She was pitched against her hus­band as ‘sin­ner’ ver­sus ‘saint’


“RARELY can there have been some­one who was called to great­ness,” read one obit­u­ary I woke up to in London on April 3, “and yet failed that call­ing so de­ci­sively as Win­nie Madik­izela-man­dela.”

Obit­u­ar­ies are filed by the me­dia and dusted off at a mo­ment’s no­tice in the event of sud­den re­quire­ments.

This one was co-writ­ten by a man who died in 2016.

“In Har­lem, they call her ‘the Queen of Africa’, in South Africa ‘The Mother of the Na­tion’”, he opined, sound­ing like a revenant from the 1960s – “but she was nei­ther” he con­cluded, “her mired in mur­der and fraud.”

I thought of the screen­ings I’ve pre­sented of the film, Win­nie, in Har­lem and London and so many other towns and cities in the world, and the over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive re­ac­tion to Win­nie’s story, and then my thoughts re­turned to the smug, com­pla­cent con­dem­na­tion of her life’s work so en­trenched in the world’s me­dia.

Was I go­ing to have to travel the world, en­gag­ing all who would come, look and lis­ten, while oth­ers wielded the pow­ers of a sim­ple, damn­ing obit­u­ary to de­fine Win­nie’s legacy?

To mark the sad and dig­ni­fied pass­ing rep­u­ta­tion of Mama Win­nie, the in­ter­na­tional me­dia treated us to a palimpsest of the half-baked and the en­trenched, lay­ered with old fake news. Rushed jour­nal­ists un­wit­tingly fed from the same pool of the oft-re­peated and vin­tage ru­mour that echoed with the com­fort­ing ring of “com­mon knowl­edge”.

Ev­ery head­line sought some kind of safety in the ques­tion­able no­tion of “bal­ance”– let us credit her for the love she in­spired but re­mind our read­ers, our view­ers, that of course, this lady went bad. Worse still, had she not been a men­ace, stir­ring con­flict into a so­ci­ety un­der­go­ing a mirac­u­lous tran­si­tion, un­der the ste­ward­ship of rather saintly men?

I wasn’t the only one af­fronted by these in­tran­si­gent, seem­ingly im­mutable nar­ra­tives, by this cyn­i­cal brand­ing ex­er­cise.

Had no one been lis­ten­ing to Paul Eras­mus, the Strat­com agent, in his first dec­la­ra­tion to the TRC in 1997, when he ad­mit­ted “turn­ing out a mass of dis­in­for­ma­tion and neg­a­tive pro­pa­ganda” against her? He ex­plained that pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela was the “ob­vi­ous tar­get” but that his im­pec­ca­ble in­tegrity made it dif­fi­cult.

His wife, of course, was a dif­fer­ent mat­ter and Eras­mus’s con­certed ef­forts re­lied on “ru­mours and the me­dia” to smear her with an un­end­ing stream of made-up sto­ries re­lat­ing to drink, drugs, ner­vous break­downs and keep­ing an open bed for nu­mer­ous and in­dis­crim­i­nate lovers.

I ex­pect that it was dif­fi­cult to hear those inklings of a deeper and darker re­al­ity at work in the heady days of rain­bows and mir­a­cles. And I won­der, as with all fairy tales, did the story need a Wicked Per­son to ex­punge all the vi­o­lence of the strug­gle for free­dom? His­tory is pock­marked with the treat­ment meted out to women who have gone against the grain: tra­di­tional heal­ers, naysay­ers, and ac­tivists, with minds of their own.

I found my­self lis­ten­ing to Char­lie Min­gus’s bril­liant al­bum, The Black Saint and the Sin­ner Lady, a lot dur­ing the mak­ing of the film, Win­nie. It chimed with what Zindzi Man­dela had said to me: “They tried to pitch my par­ents like the Saint and the Sin­ner.” The move­ment en­ti­tled Of Love, Pain and Pas­sioned Re­volt, then Farewell my Beloved, ‘til it’s Free­dom Day, seemed pre­scient in 1963, with Madiba in jail, handed over by the CIA, and the Strug­gle of the Rivo­nia Trial en­gaged, with Robben Is­land still ahead.

It was on the steps of the court house where ac­cused num­ber one, Man­dela, and his com­rades had been con­demned for life, that in 1964 Win­nie first en­tered the global frame. Her clear-headed, charis­matic, gen­tle-voiced re­but­tals to the loaded ques­tions by the BBC’S Robin Day were a tri­umph of pol­i­tics over emo­tion. She was so young and so bril­liant, a “fit­ting wife” for a great na­tion­al­ist leader. Min­gus’s com­plex jazz brought me closer also to my late part­ner, Peter Maku­rube, who’d stirred things up in the be­gin­ning for me. He took me to meet Zindzi and en­cour­aged us to talk to one an­other. “Make that film! Dig deep!” he in­sisted, “con­tex­tu­alise”.

Many view­ers in South Africa will by now have seen or heard of the film we made with the sup­port of the DAC and the NFVF, for which we are deeply thank­ful. Some will have been at the En­coun­ters pre­miere last year, which ended with a stand­ing ova­tion for Mama Win­nie. Hav­ing watched the film for the first time, sur­rounded by a large au­di­ence in Johannesburg, she found her­self in a state of shock, and awed re­lief, she told me. I met Vic Mcpher­son’s dog first, in his sun­lit gar­den. The for­mer di­rec­tor of Strat­com sat po­litely telling me about psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare and peo­ple be­ing hanged after their trade-unions and po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tions had been in­fil­trated by his “black agents” – and I mar­velled in­wardly at what Han­nah Arendt had once called the ba­nal­ity of evil. And once our cam­era was packed away, in his en­thu­si­asm to share just how far out of the shad­ows my in­ter­ested at­ten­tion was en­cour­ag­ing him to step, he added a chill­ing rider: “I was the one who sent Ruth First the letter bomb,” he said, with a chuckle, “of course it was meant for her hus­band.”

All these wives, who had great po­lit­i­cal agency of their own, and paid for it so dearly.

There is much work still to do. So much that didn’t fit into one fea­ture-length film. And a clearer ex­pla­na­tion of what drove Jerry Richard­son, a key in­for­mant of the Se­cu­rity Branch in the 1980s, to kill poor Stom­pie Sepei. What I hope the ex­ist­ing film shows, is that South Africa would have ben­e­fited from the joint vi­sions of Win­nie and Nel­son Man­dela. “She was that wake-up fac­tor,” Zindzi says in the film, her par­ents shared a com­mon goal with dif­fer­ent perspectives. I would hope that the joint legacy of Win­nie and Nel­son Man­dela would be the con­stant re­minder to all of the core prin­ci­ples of the Free­dom Char­ter of 1955.

Pascale Lamche is the di­rec­tor of doc­u­men­tary, Win­nie. the

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