“Let the mainstream Western media’s depiction of Winnie Mandela be a lesson to black women everywhere to be custodians of our own memory. Because through racist, sexist eyes we will either be monsters or invisible…”
Lebo Mashile 2018
I’m sitting at the table of South African poet, actor and playwright Lebo Mashille in the middle of winter, 2015. I’m drinking in the warm amber of Johannesburg’s afternoon sun, streaming through her large bay windows.
An arts grant has brought me from Australia to the UK, where I found South Africa through the words of storytellers I’d only ever read about. In a strange twist of fate our Commonwealth connection had allowed us to cross paths. We exchange experiences, both drenched in the complexity of living as black women inside the ‘post-colonial’ colonial structures of Australia and the ‘new’ South Africa. We are women of a similar age and shape and similar blood pumps through our veins. We both share a complex love for Winnie Mandela, the leader of South Africa’s Liberation Struggle.
A Xhosa women born in Bizana on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela Mandela was a qualified social worker who would rise to become "the Mother of the Nation." She was flawed and she was feared. She was an icon, warrior and a freedom fighter. She was fierce and she gave more to my family’s homeland than any person who has ever lived.
Lebo shows me an artwork in her lounge room entitled “Culture Queen” (1989) by white South African visual artist Aleta Michaletos. The portrait is full of contradictory symbols: Winston cigarettes, a white elephant, horns, leopard print and zulu beads. Michaletos work exotifies her subject while ridiculing and evoking terror simultaneously.
Referenced in the art work is “necklacing” – where vigilantes would burn apartheid collaborators alive by throwing a petrol-filled tyre around the neck. It was a gruesome act reported across the South African press in the late 1980s.
"I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy." - Winnie Mandela 1996
Media coverage of Winnie Mandela's legacy often focused on a bloodthirsty nature without drilling deeper or uncovering the full truth. Many people lost their lives during the struggle. The atrocities equated to Winnie Mandela's leadership are always present while her male counterparts are afforded far less interrogation.
The narrative regarding South Africa and the fall of apartheid is dominated by Nelson Mandela’s story: his activism, his exile, his triumph, his birthday concerts. It’s rare that we hear of Winnie Mandela’s experience – the woman who led the struggle for 27 years while her husband was in jail. Her imprisonment, her torture and her leadership has been cloaked.
Winnie Mandela was the sum of many parts, a woman who worked off instinct and could not be controlled.
There’s a twist in my guts when I see how the Australian media has reported on her death. The lack of understanding regarding the complexity and excruciating pain of South African history, colonisation and apartheid is evident in these articles that question more than exult this remarkable woman’s impact.
“I no longer have the emotion of fear; there is no longer anything I can fear. There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn’t any pain I haven’t known ” -Winnie Mandela 1987
When Nelson Mandela was freed and brought back into politics in the early 90s he adopted reconciliation, it was in fact a cornerstone of his release. Winnie could not accept Nelson’s new approach. It angered her that he seemed more interested in global gestures, like receiving the Nobel Peace Prize with FW de Klerk than changing the lives of black folks barely surviving on the ground in South Africa. I wonder if de Klerk's murderous handling of black South Africans be written of in his obituary?
Today more than 50 per cent of the black population still live far below the poverty line. The fall of the apartheid regime has not significantly impacted on the majority of black people from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds living in South Africa.
The following week I visited Lebo again and she was in the early stages of adapting Njabulo Ndebele’s play The Cry of Winnie Mandela for stage. The book weaves Winnie’s backstory into the lives of four women waiting for their husbands to arrive home, as well as Penelope, of ancient Greek mythology, who waited eighteen years for her husband Odysseus. A poetic and existential journey, the public and the private, the intimate and the celebrity are explored through conversations between women.
The book spurred us to unpack how the personal and political are intertwined and how Winnie Mandela is central to our understanding of ourselves as South African women. In the first place she was an educated professional and went on to shift the trajectory for black women through her work with the Women's League and beyond. We reflected on how terrifying a woman like Winnie Mandela was for the men who run governments. We too are terrifying women.
That Mama Winnie Madikizela Mandela fought and survived a society that oppressed and brutalised her, a society that took away her husband for nearly three decades and lived to the grand age of 81 – in a country where black women's life expectancy is 64 - is astonishing.
I will remember her as a fierce, uncontrollable black warrior woman who took aim at her oppressor and would not compromise in the fight to free her people. Amandla Mama Winnie!
Candy Bowers is an Australian-born actor, writer and film maker. Her parents fled South Africa's apartheid regime and sought political asylum in Australia in 1973.