Idolised, immobilised and vilified

In 1958 Miss Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela became Mrs Nelson Mandela and was accorded the privileged position of a Wife in the eyes of the law, society and the struggle for liberation. The Mandela name gave her political licence and legitimised her role as the ideological Mother of the Nation.

As the Mother of the Nation, she was the feminised political proxy, the constant reminder of the banned, silenced Father of the Nation.

Winnie Mandela stepped into her role as a “good” Wife and Mother; she became the suffering spouse of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Her persecution served her husband and the cause and came to symbolise the suffering of the nation. Her endurance of the hardships imposed on her by the state proved her “goodness”. Her wifely duties included becoming his mouthpiece outside prison and indicated her obedience to her husband and the liberation struggle.

As the beautiful, young, dutiful, virtuous and martyred Wife of the man who would become the world’s most famous political prisoner, Winnie Mandela became an important ideological asset to the struggle. No international media report on the injustices of the apartheid regime was complete without referencing her beauty, her clothing, her tragic separation from her husband.

Her role as Mother was also politically expedient and functioned as a rallying cry for women’s participation in the struggle as mothers. It mirrored the social reality of maids, nannies, girls and aunties, who mothered white children but who could never aspire to equality with the children they cared for.

Then Winnie Mandela turned motherhood on its head. The images of her in khaki fatigues, carrying a coffin with a defiantly raised fist in a Black Power salute shattered the myth of docility and inferiority traditionally associated with black women who worked in the innermost sanctums of white families.

Her militancy and defiance grew in direct proportion to the increasingly brutal harassment of the apartheid state. She evolved from the docile, soft-spoken woman interviewed at the Rivonia Trial to an unbending revolutionary not constrained by the politics of respectability. Undeterred by the military might of the apartheid state or the guns and threats of violence directed at her by security policemen and soldiers, she refused to back down. She transcended the conventional expectations of femininity and claimed her role as head of her household, as a political activist and as a fighter for freedom.

This increasing militancy and unwavering commitment to the struggle further elevated her as the Mother of the Nation. Her identity as a freedom fighter became entwined with the ideology of marriage and families and the ideology of marriage and the family was incorporated into the revolutionary struggle.

But patriarchy, the family and apartheid have a lot in common.

They are social and political structures intended to control and monitor the actions of people in society. The family is a fundamentally patriarchal institution rooted in a social contract premised on male authority that presupposes the dependence and subordination of wives and children to the paterfamilias. The notion of family is loaded with the prescription of good mothers. Families define, monitor and control women’s choices about motherhood, sexuality, agency, authority and power.

Winnie Mandela’s political will grew in tandem with her will as a woman, a Wife and a Mother. The political constraints of traditional motherhood became as oppressive as the constraints of apartheid. Sexism and patriarchy bore down on her with the same weight as racism and apartheid. She rebelled against the notion of herself as Mandela’s creation and forged a path as an autonomous agent and eschewed the notion of herself a political proxy. She established herself as a revolutionary in her own right, as a woman who existed outside of patriarchal control.

Historically, women who have challenged patriarchal control and authority — the women at the vanguard of the French Revolution, the suffragettes, the feminists and the women who fought pitched battles with armed police in the anti-pass protests in the Orange Free State in 1913 — were all labelled deviant, unfeminine, unnatural, as threats to the family and the social and political order.

The codes, prescriptions and expectations of motherhood proved an effective narrative to elevate Winnie Mandela. But it proved even more effective as a narrative to destroy her reputation as a Wife, a Mother and a politician.

The radical political identity she forged as Mother and Wife was irrevocably destroyed by the allegations of her involvement in the murder of Stompie Seipei. And her global status was effectively destroyed by allegations of sexual infidelity.

Winnie Mandela’s dismissal from the government of national unity in 1995 brought the patriarchal assumption of male control and power over women into stark relief. It revealed the shortcomings patriarchal notions of family, femininity and motherhood have in fighting for liberation.

The political crisis in the country’s first democratically elected government was reported as a “family crisis turning into a soap opera” by London’s Evening Standard newspaper.

Winnie Mandela’s dismissal took on the tones of a public disciplining of a wayward wife, as a domestic dispute for public consumption. The imagery used to venerate her was used to bring her down as reflected in headlines of British newspapers: “Mandela sees fit to keep his distance from Winnie” (The Independent, March  3 1995), “Mandela fires ‘Queen’ Winnie” (The Independent, March  28 1995) and “ ‘Busy’ Winnie snubs husband amid new business allegations” (The Guardian, March  20 1995).

The political crisis was reported as a family crisis couched in the language of a domestic dispute with Winnie Mandela positioned as an unreasonable, shrewish wife: the real problem for Nelson Mandela was that he still hadn’t worked out whether, to sanitise Lyndon Johnson’s phrase, “it’s better to have his wife shouting inside the tent than from the outside”. The Mother of the Nation had become a fallen woman, a failed wife, a bad mother and a “whip-wielding sadist and petty crook” (The Guardian, January 20 1995).

The press used established and recognisable narratives of patriarchal authority to urge Nelson Mandela to control and discipline Winnie Mandela: “What is President Mandela to do with his unguided missile of a wife, Winnie?” asked the Evening Standard.

The legendary Mother of the Nation was reduced to a murderous adulterer, and public shaming began increasingly to surface in political reporting that positioned her as a dangerous and out-of-control populist. Winnie Mandela was portrayed as deranged, pathological and oversexed. The Guardian of March 28 1995 reported: “During the years of his incarceration, gossip about her extramarital affairs were legion: the photographer found under her bed during a pre-dawn raid; the wife who named Winnie in a divorce; and the young librarian who turned state witness against her. Although it was all denied by Winnie, the pattern seems to have been confirmed by the publication of passionate love letters to a lawyer 28 years her junior in 1992.”

The framing of Winnie Mandela’s dismissal from the government of national unity as a Nelson-versus-Winnie scenario presented the crisis as a choice between the anarchy and pathology epitomised by Winnie and the order, restraint and dignity exemplified by Nelson: “The extraordinary president, with regal dignity, talks of patience, caution, reconciliation. He so visibly means all these and has earned such vast respect … But his wife talks the language the dispossessed want to hear, and in this country of 40-million people there are an awful lot of dispossessed” (Evening Standard, March 15 1995).

Winnie Mandela was portrayed as a racist populist and scorned wife willing to scupper the country’s hard-won liberation, to which she had dedicated her life, to get back at her husband: “There can be little doubt that she will attempt to take her ‘message’ and her rancour to the townships and the sullen squatter camps, to the urban and rural poor, and to all those who regard themselves as still excluded from the political and economic mainstream of a democratic South Africa. The popularity of the self-styled ‘Mother of the Nation’, which is thought to be considerable, must not be confused with her power, which is limited” (Britain’s The Times, March  28 1995).

The position accorded to the Mother of the Nation came at a great cost for a revolutionary woman simultaneously fighting two oppressive, unequal regimes. Her legacy is both raced and gendered. Winnie Mandela triumphed over apartheid but patriarchy hounded her to her grave.

Gail Smith is a feminist writer and journalist

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