Cast the first stone: Our Mary Magdalene of the townships

There ain’t no grave can hold my body down

There ain’t no grave can hold my body down

When I hear the trumpet sounds I’m gonna rise right out of the ground Ain’t no grave can hold my body down 

— Johnny Cash, American VI: 

Ain’t No Grave, 2010

Mama once told me there’s not a person power is more intimidated by, and yet captivated by, than the figure of a black woman. Alas, in the late 1970s I was too young to make sense of that. In any case, the most interesting heroes I had then — except for Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee, both of whom carried themselves with the grace of ballerinas — were women.

It was no surprise, then, that the moment I got sucked into the nascent and pouty punk and new-wave subcultures in my teens, acne and all, I was drawn to those male miscreants who derived their masculinity from the overtly feminine, though not quite effete.

This was in addition to a buncha sisters who kicked butt: Poly Styrene in the British band X-Ray Spex, Brenda Fassie, Bette Davis, Millie Jackson, Donna Summer, Cynthia Shange, the rock star Thelma Segone, as well as the action heroine in the pulp-fiction comic book She, played by a host of women, the most famous being Linda Mhlongo, a statuesque Zulu damsel with a chocolate skin and a body to perish for.

Yes, you can say I had already begun to objectify women from as early as that. You can also say that I had begun to search for questions: Why is it that if they are so beautiful — God’s finest creations who also give birth to us, nurture us — they slave for white folks and are called “maids”, slave for our fathers and other male figures and are called “bitches”, and spend what’s left of their energies feeding and bathing us, doubling up as mothers and fathers? Why is it that they are, I wondered, so scandalised?

I’m reminded of all of this by the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Much ink has been spilled about the sort of person she was. Neil Strauss once wrote a book titled Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead. He forgot to add the subtitle: unless your name is Winnie Mandela.

Outlaws and others in our social fictions such as celebrities — especially those who died poor, ravaged by sickness or damned by gossip — are alternately beloved and rendered heroic in death.

It seems, though, that the old adage “speak not ill of the dead” clearly does not apply to her. Those who could not break her resolve in life will never allow her to rest in peace in death.

The wolves, vultures and rumour-peddlers are having a field day feasting on the memory of a woman gone to her eternal sleep, with few willing to counter the fictions hawked at her expense.

The vultures have to shred what’s left of her, in the name of objectivity. Why?

Cutting Winnie down to size

Remember, mama said … fear of the black woman, even in death.

Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela, a woman who endured some of the very worst suffering, abuse and outright spiritual assassination — I would not be surprised if the brutes have had their way with her and she decided to keep quite about it for whatever reasons — is once again being subjected to public stoning and bitch/witch hunting.

This has never, now or before, been an arbitrary exercise. This is wilful calibration to cut the woman who never “knew her place” down to size. To achieve this, lies are employed sneakily within some truths — truths that shed no new light, so that the whole project appears earnest. Of course, this is the abuse of virtues such as objectivity.

Sometimes murder is committed in the name of love. It is not surprising, though, that some of the so-called critiques of Madikizela-Mandela are performed in mitigation against the other sorts of lies — lies of love.

It is true that a lot of lies, half-truths and exaggerations about love, blind love even, have been heaped on her, with a view to tweaking her narrative to fit the love the dead are always smothered with.

These lies seek to reframe Madikizela-Mandela as the sacred warrior-goddess, a figure such as Abraxas who has fallen from the rainforests to save us all.

We know that lie too. However, it does not gift us with a licence to weave bigger and trashier lies on top of the cacophony of lies already in full swirl.

Madikizela-Mandela did not and does not need any of us to say how revolutionary, how heroic even, she was, just as she does not need us to lie in the pursuit of a spurious, “humanising” bigger lie. Her deeds speak for her. Her flaws are public. We can’t say the same about those who now seek to stone her in perpetuity.

[After the ball is over: This 1956 photo shows a 20-year-old Winnie Mandela as a student enrolled at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg. (Drum photographer/Bailey’s Archives)]

We also know that tales of both false heroism and blemish-free sainthood are never really about the dead but about the living. The living have always sought to insert themselves into the narratives of the dead (I am also guilty of this, for better or worse).

Take, for example, the “conquering goddess heroine” narrative. However false it is, it is not without merit. It issues out of a natural quest for both salvation and healing. People under the jackboot of humiliation always seek a messianic god-figurine to wash and dress their wounds. Mother Teresa was never a saint herself; author Christopher Hitchens referred to her as “the Whore of Kolkata”.

Again, women are ’hos and men are Byronic Lotharios; in the racial heroism canon, Malcolm X and Tupac Shakur come to mind.

All heroes and nurturers are perhaps the paradoxes of a balanced life dictated, extolled and pedestalled up so high as to render their inevitable fall from grace and vulture-feasting all the more delicious and spectacular.

Madikizela-Mandela is no exception and should not be exempt. But there’s a difference between an ice-cold and sharp rebuke of revisionism that seeks to reimagine heroes through rose-tinted lenses and plain slandering through make-believe and verifiable lies.

Four black and greasy lies

A quartet of major lies that look like black and greasy pillars stick out of the tomb of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Each is filtered through its own self-fulfilling, though unverifiable, data.

The first and most obvious lie is this: unlike her ex-husband — white people’s imaginary black Jesus, Nelson Mandela, who never quite forsook black people and the black masses never forsook him in return — Madikizela-Mandela harboured illogical and unwarranted hatred for white people. This lie mistakes her critique of whiteness and its unearned privilege as “hatred for whites”.

“In time, her reputation became scarred by accusations of extreme brutality toward turncoats …and a radicalism at odds with Mr Mandela’s quest for racial inclusiveness,” writes Alan Cowell in The New York Times (April 2). Or “her uncompromising methods”, Ed Cropley writes in Times Select (April 3), “and refusal to forgive contrasted sharply with the reconciliation espoused by her husband Nelson Mandela as he worked to forge a stable, pluralistic democracy from the racial division and oppression of apartheid”.

This lie is the default position of the faultless white, liberal and right-wing Western capitalist project.

The second lie is that, through what she said, which indeed included the line “through our boxes of matches we’ll liberate the country”, Madikizela-Mandela was the mother of the fratricide among black liberation organs internally.

Of course, the imagery of matches painted the infernal chaos of a wild wind whipping through the townships.

This is easier to disprove: she made that statement in 1985, the same year then ANC president OR Tambo called for the country to be “rendered ungovernable”. Read what you wish into that. It matters not whether Madikizela-Mandela’s belligerence was issued before or afterwards; the two seem to me the dangerous, tactical twin reactions of a frustrated organisation at its wits’ end about how else to take the battle to the most powerful military regime in Africa.

Is it okay for OR to call for ungovernability and treacherous for Winnie to do the same?

The third lie is that, in her final years, Winnie the populist had shrunk into political irrelevance. This lie equates political capital with political office and has already been proven absurd by the epic collective pain experienced and the public celebration of the woman since her family announced the news of her death.

This lie further qualifies that, because she was frozen out by her own political party — for the embezzling of funds or other various misdeeds that she might actually have been guilty of, for that matter — she was such a politically spent force, so beaten up, that only the black nationalist and African separatist fringe would have her. Sob, sob. Fringe? Brrr!

I used to be a black nationalist myself. If you know of anyone born before 1994 who was carving an ideological path among the ruins and chaos of the Cold War and had experienced the systematic humiliation of her people but had never been attracted to a nationalist or radical socialist cause, they need their heads examined.

Believe me, true radical nationalists don’t give a damn what lies or truths you say about them. But don’t demean Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s worth by defining the nationalist or Africanist cause as the religion of a few loonies.

The fourth lie, of course, is the lie that all women are too familiar with by dint of social malice targeted at their gender: that she was a woman of loose morals, a not-so-cryptic metaphor for “Winnie Mandela was a whore”. There’s just no cute way of voicing the slur.

Let’s try to deal with these lies and accusations on a case-by-case basis.

Lie #1: Winnie the black racist

I am not going to lower this to the “blacks can be racist too” nonargument. We all know that prejudice and the fear of the cultural and racial other is a human shortcoming, but racism is an accumulation of that prejudice with the abuse of economic and institutional power, and of fear coupled with the hatred and disdain of certain people simply because they are different from you.

Madikizela-Mandela had no power to actively assume and act out any racial superiority towards whiteness. The Winnie I knew was sanguine in her abhorrence of white racism and genuine in her love for white people as individuals.

The Winnie I knew was more genuine than the lame “some of my best friends are black” retort so beloved by the contemporary liberal set. Winnie was committed to her white friends to the degree that some of them — who she appreciated as people and not for being white — became her family.

It is stooping to her haters’ level to quota-count her many friends but among them was Hazel Crane, who was murdered a few years ago, and Terry Oakley-Smith, to name but a trickle.

In Winnie Mandela: A Life, Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob tells the story of Herman Joubert, an Afrikaner journalist who worked for Beeld, with poignancy.

I am paraphrasing Du Preez Bezdrob, who also paraphrased a memoir-column the journalist had penned: on March 7 1995, Joubert wrote in Beeld about his 3am encounter with Winnie, many years before Mandela’s release. Joubert was living in a flat in Hillbrow and one night he was overcome by loneliness. His children were far, far away and his marriage was in tatters.

He was on the edge of a precipice. There was no one he could call. Finally, the biographer recalls of Joubert’s column, he came to a page on which there was a telephone number but no name. He had no idea who it belonged to. “To hell,” he thought, “tonight I’m calling a number with no name.” A young woman answered politely and said cryptically: “She’s not here; she’ll call you back later. It sounds as though you need help.”

At about 3am that morning, the phone rang and a voice inquired about his call. He had forgotten about his earlier meltdown call and, annoyed, he slammed down the phone: “How dare a meid [black woman] phone me at 3am?” he fumed to no one in particular.

A little later, the phone rang again and, still angry, Joubert picked up the receiver. In an extremely calm voice the same woman asked: “Are you Herman?”

“Yes,” he said, and the caller told him she was Winnie Mandela and that she wanted to help him.

“Leave me alone; why would you want to help me?” he responded, to which she answered: “Tell me, what’s going on? Do you have children?”

What he told her was too personal to share with his readers, but he wrote that, “for the first time in months, someone showed genuine concern and listened”.

Winnie said she wanted to give him some good advice. “Go and make yourself a sandwich, get something in your tummy, then drink a glass of warm milk and go back to bed. Remember, you need to look after yourself. You are not alone in this world. There are people who care about you. We care.”

The biographer concluded that Joubert followed her advice and, for the first time in months, he got a good night’s sleep.

“I felt,” he wrote, “as though the angels themselves were watching over me.”

According to this account, the writer signed off his column with a line from one of dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s plays (she doesn’t mention which one): “It’s not only the bad things you do that rebound. Any good you do comes back as well.”

I recall thinking after reading about the encounter that Ibsen must have been a damn fine Buddhist or a man of deep secular faith who was in ethereal balance; to wit, a soul given to the secrets of metaphysics.

I also recall a filmmaker friend from Eastern Europe regaling me with a story about how he and his black boss, a known Black Consciousness activist, went to pitch a film at Madikizela-Mandela’s house. Throughout the pitch she concentrated solely on the junior partner — a white man — as though the black producer wasn’t even there.

Not to make too cute a point about it, consider this and make up your mind: there are currently two documentary films about her by two award-winning international directors.

Pascale Lamche’s doccie made waves when it won the Best Director award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and the other one soon to go on circuit was directed by Emmy-winning director Mandy Jacobson.

Lamche’s film, leaning more towards empathetic investigation, has been lauded for its refutation of the many lies told about its subject. It explodes with its own counter-conspiracies as well as “truths” on the obvious, sustained programme to wipe Madikizela-Mandela from the South African political sphere by lies, deceit and attempts at assassination.

This flick roils the innards. It is totally harrowing and is edited to give Winnie an opportunity to speak back to her enemies and lovers alike.

Meanwhile, Jacobson has screened extracts of her yet-to-be-released film on Carte Blanche, among other platforms. It promises to be as riveting as Lamche’s doccie.

Just in case you blinked and missed it, both Lamche and Jacobson, two women who had unparalleled access to their subject, just happen to be white. Ah. No big deal. Uhm, no, not at all: Winnie the monster forgot to cannibalise them.


Lie #2: Winnie the spent force

Was she so irrelevant as to become dependent on the love of black nationalists after she “lost favour with the masses”, as overseas and some local media would love us to believe?

I am not interested in playing a game of statistics; the facts are there: indeed, 
Madikizela-Mandela recoiled from the public and the media before and after she was fired as deputy minister of arts and culture in the mid-1990s.

In fact, all of the known “populists”, some of whom were truly popular activists and others less so — although all were seen as sabre-rattlers — were marginalised as the ANC in both the Mandela and Mbeki eras asserted its muscle on the South African polity.

Leaders such as the late Peter Mokaba, Bantu Holomisa, Harry Gwala and Madikizela-Mandela were shut-upped and made to toe the line.

Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t zip her up for too long. Throughout the first 10 years of the ANC being in power, Winnie never lost her touch with and was never in danger of being dumped by the majority of South Africans outside the ANC’s structures.

In fact, many black South Africans resented Mandela, but chose to stay out of domestic matters such as Madiba divorcing Winnie and getting hitched to Graça Machel, however gracious her name is and however respectful to Tata she came across as being.

Lie #3: Winnie the fringe radical

It is also worth remembering that the “fringe” black nationalists and black feminists were vigorous and intellectually stimulating, if sometimes regressive, but always alert, and were responsible for the revitalisation of South African politics in recent memory.

Put it this way: without the student revolts such as the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements —whose baton has been snatched by the Economic Freedom Fighters — all the current debates about land, intersectional feminism (not quite new, just recently picked up by the New Generation), and economic revolution, would possibly have remained moribund.

To these movements Madikizela-Mandela was a galvanising spirit in life, and remains more of a totemic figure in death.

Lie #4: Winnie the loose woman

She has been cited as “the other woman” in numerous divorces. She’s a cradle-snatcher. Oh, that wickedest of women! God’s whip will one day befall her for corrupting our untainted male virgins — so bang the cymbals of African moralism.

Slut-shaming Madikizela-Mandela for her sexual and romantic — her private — behaviour is dishonest, nonsensical and unsustainable on many levels. Privacy? Ewe ka loku!

Public personae deserve privacy, particularly on issues outside the purview of the work they are public about. Madikizela-Mandela’s public work is not romance.

Even if it was inevitable that we’d be drawn to her private behaviour mainly through, as she ruefully reminded us, her “marriage to the struggle; the ANC is my first love”, and that her behaviour would attract attention by dint of her bond with such a public/absent/surreal/magical figure as Nelson Mandela, she still deserved (and deserves) a sacred space that’s hers and hers alone.

Yes, she was a riveting beauty the camera and our collective lust could not get enough of. But a Madonna, Brenda Fassie or Anneline Kriel she was not.

Eroticism was not part of her revolutionary tool kit, even as it was a central or parallel part of those other sisters’ performative selves.

In any case, the debate on morality versus privacy, eroticism versus love, sex versus love, and so on, is just not taking place. When it rears its head, it’s all about how those positions satiate men.

To those who claim “the lusty” and “impatient” Winnie betrayed “the most beloved political figure of all time”, as one publication insinuates, I have a question for you. Perhaps she had love in abundance. Perhaps that X-factor she was born with got the best of her, perhaps the worst.

The question is: What is wrong when a woman loves, lusts or even chooses to share herself with whoever she chooses to? Arggh! That’s not even the question I wish to put out there.

The main quiz is more or less a walk in the park: What would you have done if your husband or wife, with whom our leaky, Calvinistic and unsustainable social construct of monogamy had decreed you will share your deepest fantasies, body and soul, had been kept in the 
apartheid dungeons for close to 30 years?

Bongani Madondo writes on poetry, politics and photography. His latest book is Sigh, the Beloved Country (Picador Africa)

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Bongani Madondo
Bongani Madondo
Author:Sigh The Beloved Country(Picador) Essays On Photography. Joburg Review. Essays NewYorker/Aperture/S'Times.

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