[Archives] Contemplating the intricacies of Winnie Mandela

A decade after Njabulo Ndebele’s boundary-breaking book about Winnie Mandela was published, he looked back at the moment he met the woman herself.

To calm my nerves, I walked through the corridors of books at Exclusive Books Hyde Park, in Johannesburg. It was the evening of Tuesday September 16 2003. The Johannesburg launch of my book, The Cry of Winnie Mandela, would begin any moment. As there was only one book on my mind, the books lining the shelves on either side of me were a blur. Then I heard a male voice just behind me: “Mummy is here!”

I turned round to face the speaker. “Mummy?” I asked.

“Mummy has arrived.”

Instantly, I knew. Only one woman could be called “Mummy” and I too would know who she was. No doubt about it. Who else but Winnie Mandela could be called “Mummy” at the moment that a book, which bore her name, was about to be launched? It had to be she with whom I had lived intimately in my mind and in my emotions for more than ten years; and who in the last two years had possessed me as her story seized me forcefully enough to get me to write it.

But as I looked at the determined face of the young man who had found me among the books and who was on a mission to summon me to “Mummy”, I felt a surge of alertness through my body. My mind tensed. It was an instinct for vigilance. I had learnt over the years to recognise it. It told me that how I responded to “Mummy” would be no small matter. It warned me that I stood at the precipice of an unguarded moment when I could inadvertently concede to the appearance of mutual knowledge about who “Mummy” was as assumed, without doubt, by the summoner.

By allowing myself to be swept into the usage of the word “Mummy”, as if such usage was normal for me too, I would unwittingly confirm my membership of a community in which that name resonated with a great deal of shared knowledge, expectations and conduct. The subtle pressures of unwitting encapsulation made no allowance for any possible reservations to be recognised and expressed.

I stared at the dawning implications. There was a kind of social knowledge, and the behaviour it engendered, in which admiration for a public figure easily turned into adoration, and such adoration became a soft mechanism by which those caught in the momentum of adoration were enticed into a trap. In this trap, a great deal of oneself was given away to the adored personality such that one was subjugated by adoration. In that way humans often worshipped another of their kind. In that way humans created in others their own domineering monsters. Such adoration spreads in society in numerous waves of unguarded moments until it becomes a defining measure of social behaviour. People then get caught in a culture of unthinking. They yield to the perceived rewards of membership. Many people around the world, who allowed unguarded moments to decide for them, lived to regret it, sometimes over generations.

“Mummy?” I asked, simulating genuine puzzlement.

It worked.

“Yes! Mama Winnie Mandela is here.”

And so it was. If she was “Mummy” to him, she was Winnie Mandela to me. I had achieved the distancing I desired and I could now offer the acknowledgement the summoner had had to earn. I smiled and looked at his unsmiling, determined face. He was a man on a mission. I had seen many such faces before: faces of functionaries single-mindedly devoted to those they served. They are to be handled with caution. My smile and the subtle arching of my body towards him, suggestive of the beginning of a footstep, were my immediate rewards to him. They were a signal I hoped both of us would read as: “All right, I’ll follow you to Mummy.” And so it turned out.

I followed the summoner to encounter the reality of a life I had up to then only imagined. What now? My mind pondered an escalating moment.

An escalating moment, indeed. A whirl of impressions, some definite, others a blur. There was already a group of people around Mrs Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. I remember feeling somewhat deterred by this human barrier. It required me to exert an extra effort to reach her. I resorted to the certainty that there was no way she and I would not, in the vicinity of moment, meet soon enough. Meanwhile, I was content to let others have their fill. It is in my nature not to jostle for the attention of powerful figures, even those who may deserve my or others’ attention.

But the book launch was a special event. Neither Madikizela-Mandela nor I, now that she was there, could avoid the necessity of meeting. The original characters at centre stage, my book and I, had to accommodate a third character, one who had offered us her attention and recognition. I too had to give her mine without delay.

The summoner, whose task was his command, came into his own at that very moment, clearing the space with authority and sureness of purpose that was determined without being abrasive. At the end of the cleared space, there she was: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, resplendent in red.

There she was, the woman I had contemplated, often with painful intensity. In my imaginative life with her I got as close as I could to the compelling power of her life. It did not take long for me, after the mind-whirling moment of our preliminary greetings, to confirm the wisdom of my decision not to have brought a third, real person into the relationship between me and the woman of my imagination.

My decision not to interview Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was a first-order distancing effect. It underscored my project as fundamentally artistic, not biographical. It assured me total control over my creative space. It was a necessity that demanded that I impose vigilance over myself, and avoid the lure of close proximity to the real subject. The public domain was the source of all the information I needed. There was a comforting democracy in that choice.

But once the writing got under way, and I edged closer and closer towards who my intuitions were telling me was the real person, I opted for a second-order distancing effect: the imagined woman imagining herself. Through a device of art, I could get closer to an imagined essence as I got further and further away from the physical reality of the woman who now stood before me. And so it is that the unreality of art is a contrived reality that can get us microscopically closer to lived life.

In the whirl of memory, I will always remember that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was stunning in a suit of red radiance. Social journalist Gillian Anstey who, whenever I had met her on similar occasions in the past, always wore an inquisitive, even hungry, face, searching for something, daring you to reveal something, did find something to express about Madikizela-Mandela: “She looked majestic in a bright red suit with a floor-length skirt and beaded headband.”

That headband! It gave her the aura of commanding presence, strong enough for me to remember thinking: she has the aura of her husband.

I do not remember our first words; but I recall the sense of awkwardness. I think it had to do with the absence of prior preliminaries to soften the interactive space we would have between us. The summoner had certainly not been the best vehicle for such scene-setting preliminaries.

Earlier that day Madikizela-Mandela had been at a Cosatu national congress where she was received with the rapture only the “Mother of the Nation” could be assured of. In that familiar terrain, she must have been at home. Crowds were the waters in which she could swim with assured strokes. Crowds were the social means for the spread of the adoration of personality. There, she could be assured of the predictable support of a crowd with which she shared a history of political community. The book launch, by contrast, was a more intimate space, and far less predictable a space for brazen messages. What would she say to a writer with whom she shared no interpersonal history?

“What a surprise!” I did say. I recall saying how pleased I was that she had come to the launch. A natural thing to say and could be a fitting substitute for the weather. But such speech rituals often do express genuine feelings: and this one did. It was truly wonderful to see her, and to see her so closely my arm would still be bent at the elbow if I touched her.

I do recall asking if she had read the book. I do recall her saying she hadn’t, and that a relative in the United States had told her about it. I do recall wondering about that, but deciding not to be interrogatory. This was a moment of pleasantries. But I did marvel at the relative; at his or her ability to convey, over the phone or in writing, the intricacies of a novel such that its eponymous subject felt so much at ease with the book that she did not feel compelled to read it to confirm the feedback, before coming to the launch. It seemed an expression of confidence that the artistic impression of her in the book could enjoy her associative presence. But then again, had she really not read the book?

As I thought these thoughts, the writer in me, who grappled with the intricacies of Winnie Mandela”s life, saw the iconic, celebrity figure before me begin to blur into the background. The woman who emerged before me took the place of the warrior of fame, defiance, brutality, notoriety and moral ambiguity. The woman before me, I could now confirm to myself, had been the prompt for my aesthetic equanimity. Because of this woman, I had had to work hard to stop just short of judging the other one. The woman before me resembled the good against which humans over millennia have picked up arms against evil.

There she was, not as confident as she made out; she, the one with doubts that the other persona assails. She was warm, with a face of engaging intelligence. I could not doubt the essence of genuineness I intuited at that moment. This woman, who gave art to my labours, ignited my affection. Who then is the other woman?

Who is the one I read about and who, from film footage I had seen, denied with imperious firmness, events in which she was a central player in the presence of others who bore testimony? How could testimonies from so many be obliterated by the testimony of one? What is the probability that all these other witnesses who attached horrible deeds to Winnie Mandela could, with corroborative detail, have marshalled an elaborate conspiracy to invent events that wrongfully implicated her? How do seemingly random testimonies converge into mutually confirming accounts? It all makes for a story.

The gap between the woman who stood before me and the woman with allegations of terror and dread stacked against her is the gap of speculation. Because the woman involved does not resolve the contradictions except through evasion and denial, which intensify contradiction, she badgers credibility. What is to be believed about her? How reliable can she be? Can she ever be trusted? At stake is credibility. What is the true value of credibility? It all makes for a story. So who is the woman, in one of my vivid memories of the evening of the book launch, who having intimated she had not read the book, stood at the end of a queue of readers who had each purchased a copy, and signed her autograph? With what sense of self did she sign each book?

There were readers who left without my autograph. How else could it be? The queue of those who sought my own was incontestably shorter. Yet, I watched with warmth the woman who had made the evening more memorable.

I also remember Winnie Mandela’s inscription in my daughter’s copy: “With all my love.”

It makes for a story.

It is, in all likelihood, a story at the heart of modern South Africa.

Njabulo Ndebele is the chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. This is an extract from the new introduction to the 10th-anniversary reissue of The Cry of Winnie Mandela, published by Picador Africa

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