Winnie and the politics of memory
We fumbled clumsily in the days that followed her devastating death. We attempted to make work that was befitting of a global icon.
Like the procrastinators we were, we tried to do years worth of work in a matter of hours — and it showed.
It was embarrassing and, more than that, it was hurtful.
As a country, we failed to do the archiving, documenting and thinking about how we would even begin to make sense of Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, how to go about memorialising a giant. And it was not from a lack of knowing what work needed to be done — we’d done it before. Many of us had heard of elaborate “secret” plans in sealed envelopes and vaults, discussed only at the highest echelons, in the event of former president Nelson Mandela’s death.
His death was expected and anticipated to be one of the most significant events of the century. The myths of how we were preparing for this were the stuff of legend. And many of the myths were true. In fact, the reality of the plans was far grander than what the rumours could ever imagine.
Soon after his 80th birthday, much of the media world, certainly the large, established outlets, began preparing for the eventuality and certainty of his passing. Obituaries were prepared, operational plans were drafted and hours of audio content were produced, from documentaries, music and iconic speeches to every bit of detail there was to be found about Mandela.
Every time he had a health issue, particularly one relating to his respiratory system, the plans were checked again: Has the obit been updated? What happens on air? Which presenter would lead the special broadcast? How ready was the special Mandela website? How many pages would the special edition be and who would write it, who would confirm the news, who would be called first, are the disks still working? And on and on in meticulous detail.
Up until a point in my very recent life, part of my job was being one of the people involved in the planning for Tata’s death. The attention to detail and the scale of preparation were astounding and almost obsessive, but oddly fitting.
Many editors, senior managers and reporters can tell you what it looks like when we are serious about remembering someone well, with the gravitas they deserve. If you ask the same editors and reporters, they will tell you that these past two weeks after Mama’s death didn’t come close.
One would be completely naive to pretend all the preparation for Mandela’s death was about history and archiving. Of course, some of it could have been called opportunistic and the media behaved as if they were circling vultures.
But something happens when the imagined “we” decides that we will not allow history to pass as if it were inconsequential, and this time we just didn’t do it. This wasn’t the first time, either. One need only look at the treatment of the history of women, of queer South African activists and of the Pan Africanist Congress in the record-keeping and memorialisation of this country to get an idea of the problematic politics of memory.
The importance of preparing, documenting and archiving, of looking high and low for what we might have missed, is not just about death but about ensuring history will remember our heroes and ourselves. As analyst and educator Angelo Fick wrote in 2016: “The stories of the past that circulate in any country are always contested — how it came to be; which milestones to celebrate; which tragedies to mourn; which figures to venerate and which to delete. In postcolonial spaces, these contestations are often about who is indigenous, who is autochthonous and who is responsible for the ‘modernity’ of the present.
“In South Africa, for the better part of the last century, the official stories circulated by the apartheid state institutions defied the material evidence of history in order to serve the ideological project of white supremacy. The contestation of official versions of how South Africa came to be is drawn not only from liberation movements, freedom fighters and black nationalists. Revisionist historians in and of South Africa also questioned the legitimacy of the state’s narrative.”
Fick’s analysis is important for understanding that the urgency of documenting Mama Winnie was, and still is, not only a project of sentimentality. It is about the still-critical project of countering the prevailing propaganda of the pre-1994 period.
In failing to do the necessary work of preparing, we allowed those who are committed to misremembering and distorting South Africa’s brutal and dark history to lead us and to distract us. We were triggered into explanations that she was never found guilty of Stompie Seipei’s murder, that she was a person in her own right and not merely someone who married a man who would become one of the most recognised figures in contemporary global history.
By failing to write Madikizela-Mandela’s history, we failed to protect her from the ever-present shadow of white supremacy and patriarchy — both of which would want to see her fire and immense criticism of these systems erased from history. The overwhelming absence of her radical feminist ideas — which still ring true in present-day patriarchal South Africa — is evidence of this.
Just as many other radical leaders have been turned into teddy bears that can be quoted by neoliberal capitalists and racists, Nomzamo’s tireless work against patriarchy both at the Union Buildings and in the home is absent, and yet this work was fundamental to who she was.
A meticulous record of history will not save us from racist and sexist attempts to erase radical black women. It is not a magic wand. But it will give those who come afterwards the space for the necessary stories, as complex, unfinished or inconvenient as they may be.
What does this mean for this country, particularly those of us with the immense privilege of being able to contribute to history through our work? It means that this work is urgent and, although it shouldn’t be rushed at all, it is important and matters despite what imposter syndrome (which keeps so many of us from writing and contributing) says.
Last year, in the Johannesburg spring sun, I sat with Kenyan writer and feminist Shailja Patel, as well as the editor of this fine publication, Khadija Patel, after a South African Book Fair session in which we had all participated.
We spoke about the books trapped inside us, about manuscripts abandoned halfway. All of them made some contribution to the history of women, of the intimate nature of our oppression, our work and our reality.
The work to excavate the bones of the past is tough, thankless, lonely work — particularly if there has been an attempt to hide those bones. Fick notes this and offers some solution, writing: “The past is indeed, as the novelist LP Hartley said, a foreign country; they do things differently there. The longer the passing of time, the more likely that past events and conflicts will be reinvented by our remembrances in the trappings of costume drama.
“While it may be difficult to fully and honestly confront and comprehend the distant past, our technology has made it easier to correct inaccurate memories about recent history. Sometimes the survivors of that history are only too keen to help us out.”
That last line, about the survivors of history, is the most important for me. It reminds me that sometimes figures like Mama Winnie serve as invaluable resources and vessels of history. Sometimes those survivors also offer invaluable insights into understanding the consequences of recent history.
A sharp mind like Ma’Nomzamo was a much-needed voice in discussions about land and inequality, especially because, as early as the negotiations of the Nineties, she voiced concerns about the (necessary) compromises that needed to be made.
The Mother of the Nation deserved more.
She deserved meticulous planning for the occasion of her passing; she deserved to have every fist raised in defiance, every smile, every frown, every wonderful, unapologetically radical black feminist thought found and recorded and written down for prosperity.
She deserved the raw emotional outpourings of love, gratitude, grief and loneliness that her death left in so many of us.
She deserved all of it: the books both old and new, the movies, the documentaries, the T-shirts, coins, website banners, wraps around buildings, billboards on highways, flowers and lectures inspired by the shining light that was her life.
It was a life so large that it needed the full might and scope of our collective resources — particularly those of us with the privilege afforded to us by the kind of work we do.
Of course, all the preparation in the world cannot cheat death, cannot undo the gaping chasm that forms when someone who kept the stars in the sky leaves you. But it allows us both to perform the ritual of grief fully and to honour the life lost.
Speaker, author and coach Robin Sharma says your daily actions reveal your deepest values.
What does it reveal about a nation that was built on her back, that it failed to do the work, the rituals, the rewriting her name in history that was and still is so necessary for a person of her stature?
Gugulethu Mhlungu is a writer, editor and broadcaster on Radio 702