The Cry of Winnie Mandela

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The Cry of Winnie Mandela by Njabulo NdebelePHOTO:
The Cry of Winnie Mandela by Njabulo NdebelePHOTO:

The Cry of Winnie Mandela was first published in 2003 and was written by literary legend Professor Njabulo Simakahle Ndebele, who currently holds the title of Chancellor at the University of Johannesburg.

In this fictional account of struggle stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the book looks at the lives of four women, who each undergo a period of waiting for their husbands to return, in so doing, find solace through their conversations with one another.

In this period of waiting, the women seem to each grapple with the real tensions that soon follow the agony of waiting.

In this edited extract, Ndebele draws on the personal hopes and fears of Madikizela-Mandela, who has a dream about her husband, Nelson Mandela, returning home. 

The Cry of Winnie Mandela

by Njabulo S Ndebele

Picador Africa

336 pages

R165 at takealot.com

I remember vividly the definitive end of the one thing that could have reconnected us: my dream of your return.

I dreamt of us on the night of your return, when you and I, intimately alone for the first time in almost three decades, felt each other’s presence with trepidation, looking at each other, not knowing what to do next.

I would understand your reserve and hesitance. You were totally out of practice.

What about me? Would I take the initiative? That could damn me. You could read that as confirmation that I had been in practice all along: a child of habit.

What preliminaries were appropriately required of us before we exposed our bodies to each other?

Passion always requires the laying of the ground. Especially if the expectation of it has been created by years of distance apart.

I have dreamt of one preliminary act, and replayed it in my mind ever so often, especially when the Free Mandela Campaign took off.

I dreamt that all the guests had left on your first night back at 8115, and there were just two of us in our bedroom, which had not seen us for close to 30 years.

And I approached the dressing table and lifted the white lace to reveal one of the treasures of my years of waiting.

Delicately, I would lift it up, balancing it in my hands, and I would turn round to face you, my hands extended towards you, in my hands the piece of wedding cake I kept for your return.

That would be the moment to fill the gap of years! The remaining piece of our wedding cake in my hands was an offering to you as a ritual laying the ground for our intimacy.

It was not to be. Our cake was consumed by fire and destroyed with our house.

House 8115 went down in flames. At first licked by flames, then seized by them, then charred and then ashed. Love and intimacy died by fire.

The scale of what needed to be done to restore them, whenever that would be, covered me up like fog.

I could not see.

So much more than a house and a piece of wedding cake were consumed by fire that day in 1988. A home, our home, was also finally destroyed. Marara, you brought home to us the meaning of home.

In reality, the home Nelson and I began to create began to be consumed as we lived in it, creating it.

Remember how apartheid police harassed us constantly, and continued even after Nelson was in prison?

From time to time, overzealous, small-time official crooks, carrying the title of “security agents” and working in the same system as Major Swanepoel, firebombed our house.

No matter how much blame I can throw at Major Swanepoel and his lot, I often feel I too carry some of it.

When I think this way, I ask myself if I did not in reality finish off in 1988 what the system began in the 1960s; that I was the reason house number 8115 Ngakane Street, Orlando West, Soweto, was burnt down by schoolchildren on that horrible day.

The horror of it! At a certain point, the logic of oppression becomes indistinguishable from the logic of resistance, where resistance also displays a capacity for its own evil.

I thought of these matters as I stared at the smoking ruin of our house, and wondered how public adulation can turn into denunciation by fire.

The horror! To face one’s own evil! And then to convince oneself that one could do no evil in the quest for freedom.

A recurring dream I had in the wake of the destruction of house number 8115 perhaps was nature’s metaphor for my inner ordeal. In this dream I was floating downstream, carried by an easy current.

Then suddenly the current picked up speed and, too late for me to realise, I was carried over the edge of a long waterfall.

I saw and felt the approach of death at the same time as I was thrilled and exhilarated by free fall. I was as desperate as I was calm. Then I saw on both sides of me what I could only describe as a “waterrise”.

What do you call a waterfall going up? I needed only to leap over and I would be carried up and saved from a fatal fall. But the urge to free fall was far more than any desire for rescue. I was going down.

I wanted to go down. And down I went, exhilarated, towards my doom and damnation. I had invested too much in the goodness I convinced myself I represented.

Oh, Nelson! How saintly you were, far away, protected from the world (despite yourself), while I, in your absence, drifted and then rushed headlong towards iniquity the more I idealised the Struggle and convinced myself of the goodness of everything I did for it.

I thought of you as I watched the smouldering ruins of our home. Yet I could not ignore the delicate yet insistent tugs of shame.

Just as I was about to acknowledge them, I thrust my fist into the air. I, Winnie Mandela, will pursue the cause of my husband.

I will yet get them: all those who destroyed our house. Sellouts, spies, informers and those behind them, I will get them. White priests who ravage little black boys, I will get them.

Murderers who kill doctors in their consulting rooms, I will get them. Kidnappers, arsonists, rapists and fuckists, I will get them. I have the power. I bear your name, Nelson. I will get them.

The horror!

So much more was consumed by fire that day. Childhood too! How do schoolchildren turn into rampant arsonists?

What if I was in the house and they knew I was in it? Maybe they set the house on fire because I was not there. Maybe they could have seized hold of me instead. What would they have done with me?

Would they have dragged me out of the house into the street, stoned me and then put a tyre round my neck, doused it with petrol and set it on fire? Or would they have burnt the house with me inside of it?

I’ll get them! And destroy them. These are not children any more. The child in them died long before they set our house on fire.

Didn’t they begin to die when they were born into broken families, who are then moved from one part of the country to another on the whims of a white government?

Weren’t their parents arrested for one thing or another, on the whims of a white government?

Didn’t some of them become pregnant at 15 from the thrustings of a rapist, or some uncle or father.

I, the social worker, have hundreds of records of all such cases and more.

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