Defend Truth


Your feminist book collection needs Sisonke Msimang’s Resurrection of Winnie Mandela

Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex. He is the author of ‘You Have To Be Gay To Know God’ (Kwela Books, 2018), which won the Desmond Tutu-Gerrit Brand Literary Prize. Follow him on @SKhumalo1987 (Insta and Twitter), or like his Facebook page With Siya Khumalo.

Sisonke Msimang’s Resurrection of Winnie Mandela argues that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s political convictions were formed before and apart from Nelson Mandela’s arrival in her life. This decaricaturises her from being ‘just’ Nelson’s ex-wife and a cold-hearted murderer.

Sometime after Nomzamo Madikizela died, Sisonke Msimang wrote a (relatively unrelated) essay titled Africa Day (or Month) is for Big Men. Manifesto-like, it decrees:

Africa is what I decide it will be. My Africa is full of queers and women, it is crowded with misfits and big mouths and all the people in my Africa are irregular. My Africa is full of everything the Big Men fear.

Msimang explains this fear is because Big Men’s minds are attuned more to the love of power than the power of love: the latter threatens the obsolete order and stability they wrote into their history. They “said they loved us but then they betrayed us and so we — their bastard children — have no need to respect the day they made.”

In 2014, the country debated whether Clive Derby-Lewis had served enough time for his role in Chris Hani’s assassination. Limpho Hani wasn’t so willing to forgive and forget. Msimang made these observations:

This sense that society has to be “bigger” than the racist killer is a defining feature of the new South Africa.

Women, in particular, are expected not only to forgive, but also to mother. Their role is to help the healing process, to not be bitter and outraged.

Each story unearthed by the [TRC] was supposed to end in forgiveness.

She shows how such “forgiveness” is a gaslighter’s denial of the cost on the forgiver – a form of spiritual blackmail.

Forgive them; they know not what they do” doesn’t square with how much assassins have to know about what they’re doing until it’s done. Madikizela-Mandela had barely left the world when character assassins targeted her legacy. Why?

Madikizela-Mandela’s opponents knew that hers was the death of a president – rendered more potent and poignant by her having never been inaugurated. She chose a cross over a throne; Msimang recognised how her defamation served those who stage-managed the post-apartheid settlement. In that orchestrated conclusion, she’s Nelson Mandela’s foil; “history’s loser,” as the book summary puts it. “Damaged goods”. He’s Adam; she’s Eve.

In response, Msimang’s Resurrection of Winnie Mandela (Jonathan Ball, 2018) argues that Madikizela-Mandela’s political convictions were formed before and apart from Nelson Mandela’s arrival in her life. This de-caricaturises her from being “just” Nelson’s ex-wife and a cold-hearted murderer when it serves to respectively and alternatively diminish and demonise her. Msimang then humanises Madikizela-Mandela by recounting the toll of repeated detention, torture and isolation.

Then Msimang calls the transition into question: the facts she assembles about it could form a case for likening the TRC to the kangaroo court Jesus was tried by. In both instances, the accusers tried luring the defendants into incriminating themselves. Typifying the Easter resurrection story that was being remembered around the time of Madikizela-Mandela’s passing, the book leverages history and genealogy to rebuff the delegitimisation of the one resurrected – anticipating how Madikizela-Mandela would see and foresee, through the layers of revisionism that were already burrowing themselves into South Africa’s story.

For me, the biblical picture of the all-male Sanhedrin selling its own people out uphold the Pax Romana — the Roman Empire’s economically violent “peace” — is echoed in the TRC’s amnesty towards the perpetrators of apartheid violence, which, with other actions, suggested it “was designed not to deal with the racists, but to deal with you”: Madikizela-Mandela’s accounting for her work as a soldier lasts longer than capital’s account of how it maintained and benefited from the status quo. With capital, “there are no bodies. Lives, yes; but bodies? No.”

I can’t help wondering, then: how was the ANC’s enemy funded, if capital wasn’t complicit? An unfunded enemy diminishes the liberation movement’s victory. Msimang subtly suggests the party and Desmond Tutu passed the negotiated settlement off as the liberation that Madikizela-Mandela had been sacrificing towards — but then threw her under the bus so they and their new friend, capital, could emerge smelling like roses.

Either South Africa is Frankenstein’s Monster, the result of a settlement handed down for and by whiteness, or the transition happened because of a liberation figure not sufficiently credited for her role in the only kind of work that could have made the Struggle successful.

This denial of the value of the mother’s work betrays the ANC’s anxiety about not being the real father; it’s driven the party to produce increasingly smaller Big Men during each election it’s had this false fatherhood both affirmed and mocked.

Resurrecting so great a giantess means Msimang writes to, not just about, the book’s subject. This subversive mediumship befits her current Twitter username “Witch”, and is reminiscent of an article by Pearl Pillay titled The Witch Who Refused to Burn. There, Winnie is described as “the match that liberated this nation and the fire that will never, ever die”.

Ascension follows Easter’s resurrection: “Winnie… towers above the whites who still today call black people k******.”

The widespread gospel that she didn’t die but #SheMultiplied is her exalted spirit sparking a Pentecost fire in more believers than the Empire has lions for. In her body of work, but especially with this book, Sisonke Msimang captures this defiant spirit with matching intellect and grace. DM


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