A woman in full: Sisonke Msimang's book on Winnie resets the conversation

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.

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 Madikizela-Mandela.

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-than-life 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.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24


All your favourite publications in one place.
Read now
Voting Booth
Thousands of Gauteng motorists who refuse to pay their e-tolls could be fined R500 every time they drive under a toll gantry from July next year. In addition, they will have to pay a R100 levy for every one of these fines.
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
e-tolls must be scrapped
72% - 51 votes
I still won’t comply
18% - 13 votes
I’ll do my duty and avoid fines
3% - 2 votes
Good idea to help the economy
7% - 5 votes