Unbreakable spirit at rest

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
Image: Picture: James Oatway/Sunday Times

It is one of the most iconic pictures of our time. Immaculately dressed, a beautiful Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is holding a handbag and a newspaper in one hand and her mother-in-law’s hand in the other.

She’s escorting the elderly Nosekeni Fanny through a heavy police wall outside the court in Pretoria. It is June 11 1964. Vulnerable, yet strong and defiant, their faces tell it all – the man they love so dearly is about to be jailed for fighting a racist system.

Their life and that of South Africa is about to change forever.

This image was foremost in my mind this week as news broke that the struggle icon was no more.

This is because death often compels us to pause for a moment and ponder on what was and what could have been.

This picture captured a significant moment in our history.

Ours is a society that holds women to a higher moral standard than it does men.

A moment when the semblance of fictitious normalcy for a black family was making way for an extraordinary life of pain, sacrifice, triumph and complexity.

Indeed, there are very few names that invoke the kind of raw emotion among South Africans – be it reverence or loathing – than that of Ma Winnie.

And so it comes as no surprise that her death has sparked an emotive conversation across our society about her life, her politics and her contested legacy.

For the most part I have found some of the strands of the unfolding conversation about Ma Winnie disturbing.

Perhaps more than what it demonstrates of her, it highlights three troubling things that are synonymous with our world.

The first is the tendency to strip women of their agency and to reduce their lives to mere players in a bigger story of men.

For example, the reference to Ma Winnie solely as Nelson Mandela’s exwife – deliberate or not – is an attempt to define her journey of political activism through the narrow prism of her former husband’s.

It undermines her earned place in history as a force which stood at the coalface of violence, racism and oppression.

It seeks to underplay what it took to single-handedly raise a family and lead a generation through one of the most brutal periods in history.

It undermines her status as a fighter who chose to take on a regime because she would not accept its injustice.

The second is that similarly to the point above, ours is a society that holds women to a higher moral standard than it does men.

In the last two days, I have again heard numerous accounts that seek to portray Ma Winnie as a shameful woman of loose morals.

I will not defend her most intimate choices – suffice to say that this narrative seeks to paint her as a wife who betrayed her jailed husband and thus is not a leader worth honouring.

For this reason, so the narrative goes, she left Madiba with no choice but to divorce her because a man of his stature could not be associated with a woman who was everything a first lady should not be.

Here’s the problem with this portrayal. It is disingenuous. It imposes a level of personal morality on a woman as a prerequisite for leadership that it does not equally impose on men.

Right or wrong, South Africans do not put the sexual conduct of men as one of the moral tests which determine their fitness to lead.

We never did during apartheid, and we do not now.

Therefore here, too, the hypocrisy of this description is astonishing.

It seeks to use personal choices of her past to minimise her legacy in a way that it does not with men.
It thus reinforces a world where public scrutiny is punitively used to denounce women leaders in particular.

The third is perhaps the most dominant part of the conversation I have seen so far.

Here it is perhaps important to state this obvious truth: Ma Winnie was never a saint.

More important, she never professed to be one.

Her transgressions – legal and otherwise – are well documented.

They dominated the story told of her in the last three decades.

Yet, despite this, I am not convinced that it is her conduct in her later years that has made her the subject of revile by some.

In fact I am of the view many who went on the offensive to highlight her kidnapping conviction with regard to Stompie Seipei for example, did not fully comprehend what happened, nor are they in truth concerned by the death of yet another black boy during apartheid.

For them Stompie’s story is a convenient fact which reaffirms a predetermined view of Ma Winnie.

The truth is that she was vilified ultimately because of who she was – a black woman who embodied the defiant spirit of the oppressed.

Her existence was offensive to her detractors primarily because she was brazen in her fight and refused to cower into submission, even when she was stripped of all she had.

“They think because they have put my husband on an island that he will be forgotten,” she once said.

“They are wrong. The harder they try to silence him, the louder I will become,” she said soon after Mandela was imprisoned.

This is the spirit that many of us celebrate at this time.

It is the spirit that inspired hope in times where there was none.

It is the power that propelled a generation to believe in its freedom.

No one can deny that Ma Winnie’s legacy is one layered with complexities that are the result of her time.

Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Sello Hatang aptly captured many of our thoughts yesterday when he said, “Mam’Winnie lost her innocence because of a struggle she actually didn’t choose.

“The struggle entrusted upon her by the husband she chose and the people she identified with – the vulnerable people who were discriminated because of apartheid,” he said.

Ma Winnie’s life represents the best and worst of us.

It shatters the myth which seeks to over-glorify as super-human so many of those who placed their lives on the line to win us this democracy.

To many she was the subject of contempt.

But to the rest of us, she is the very embodiment of the unbreakable spirit of an African woman faithful to a cause.

In its beauty and its darkness, hers is our story.

May she rest in power.