Editorial: Respect women, in Winnie’s name

Last week, a 14-year-old girl went missing in the southern Free State. Her mother, a domestic worker in Johannesburg, was frantic with worry. Two days later, the girl woke up in hospital, where she found out she had broken her arm, among other injuries. And she had been raped. Her mother, tears streaming down her face, caught a taxi to be with her daughter. It ought to be the kind of story that sends us into a fit of rage. And yet it is not so remarkable.

It is a story of sexual violence against yet another girl in yet another town. It’s the unending story of families forced apart by migrant labour. It’s the continuing story of the quieter perils of being cheap labour. It’s just another day in South Africa.

This week, a 19-year-old Unisa law student was stabbed to death with a butcher’s knife after rebuffing the advances of a neighbour in Evaton, Gauteng. Headlines tell us the assailant, who was later found to have hanged himself, was a “love-mad man”. It is, after all, just another day in South Africa. 

And yet, it is exactly the high rate of violence against women that is the greatest indictment of this nation’s failures. We are, it appears, locked in a vicious battle against women. Some would argue that our Constitution says differently, that our laws protect women better than most places. We would argue that the wheels of justice turn slowly, sometimes haltingly, for these women. Some would argue that it is not all men, just a rotten few, who are culpable. We would argue that it is imperative we look beyond this incident and that, beyond finding out what drove this man and that, we focus on the entrenched prejudice against women that allows this to fester.

It is that same prejudice that drove the persecution of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. She was demonised, hounded and isolated because she was a black person who dared to fight back but also because she was a black woman. And it is this act of her just being alive that appears to be so offensive that even her death has been an attempt to misrepresent her. 

So we cannot divorce the system that allows this violence against women to continue from the system that allows the legacy of one of the nation’s greatest freedom fighters to be diluted by ambivalence. Madikizela-Mandela was “controversial”, said one report; she was a “bully”, said another. But she was once married to Nelson Mandela, so there was a time when she wasn’t so bad, they appear to be saying.

It would be a dishonour to the life of a remarkable human being to demand hagiography. But it is only right to demand honesty.

Of course she was complex. You have to be a hermit to resist adding some complexity to your existence on Earth. Oliver Tambo was complex. Mandela was complex. She was made to be a bogeyman, her only redeeming characteristic being her association with Madiba. Virtue is sexually transmitted.

So there was a fierce collision this week between those who sought to caricature Mam’ Winnie as a villain and those who remember her as a freedom fighter. There is an injustice in misrepresenting her story that rankles.

Hamba kahle, Mam’ Winnie. May we never forget what it took for you to raise your fist over and over again. You raised your fist for a nation to be born. May we use your memory to do better by the women to come.

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