The woman who helped forge an icon

The political consciousness of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was rooted in her relationship with Madikizela matriarch, Seyina Madikizela, whose contempt for white people was entrenched by her experience of land dispossession. Photo: Walter Dhladhla/AFP

The political consciousness of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was rooted in her relationship with Madikizela matriarch, Seyina Madikizela, whose contempt for white people was entrenched by her experience of land dispossession. Photo: Walter Dhladhla/AFP

The news of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s death broke while I was listening to Nduduzo Makhathini’s Listening to the Ground. The opening track, Same Mother, ends with the refrain “Ngaphandle kwakho Mama, sizoba yini na? Yini na?”

As I reflect on Winnie’s life I take into consideration what she means to a number of black people in a South Africa that is unravelling by the second; what she means to me as a young historian whose recent dissertation was on her intellectual contributions; what she means to the 1976 generation of young people; and above all, what she means to her family and her personal assistant (Mam’ Zodwa Zwane who moved mountains to fit me in for an interview with Mama back in 2016).

The song’s refrain is painfully apt: What would we have been without you, Ma? What will become of us without you, Ma?

Researching this icon’s contributions has not been without difficulties. The academy has a tendency to reduce black people of the Global South to perpetual “doers” rather than thinkers, the realm of the Global North. Black people only take their activist cues from white people.

In Winnie’s book, 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, one of her interrogators, a Major Swanepoel, remarks: “I am shocked to learn a woman drew up such a document. Yes, I must compliment you because your work is original unlike Lillian [Ngoyi] whose speeches were drawn [up] by Ruth First — that bitch who has been thrown out of the African independent states.”

The definition of the intellectual for the most part remains locked in the realm of writing. So, when defining Winnie as an intellectual, one has to reflect on what it means to produce ideas in a time of hyper-surveillance and hyper-censorship. Unlike the Black Consciousness philosopher Steve Biko, Winnie was hyper-visible. It took the racist regime a while to realise that Black Consciousness was not endorsing separate development, as was initially thought.

As such, if the book was an inaccessible site for intellectual production, what other sites might we be able to identify as sites of intellectual production and political performance?

In Fatima Meer’s biography, Mandela, Higher than Hope, in which she apportioned a section to Winnie’s political life, she quotes the following: “After Emfundisweni [Primary School], it was Shawbury High, run by the Methodists. I prepared for my matric there. It was an eventful year. I became politicised there. Our teachers, Fort Hare graduates, were members of the Non-European Unity Movement and I was influenced by them. But I also read about the ANC in Zonk! magazine.”

If there were any mentors and political influencers in the era of Winnie and Nelson Mandela’s courtship and marriage, it was the women of the ANC. Of Ngoyi, Winnie said the following: “I was politically influenced by his [Nelson’s] friends. I spent more time with tremendous women like Lillian Ngoyi, whom I greatly admired. She made me in the sense that I idolised her … she taught me a great deal.”

But there is the historical placing of Winnie in the shadow of her former husband, who in Long Walk to Freedom recalls “both courting her and politicising her”.

Mandela acknowledges the many comrades and colleagues who helped him to produce a memoir that is as accurate as possible. But there is an erasure of Winnie’s intellectual influences.

Academic Elaine Unterhalter’s work on biographical writing offers a clue to why this is usually the case, particularly the issue of nationalist history and its relation to masculinities and male bonding between comrades.

For example, the fact that Walter Sisulu is one of Mandela’s political mentors does not detract or diminish Mandela’s competence as a revolutionary. In fact, this scaffolds notions of male bonding in the
context of making nationalist histories.

Throughout Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela is at the centre of the making of a nation. The history of a nation in the making is juxtaposed with the making of a revolutionary who would usher in a new era.

That he completely omits women would be alarming if it did not already confirm the fact that nationalist history does not concern itself with the lives of women outside their roles as wives or mothers — in essence, auxiliaries to the men who enjoy centre stage.

But Winnie is aware of this when she courts the then 38-year-old young political rising star.

In Part of My Soul Went with Him, a collection of letters and interviews conducted with her, a body of work recognised as her autobiography, edited by Anne Benjamin, Winnie writes: “In the little time I spent with him, I discovered only too soon how quickly I would lose my identity because of his overpowering personality — you just fizzled into being his appendage, with no name and no individuality except Mandela’s: Mandela’s wife, Mandela’s child, Mandela’s niece.

Thriving in his glory was the simplest cocoon to shield in from the glaring public, or to boost your extinct ego. I vowed that none of this would apply to me.”

This identity that she vows to protect is located in the intellectual genealogies that place her in the black radical tradition.

Winnie’s biographers, Meer and Anné Mariè du Preez Bezdrob, (although they gloss over it in favour of the mother-and-daughter-in-law tensions that mark Winnie paternal grandmother Seyina’s and her mother Nomathamsanqa’s relationship) offer clues to Winnie’s political and intellectual influences: the first being the Madikizela matriarch, Seyina Madikizela.

Makhulu Seyina was the wife of Nkosi Mazingi of the AmaNgutyana clan that had settled among amaMpondo following a treaty between Faku, theking yamaMpondo and Madikizela-iNkosi in the uMkhomazi district.

Mazingi’s interaction with Methodist missionaries would lead to his family’s conversion to Christianity, which Makhulu Seyina would reluctantly submit to, as symbolised by the casting off of her isidwebe and donning isijarmani — the German print skirts that today are worn by umakoti/umtshakazi. This is a moment that marks Makhulu’s resolute resentment of the whites.

Winnie cites Makhulu and her father, Kokani Madikizela, a teacher who later served in Kaiser Matanzima’s Transkei Bantustan Cabinet, as her foremost teachers of black pride and of the fact that the land belonged to black people and that it was the whites who had
stolen land from the Africans as part of their colonial onslaught on the continent.

Makhulu’s contempt for white people is rooted in her own experience of land dispossession. She becomes a site of historical and political know-ledge over and above an archive of family history as signified by clan names.

Perhaps in exploring the dynamics between Makhulu Seyina and Nomathamsanqa Madikizela, who upholds and seeks to instil in her children Christian and Victorian ways of being, we can see Makhulu’s continued resistance against colonial assimilation, the home being the final frontier of that battle.

Makhulu would also chastise her son, Kokani, for choosing a woman who had been assimilated by the whites and was turning him away from taking up his rightful role as inkosi. Kokani was Mazingi’s heir.

And thus, Makhulu is not merely a role taken on as a result of the inevitability of ageing.

When I met Winnie on August 12 2016 while writing my thesis, she referred to herself as Makhulu — not only as a way of welcoming me into her home as informed by the African mores that a child belongs to a community and has familial access to senior members of that community as informed by seniority and ubuntu — but both as part of styling herself as an institution of historical and political knowledge.

Makhulu (or Gogo, Nkgono, Koko, depending on your mother tongue) as embodied by Winnie extends further than the family structure. Makhulu is not a title we attach to an ageing and ailing body. It is an organic archive of the family and community and, in
Winnie’s case (and other women like her such as Zondani Sobukwe), the nation.

Makhulu as the banished, first black medical social worker, activist, mother and wife would use her skills during her confinement to Brandfort to set up a crèche and encourage the community there to plant vegetable gardens.

Her work in her “Little Siberia” reflected the work of the black community programmes of the Black Consciousness Movement, such as Steve Biko’s and Mamphela Ramphele’s running of the Zanempilo clinic in Zinyoka, a village about 6km outside Bhisho.

It was also similar to the work the Black Panther Party did with the free breakfast for schoolchildren programme, a community project that was established to educate and cultivate political awareness in poor communities in Oakland, California, in the late 1960s.

Makhulu, who was reading Trotsky on the night of her arrest on May  12 1969, also had Claude Lightfoot’s Black Power and Liberation: A Communist View, published in 1967, among her things.

The first thing you see when you walk into her Orlando home is a collage of Malcolm X, who championed black ownership and control of the economy of their community, and argued that black nationalism was the only philosophy with which colonised black and brown people throughout the Global South could achieve independence.

Makhulu’s Christian beliefs, instilled by her Methodist mother, and being a member of Manyano women place her in the tradition and philosophy of black theology. Makhulu would use the funeral (an event that was frequent in the 1980s at the height of resistance against apartheid) as a site for intellectual dissemination, declaring: “I will speak to you of violence … I will tell you why we are violent. It is because those who oppress us are violent. The Afrikaner knows only one language: the language of violence. The white man will not hand over power in talks around a table … Therefore, all that is left to us is this painful process of violence”.

It was as if she was in dialogue with the decolonial philosopher Frantz Fanon.

Makhulu reminds us that violence in the darkest period of apartheid resistance points the finger back to the horror of the repressive regime. Every collaboration, every disappearance and every retaliation and how we reflect on it must always point us back to the horror of apartheid.

But the post-apartheid era, the era of a revolution deferred, did not embrace Winnie. Instead it misrecognised her as the antithesis to Madiba — the cautionary tale.

So her death comes with the loss of the archive we could have drawn from. But her rejection reads as a uniting symbol for many black feminists in movements that continue to throw women under the bus in the name of patriarchy and in the name of getting a seat at the table of supremacy.

Makhulu’s life and legacy is for black girls who considered rage when the Rainbow Nation wasn’t enough.

Ntombizikhona Valela is a historian whose research interest is in the hidden histories of the political and intellectual contributions of black women of various movements of the Global South

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