Reimagining an unburdened Winnie

'As poet Lebo Mashile noted, restoring and building the legacies of black women has always been left to black women' (John McCann)

'As poet Lebo Mashile noted, restoring and building the legacies of black women has always been left to black women' (John McCann)

Winnie Mandela, she

the nonfiction statement, the flight into

resolving fiction,

vivid over the landscape, a sumptuous

sun

for our warming, ointment at the gap of

our wounding,

sometimes

would like to be a little girl again.

Skipping down a country road, singing. 

Or a young woman, flirting,

no cares beyond curl-braids and paint

and ef fecting no change, no swerve, no

jangle.

But Winnie Mandela, she,

the She of our vision, the Code,

the articulate rehearsal, the founding

Mother, shall

direct our choir of makers and wide

music.

Think of plants and beautiful weeds in

the Wilderness.

They can’t do a thing about it (they are

told)

when trash is dumped at their roots.

Have no doubt they’re indignant and

daunted.

It’s not what they wanted.

— Excerpt from Winnie by
Gwedolyn Brooks (1996)

It is no mistake that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was the subject of the poetry of one of the finest American poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, who also happened to be a black woman. No, it is no mistake at all. Through Brooks’s pen we see Winnie Mandela both for what she was — the “ointment at the gap of our wounding” — and for what she might have wanted to be — “a young woman, flirting, no cares beyond curl-braids and paint and effecting no change, no swerve, no jangle”.

But Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was jangle. She was bracelets on a warrior’s arm; the jittery jangle of nerves when trouble is coming. 

And yet, in this poem Brooks reminds us that she was so much more. She reminds us, in her wondering about an imagined Winnie — a child Winnie — that one of the tragedies of racism is the extent to which it has foisted struggle on black people. Brooks invokes the innocence of childhood to remind us that black children have almost never been allowed to be unburdened. 

In literature, the child skipping on a country road is almost always white. In books, black children are toiling; they are under duress, too “raced” to ever be truly carefree. And so, in reimagining Winnie this way, Brooks asks us to remember — if only for the duration of her poem — that to have “no cares beyond curl-braids” (as whites do), black people have always been forced to rise to the occasion, and to be greater than we might otherwise want to be. 

This week, as South Africans paid tribute to Madikizela-Mandela, most of us, I suspect, felt the loss of her passage because we know all too well the burden of having to rise to the occasion. 

She was, indeed, the “bright red sun for our warming”.  Still, Brooks reminds us that perhaps Madikizela-Mandela — like the rest of us who are black and women and aware of the weight of those responsibilities — would have preferred that the sun shine equally on all humanity. She would have preferred it, I imagine, if there had been no racism to combat in the first place, no apartheid demons to slay. 

This is the poignant core at the centre of the sadness I have felt this week and the anger, I suppose.  It is still hard to accept, all these years into my life, that the sun does not shine equally on all South Africans.

Madikizela-Mandela and her comrades who fought for a more just society knew this long before I was born. Their efforts made my life easier and so I cannot imagine how burdensome this knowledge must have been to them. 

I am typically not one to get distracted by racists. We live in a country that now ostensibly belongs to us all. This week, wave upon wave of invective washed across the nation to meet the news of Madikizela-Mandela’s passing. An army of angry, bitter whites, who see no future for themselves in this country, made their presence known as the defenders of a little boy whose name has never touched their lips before and whose memory means nothing to them. 

Media institutions sprang into action: they who had splashed ugliness about her across their pages in life followed the same old script. Rainbow warriors — confused because the new South Africa does not want to talk about anger but likes to talk about our shared history — did not know what to do with themselves. 

There was disarray. 

But Winnie Madikizela-Mandela “the founding mother” was still with us. Hovering between this world and the next, she sent out a counter-army. A battalion of women and young South Africans fought back. We took on the work of correcting the record and telling the stories, of questioning the orthodoxy around her, not because we care about racists but because we care about our own future. Our responses were no distraction — they were crucial to the work of nation-building.

As poet Lebo Mashile noted, restoring and building the legacies of black women has always been left to black women. This week was a show of might — a demonstration that, as the saying goes: “You strike a woman, you strike a rock.” As University of the Witwatersrand Professor Shireen Hassim observed, in the hours after Madikizela-Mandela’s death, media institutions leapt to “misrecognise” her — and her legions of supporters refused to allow this to happen. 

Yet it is crucial to note that Madikizela-Mandela does not belong to black women alone. I continue to believe that South Africa can still be a country that belongs to all who live in it, regardless of the colour of their skin. If that ideal is to be realised, then South Africans must rise to the occasion. Mama Winnie’s story, of course, belongs to all of us. Hers is a life worth examining for its courage, achievement and complexity. Hers is a story that is so quintessentially South African, so fundamentally feminist and so profoundly African that it must be taught in schools — not in passing, as an appendage, but in its own right. 

After Mam’ Winnie is laid to rest, we will need to continue the work of building monuments to her. There may be some stone statues that are erected. I will not oppose them. Still, it is the flesh-and-blood monuments that interest me more: the scholarships and annual lectures, the funds for school uniforms and sanitary pads that must be collected in her name, the camps for children from townships, the defiance tours we must organise. It is through all these that I hope Madikizela-Mandela is memorialised.

I imagine two old women who are young again. They greet each other at the threshold of the heavens. Their eyes twinkle. Gwendolyn takes Winnie’s arm and together, like little girls again, I see them “skipping down a country road, singing”. 

Hamba kahle, Mama. 

Sisonke Msimang is the author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home (Jonathan Ball, 2017)

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