CON­TESTED LIFE

Award-win­ning fem­i­nist aca­demic has re­leased a new book of au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal es­says ‘on power, plea­sure and SA cul­ture’. In this ex­tract, she con­sid­ers how Win­nie Madik­izela-Man­dela’s nar­ra­tive has been con­structed

CityPress - - Voices & Careers - MF Books Joburg 228 pages R240

In a 2013 ar­ti­cle for The New Yorker, re­pub­lished in a few Bri­tish and US out­lets, Na­dine Gordimer wrote about Nel­son Man­dela, mourn­ing his loss and re­call­ing a specific con­ver­sa­tion with him, told to her in a con­fi­dence the Nobel lau­re­ate now felt jus­ti­fied in break­ing af­ter his death. In that con­ver­sa­tion, Gordimer re­called how dev­as­tated Man­dela was by Win­nie’s af­fair with ac­tivist Dali Mpofu, or that she had lovers while he was in­car­cer­ated for 27 years.

Gordimer’s nar­ra­tive is of a heart-bro­ken hus­band, disappointed at what he as­sumed was a loyal, dot­ing wife. Gordimer is aware of the many ways in which the ex­pec­ta­tion of fidelity to a spouse locked up for nearly three decades is highly gen­dered and dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble. Again, Dr Grace Musila’s valu­able in­ter­jec­tion here was to re­mind me that Gordimer high­lights how hers and Man­dela’s friend­ship is started off by her novel, Burgher’s Daugh­ter. Af­ter some­one had snuck the novel into prison for Man­dela, he had writ­ten her a let­ter about it. The novel, she says, is about the chal­lenges of chil­dren of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, liv­ing un­der daily threat of im­pris­on­ment. What is strik­ing here, as Musila’s feed­back un­der­scores, is the irony of Gordimer’s lack of em­pa­thy and un­der­stand­ing for the bur­den of what Njab­ulo Nde­bele in his novel The Cry of Win­nie Man­dela and Mam­phela Ram­phele in her schol­ar­ship had al­ready de­scribed as po­lit­i­cal wid­ow­hood and its chal­lenges. Musila wrote to me “in the piece, Gordimer chooses to recog­nise Man­dela’s hu­man vul­ner­a­bil­ity to hurt; and in the novel, daugh­ters’ vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, but not mothers and wives; who, it seems to her, re­main locked in their roles as du­ti­ful mothers and po­lit­i­cal widows”. I had missed this con­nec­tion, not hav­ing read this novel since my hon­ours dis­ser­ta­tion on Gordimer sub­mit­ted in 1994. How­ever, I in­sert it here in grat­i­tude for Musila’s sharp lit­er­ary critic eye. The hurt Musila high­lights is muted in Gordimer’s es­say be­cause hers is an at­tempt to speak about a dif­fer­ent as­pect of the states­man: the in­ti­mate life of her friend, to cast a light on as­pects of his life that made him who he was, not just a heroic, saintly fig­ure lost to the world.

But the nov­el­ist achieves so much more than this. She writes about Win­nie in a very specific way: her fail­ure to be a good wife. In or­der for Gordimer to fully sym­pa­thise with her friend’s pain, she grap­ples with the source of his dev­as­ta­tion: an un­rea­son­able and yet real ex­pec­ta­tion of spousal fidelity in the face of a nearly three-decade ab­sence. Gordimer must also be aware of the en­dur­ing fas­ci­na­tion with “wait­ing” women in South Africa’s po­lit­i­cal and lit­er­ary cul­tures un­der apartheid. Of­ten coded as “du­ti­ful” wife­hood, Ram­phele has much more aptly dubbed it “hon­orary wid­ow­hood”.

What Win­nie fails at here, and what dev­as­tates her hus­band, is du­ti­ful wife­hood and hon­orary wid­ow­hood. It should be un­sur­pris­ing that the man who is writ­ten as le­git­i­mate na­tional pa­tri­arch should be dev­as­tated by this fail­ure. The ex­pec­ta­tion of du­ti­ful wife­hood is de­signed to but­tress heroic na­tion­al­ism.

That is its func­tion. How­ever, Win­nie “fails” be­cause she re­fuses the bur­den of sym­bol­ism. She in­sists on be­ing a messy, flesh-and-blood woman, in­stead. Across the world, fem­i­nist schol­ar­ship has con­sis­tently il­lu­mi­nated that flesh-and-blood women pose a prob­lem for na­tion­al­ism since such women are in­ter­ested in lives that are more than sym­bolic.

Many South African so­cial me­dia re­sponses marked Gordimer’s rev­e­la­tion as in­ap­pro­pri­ate: be­trayal of con­fi­dence or a snide com­ment on Win­nie that both placed un­rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tion and flat­tened her at a time when she needed sen­si­tiv­ity, and by some this was seen as an open at­tack on Win­nie. Where Gordimer tried to shine a light on Nel­son’s (het­eropa­tri­ar­chal) de­vo­tion, her read­ers fo­cused their at­ten­tion on who such de­vo­tion works against.

What is in­ter­est­ing in this es­say, for me, in ad­di­tion to Gordimer’s full hu­man­i­sa­tion of her friend, Madik­izela-Man­dela’s ex-hus­band, is the way in which Madik­izela-Man­dela ap­pears here, not as her­self, but as proxy for some­thing else. Gordimer writes about Win­nie in or­der to il­lus­trate some­thing that has very lit­tle to do with her.

The re­sponses “in de­fence” of Win­nie are not sur­pris­ing be­cause they echo her place­ment for many decades as “mother of the na­tion”. This is af­ter all what mothers of the na­tion are for: in dif­fer­ent turns em­brace and idol­i­sa­tion, on the one hand, and de­fence, on the other. But Win­nie is a dif­fi­cult woman. She em­braced and wel­comed her sta­tus as “mother of the na­tion”, but did so con­di­tion­ally.

Let me move on to other nar­ra­tives on her. In an ar­ti­cle pub­lished on July 1 1993 in Weekly Jour­nal, Nok­wanda Sit­hole presents a Win­nie, “wip­ing the tears of a na­tion. Is this the fu­ture leader of South Africa? De­fi­ant, beau­ti­ful and un­bro­ken, Win­nie Man­dela re­mains one of the most pow­er­ful ac­tivists in the world.” The Win­nie that Sit­hole writes about here is an ac­tivist, a strong, iconic fig­ure who has some ac­cess to heroic pres­ence, even if she also knows that heroic mas­culin­ity is a trap for women.

For, al­though heroic na­tion­al­ism re­quires some form of vi­o­lence, this vi­o­lence is of­ten a blot against women. Heroic na­tion­al­ism tells us in whose hands vi­o­lence is per­mit­ted, and re­minds us of its taboos in very gen­dered ways. Sit­hole in­vites us to ask what it means to be a sol­dier and whether imag­i­na­tively it is pos­si­ble to be a woman sol­dier. Sit­hole knows there are ac­tual women sol­diers. That is not the ques­tion she in­vites us to grap­ple with, how­ever.

Win­nie’s ca­pac­ity for vi­o­lence is the fo­cus of Paul Trewhela’s es­say, in which he de­clares, “Mrs Man­dela con­tin­ues to pro­vide the stuff of com­ment. She re­mains a for­mi­da­ble po­lit­i­cal force, de­spite her con­vic­tion for kid­nap­ping the mur­dered Stom­pie Moeketsi Seipei, and three other youths, and the scan­dal con­cern­ing her pri­vate life.”

Win­nie Madik­izela-Man­dela’s is a con­tested life, with mostly two dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives. On the one hand, she is proxy wife for the proper ac­tivist, heroic hus­band, which makes her part du­ti­ful wife and part ap­pendage. On the other hand, she is only a mur­der­ous mother, the most of­fen­sive trans­gres­sor.

Yet, her pop­u­lar­ity and her stature as a sub­ject of con­stant fas­ci­na­tion also sug­gests that there are end­lessly com­pli­cated ways to see her. She is dif­fi­cult to trap in one stereo­type or archetype.

Mon­strous mothers are lenses that can work as ef­fec­tively as du­ti­ful wife to con­tain women. Win­nie Madik­izela-Man­dela re­mains un­con­tained in ways that chal­lenge those who ad­mire her as much as they un­set­tle those who de­monise her.

Given how ef­fec­tively women are erased from mem­ory of strug­gle and ab­sented from the of­fi­cial na­tion­al­ist nar­ra­tive, Win­nie’s en­durance is a sig­nif­i­cant study in buck­ing the norm in ways re­sis­tant to ex­pla­na­tion.

PHOTO: RA­JESH JANTILAL

SUR­VIVOR Win­nie Man­dela at the fu­neral of Fa­tima Meer

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