There has been something of an online furore in response to Verashni Pillay’s Mail&Guardian column, Five times Winnie Mandela has letus down. In this vicious public condemnation of her character, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is rebuked for failing both as a political figure and as a wife – there is no separation of these categories.
Pillay clearly wanted to comment on Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife’s recent challenge to his estate.
But the public is taken on a particularly egregious expedition of Madikizela-Mandela’s life history, where the dead body of a young boy is evoked and placed on the same moral compass as the act of challenging customary law. In this extraordinary moment of recklessness, Madikizela-Mandela is rendered unworthy of a place in history, and therefore unworthy of making claims as a citizen today.
Pillay’s article should not offend because it is a takedown of a struggle stalwart. In post-apartheid South Africa, struggle credentials are often misused to legitimate the indefensible. Pillay’s article should offend, however, because it is a takedown, and not a thoughtful critique, of a formidable woman.
Madikizela-Mandela has many flaws. We all know them, because our media has spent a disproportionate amount of time informing us about them. Pillay’s piece merely recapitulates this. It doesn’t even bring a new snippet of information to the table. It offers nothing at all by way of reflection, insight or even a basic grasp of history.
Madikizela-Mandela, like most people who have lived their lives fully and in the glare of history, is a complex figure. She is also a figure who came to carry the hopes and pain of a nation and to represent these to the world. Who among such company – from Mahathma Gandhi to Winston Churchill to Malcom X to Hugo Chavez– was not a complex figure? But different standards are applied to women, especially to black women. In the nationalist imagination, powerful women tend to appear as either some kind of mother of the nation or some kind of evil, scheming Lady Macbeth. There is very little middle ground.
South Africa was a very tough place in the 1980s. Madikizela-Mandela was subject to the most appalling brutality on her family and her person. She was also caught up in what, for all intents and purposes, was a war. She was a leader in that war and, as Frantz Fanon wrote, no one who commits to action in these kinds of circumstances comes out of it with their hands entirely clean.
This does not mean that morality is suspended in a war, or that once it is concluded there should not be some reflection on the morality of how it was waged. But when men who committed questionable or even plainly vile acts are not hounded for this in peace time, while a woman – a woman whose life was also heroic on the grand stage of history – is, then we are dealing with a profound sexism.
The fact that we hear very little moralising critique of President Jacob Zuma’s role in exile, Bheki Cele’s role in the civil war in KwaZulu-Natal or the role of any number of men involved in the many theatres of violent struggle is, simply and plainly, due to a gendered double standard.
But the problem with Pillay’s article extends beyond this gendered double standard. It presents Madikizela-Mandela as if she herself was a brutish presence on the historical stage, rather than a human being in struggle against a brutish system – a system that damaged all who endured it. But particularly those on whom its repressive force fell hardest.
Apartheid, a crime against humanity, is being whitewashed. Personality comes to the fore and structure slips into the background in a manner that is more than a little disturbing.
The consequence of this perversion of history is that it not only erases Madikizela-Mandela from it, but also her fellow comrades.
Gcobani Qambela has written the most substantial response to Pillay’s article. His piece, published on ThoughtLeader, is absolutely correct to point out the racist and sexist tropes that structure Pillay’s piece. Beyond this, Qambela recalls the apartheid “four-tier system” whose racist logic “placed Indians the closest to white privilege and blacks at the furthest level of degradation”.
Qambela suggests we can link Pillay’s ambivalence to Madikizela-Mandela to her racial privilege as an Indian. The danger with this line of argument is that, although it goes without saying that there is an ugly current of racism among South African Indians, there are also Indians who were deeply committed to the struggle, including some of Madikizela-Mandela’s close comrades -people like Fatima Meer and Ahmed Kathrada. And there are many younger Indian people who have grown up in homes where Madikizela-Mandela was a central and venerated figure in the imagination of the nation.
Moreover, the power of the media is such that it is far from unusual to encounter students at a place like Rhodes University, students of all races, who uncritically repeat the same racist and sexist tropes that shape Pillay’s understanding of Madikizela-Mandela.
South Africa’s obsession with linking citizenship claims with one’s actions in the anti-apartheid struggle mis-recognises both the dead and the living in its discomfort with complexity.
The government and media seem unable to treat basic civilian actions, like challenging a former husband’s estate, without imposing a weight of history on those actions. Grant Farred, writing about the politicisation of the reburial of Nat Nakasa in thesepages, points out that:
“[I]n death, Nakasa can be restored to a better ideological self, making it possible to write a place for Nat Nakasa in the struggle against apartheid even if it is not the place he sought to write for himself.”.
In life, Madikizela-Mandela has to push against being written out of the very history that shaped her politics and destroyed her family in the process. Luckily for us, no one has to remind Ma-Winnie of the heavy price that she paid as a political figure and wife. Speaking to a crowd in front of her home in 1970, after 18 months of solitary confinement, she defiantly declared: “I was very young when I married Nelson. I’m not young any more. And I’m not afraid any more.”