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
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.
SURVIVOR Winnie Mandela at the funeral of Fatima Meer