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”.

AFP

AFP

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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