Winnie changes history as we know it

(from the film 'Winnie')

(from the film 'Winnie')

There’s a scene in Pascale Lamche’s phenomenal documentary Winnie that would make for an interesting graphological study on the relationship between Bantu education and its effects on the handwriting of the people who were sausaged through its inferiority. The scene is a still frame of archival footage of a white wall somewhere in Soweto in the early 1990s, with the camera focused on the words: “Swop Nelson for Winnie’’, written in large, light-blue block letters.

I would have to watch the film again to be certain, but it’s part of a montage of footage capturing the well-documented at times state-manufactured anger of Sowetans during Madikizela-Mandela’s trial for the kidnapping of Stompie Seipei by the Mandela Football Club, with which she was closely associated.

Those chilling words were the subject of a phone conversation I had with a friend on Sunday, the morning after we had watched the film in different venues. My friend grew up in Soweto in the 1980s and 1990s and still calls it home today.

“That’s not how black people write, especially Bantu-educated black people,’’ she screamed. I immediately knew what she meant, although one would struggle to prove this potentially bigoted nuance to someone who did not grow up knowing how to spot the difference between apartheid-era black-school-educated handwriting and white-school-educated handwriting.

“Plus, back then we didn’t use words like ‘swop’; that’s how white people speak,’’ she quipped. She didn’t need to say that this was probably written by agents of the state’s agenda. The film kept on giving such gifts. The pitch in our laughter down the phone line about this kernel of inside knowledge would have taken the form of a hearty hand grip or palms hitting tables had we been sitting next to each other.

We were laughing from a hurt but vindicated place, delirious from having witnessed Madikizela-Mandela say everything. Everything she has never said in the past 27 years of being shrouded in controversy, having been cast aside and actively demoted from the list of legitimate party leaders by an organisation she had mothered and kept alive as apartheid burned and burned and burned.

Our sniffing around this particular scene was propelled by Lamche’s directorial gaze, her unalloyed allegiance to Madikizela-Mandela’s side of this branch of South African history.

In other mesmerising scenes (entire films can be made about Winnie and Zindzi Mandela’s hairstyles, Winnie’s style, their on-camera confrontations with apartheid police, her relationship to Soweto), Lamche rolls out the state’s campaign against Madikizela-Mandela through an arsenal of footage and print media propaganda that was used to negatively influence public perceptions of her as the big crocodiles battled with what to do with her radical nature — what Zindzi in the film calls “Mummy’s wake-up factor’’.

These campaigns are unbelievably narrated by Vic McPherson, a former member of Stratcom, the apartheid government agency that was created to act on information gathered by the National Intelligence Service, then headed by Niel Barnard.

(Robben Island/Mayibuye Archive)

McPherson and Barnard are the singing canaries in the film, backing up the campaign to publicly blemish Madikizela-Mandela with receipts: facts of what their units did, which stories they planted in newspapers and who was “bought” to corroborate their twisting
stories.

There was a palpable sense of disbelief in the theatre as these two men — one sitting comfortably inside Lamche’s frame with his ageing, toffee-brown dachshund on his lap and the other still angry about the fact that Madikizela-Mandela refused to be “Mandela’s Jackie Kennedy’’ — sat there, bempora ngathi ngamagqwirha anukiweyo on some: “Ewe samthakatha uWinnie ngeli, neliyaa iyeza ngemini ethile” (confessing like witches who have been caught saying: “Yes, we bewitched Winnie with this and that muti on this particular day”).

Part of the rightness of this film’s making and release is owed to the time that has lapsed between Madikizela-Mandela’s downfall and where South Africa finds itself today: in the post-Mandela years that have revealed the dummy country black people were handed.

Without running away from the “eish’’ parts of Madikizela-Mandela’s story, the film tenderly reveals how patriarchy succeeded in demonising her for having a lover in Dali Mpofu and just how influential other forces (named in the film) were in Mandela’s decision to forgive white people, but not forgive her.

To hear Zindzi Mandela’s articulation of how her father allowed that is heartbreaking, but not as bewildering as it is to hear Madikizela-Mandela say: “I suddenly had no identity,” as the ANC leadership rationed piece after piece of South Africa’s new history to everybody but her. Perhaps watching the film with Mam’ Winnie in the room added to the goose bumps.

Unfortunately, it will be hard for ordinary South Africans, the people who will probably cry rivers the day that Mam’ Winnie becomes a political ancestor, to see. Winnie’s distribution rights are limited to festivals because the rare archival footage that the film heavily relies on is too expensive to use if the film is to be released in cinemas across the country.

But even though the revelation of the end of our history as we know it will stagger on a little longer, the most important thing is that this film exists. 

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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