndi, very spot on. Winnie is indeed a woman of many shades. She has long been my personal hero. Her resilience and determination during the struggle were, by no means, a small feat. And for that, she claims a very significant chapter in our history. Nevertheless, she has made very questionable decisions in her life. To take an insular view on her past, would be to deny ourselves an opportunity to objectively reflect and rectify our ways as a growing society. Any South African shares our history and can comment on it, whether we agree with their opinion or not. What matters is that we keep the conversation going.

    • Sips

      Conrad # – there are many factors that motivate people to choose to tackle certain subjects. I don’t think you can honestly rule out a factor just because it makes you uncomfortable. Me thinks Gcobani has a right to choose a factor that he believe will resonate with the target of his article. Verashni has the platform to refute Gcobani’s assertion and let the reading public decide.
      It’s fortunate that when people express their observations they are subtley threatened with the Human Rights Commission and Equality Court.

    • Brianb

      The notion that heroes have exemption from their sins by virtue of their past is a dangerous notion.

    • philosoraptor

      Well said, Momma Cyndi. Winnie is an amazing woman who has made some poor decisions. One would have to be very arrogant, ignorant or both to say “YOU” would never have gone astray under the (IMMENSE) pressure Winnie found herself, PLUS then given the power she suddenly was “given”. Power corrupts, and very few people would make no mistakes in such circumstances. That she was married to a man who happened to come closest to such “perfection” just added to the difficulty of her ever being judged to have lived a “perfect” life.
      Bottom line: Winnie Mandela exhibited more raw courage than 99% of South Africans from 1960 to 1994.

    • Graham

      So instead of debating Verashni’s points listed, you just attack her for being Indian.

    • Songezo

      I am happy to read this.

      Winnie’s place in the collective struggle history is missing. For a full 27 years, she bore the brunt of what the illegitimate state could not do to Tata Rolihlahla. And she survived it all, rasing kids and alone. Say what you will, her place in black history is guaranteed and for her, as it is for us black people, that is more than enough!

      Usebenzile Gcobani, mfo kaBawo!


    • Ngelengele

      Politically Mama Winnie made “almost” equally bad and good choices, of her own making. This has NOTHING to do with race but her decisions. Black, white, Indian, … knows these facts and they have a potential of dividing people right in the middle depending on which side one choose to look.

      Your pathetic attempt to brand her bad political decisions as a making of race reduces much of your argument into misguided and rather pathetic defence. Think of it this way, if the article was written by say Athambile Masola, Sisonke Msimang, Lebo Keswa, Simamkele Dlakavu, Lihle Tshabalala, Kagure Mugo….. would it make it any accurate than it is?

      Let us remember our heroes the way they really were (or are) without springing into their defence where they made mistakes and make something of them that they were (or are) not. They are human not fiction creatures.