The Return of Winnie Mandela

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, adored by the youth of Soweto in the 1980s, has gained traction in the activist imagination once more.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who was once ANC Women's League President and, as an exception, openly questioned the patriarchy of ANC politics.

On October 22, a week after the #FeesMustFall student protests began to surge across South Africa, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela told the public to expect her arrival. “I will be joining my children in Protest at Wits [University] today. Rhodes Tommorrow (sic) and NMMU [Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth] on Friday,” she wrote on Facebook. Then, with her characteristic audacity, she added, “Let us see if the police will shoot with me in the front line. I dare them to.”

Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the beautiful wife of Nelson Mandela during his 27 years in prison, has always polarized the public. Those who love her call her Mama Winnie or Mother of the Nation; they admire her charisma and revolutionary will. Forced into the political spotlight when her husband was arrested, Madikizela-Mandela stoked the flames of anti-apartheid resistance while many ANC members were imprisoned or exiled. But many others fear and vilify her. In 1997, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found Madikizela-Mandela guilty of multiple counts of torture, kidnapping, and murder. Her name was most tarnished by the death of Stompie Seipei, the 14-year-old boy killed by her bodyguards. Madikizela-Mandela’s erasure as a leader corresponded with her husband’s elevation as a saint. While Nelson Mandela’s image was printed on t-shirts and bank notes, his message of peace disseminated in biopics and memoirs, Madikizela-Mandela’s brand of justice was too controversial to market. In her, some people (especially in the mainstream white press) saw a woman whose politics were fueled by hate, and as such she had no place in the mythology of a rainbow South Africa—a nation that had, by all official accounts, reconciled with its past.

During the student protests that have shaken post-apartheid South Africa, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s name was once again on people’s lips. At the University of the Witswatersrand in mid-October, a young black woman was photographed holding a placard that said, “Children of Winnie.” On Twitter, a demonstrator wrote of her leader: “This Hlatswayo girl from #Wits is a new version of mama #WinnieMandela in our generation.”  On October 19, students at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town staged an occupation of the Admin B building. Students inside quickly covered up the school crest with a makeshift poster declaring the building’s new title: Winnie Mandela House.

A spring is coming to South Africa, and the protests for free education were only its opening gestures. “Decolonization” is in the works: the struggle to eradicate the economic, cultural, and epistemological logics of colonialism, all of which endured after the end of apartheid. An American transplant to Cape Town the same age as these so-called “born-frees,” I’ve spent the past weeks straddling the line between participant and outsider, listening as my peers narrated and dissected the decolonization process in real-time. On every platform, from the streets to social media, young black South Africans urged society to reinterpret the ideas and symbols whose meanings had ossified over the past decades. Old icons were discarded. Nelson Mandela’s name is sacred no longer—today, to “Mandela-ize” a movement is to attempt to bargain with white power, to sell one’s people short through compromise and false integration. And Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, adored by the youth of Soweto in the 1980s, has gained traction in the activist imagination once more. In today’s black student movement, her historical meaning is being renewed in service of a new political warfare —one that embraces militancy and recognizes the logic of madness, that topples discourses of ‘the past’ to usher in a yet-unimaginable future.

“I said I was not going to bask in his shadow and be known as Mandela’s wife, they were going to know me as Zanyiwe Madikizela. I fought for that. I said, I will never even bask in his politics. I am going to form my own identity because I never did bask in his ideas.”

The story of South Africa’s liberation struggle tells the story of the black man. Black women fought for freedom, but they could only move, speak, and act within the patriarchal culture upheld by most resistance groups. This dynamic was crystallized in the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1960s. Mamphela Ramphele, a BCM activist (and later postapartheid liberal politician), noted that few women held leadership positions in resistance movements, with the exception of a handful considered “honorary men.” Most women, Ramphele wrote, participated as an “extension of their role[s] as mothers, wives, and significant others of their male colleagues, rather than in their capacity as individual citizens.”

For Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the guidelines of female conduct were drawn even more rigidly. Because she was the wife of an imprisoned hero, society expected her to remain faithful. Yet Madikizela-Mandela’s sexual charisma was no secret: the media loved reporting on her multiple love affairs. As a woman, she was expected to wait for the men to bring liberation. But in their absence, Madikizela-Mandela acted as the driving force of the banned ANC—defiant, outspoken, and courageous. Her own party tried to cast her as a domestic trope (a “wife of-”, the “mother of the nation”), but Madikizela-Mandela chose to lead in her own right.

In speaking of Madikizela-Mandela today, students invoke a black female leader who bucked the definitions that her racist, patriarchal society assigned to her. In 2015, black women stood at the front of South Africa’s student uprising. They did so while expressing queer, trans, and non-binary identities—subverting in mind and body the patriarchal logics that govern black power movements and South African society at large. Gone are the days that women acquiesced to fighting for the men’s agenda while subordinating their own desires. At the University of Cape Town, students have been discussing black feminism—a framework that sees racism, capitalist exploitation, and patriarchy as interlocking forces, all of which must be overhauled for decolonisation to be complete. The #FeesMustFall protests carved out spaces in which young South Africans could put these ideologies into practice, modeling new ways of being in the world and, inevitably, of relating to one another.

But it was often within the demonstrations’ internal workings that the microphysics of patriarchy emerged most starkly. Reporting from the four-day occupation at Wits University, journalist Pontsho Pilane observed moments in which demonstrators snubbed their two elected women leaders, gravitating instead towards two male students who had placed themselves at the front. Separately, in an op-ed entitled “You cannot ask women to be vocal in public and silent in private,” Kagure Mugo writes,

Women are some of the loudest and most powerful voices [of the protests]… But what the cameras, interviews and sound bites do not show are the moments when women try and speak within the private political spaces and are hit back with phrases such as ‘this feminism is counter-revolutionary, comrade’.

One trans- woman, Mugo adds, was told by a fellow protestor that discussions around identity were too “expensive” for the movement—that ending racial oppression ought to be the foremost goal.

In mid-November, a young woman from UCT was sexually assaulted by a fellow student at Azania Hall, the source and center of the movement’s intersectional politics. The rape was an expression of patriarchy in its most intimate, most unspeakable form. The event, too, captured the particular double-burden carried by black women leaders in South Africa. As Madikizela-Mandela’s spotlight years demonstrated, the black woman must answer to both the brutality dealt by the public sphere (police tactics, government oppression), as well as the violence that is mirrored or enacted in her private corners (house raids in the middle of the night, silencing and abuse by those she calls her own). “We are the women who have seen in a physical sense the horrors of apartheid,” Madikizela-Mandela told an American journalist in 1990:

We are the women who collected the bodies of our children in 1976. We are the women the government has brutalized year in and year out… The atrocities that have been committed by Pretoria just arise in every mother such bitterness which you cannot put in words.

“Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate our country.”

Winnie Mandela gave her most famous speech on April 13, 1986, to a packed hall in Munsieville, a township in Gauteng. “We shall use the same language the Boers are using against us,” she declared, “We have no guns. We have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol.” Traitors would be necklaced, a form of execution in which a gasoline-soaked tire is draped around the victim’s neck and set alight. Even as the country began to transition out of apartheid and other leaders (including her husband) began discussing peace, Madikizela-Mandela stood by her militant position. Negotiating with the enemy, she suspected, could douse the flames of true revolution.

To protest is to speak en masse, and Madikizela-Mandela has re-emerged just as a new revolutionary vernacular is being crafted. In #FeesMustFall, the language of petrol and matches returned with a renewed eloquence. For weeks, students sealed off entrances to their universities with burning tires and forced the schools to close. At the Union Buildings on October 23, protestors in Pretoria set aflame a row of portable toilets. And in mid-November, a month after #FeesMustFall began, students at Stellenbosch, the Tswhane University of Technology, and the University of the Western Cape kept the fires lit, burning debris, buildings, and other campus properties.

More forcefully than any memorandum, the fires expressed this generation’s urgency to tear down the structures in place—to expose, in the process, the violence and absurdity that undergird the visage of South Africa’s “normal and functioning” society. Take, for example, the events that took place on October 19 at the University of Cape Town. That evening, a small crowd of students was occupying an administrative office when the state police arrived to evict them. The officers, clad in riot gear, opened stun grenades and tear gas canisters; they’d been summoned by university management to use whatever means necessary. The violence normalized by the state was mirrored in the reactions of individuals. The first morning that students blockaded entrances to UCT, a white professor, angered by the inconvenience, climbed out of his car and unleashed a stream of expletives on the young, mostly black protestors (including the words “selfish fucking cunts”).

Media outlets interpreted the fires, the stones, and the barricades as hooliganism. They missed the argument. In calling for everything to be decolonized, this generation of protestors is rejecting colonial modes of speaking to power. They’re uprooting Enlightenment ideals of civil and rational discourse; they’re giving the finger to rules of respectability. As the writer and columnist Sisonke Msimang succinctly phrased it, the young ones simply have no fucks left to give. This contempt for state-approved forms of expression has created the space for the return of Madikizela-Mandela: a figure who, throughout her life, voiced her anger loudly, publicly, and without restraint. When asked to confess her crimes at the Truth Commission in 1997, Madikizela-Mandela kept her responses brief, her expression aloof. Against the backdrop of a jubilatory nation, her refusal to participate in forgiveness exercises sealed her reputation as morally bankrupt and mad. But today, armed with the understanding that reconciliation is meaningless without justice, we read her conduct much differently. We see in Madikizela-Mandela a leader who refused to adapt her rage to the formats set forth by those in power.

Throughout the protests, whenever the Mandela name arose, I’d ask people what they thought of Winnie Mandela. To one UCT student, the Mandela couple represented the Janus-faced decision that South Africa had to make in 1994. While Nelson Mandela stood for reconciliation, Madikizela-Mandela stood for retribution—the road that should’ve been taken. “Winnie Mandela, now she’s a fighter!” somebody else said, swinging his fist into the air, “She did all the dirty work while her husband was gone.” Another protestor corrected me, saying, “No, her name is Winnie Madikizela. She must get rid of the ‘Mandela’.”

On October 22, the day Madikizela-Mandela was supposed to appear, 15,000 protestors in Johannesburg marched across the Nelson Mandela Bridge to Luthuli House, the headquarters of the African National Congress. But a few hours after the Facebook post (quoted at the outset of this post) began to attract attention, the Mandela Legacy issued a statement: Madikizela-Mandela didn’t have a Facebook profile, and she wasn’t even in town at the time. The profile was a hoax.

Though Madikizela-Mandela never showed up to the protests, she had, in another sense, already arrived—resuming her rightful place among the South African youth. 21 years ago, the country didn’t know what to make of her. But today, it’s precisely the unintelligibility of Winnie Mandela’s image that captures the dizzying contradictions of life as a born-free. She is, all at once, a public figure electrifying but evasive; a consciousness vacillating between psychosis and lucidity; and a soldier eager, after too many years of waiting, to carry the revolution to its conclusion.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.