Politics and Commentary 2007-2014


Winnie and Me

First appeared
Monday, 04 November 2013


Am I the only person who doesn’t like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela?

This is a question that I am forced to ask periodically when, against all rational expectation, I find myself isolated in a crowd (actual or virtual) of single-minded Winnie praise-singers. Again and again I raise what seem to me the obvious points: the woman is a convicted crook and kidnapper, not to mention a negligent parliamentarian and a generally reckless politician. Each time I do this, I am made to feel guilty for lacking some kind of patriotic fervour that should lead me to celebrate “the mother of the nation”.

A few years ago I refused to join the standing ovation that greeted the grand dame when she appeared onstage after the premier of Winnie: The Opera. Then, in a generally positive review of the production, I expressed regret that a work of art should be co-opted into African National Congress (ANC) electioneering. The response of producer and librettist Mfundi Vundla was to call me “ignorant”.

More recently I was apparently alone in complaining that Winnie’s presence at the launch of Our Stories, an exhibition at the Women’s Jail on Constitution Hill, completely undermined the purpose of this “pan-African storytelling” campaign. Winnie was there to speak about her new book, 491 Days: Prisoner number 1323/69, an account of her detention and trials from 1969-1970.

Then Winnie joined Twitter, an event that brought sycophantic welcomes from a host of celebrity Twitterati. Winnie has not been shy to take advantage of the publicity medium du jour, as her foray into reality TV through the series Being Mandela showed; perhaps it was only a matter of time until she started a Twitter account. But I rather cynically and automatically connected this debut to the release of her book. Suffice it to say that, a few tweets later, the ameliorating effect of social media had me wondering again if I shouldn’t perhaps investigate my almost-visceral reaction to all things Winnie. After all, a solitary voice crying in the desert is usually a sign of insanity.

So I read 491 Days. It is, indeed, a thought-provoking book. Comprised of journal entries secretly penned by Winnie and letters she exchanged with Nelson Mandela in 1969-70, supplemented by an Epilogue that Winnie completed last year, 491 Days is a brutal account of what the apartheid state did to the Mandela family and of their attempts to salvage love and intimacy.

What is not contained in the pages of the book is the breakdown of their marriage and the warped family relationships that developed over the course of forty years after 1970. The Mandela clan, we know all too well, is beset by internecine strife; the closest we come to this in the book is Ahmed Kathrada’s Foreword, which hints at the impact of a long-absent father figure, and Winnie’s repeated expressions of anxiety over her children’s fate.

Winnie suffered greatly, of that there is no doubt. But there is another side to her career, which came after the period covered in 491 Days, that she will never write about. She will not write about the Mandela United Football Club, or the henchmen that she employed under its auspices. She won’t write about Stompie Moeketsi (Seipei), or Lolo Sono, or Sibuniso Tshabalala, or any of the dozen or more people who were assaulted, abducted or murdered under her watch in the late 1980s – even though she was directly linked to them in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Winnie’s closing recollections about her detention do not allude to her successful evasion of prison sentences handed down first, in 1991, for Stompie’s kidnapping and then, in 2003, for 43 counts of fraud and 25 counts of theft (she had abused her position as head of the ANC Women’s League to benefit from the issuing of loans and funeral policies).

Readers will not find any effort to reconcile the tenderness expressed in her letters to Madiba with the derogatory comments she made about him after their divorce, although the Epilogue is a continuation of her ongoing endeavour simultaneously to benefit from her famous surname and to affirm her independence and her own royal lineage – “I never did bask in his ideas,” she writes, insisting she was and is more than “Mandela’s wife”.

Nor will readers find any acknowledgement of her serial parliamentary absenteeism or her ‘bling’ lifestyle (heavy spending on luxury items combined with a refusal to pay school fees). 491 Days is full of little ironies in this regard. In her Epilogue, Winnie writes that she “was not fighting to gain anything personally ... not aspiring to positions in government and to enrich [myself]”, going out of her way to depict herself as a humble resident of Soweto.

This brazen denialism is astounding. The only way to make sense of it is to place it alongside another line that Winnie produces without any apparent self-consciousness: the security police, she writes, “taught us” to break the rules – “We really became criminals”.

The poser that a book like 491 Days thus presents to us is: how much are we willing to tolerate from our struggle icons gone wrong? How much violence, corruption and shameless exploitation can be forgiven, or justified by (or at least explained by) hardship experienced and sacrifices made in the name of liberation?

Winnie admits: “my feelings got blunted ... you were so tortured that the pain reached a threshold where you could not feel pain anymore. If you keep pounding and pounding on the same spot the feeling dies, the nerves die.” Is this an inadvertent recognition that sustained abuse at the hands of the state can destabilise a person’s moral compass?

Tony Yengeni is another good example of this conundrum. His “wet bag” treatment at the hands of monstrous interrogator Jeff Benzien was vividly re-enacted at the TRC hearings. Should our admiration and sympathy for Yengeni the activist and torture victim outweigh our vilification of Yengeni the arms dealer and reptilian political survivor?

In Winnie’s case, this imbalance is more extreme. So adept are South Africans at selectively recalling the participation of certain figures in our country’s recent history that we gloss over serious moral shortcomings – with massive implications – and choose instead to focus on easy iconography. In 491 Days, Winnie writes that “There are memories you keep in a part of your brain ... things that hurt so much you do not want to remember.” We must apply these words not only to individual psychology but also to our collective national consciousness.

The TRC was a valuable process but inculcated a repressive instinct: try to forgive (often this is impossible) and try to forget (which is, unfortunately, much easier). Forgetting is what facilitates the white-right lunacy of Red October. It’s what allows Julius Malema, Winnie’s new darling, to claim that he speaks for the poor and marginalised or to position himself as a critic of the tender system. It’s what representatives of the state and the ruling party are banking on every time another woeful government blunder is exposed, every time the President and his cabinet blithely offer some insensitive, ill-informed comment about Marikana, child abuse, xenophobia, misogyny or homophobia.

I’ve figured out what makes me respond so angrily to every mention of Winnie. She is the face of our historical myopia, our refusal to accept that the past cannot be reduced to a simple narrative of suffering and salvation. She is the site of what Milan Kundera called “the struggle of memory against forgetting”. I’m angry because I remember. 



Comments (2)

  • Christo Snyman
    19 November 2013 at 17:22 |

    I think there are many Winnie-haters out there but they just don't get exposure. Perhaps our media is cowardly. Love the coining of the phrases "easy iconography" and "historical myopia".

  • Julia Smuts
    12 December 2013 at 08:11 |

    Well said, Chris! I too, have had the odd close encounter of a scary kind with Winnie, and I endorse what you say about our compatriots' selective amnesia as far as she is concerned.

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