‘Mama gave me a sense of place’ – women rewrite the Winnie narrative

Picture: Christopher Moagi
Picture: Christopher Moagi

Journalism is often described as the first draft of history, but what happens when there is a difference between your knowledge of a person and the narrative in the media following her death?

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, her relationship with her husband and the patriarchal society, apartheid government, and her legacy were the focus of a high-level panel discussion convened by KayaFM on Thursday evening.

For example, student activist and master’s student, Busisiwe Seabe believed that if it wasn’t for Madikizela-Mandela’s efforts to keep the memory of Nelson Mandela alive, to “humanise and verify” him, “after 27 years people could’ve forgotten about him, but she had been doing the work across the globe to keep his memory alive”.

Because the focus was on Madiba, Winnie’s story largely fell by the wayside.

“There seems to be this odd thing where our knowledge of Winnie was at odds with the way the narrative is being played out with the media,” said University of Pretoria Political Sciences lecturer Sithembile Mbete, who chaired the panel at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

The panelists for the debate included Seabe, South African Human Rights Commission head of advocacy and communications Gail Smith; political economist Lebohang Pheko; and actor, writer and performance poet, Lebo Mashile.

Kenyan poet, playwright, theatre artist, and political activist Shaijila Patel joined the discussion from Kenya via a telephonic conversation.

The panelists each shared their personal memories of Madikizela-Mandela.

“My prevailing memory of her is that she was at a lot of funerals in Orlando, she was like uGogo like the rest of the grannies in Soweto and I knew her firstly as that,” Mbete said.

Madikizela-Mandela’s wisdom was also remembered.

“My grandmother used to tailor some of Mama’s clothes, and the last conversation I had with her I told her that I want to be just like her, and she looked at me in a funny way and said why do I want to be like her? I should surpass her,” Seabe said.

Smith paid homage to her revolutionary spirit, and her role in the struggle: “They were not planning for a woman…They were not planning for a black woman from the Eastern Cape to challenge the apartheid government, and the leadership of the ANC and patriarchy.”

There was also the way she was able to make people feel.

“I loved her unconditionally … I feel betrayed by my leaders … I feel betrayed by my country … I feel betrayed by black men; Mama gave me a sense of place as an immigrant child. She also gave my struggle a sense of place and my mother’s feminisms a sense of place,” said Mashile.

The panelists also took time to reflect on specific media reports and tributes to Madikizela-Mandela. City Press’ editor-in-chief, Mondli Makhanya, came under fire for his column.

In it, he told “the story of the coarse Madikizela-Mandela”.

Read: We must not want to be Winnie

Reacting to the article, Seabe believed that “Mondli is basically saying how Mama dare breathe without approval from the ANC leadership.”

“He [Mondli Makhanya] continues to do the work of white hetro patriarchy. His misogyny must be called out,” Smith said.

Pheko referred to black men doing “the bidding of white imperialist power”, and Mashile said: “We elect rapists, philanders and wife beaters but Winnie’s sexuality is one she must be shamed for, how? In what universe does this work.’’

Pheko reminded listeners and audience members that “we need to remember people exactly as they are – Mama was Flawsomeness [with flaws but awesome]”.

She added that there were many unknown Winnie Madikizela-Mandelas across the globe and many are omitted from many liberation narratives.

‘We should avoid mono-memory. There are many Winnies who are unknown but have been a subject of patriarchy, racism and oppression.”

Patel joined the conversation close to the end.

“We have been denied the leadership of this Winnie. I can only imagine how this continent would’ve been with her leadership,” Patel said.

She added that, “We need to reclaim the liberation narrative of women across the continent”.

In closing the panelists along with audience members agreed on the importance of preserving Mama’s legacy with a suggestion from an audience member to open a museum in memory of mama and to display her clothes, which too were a political statement.

More activity is expected to come in honour of her legacy including a #WeAreNomzamo memorial by a group of black feminists at Morris Isaacson school in Soweto on Saturday from 1pm to 5pm.

“Nomzamo gave us a home in South African politics. If she is possible then I am possible too. If she can exist then I can exist. Mama Nomzamo gave us that”, Mashile said.

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