/ 30 November 2018

To reckon with Winnie’s ghost

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was crucified by the public according to the author
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was crucified by the public according to the author

It is only a few short months since Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died and South Africa and the world paid their last respects to her at that spectacular funeral. So Sisonke Msimang’s important and highly readable book, The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela (Jonathan Ball), comes to us when we still have fresh memories of the astounding furore that erupted around her in the media and the social media. And whereas one would expect rightwingers and centrists (whatever these terms mean these days) to dismiss and condemn her, even in death, it was a surprise to this reader that many old lefties were also fulminating against her.

Msimang has addressed this phenomenon, the difficulties and divided opinion on what to think about Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, often called “the mother of the nation”, but also convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to murder. That she considers Winnie to have been crucified by public mythology is implied by the title of the book.

This is a seriously researched account, with much of the explanatory detail consigned to the end notes, so that the text is clear and passionate, and likely to be highly challenging to many. Msimang is a gifted writer, and an analytical thinker. She often restates and elaborates an idea till the reader has a better grasp of its complexity.

The introduction and conclusion read as a conventional history or opinion piece, and frame the middle biographical section of the book in which she addresses Winnie in the second person. It begins: “You, Winnifred Nomzamo Zanyiwe Madikizela, are born in a small place. Your life, however, is large: as large as the open sky.” Incantatory at first, this address form seems to resurrect Winnie, as if she is a living ancestor in a conversation. Msimang draws on many interviews and Winnie’s own writings for much of this. It forms a vivid testimony.

Although Msimang evokes our sympathy, even our admiration and affection for Winnie, the survivor of years of arrests, detentions, banning orders and police harrassment, she is nevertheless very clear that some mistakes have to be laid at Winnie’s feet, and that others suffered too, because of her.

After Winnie returns from being banished to Brandfort, she enters the 1980s, the decade in which things began to go wrong. Msimang tells of Winnie’s increasing alienation from the ANC. She describes her as “imperious”and “independent” and resistant to good advice from her friends in the ANC both at home and in Lusaka. But Msimang’s research reveals that the ANC in the 1980s was putting out messages from Radio Freedom and in speeches from leaders that advocated the use of violent methods on the part of civilians. She makes the point that at that time Winnie made her now infamous speech at the Munsieville rally in which she spoke of necklacing, she was not the only person in the ANC who was using “reckless and fiery rhetoric’’. “But she was the only woman who was visibly doing so”. This can be followed up in the endnotes.

At this time too the Mandela United Football Club was formed, and Winnie, increasingly isolated, was surrounded by this ragtag army of children and others, many of whom were spies. One of these is Stompie, whose real name is James Moeketsi. These days and events are described in some detail, as is the 14-week trial in which Winnie was represented by George Bizos and accompanied by her husband, Nelson.

Msimang is very circumspect about Winnie and Nelson’s divorce. She blames diverging political attitudes far more than infidelities, saying that Nelson had become “tame” and “moderate”, that he was prepared to negotiate and show a reconciliatory face, whereas Winnie could not do this. This is especially apparent at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing.

In her conclusion Msimang says: “It is deeply uncomfortable to acknowledge Winnie’s involvement in Stompie’s death … while also holding her up as a hero.” She writes an impassioned analysis of guilt and forgiveness in the context of South African society in retrospect and today. It is not comfortable reading. She says she is willing to give up her admiration for Madikizela-Mandela if certain conditions are met. These are so worth considering, even essential, and you should acquire this book so you can do this.