Real-life mother of the nation

In many ways, it is fitting that it is Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda that acts as our chaperone into this powerful documentary on struggle hero Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life. Both women have lived their lives in the shadow of towering figures and yet their roles as backers, advisers and influencers of these men have often gone uncredited.

In Madikizela-Mandela’s case, the myriad forces jockeying for position as apartheid was unravelling necessitated that the radical Madikizela-Mandela be separated from her husband for dark forces to “work on him”, as she puts it in this 97-minute doccie.

Winnie, directed by German filmmaker Pascale Lamche, channels the spirit of arts activist Peter Makurube, who facilitated Lamche’s introduction to Madikizela-Mandela and pushed for the project to be made “when the timing was right”, as Lamche told her audience at the Encounters Documentary Festival premiere on June 3.

Winnie is a forthright attempt at rectifying the propaganda-fuelled discrediting of the mother of the nation, a project that started at the height of apartheid and continued well into democracy.

Lamche picks from extensive interviews with Madikizela-Mandela (four sessions, each of them several hours long), fusing these with grainy archival footage of apartheid South Africa. This fuzzy footage is in turn juxtaposed with technicolour images of a new, yet largely unchanged, contemporary South African landscape and complemented by snippets of Madikizela-Mandela’s public persona and her memorable declamations.


The interviewees, chief among them Madikizela-Mandela’s daughter Zindzi, with whom she was banished to Brandfort after the 1976 uprisings, biographer Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob and lawyer and activist Dali Mpofu (with whom she had an intimate relationship while Nelson Mandela was incarcerated) make a strong case for a closer revisiting of Madikizela-Mandela’s history. But, of course, there are also foes.

Victor McPherson, who headed police strategic communications, seems dazed and gleeful in recounting the extent of the propaganda mobilised against her. Former spy boss Neil Barnard appears to be still drunk on his own ego, revealing the apartheid state’s hand in just how much they worked on Mandela in the period leading up to his release, even trying to influence his first public speech as a free man.

(Robben Island/Mayibuye Archive)

Hearing Madikizela-Mandela recontextualise the murder of Mandela Football Club member Stompie Seipei and the manner in which she was publicly vilified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission make for the film’s climax. The club was ridden with spies and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s self-righteousness exposes the patriarchal underpinnings of the increasingly questioned rainbow nation.

By squeezing an apology out of Madikizela-Mandela, Tutu was, in fact, squeezing an apology out of all the women who have ever had to carry their families while men were away labouring and struggling.

In this sense, Tutu was playing into the hands of the dark forces’ narrative of “saints and sinners”, as daughter Zindzi put it. As the ruse goes, Madikizela-Mandela was the dodgy sinner who had cheated on her husband and Mandela was the saint who had been wronged by a philandering wife.

Lamche’s film, quite secure in its bias to tell Madikizela-Mandela’s untold side of the story, succeeds in turning this narrative on its head.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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