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