The elusive Winnie Mandela

Portrait of power: Winnie Mandela with clenched fist is a common image, but does it really capture this complex woman? (Gille de Vlieg)

Portrait of power: Winnie Mandela with clenched fist is a common image, but does it really capture this complex woman? (Gille de Vlieg)

In the week that I am writing about Winnie Mandela’s photographs, I mount three images of her above my writing desk so that when I look up from the text the images are looking at me and I am looking at them. Further on in my line of sight, in between the window blinds, is the small garden in my rented cottage.

The placement of the images, below a window so they are always clearly visible and in a straight line, is strategic. One, it is to redirect my focus and, two, to be in conversation with them. I also arrange the images in time, so the first image on the left is a black-and-white image of Winnie when she was young. She is surrounded by other young revolutionists. The next is of her at an older age, in an ANC Women’s League robe, at what appears to be a rally. The third image does not exist. It is a suggestion.

If an attempt was made to create a Winnie portrait by gathering all the views we have about her and creating a definitive portrait, what would that photograph look like? What would the balance of its own photography and technical competency be and what and how would it be contextualised?

There is another layer to consider for this portrait, perhaps the most powerful layer, and one that would significantly alter the aesthetic of the image. Apart from what people think of Winnie, she has always possessed a wilful curating of her own personality and politics.

In the introduction of the 2013 edition of The Cry of Winnie Mandela by Njabulo Ndebele, one can, from his apprehensiveness about her arrival at the book launch and the scampering of the staff at the Exclusive Books in Hyde Park, Johannesburg, conclude that, even when nobody knew what Winnie was thinking, everyone was equally terrified of her speaking her mind.

That Ndebele is unsure about the text he has written and the bookstore stuff suddenly found a book that stuck out to be an annoyance illustrates the idea that Winnie’s tongue has always been wielded sharply and thoughtfully and this is why we love her.

Imagine then if all of this is rendered into an image, a collage not made of other images but one constructed from feelings. Think of the portrait as a jigsaw puzzle but instead of pieces of the puzzle, one is given varying feelings to make a portrait. In Winnie’s case, what kind of precision and contemplation is required to create the collage? Where does one place the view of her by the men in the ANC? What of the feelings of the citizen and those of young black women whom she has helped reconcile their femininity and revolt?

What would form the edges of the portrait, what shadows would hold the middle and what colour hues would form her face? How noticeable would the degree of distortion be if we added the view that she was a strong fearless leader? And to ask the same question, if we add the view that she was unfaithful in her marriage to Nelson Mandela?

A technique like this, making use of views instead of images to create a collage, is not a collage, although it helps to think of it as one if the image is explained. Though the collage technique can be traced back hundreds of years, its notable emergence is in the 20th century. It is in this era that the term was coined by George Braque and Pablo Picasso. A collage is an image created from varying objects, assembled, arranged and configured to create a new image, in which their individuality means nothing; their only purpose being in collectively creating a new, single image.

The image of Winnie that I am proposing is not new. We have seen it in the evening news, in newspapers, at the time of Nelson Mandela’s death and it has reared its head during elections. The only new thing here is the idea that if we were to imagine these views of her that we have heard, views that have either angered or delighted us, what image would we get and what photographic sensitivities would it have?

What is certain is that it would be hard to capture this portrait perfectly. It is not a stretch to conclude that Winnie would look like an enigma, some spirit whose unyielding power we have no words to describe, whose energy is too much for us to carry.

Imagine then an image that, after the effort to fit the different opinions into a perfect portrait, finely merging and tweaking them, the result is a mysterious woman whose wonder and magic none of us can ever comprehend. That even in the many attempts to document her in text and images as a way to archive her role in the politics of South Africa, we might have to entertain that our efforts will forever be imperfect.

The other two images above my desk have a relationship, though they were taken decades apart, the old possibly with a film camera and the newer image with a digital camera. They both unknowingly capture time and age tenderly and expertly.

In the two images, over the week that I display them, Winnie ages in front of my eyes and when I hold the images closer to each other, it is as if the youth in her slowly disappears and the wrinkles appear. Studying the two images further, beyond their underwhelming framing, one can feel a sense of an equal energy, yet in the one image the energy feels unattainable and in the other not as much, and even manufactured.

In both images, her right fist is tightly closed and raised in the air. In the image where she is young, her hand is fully stretched and her mouth is wide open, churning some energy out to the world. In the other image, even though the image is a copy of the first, there are slight differences. The hand is not fully stretched in the air and, though the fist is clenched, one can observe the looseness of the muscles. Her grip is not firm but its intentions cannot be misunderstood. The fire still burns in her as it does in the other image.

In studying the three images, one is overcome by the same feelings of a woman whose fire will burn beyond our own existence on this Earth, whose personality unravels each moment we think we have figured her out. If anything is to be read in the third image, it is not that our own views of Winnie matter, or that they should, but rather that, in forming our opinions of her, we have to be aware that she has always — and continues to — slip away from any attempts to define her. If this portrait, curated from our views of her, does not look like this, a woman who is slightly beyond the grasp of our thinking, it has failed to capture her.

Lidudumalingani Mqombothi won the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story Memories We Lost, published in Incredible Journey: Stories That Move You

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