My Dear Love.
I’m winning/ winning
Decoded into Black Folks Afri-cial language: Street Argot.
Ah Winnie Winnie
— Yvonne Chaka-Chaka, I’m Winning
Could U be the most beautiful girl in the world?
It’s plain 2 see U’re the reason that God made a girl
When the day turns into the last day of all time
I can say I hope U are in these arms of mine
And when the night falls before that day I will cry
I will cry tears of joy cuz after U all one can do is die, oh
— Prince, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, 1994
“Saturday, September 26 1936 broke exactly the same way as the day before, and the day before that,” opens Anné Mariè du Preez Bezdrob’s Winnie Mandela: A Life (Zebra Press), her rather warm yet unofficial account of the life and times of the struggle stalwart.
She follows with a visual observation, which, in the cinematic lexicon, is called “establishing shot”: the large Madikizela homestead at Dutywa, in the Mbizana (“little pot”) district of the former Transkei, lay bathed in deep, predawn silence. Gradually, out of the blanching darkness came the sounds that announced a new day.
When Nomathamsanqa Gertrude Madikizela went into labour, there was nothing to indicate that the day might mark something special. The birds twittered and chattered on as usual, cocks crowed at dawn and, as the light spread in scenic Pondoland, the cool earth warmed up rapidly under Africa’s forbidding sun.
And yet, in retrospect, it would go down as a historic day. The birth of a girl who, decades later, the world would, with exultation, adoration and over-familiarity, assign a single name: Winnie.
The baby’s first cry should have elicited happy exclamations and congratulations. Instead, initial reaction to the birth of Nomathamsanqa Madikizela’s fifth child was a mute affair. Yet again it was a girl.
The chapter Country Girl notes: “They had all been hoping for a boy. As was the case with the little girl’s mother Gertrude, her father Kokani Columbus Madikizela was just as exasperated. ‘I’m tired of girls,’ he said. ‘I want a boy’.”
They named the child, who would be the fifth in a brood of nine, Winifred, after German missionaries whom her father, the son of a chief, an avowed Africanist and a Western-style school principal, admired for their industriousness. Winifred was also given two Nguni names: Nomzamo and Zanyiwe. Nomzamo means “she endures trials”.
She arrived in the hulking metro-polis of Johannesburg in 1953. She was 19 years of age.
She arrived as Zanyiwe Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela, armed with matric and ambition to study social work, which she managed to read for at the Jan H Hofmeyr School of Social Work.
Even at that young age her love for her people was deeply etched in her psyche. She grew up listening to her family and village folks rhapsodising about her ancestors’ bravery when not lamenting the loss of precocious amaMpondo and other Xhosa-speaking nations’ lives in the calamitous era remembered as the period of imfazwe, otherwise known as Difecane.
“I became aware at an early age that the whites felt superior to us. And I could see how shabby my father looked in comparison to our white teachers. That hurt your pride,” she writes in Part of My Soul Went with Him, her out-of-print 1984 memoir-essay. “You tell yourself: ‘If amaXhosa failed in those nine wars, I am one of them, and I will start from where they left off and get my land back.’ ”
Although she grew up a resolute young woman who held her own ground in traditional societies that looked down on girls — “I remember my mother asking God for a son every day” — the Nomzamo who arrived in the Reef was a shy, iMpondo lass gifted with luminous beauty, as breathtaking as you can imagine Zuziwe, the heroine and ultimate figure of obsession and derision in RL Peteni’s Hill of Fools and KwaZidenge, was.
Although the young lass, who morphed into the single-block power-name Winnie or Winnie Mandela, narrated at least two books, Part of My Soul Went With Him and 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 (Picador Africa) and spoke candidly about snatches of her life to a select few in the media — peculiarly, overseas media — in the main her story has been shaped by others.
On the occasions when she tells her side(s) of her story — in a manner that defies the normative fashion in which women achievers’ complexities are filtered, often through others people’s anxieties and desires — Winnie is inevitably cast in the role of an appendage, a fact that never escaped her sharp grasp. She once quipped, with a sigh of resignation: “I am married to the struggle.”
Misreading her commitment to the all-consuming struggle for liberation, the media reported about her in relation to the figure of a bigger, mystical and ultimately reassuring figure, always a man. And which black man loomed larger and more powerful, even in his incarceration and meta-physical presence and absence, than Nelson Mandela?
In the narrative that does not recognise black women for their agency, the subtext to the “rebellious wife of a jailed people’s leader” characterised her either as a sidekick, side-chick, side-bitch, side-itch out to ruin the story of a perfect gentleman or boy or political authority in her orbit.
For close to six decades, ever since she stood with her people in protest against the Rivonia Trial, not only for her husband but in ideological solidarity with all Trialists, fellow spat-upon African folks and the entire liberation movement, the insinuation, in both the liberation movement and liberal and corporate media, has always been clear: she’s a sulky, ungrateful bitch, a scud missile, a woman with no direction, a lost and a loose woman, a dogmatic ideologue, a needy basket case, a woman whose beauty is a burden to all of us.
But all that ignores her ingenuity and stealth. Such narratives also ignored and continue to ignore her style: how she feels and sees herself. Although revisiting her childhood and biography might be useful in offering us a portrait of the person she later grew into, it barely sketches a portrait of the persona, the self-scripted character, the spirit mask she would inhabit and through which she would rewrite the telling of the most important story of the deeply tragic and, at times, fiendishly beautiful and scarred South African condition.
That mask, from which Winnie the person and the persona, the human and outerworld spirit were indivisible, is called “image”. Through the image she set about retelling her own story, through an amalgam of the mystical, emotional, intellectual and visual searching, digging for a public self in sync with, or a public self that would substitute for, a stolen private self.
Through the image she set about living both her silent and fantastic selves, and lived with and wrestled with her sorrowful self in constant dialogue with her glorious selves.
All that self-imaging and imaging, as a necessary quest of achieving her dream, which, because of her selflessness of spirit, with her human flaws and innocence stolen, was never hers alone but her people’s. If anything, she understood, even in her deepest pain and loss, her deepest confusion and desire, that her life, for good or bad, morphed into a mirror for her people.
Bongani Madondo is a public arts worker and social critic. He writes on poetry and photography. His book Sigh, the Beloved Country (Picador Africa) was a finalist in the 2017 University of Johannesburg’ s Literary Awards, main prize category