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Understanding Winnie Mandela means understanding ourselves and recognising our story

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Lwando Xaso is an attorney, writer and speaker . She is the founder of Including Society. She is also the author of the book, ‘Made in South Africa, A Black Woman’s Stories of Rage, Resistance and Progress’. Follow her at @includingsociety.

I resist viewing Winnie Madikizela-Mandela through the confining prisms of good and evil because ours is not such a simple story. It is not a story of saints or sinners. It’s much more complicated than that.

I have lived a bit to now know that when I walk down the annals of our history, the people I encounter, often reduced to gods or monsters in the South African story, are terribly and gloriously human beings.

And for most of them, no one label does them justice and no one chapter of their lives can sum up its total.  

I was reminded of this fact again while reading Jonny Steinberg’s latest book Winnie and Nelson: A Portrait of a Marriage. In these two people, Winnie and Nelson, we are offered the chance to encounter the best and worst in ourselves. We are offered the chance to encounter our own complex humanity which defies narrow labels.

When you encounter these two human beings you will both deeply understand this country and realise you do not know it at all. You will both unreservedly love and unconditionally fear who we are. And maybe like me, you will mostly viscerally mourn and grieve for all that has been lost.  

In Winnie and Nelson Steinberg quotes the work of Martha Nussbaum on anger and forgiveness. Nussbaum writes that “all too often, anger becomes an alluring substitute for grieving, promising agency and control when one’s real situation does not offer control. Anger is often well-grounded, but it is too easy for it to hijack the necessary mourning process.”

Nussbaum might as well have been talking about Winnie Madikizela- Mandela who had a thousand reasons to mourn and grieve. But she could only, in response to the real-time volatile situation unfolding before her in the 1980s, act in anger which offered her a necessary sense of agency and groundedness. An anger that had its good uses, but which regrettably spun out of control as it became chronic.

This reflection is partly about Madikizela-Mandela, a woman I have never publicly written about before because I did not know how. I still do not know how. This is my first attempt at an impossible task.

This reflection is mostly about us, and the difficult questions Madikizela-Mandela’s life poses upon us and to whom we offer understanding and imbue with humanity.

Engrained violence

It is in 1985 when Madikizela-Mandela makes her infamous “… with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country” speech. A warranted speech considering the brutality of the apartheid regime and Madikizela-Mandela’s intimate knowledge thereof.

But also a concerning speech when one takes the long view on the impact that violence, no matter how noble its cause, has on its enactors. And also an unsettling speech when one has regard to the fact it was black people who died by the inferno of necklacing.

In 1984, a year before Madikizela-Mandela utters those resolute words, the American black feminist, Audre Lorde famously cautions us that the “master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” — a sentiment interpreted to mean that the ones who built an unequal and oppressive society cannot be removed from their dominant position using the tools with which they built that society.

The principal tool that built South Africa is violence. And that tradition of violence has disproportionately claimed black lives. That tradition of violence has since embedded itself in every facet of our violent society including in the hearts of those who were its victims.

At the time that Madikizela-Mandela uttered those notorious words, there was an intensifying war by the people against the apartheid regime, but which resulted in black casualties not only at the hands of white hands but at black hands too.

This darkest hour was a highly reactive time of betrayal, mutiny, paranoia, violence and kill or be killed. A time that left many, no matter how right their intentions, morally compromised.

That’s how violence works — you think you are wielding it when it’s actually wielding you. You think you are using violence to change your circumstances when it’s actually changing you. That’s the insidiousness of violence — it eventually convinces its victims of its indispensability only for it to eventually turn against its enactors. Live by the sword, die by the sword, the saying goes.  

Violence does not miraculously abate upon the achievement of one’s goal. It replicates itself and unleashes itself from the control of its enactor. These fallacies of violence were already revealing themselves in our townships and specifically in Madikizela-Mandela’s home where the violence had turned internecine.  

It had also at that time turned internecine beyond our borders in the ANC camps in exile where the ANC was reportedly guilty of its own torture in the midst of a mutiny in the camps. Paul Trewhela’s book Inside Quatro details this history.

Powerful legacy of contrasts

Steinberg’s book offers a very matter-of-fact portrayal of Madikizela-Mandela. It does not deny her astoundingly rare virtues of fortitude, grit, survival, dynamism, and sharpness. And neither does it hide or minimise what some people would rather pretend never happened — her crimes.

However, it is important to underscore that before the violence that was wielded by her and her Mandela Football Club (MFC), came the unrelenting and sinister torture she endured at the hands of the Security Branch that most people would never have survived. She survived, but it came at a high cost. Once you understand what was done to her, you understand what she did to others. But understanding should never be confused for justification.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘She absorbed his raw hatred’ — Winnie Mandela’s five-day torture ordeal

I grew up in Diepkloof, Soweto. Our home was not too far from Madikizela-Mandela’s Diepkloof house that was acquired for her after her home in Orlando was burnt down by black students in 1988, further evidencing the internecine nature of the violence of that time. I did not know what to make of Madikizela-Mandela in the early 1990s because first of all I was too young, and secondly, the adults around me also seemed to have opposing and inconsistent feelings.

My sense was that there was no one way to feel about her. You could admire her, even mythologise her and you could also fear her. Madikizela-Mandela became a unicorn of a figure in this black-and-white war who defied neat categorisation. But what was clear was her power. A power memorialised in videos of her fearlessly berating apartheid police in a manner not common for those times, especially by a woman, of any colour.

And there was the fact of her beauty. Remarking on her beauty is not benign. I think it is her beauty that heightens the feelings we have about her. Her beauty lends itself to how we have cast her in our imaginations as a heroine. Her beauty makes us want to be her and it makes men want to claim her.  

Beauty like hers could never be and will never be easily discarded. It is far too precious a commodity to waste. So, we do what we can to hold on to it. We hold on to the idea of it even if we have to make up stories and lie to ourselves so as to not rob ourselves of it.

Madikizela-Mandela’s was a beauty and a power that fed into each other. A power I’m not sure would have been framed and perceived as it was if not for her beauty.

‘With us or against us’

It’s very hard to retrospectively judge a person’s actions in response and in reaction to immense, immediate and incessant cruelty. From reading Steinberg’s book, I once again get a real sense of Madikizela-Mandela’s fears, having withstood incomprehensible torture. It is reasonable to conclude that that fear drove her desire for invulnerability. In fulfilment of that desire for invulnerability, she created an army around her: the Mandela Football Club.

I am haunted by a story retold in Steinberg’s book that details the MFC trying to recruit a local boy to its ranks. The boy refuses. His refusal is met by threats to his life which the boy’s mother reports to Madikizela- Mandela, whose alleged response is that if the boy does not join them then it means he is against them.

Such was the time that made Madikizela-Mandela and her generation. A time of violent and reductive binaries. Good vs. evil. A narrow and reductive view on complex human matters that has cost us a lot, not only historically, but presently too. A reductive view of ourselves and a reduction of our own sense of humanity.

It was also Audre Lorde who said “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors’ tactics, the oppressors’ relationships”.

I mourn the piece of the oppressor that remains planted within us and how we have failed to devise a national strategy to uproot it.

Complex character and motivations

I resist viewing Madikizela-Mandela through the confining prisms of good and evil because ours is not such a simple story. It is not a story of saints or sinners. It’s much more complicated than that. The difficult truth is that a lot of our people were marinated in the violence and cruelty of the apartheid state as they fought against it. We too are soiled and tainted by its ideology. A lot of us, including myself, despite knowing better, exhibit the evidence of residual violence born from having internalised that ideology.

We see the residues of that time in how today the Struggle heroes of yesteryear are the ones now stealing from their own people. With all this, I wonder to whom do we afford understanding and to whom do we deny it? To whom do we afford the benefits of nuance and complexity and whom do we not?

For example, could we afford a measure of the understanding that we offer to Madikizela-Mandela to those the apartheid security branch tortured into becoming informers? Could we reopen that narrative? Those who were accused of being informers with no benefit of due process, and who became some of the victims of the internecine violence? Or is that where we draw the line?

Could we look at their choices with nuance or were they simply evil and deserving of the violent deaths some met at the hands of the MFC? Again, in understanding, we do not offer justification. But in understanding, we could deepen our own humanity. We could perhaps find new, more humane and less soul-compromising ways of dealing with supposed betrayal and criminality.

When I think of Madikizela-Mandela, I think of a life of emblematic contradictions. Contradictions I see in how my own politics diverge from my actions. Emblematic contradictions I see in South Africa itself. A country whose actions and reality tragically diverge from its stated values and principles. A country whose black government continues the tradition of violence against its own people. A black government no doubt helmed by leaders whose historic traumas remain unprocessed, making us victims of their resulting callousness.

A reflection of ourselves

Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy is the one I think best reflects who we are. We are as heroic as we are fallible. I wish we treated our contradictions as sensitively and generously as we strain to hold Madikizela-Mandela’s. A sensitivity best reflected by the words of the Chairperson of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Njabulo Ndebele, that “all South Africans are indebted to Mama Winnie, whether they acknowledge it or not. From the witness of her life, we knew we could stand tall; we knew also we could falter and stumble.”

After reading Steinberg’s book, I think of the stories of the people who died at the hands of the MFC and how their deaths don’t matter to us and can sometimes feel like an inconvenience to the story to which we are committed.

I mourn their deaths. I mourn what their deaths did to Madikizela-Mandela. I mourn the 14-year-old victim that some of us have chosen to simply remember as an informer to justify his brutal murder. No 14-year-old can ever be an informer. It is not possible just as in the same way a child cannot consent to sex with an adult.

I mourn what violence has done to us.

I think of the loved ones of the victims of necklacing and think of their invisibility in the shadow of great historical figures and their cause. I think of what sense, if any, they have made of what happened. And the sense they have made of these great historical legacies on which our country is founded.

Where do their stories and experiences belong? What understanding and nuance can we offer them? What place can we offer their stories in our greater national story?

Because our honest reckoning with their stories will not shame or detract but rather enhance our collective humanity. DM

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  • Rory Macnamara says:

    “The good that men do are oft interred in their bones, but the evil lives on” Marc Anthony, Julius Caesar, so with Winnie, she will be remembered as the leader of a brutal mafia that in its own way symtomised the apartheid’s brutality.

  • Carol Hofmeyr says:

    Thank you Lwando for discussing and wrestling with a difficult subject that is important to all South Africans.
    You expressed in words what I have only wordlessly felt.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Come on DM, why won’t you allow the truth about winnie to be published?

  • TherealMalcolm x says:

    ….. and that is why, William Nicol Drive should actually be renamed to Stompie Seipei drive. A tribute to the real victims of Apartheid.

  • Tim Wilson says:

    Thanks Lwando for an excellent thoughtful article. As Nomfundo Mogapi, former director of CSVR, has emphasized, we are a wounded people.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    Such a sensitive article! Looking back at all these people whose lives and deaths and misdeeds and heroism were played out before 94 we all need to try to understand them better to avoid making those same mistakes and to deepen our own humanity. Simplistic prejudice will not help us progress beyond the shadow of the apartheid years.

  • Alan Fine says:

    Beautifully written article

  • Jaine Hannath says:

    I appreciate this article so much. It is a thought provoking, beautiful and sensitive tribute – attempting to truthfully capture the essence of a living mercurial enigma. You are right Lwando, to say Winne Madikizela Mandela is mythical. In years to come I hope she is portrayed as a Goddess – a creator and a destroyer – so we can acknowledge that all of us are capable of living in the light and just as easily in the darkness.
    Winnie initially fed her light wolf doing everything for everyone so their restricted life could become whole. Apartheid, torture and the utter disregard shown to her humanness – and her compatriots – lead to the feeding of her dark wolf.
    In Nadine Gordimer’s book, My son’s story, Sonny, an anti-apartheid activist surmised, “There came a point…
    .at which equality became a cry that couldn’t be made out, had been misheard or misinterpreted, turned out to be something else – finer. Freedom. That was it. Equality was not freedom, it had been only the mistaken yearning to become like the people in the town. And who wanted to become like the very ones feared and hated?” Sadly, Winnie did.
    Winnie was an extraordinary women who lead an extraordinary life.
    Let’s not cast the first stone.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    The enduring principle of human eulogisation is that the winners in any conflict get to write the history. The deification of Madikizela-Mandela is simply a rewriting of the real history.

  • Annemarie Hendrikz says:

    Thank you Ms Xaso for this sensitive, compassionate and intelligent article.

  • Vas K says:

    It never ceases to amaze me that globally you always find people who will try to justify criminality and sick behaviour as a result of this or that. The human society survived by weeding out antisocial elements, not by glorifying them. What is happening? Degeneration?

  • Hamilton Wende says:

    What a thoughtful powerful piece! Thank you for it!

  • betsy Kee says:

    Lwando, you write so beautifully about what it is to be a South Arican. We still have so much to learn. So much to repent for, so much to undo, so much to build up. Until then we must stand strong and try to do our best in what ever small way we can to repair the shattered country we love.

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