A woman in full

As the legacy of Win­nie Madik­izela-Man­dela con­tin­ues to be con­tested af­ter her death, an in­ci­sive new book by Sisonke Msi­mang re­fuses easy bi­na­ries and re­sets the con­ver­sa­tion, in­tent on re­deem­ing the struggle icon in all her flawed hu­man­ity

CityPress - - Voices - The Res­ur­rec­tion of Win­nie Man­dela by Sisonke Msi­mang

Jonathan Ball Pub­lish­ers 144 pages


Dur­ing the pe­riod of her mourn­ing, as I lis­tened to the ra­dio and spoke with friends and fam­ily, and wrote half a dozen com­men­tary pieces and reflections on Win­nie’s life, I was caught be­tween two com­pet­ing points of view – caught, in some ways, be­tween the generations. On the one hand, I felt the need to pro­tect the mem­ory of the woman who had done so much and suf­fered so greatly at the hands of apartheid. On the other, I felt deeply un­com­fort­able about the years that had marred her life and about the shadow that vi­o­lence had cast on her po­lit­i­cal legacy. I was ashamed of her hav­ing been im­pli­cated in vi­o­lence, and ashamed by my re­sponse to it. I felt as though I was not rev­o­lu­tion­ary enough to stom­ach the truth of what must have hap­pened to Stom­pie Seipei, to Lolo Sono and to Dr Abu Baker As­vat. It was as though, some­how, in nam­ing them and won­der­ing about their fates, I was dis­hon­our­ing the mem­ory of Win­nie Madik­ize­laMan­dela.

Jour­nal­ist and aca­demic Sean Ja­cobs put my dis­com­fort most clearly when he wrote:

There has been an un­for­tu­nate ten­dency in pub­lic life to si­lence com­plex dis­cus­sions about Madik­izela-Man­dela’s po­lit­i­cal life. On the right peo­ple who be­lieved the apartheid pro­pa­ganda about her, or those who are in­vested only in her weak­nesses and faults, gloss over her heroic ac­tions. By the same to­ken, those on the left who wish to push back against the cri­tiques ne­glect the full range of her ac­tions. It be­comes a zero-sum game.

In truth, con­ver­sa­tions about women and their role and place in our na­tional af­fairs are dif­fi­cult be­cause they are so fraught with sex­ism and judge­ment. The pub­lic sphere isn’t safe for women – cer­tainly not women like Win­nie, who have larger-thanlife per­son­al­i­ties, and who are the fo­cus of so many ideas about wom­an­hood.

As Palesa Morudu, a writer of my gen­er­a­tion whose brother was killed by the apartheid regime, noted, Win­nie at­tracted neg­a­tive at­ten­tion be­cause she did, in fact, act with impunity; she was, Morudu sug­gested, “struggle roy­alty”. Yet, as Morudu ar­gued, Win­nie was not above re­proach: “We all have to ac­count for the choices we make.”

This is cer­tainly the case. In­deed, part of the prob­lem with South Africa’s re­cent his­tory is that we have tended to­wards el­e­vat­ing cer­tain sto­ries – the sto­ries of “struggle roy­alty”, as Morudu puts it – over oth­ers. So point­ing to Win­nie’s ac­tions as an ex­am­ple of impunity with­out look­ing at the big­ger story di­min­ishes the wider con­text and down­plays the ac­tions of oth­ers who were em­broiled in all man­ner of vi­o­lence in ser­vice of a war they be­lieved to be just – a war against a bru­tal racist regime.

Those who con­tin­ued to sup­port Ma Win­nie in spite of her vi­o­lence and impunity were not sim­ply fools. Per­haps, like me, they found it hard to walk away from her courage even in the face of her vi­o­lence. Maybe they also had trou­ble point­ing the fin­ger at her when the crimes of her en­e­mies in the regime were so fla­grant and so con­sis­tent.

I will not pre­tend other­wise: I am in­ter­ested in re­deem­ing Ma Win­nie. Like aca­demic Shireen Has­sim, who has done sem­i­nal work, I am in­trigued by “how Win­nie Madik­izela-Man­dela ac­counted for her ac­tions in her own words and on her own terms”. In do­ing this, I am well aware of Win­nie’s ten­dency to self-ag­gran­dis­e­ment, and of the ways she of­ten played with the truth. Th­ese are the sins of many free­dom fight­ers, for you must have some sense of ego to in­sert your­self into his­tory in such dra­matic ways.

I am also in­ter­ested in re­deem­ing Ma Win­nie be­cause she ap­peared to feel no re­morse, even as oth­ers were pro­foundly dis­ap­pointed in her con­duct. She didn’t care about their dis­ap­point­ment. She dis­dained their in­fe­rior pol­i­tics. She saw cri­tiques of her vi­o­lence as traps built around a false equiv­a­lence. In some ways, this is the cen­tral fea­ture of her story and it is an im­por­tant part of her al­lure to younger and more rad­i­cal South Africans.

Win­nie Man­dela’s big­gest po­lit­i­cal mis­take was not that she did the wrong thing, or even that she made se­ri­ous mis­takes in full view of the pub­lic. Win­nie’s prob­lem was that she never ex­pressed sor­row or regret. Her pol­i­tics de­manded noth­ing less, but the so­ci­ety that emerged in the early 1990s de­manded more from her than this. The new South Africa wanted Win­nie to be sorry. It wanted to hear her say the words: “I did it and I am sorry.”

For­give­ness is the mantra of the new South Africa and it can only be earned through confession. If Win­nie is to be res­ur­rected, she needs first to beg for the mercy of her vic­tims. If she does not want to do this, then she will not be for­given. This is the found­ing prin­ci­ple of the new democ­racy. It ap­plies to all of us – whites and blacks, per­pe­tra­tors and vic­tims, men and women. If we con­fess, we shall be for­given.

There is no room for other re­sponses, no way to stay an­gry and be a gen­uine ci­ti­zen of the new South Africa. You will be told that anger is trap­ping you in the past, even if you are liv­ing your life in the present but are sim­ply un­will­ing to let go of your anger. The na­tion is held hostage to a blend of pop psy­chol­ogy and the­o­log­i­cal zeal. Still, from an eth­i­cal per­spec­tive, it is dif­fi­cult to re­deem Win­nie Man­dela with­out fall­ing into the trap of eras­ing the pain of those who fell foul of her. It is even harder to do so while hon­our­ing the mem­o­ries of those who were vic­tims of the Man­dela United Foot­ball Club (MUFC).

For the sake of look­ing hon­estly at the past, it is im­por­tant to at least try to both un­der­stand Win­nie Man­dela and her strug­gles, and re­spect and un­der­stand the lives and strug­gles of the young men who in­ter­sected with the MUFC.

The trick, per­haps, is not to de­bate whether Win­nie was “good” or “bad” (what­ever those terms even mean). Re­mov­ing her from the bi­na­ries to which women are of­ten con­signed res­cues her from cliché, and spares us a tired and un­pro­duc­tive dis­cus­sion. Win­nie does not need to be ei­ther this or that. In­stead, re­deem­ing Win­nie – think­ing about what she teaches us – is to con­sider what she meant to our so­ci­ety, and in par­tic­u­lar how she em­bod­ied pop­u­lar ideas of strength and re­silience.

Look­ing at her as a fig­ure of strength with­out judg­ing the moral con­tours of how she used that strength al­lows us to en­gage with all di­men­sions of her per­sona. It al­lows us to take a stand against some of her ac­tions, if we wish to, while learn­ing what we can learn from her about sur­vival, en­durance, fragility, re­silience and dam­age.

When we look at her in this way, we do not have to choose be­tween lov­ing her and hat­ing her. We can ex­am­ine her as a woman who both en­dured at­tacks and per­pe­trated them. We can con­demn some of her acts with­out eras­ing her con­tri­bu­tions, view­ing her with em­pa­thy even as we rea­son­ably ac­cept that there are things she ought not to have done and points in her life where she was not de­serv­ing of sym­pa­thy. More im­por­tantly, we can see her as we wish to see our­selves – as al­ter­nately pet­ri­fied and coura­geous, hope­ful and ni­hilis­tic, em­body­ing an in­stinct for sur­vival in the face of al­most cer­tain death.


RE­SILIENCE Sisonke Msi­mang writes that, ‘for the sake of look­ing hon­estly at the past, it is im­por­tant to at least try to both un­der­stand Win­nie Man­dela and her strug­gles, and re­spect and un­der­stand the lives and strug­gles of the’ peo­ple around her

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