The death on April 2 of Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela-Mandela caught many off-guard. Despite a record of ill health in recent months, mentioned even in the National Assembly where she served as an MP, her death seemed unreal at first.
This very unreality allowed many to reflect on what she had meant in their individual lives but also in the larger public life of South Africa. She was born in the colonial period, grew to adulthood during and resisted apartheid, and spent her old age in a post-apartheid South Africa she helped engender but of which she was often deeply critical.
She was the image of defiance and resistance for millions of people, whether by raising her fist at the front of political rallies in townships like the one in which she lived or on television screens far away where footage of such meetings was aired.
Madikizela-Mandela was also a figure of contention and controversy, and not only for the apartheid regime. She was imprisoned several times, held in solitary confinement for more than a year and banished into internal exile for nearly a decade in what she called her own “little Siberia”, Brandfort in what was then the Orange Free State. For a long period in the last, paranoid phase of apartheid, she became the focus of concerted campaigns to discredit her.
The actions of the woman herself — defying the United Democratic Front and Mass Democratic Movement calls to address their concerns with figures close to her at the time, among them the members of the Mandela United Football Club — did not help, and some members of the Soweto community turned on her as a result of the excesses of those who professed to derive their authority from her. A few had long sought answers to their questions from the woman they saw as responsible for their pain.
Now, after her death, South Africans seem once again to have their consciences pricked about the past, the stories we have inherited about it, the tales we continue to tell about what happened and how it happened, and how those versions of the past do and do not serve the present.
In a country plagued by systemic everyday misogyny as South Africa is, despite legal guarantees of equality, it is hardly surprising that a woman of the political prominence of Winnie Mandela — as she was long known — would be subjected to misogynistic representation.
We ought to recall the editorials of the early 1990s, run by media outlets that had professed to oppose apartheid when doing so could be costly. Many of these editorials, written by people who were vaguely supportive of the newly unbanned ANC, warned the party’s secretary general (who is now the president of post-apartheid South Africa) that Madikizela-Mandela would “bedevil” the party if they did not deal with her.
Nelson Mandela’s support for his then-wife was seen to render his judgment questionable. It was, after all, not just the infamous Stratcom that gave us an image of Madikizela-Mandela as troublesome.
In post-apartheid South Africa, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s, the tropes engendered in the late-apartheid period which relied too heavily on the colonial stereotypes of Black femininity persisted in public representations of her.
There was Madikizela-Mandela on the front page of this newspaper, rendered in caricature, her eyes demonic. On the inside pages was a selection of quotations from witnesses whom the police had discredited, accusing the woman who some now called “the former mother of the nation” of the most heinous actions implicating her in the deaths of several young people.
One political cartoon was set in Hell, with a demon overseeing Hitler, Stalin, Verwoerd and a disturbingly simian Idi Amin Dada, one of whom suggests Madikizela-Mandela would make an ideal deputy president as they watch The Winnie Trials on television.
Like many politically powerful women, Madikizela-Mandela was always an oddity of her times. The young bride — left like the mythical Penelope as Nelson-Odysseus was exiled to the penal colony at Robben Island — could be easily assimilated into the masculinist, patriarchal Black nationalism that dominated the liberation struggle.
The fiery woman supporting the student uprisings of 1976 could be a symbol of defiance, the “mother of the nation” in revolt, in resistance and in defiance. The woman wrenched from her home and flung into the dusty backwater of an oppressively conservative town in the Orange Free State of the 1970s and 1980s could be the embodiment of resistance to apartheid brutality.
But throughout these projections and inventions, the real woman — the political activist, mother, sister, friend — like all of us, embodied the contradictions and uneasy characteristics that make us all human.
By the time of PW Botha’s states of emergency in the late 1980s, the project to domesticate the women of power who refused to fit the script was deployed with urgency. The public Winnie that post-apartheid South Africa inherited was an amalgam of that woman and the many versions of her created by others, and by herself.
She was stubborn and still defiant — but increasingly so of the very authority to which she ought to have subjected herself, many felt. She was unruly, and many may have wished her to return to domesticity once her husband returned to public power. After decades as an activist, the role of dutiful wife was clearly an awkward fit. Madikizela-Mandela was not the first woman to face this dilemma; many women in history found themselves unwilling to return to old roles at the end of conflicts and wars.
Several Shakespeare plays examine this interim role women have in public power. Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin called this “the carnivalesque”, when political power could be inverted in the play before the status quo was re-established at the end. The woman steps aside and the man she stood in for resumes his role as legitimate leader.
In the political theatre of post-apartheid South Africa, Madikizela-Mandela refused to be domesticated, even when she was subjected to unflattering comparisons with other women, many of them her comrades, by the misogynistic gaze of an unsettled patriarchal society. The figure so important during the political carnivalesque of the late 1980s and early 1990s would not be tamed so easily.
In her last years, she was critical of as well as loyal to the political movement she called her ideological home. She was a figure who inspired strong feelings — of support or dis-avowal. Her unruliness, a refusal to submit that defined her private and public life over the decades, was distressing, disruptive and disturbing to many. But in the end, she was an undeniably extraordinary woman who had lived through and made extraordinary times.
The multiple meanings with which many of us have invested her — many of them positive, but many very negative — are up for re-examination and, with them, so is the foundation on which we base those perceptions and interpretations.
Rendering her as saint is as problematic as figuring her as sinner. Our relationship to history and those who figured in it must be more nuanced: we owe it to ourselves. History is not about heroes and villains. The death of Madikizela-Mandela offers South Africans a crucial opportunity to make sense of the recent past, of the stories we tell about that time and of the people who lived through it, ourselves included.
How we come to think of her today is the consequence of what we knew about her and how we knew her, but also the many representations of her that have circulated over her long and impressive life.
Why should she, or any woman active in the roles she took during the long political horror of apartheid, be judged by standards different from those applied to her peers who were men? What traditions of the representation of women can we now admit shaped the many versions of her that circulated for the 60 years in which she was both public property and private person? What lessons can we learn about ourselves in looking back at “Winnie”, the figure so many of us think we know despite having no close interpersonal and professional interaction with her?
Those who knew and loved her as a daily aspect of their material lives mourn her: her daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, siblings and extended family. Many who worked with her over decades have expressed their sense of loss, often to the bafflement of people who never met her but had strong feelings and ideas about her.
Those of us who only knew Winnie the public figure would do well to examine what we think we know, not in order to produce hagiography but in order not to repeat a history of tragedy, but now as farce.
Gestures of mourning from the millions of us who knew her tangentially, not personally, however well intentioned, dare not simplify the woman she was. That would not only be unfair to the extraordinary figure Madikizela-Mandela cut throughout her life, but it would also be doing ourselves and this political moment a disservice. We have much to learn from the past and, in re-examining what we think we know about this one woman, we may learn much about ourselves.
Angelo Fick is a senior researcher at eNCA, where he does news and current affairs analysis. He publishes regular columns in the opinion section on eNCA.com