I have not been a very successful writer. As a journalist, I seldom took advantage of the many chances I had to interview big names, or created work that would render me a household name one day. I’m often the person who agrees to get things done, as countless women can attest to in most professions. I’ve kept a low profile as an editor or manager for most of my career thus far. So when I was the only journalist who Mama Winnie agreed to be interviewed by after the screening of the documentary Winnie at the Encounters Film Festival in 2017, I was beyond elated.
At that time in my professional life, I was facing sustained attacks on my character and abilities. Despite being the news editor of one of the most exciting international publications to open local offices, I found myself at the wrong end of powerful people’s opinions.
During the period the interview took place, I had never doubted myself more. I almost cancelled the interview because I was afraid. When people accuse you of things you are not, you start to believe them and you have to hold on to something else to remember who you are.
Mama Winnie articulates this phenomenon in Anné Mariè du Preez Bezdrob’s biography of her, when she recounts her darkest times during her state-sanctioned detention and torture.
I had to remember that I had managed to get this interview; that no matter how much I thought I was not good enough to do it, this was my chance to get it right.
I took three other young women journalists with me and we did a great interview, even though I felt injured on Mama Winnie’s behalf for being briefed to “ask about Jacob Zuma and what she thinks of state capture”, as if her own story was not enough.
I also managed to get some news, about how, in 1994, Jerry Richardson was paid for information he gave to the apartheid state in the form of a R30 000 solitaire diamond ring for his partner. This was pulled out and repurposed this year after her death, without my byline. At any other time in my life, I would have probably opted not to ask for recognition. This time, I made sure I did.
Seeing Mama Winnie’s wit, charm, warmth and love at the age of 81, after everything she had endured, gave me renewed vigour and more strength to always stand by my convictions. Her mere presence was enough to tell me that I was more than fine and that I am capable.
Since that interview, the journalists who were in that room have set off in different directions. I cannot say that I left Mama Winnie’s home the same woman, and I’m sure none of the other women can either. The biggest lesson I learnt by meeting her was to stand by my values and my word. If she could stand up for what’s right, support so many others while fighting off continued, measured attacks against her, and still sit with so much grace and beauty, then what stops me from doing the same? Absolutely nothing.
Deshnee Subramany is a freelance writer, editor and producer