No love lost: What Winnie hate says about us

On July 18 2010, I found myself at the SABC studio on Weekend Live talking about a publication I had co-authored with photographer Alf Kumalo, 8115: A Prisoner’s Home.

Although largely a coffee table book of people who came through the Vilakazi Street home of Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, I had to do some research so that the essays accompanying the photographs wouldn’t be without context.

“How does it feel to have written about the home of the iconic Nelson Mandela?” was one of the first questions the interviewer asked me.

“I can’t answer that, primarily because the story of that home is about the iconic Winnie Mandela. And the family that Nelson left behind,” was my answer.

It went downhill from there.


The interviewer wanted to turn my attention to Mandela, it being July 18, the day he was born. I wanted to assert who was the main feature in the book. This interview was emblematic of South Africa’s perception of Madikizela-Mandela post 1994 — as Mandela’s ex-wife.

But she was, as anyone who has bothered to engage with her history knows, much more than that.

Married at the age of 22 to Mandela, who was one of the Treason triallists, Madikizela-Mandela had to become the primary breadwinner. Her new husband could not practice law, because he had to be in court in Pretoria.

A few days after her 23rd birthday and pregnant with her first daughter, Madikizela-Mandela, together with some women who were members of the Orlando West branch of the ANC Women’s League, experienced her first incarceration by the apartheid government for attempting to hand over a petition against pass laws to the commissioner.

Initially locked up at Marshall Square in downtown Jo’burg, she and her comrades would later be moved to The Fort in Braamfontein. On her return, the breadwinner at 8115 Vilakazi Street had lost her job as a social worker.

This would not be the last time she would be harassed by the apartheid government.

Madikizela-Mandela, more than any other figure in our history, was responsible for keeping the Mandela name in the public imagination and the narrative of the struggle. She did this against the backdrop of raids to her home, her incarceration — which included, in 1969-1970, 18 months of solitary confinement — and her banishment for seven years to the Free State village of Brandfort.

Yet it was not her name that was honoured but that of her husband imprisoned on Robben Island. The fact that Nelson Mandela’s fellow prisoners, some of whom were more senior than he was in the ANC, were less globally revered is a direct result of the tribulations that Winnie suffered — and her insistence never to be silenced against the injustice that was apartheid.

And yet.

There is no historical record of the infamous Brigadier Aucamp, the cruel matron Wessels or the perverted Major Swanepoel being asked to apologise for their deeds during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Indeed, we have no record of any of the apartheid ministers of justice being asked to make restitutions for the unjust laws they presided over.

Those who are still alive are enjoying the fruits of a freedom that Madikizela-Mandela fought for with the gains they attained during apartheid, which they now all claim to never have supported.

There is no historical record of men in the ANC or Pan Africanist Congress who raped their comrades, who stole resources donated by our anti-apartheid allies for those in camps in Angola, Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, and suffering the consequences for doing so.

Instead, our collective vilification has been towards the one person who suffered more than most in the last 30 years of apartheid because she was a woman who did not behave as we expected. What we have is a record of Madikizela-Mandela being asked at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to apologise for her involvement in Stompie Seipei’s murder.

Jerry Richardson, the “coach” of the Mandela United Football Club, was sentenced to life for the teenager’s murder. Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory in the assault of Stompie. Her sentence was reduced to a fine and a suspended two-year sentence on appeal.

Our ingrained anti-black mindsets — as black and white South Africans — suffered great discomfort at a black person who was uncompromising after 1994.

We were uncomfortable with a person who lived by her own rules and refused to reconcile and join the mythical rainbow nation that we wanted to believe in. She continued to live in her Orlando West home. She continued to attend functions, when she wanted to at a time it suited her, and she continued being unapologetic about who she was because she knew — though we chose to ignored it — she suffered to get South Africa to its present state.

Our patriarchal and puritanical brains, as men and women, relegated her to an ex-wife who cheated on our revered Saint Nelson while he was in prison. As though any of us would seriously believe that any previously sexually active human being would stay without sex for three years, let alone 27. As though, had the roles been reversed, we would have expected of him what we wanted to impose on her.

Perhaps our collective resentment for Madikizela-Mandela was because, unbowed as she was despite all the trials she underwent, we envied her. Women wanted to be her and men wanted to have her and when we couldn’t have either, we resorted to disparaging her.

In her death, some of us have seen the error of our ways as we mourn what could have been had we given this revolutionary the honour and respect she deserved for everything she sacrificed for our country. And yet, in her death, there are those who cannot allow her to rest in peace.

When the attacks come from certain quarters, we are not surprised because there are people who seem to feel pain when they speak well of black women.

When the posthumous attacks come from well-known black journalists, it becomes clear that misogyny towards assertive black women runs deep.

In attacking Madikizela-Mandela, Mondli Makhanya in an article this past Sunday attacks all of us who love our people and our country unstintingly. He attacks all of us who are human and fallible because humanity is about the possibility of fallibility. He attacks all those of us who hold other black people with respect, whatever our disagreements with them.

Makhanya attacks us all because #WeAreAllWinnieMandela.

And to uMam’Winnie, as the children would say, we did you dirty.

May we be kinder to you in death and may we learn to protect each other and our country to ensure that all South Africans are treated with the dignity that they deserve. With the dignity we did not afford you.

Hamba kahle, mkhonto. 

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Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner (born 1976) is a South African journalist and novelist, born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. Since 2006, when she published her first book, her novels have been shortlisted for awards including the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

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