Africa’s First Lady

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at her 80th birthday celebrations held at Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. Image via Government of South Africa Flickr.

Barack and Michelle Obama have barely left the stage — it’s been a month — and already the U.S. press are gripped by nostalgia. In an era of ubiquitous images, no matter where you live in the world, the scenes of their kisses and hugs, their loving gazes and their fist bumps, are inescapable.

Even if you disagree with their politics – if you saw them as having been too focused on being “magical negroes” and not invested enough in challenging the structural underpinnings of American poverty, inequality and imperial violence -– there is no denying the elegance, intellect and fierceness of their bond. And in a world in which images of healthy loving black families are still too rare – their example has been important and powerful not simply to a generation of Americans of all races, but to Brazilians, South Africans and people in countries that are still too starkly defined by the color bar.

Michelle Obama, in particular, has been widely embraced. For white women in Middle America, she represents the black best friend they lost when Oprah went off air. She is now white America’s most relatable black person in much the same way that Ellen has become the totem for straight people who aren’t sure where to find queer allies.

I don’t write this to discredit Michelle Obama. Like other celebrities, she has little control over how her likeness and her persona are used by people she doesn’t know. Obama can’t help it that she is the new imaginary BFF of white American women who don’t know how to reach out across racial divides in their own lives. There is no doubt however that she is aware of the role she plays in the racial imaginary. The mantle of being the-first-black-anything is heavy, but the burden of being the first black First Lady, in a country that anachronistically values a spousal office in spite of reputation of being a democracy built on the notion of modernity, must be heavy indeed.

Obama has handled her position with grace. She has learned to blunt her edges; to smile for the camera, and to package her blackness in ways that are both authentic to her and her family, but palatable to mainstream America. As the real signifier of American blackness in the couple (the one who comes from a long and storied line of African-Americans), at a cultural level, Michelle was always going to be the key to her husband’s success in the White House. While Barrack was – and remains – a skillful orator and a powerful intellect – Michelle has brought the racial social capital to the table.

In this way, Michelle Obama is not unlike Winnie Mandela; who some might argue was the de facto first lady for people in African countries that were seeking liberation in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Barack Obama is no Nelson Mandela either so forgive the tenuous analogy, but there are some parallels about unapologetic black women that are worth pursuing if only at a superficial level.

Unlike Winnie Mandela, Michelle Obama has not been tarnished with scandal, and operates in a dramatically different context from apartheid-era South Africa. Still, like Winnie Mandela, she married a man who was her intellectual equal and she has found a way to occupy a particular place in the firmament amongst her female peers and in the mind of the general public. Like Winnie, Michelle has managed to inspire both adoration and vitriol. And while the Obamas have only had contemporary racists as their enemies and the Mandelas were classified as terrorists and had an entire racist minority regime as their enemy, both women are emblematic of the difficulty women – and women of African descent in particular – have had when in the limelight.

So as the US media extol the virtues of the Obamas, Africans may wish to cast back further than the Obamas; may wish to look beyond America. For South Africans in particular, who are facing the beginning of a long hard leadership race in which a woman may very well emerge as President of the country at the next polls, it is worth remembering that long before the Obamas, there were the Mandelas.

For a younger generation that has grown up in post-apartheid South Africa, Winnie Mandela is an iconic figure, yet one with whom they are little acquainted. Some will know that her marriage to Nelson’s ended in a nasty divorce shortly after his release from jail in 1992. Others will be aware that in the 1980s she was known for her firebrand politics. They will know she spent three decades fighting for her husband’s release, and that she is known as the Mother of the Nation, but they may be unfamiliar with all but the outlines of her battles against the apartheid state.

Many will not know that she was a qualified social worker in a time when few African women were educated. They will not know that rumors circulated in the early years that is was she who had betrayed her husband to the police – even from within the ANC. They may not know that she was accused of cheating on him; that in the first decade of his incarceration when she was prohibited from seeing him all but once, they suggested that she was unfaithful. These allegations of course would never have been made against a man.

They may not know that these difficult years with two small children were followed by the nine lean years when she was banished to Brandfort in the Free State province (away from her home in Johannesburg) – a time during which she was separated from her youngest child, Zenani. They may never have been taught that the authorities targeted those children immensely– not only to punish Nelson but also to torture Winnie. They will have seen pictures of Mam’ Winnie in black and white, and they may have caught their breath because she was such a beauty, but they probably will not know that her picture on the cover of Drum magazine in those days had ten times the power of Michelle’s photo on the cover of Vogue today.

From 1956 when they met when Nelson was already facing charges for treason (let that sink in) to 1958 when in her words, she “married the struggle and not the man,” to the mid 1980s when the Mandela Football Club that became her ruin took over her life, Winnie Mandela’s intellectual strength, her powers of articulation and her disarming beauty were both legendary and fearsome. Her looks and her intellect were also mutually reinforcing. In part this was because the subject of beauty and desirability in African women has always been about more than lines and proportions and whatever is in the eye of the beholder – it has been about whether or not Africans are fully human.

In societies in which the white gaze is normative, the very notion of African beauty has been oxymoronic. In spite of overwhelming evidence indicating white male sexual desire for African women (and men for that matter), the orthodoxy of apartheid insisted that blacks were no better than animals they were not capable of complex thought and therefore any physical attraction between whites and blacks was immoral and unnatural – it was an attraction between varying species. The manufacture of these myths — the simplicity of the African mind and the brutishness of the African physique – served as important justifications for apartheid. Winnie Mandela embodied in a very public manner – the shattering of these ideas.

Winnie was everything Africans — and African women in particular — were not supposed to be. She was unafraid and independent-minded, going to considerable lengths to indicate that she was not a product of Nelson Mandela — she was forged by the needs of African women. In interviews she has always been forthright and unrepentant in her articulation of the “sickness” of racism in South Africa and she is simultaneously – from the perspective of the white gaze (ridiculous as it is) stunningly beautiful.

Winnie Mandela became the thorn in the side of the white minority regime in a manner that cannot be over-stated. She was not simply the wife of Nelson Mandela – a terrorist who in his own right was intelligent, defiant and articulate. She was a beautiful, compelling, clever woman who refused to apologize or bow down. She was always on message – always prepared to raise a clenched fist. Always prepared to say the unsayable. Always impeccably stylish in a manner that in the mind of the enforcers of apartheid – was appealing to the women of Ladies Home Journal and to their cleaners.

It was no wonder then that the regime subjected her to such profound mental and physical anguish. They forced her children out of the country and so Zindzi and Zenani had to study in Swaziland. Whenever it was school holidays, the authorities would conveniently raid her home and detain her so that she would be deprived of the opportunity to see them. In addition to banning her for seven years to Brandfordt, they also harassed her on a daily basis when she returned. Mandela may have been in jail, but Winnie was in an exile of sorts.

She took to traveling with bodyguards. Her home was a fortress – with high walls and large gates and a phalanx of security. In a tragically shallow and misogynistic account of meeting her, British journalist John Carlin elected to depict these as the trappings of a woman who was living a life of luxury while her black compatriots suffered excruciating poverty. He missed the mark: over time Winnie certainly lost touch and became paranoid. She almost certainly enjoyed too many of the finer things in life. Yet no one who knows the history of Winnie and Nelson Mandela could suggest that there was not some basis for the trajectory Winnie’s life took in the 1980s.

Ironically, as Winnie took on a more thuggish persona, the less dangerous she became to the white minority regime. She was no longer the long-suffering mother with two beautiful daughters; clad in chic attire and so her appeal to women in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs declined. By the mid-1980s when she declared, “with our matchboxes and our necklaces we will liberate this country,” to white South Africans she appeared deranged; no longer an ambassador. And on some level she was deranged: out of order and disarrayed, after years of bearing the brunt of the vitriol of the regime and the sexism of the comrades and the pains of motherhood. Yet, she was no more off-kilter than thousands of her male comrades who made similar declarations and who involved themselves in directing and undertaking violence as ugly and brutal as the murder of Stompie Moeketsi, the young man whose 1989 murder Winnie allegedly oversaw.

There can be no excuse for any of the violence that took place during those terrible years; nor can there ever be an excuse for those sorts of crimes enacted against children. It is unhelpful however, to ignore the context in which Winnie and thousands of others were operating. It is also disingenuous to deny the double standards that governed how the media and the liberation struggle itself elected to depict Winnie in relation to those they shielded. She was a woman and so it was her reputation that suffered the most.

Amongst black people on the streets – not those in the leadership but those who lived hand-to-mouth and were looking for charismatic and rooted inspiration – Winnie was always a hero. Tired of the platitudes of the ANC in exile, and fired up by the promise of the United Democratic Front, which organized mass rallies and insisted on making liberation more urgent, people who lived in South Africa’s townships came to see her as the Mother of the Nation. For who had suffered more than Winnie Mandela? Like countless black women she knew the pain of being separated from the man she loved, by authorities that had no regard for African love and family ties. Like thousands of black people who had endured the indignities of gaol for infringing on one of the thousands of petty laws that kept apartheid in place, she too was familiar with the inside of a jail cell. Like hundreds and thousands of African women who found themselves living far away from their children, through no fault of their own, Winnie too understood how that felt.

And unlike the ordinary black masses, Winnie had a platform.  There were microphones in her face. And at every opportunity, when given the chance to repent, she stood defiant and unrepentant. Again and again and again, she spat in the face of the apartheid regime.

Many have argued Julius Malema is her political heir. As footage from her eightieth birthday party at the end of 2016 indicates, the two are fond of one another and they indeed have much in common. The quick wit and sharp intellect; the common touch.  The propensity to deviate from the script to delight and surprise and yes, dismay.

Interestingly, there are few women in contemporary party politics who operate in her mould. Winnie was never one for feminist rhetoric, but she was a powerful proponent for women’s rights. She was authentically able to articulate the relationship between racism and sexism, without using academic language that alienated the people on whose behalf she fought.

Today Winnie’s sins seem startlingly modern. Subjected to harassment then isolation then violence, she became violent herself. She was too high profile. She was too angry. She refused to be a pawn of Mandela and so long before he was released from jail she disentangled herself from any perception that she might have been made from his rib. She insisted that she owed her political education to the ANC – not Mandela. She had the audacity to take younger men as lovers. She got caught. She refused to be sorry and then of course, when Mandela was released, she couldn’t forgive him for all the things that had been done to her in his name.

It is fitting then that in her waning years Mam’ Winnie seems to have found a new following amongst this angry rebellious generation. The young women who led the marches in the #FeesMustFall movement; the ones who continue to fill newspaper columns and raise hell in schools across the country. In their language, Winnie’s slay is undeniable. With her uncompromising brand of politics, her Instagram-ready good looks, her Twitter-style barbs and her take-no-prisoners brand of feminism, Mrs Mandela is far more au courant today than any of the women who currently occupy the South African political stage – even those decades younger.

I want to imagine there any many women in this generation who can step out of the shadows and emulate Winnie Mandela’s courage. I want to hope that they can leave behind Winnie’s recklessness whilst channelling her connection to the country’s most vulnerable denizens. If my hopes have any basis in reality, 2019 – when the country goes to the polls to elect a replacement for Jacob Zuma – will throw up a range of exciting possibilities. Whether or not a woman takes up the mantle there is no question that as she hits her 80s, Winnie Mandela need not fear being forgotten. Her fearlessness is needed now – more than ever.

Sisonke Msimang

Sisonke Msimang is a writer who probably tweets too much.

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