Last week, this newspaper published a piece by editor in chief Mondli Makhanya – “We must not want to be Winnie” (City Press, April 8 2018). In it, Makhanya aimed to highlight the complexities of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – saint to some, sinner to others.
Many staff members at City Press, particularly women, and I found this piece to be tone deaf, sexist and a clear attack on women, especially black feminists, who are all but dismissed as a kind of blind cult adoring a woman Makhanya describes as “damaged goods”.
But what appears to be an attempt to give a different perspective on the life of the late struggle stalwart, compared with other stories that were published in City Press and by other media houses, didn’t adequately interrogate what made Mam’ Winnie who she was.
Instead, it used her human flaws to portray her as weak and therefore fallible; a villain mixing with unsavoury characters instead of being on time for her husband’s release from prison.
“If we aim to be contributors to a better nation, we should not try to be the damaged goods that came back from Brandfort,” Makhanya wrote.
The slut-shaming and mansplaining aside, we need to think about what we actually expected of this woman, given the level of torture she and her family endured every day for decades. Despite this, she was expected to be a strong black woman, pining for the return of her love?
Is it fair to hold up her alleged infidelities and the actions of her “football club”, many of which were distorted through the media manipulations of the apartheid state’s Stratcom unit, over celebrating her selflessness, courage and defiance in the face of tyranny?
Are we going to continue to crucify her for having a moment where she was seeking comfort while facing the adversity some were able to escape?
What about the men who started families of their own while in exile as their wives waited for their return?
What Makhanya happily ignored was that apartheid was not only built on race, but that it was also viciously gendered – attacking black family structures. Black women were right at the bottom of that atrocious system, beckoned to not only follow a life of obedience within a patriarchal system, but also to do so gracefully as “good women” should.
Makhanya glibly assumes that feminist thinkers in this country are not self-critical and do not question the complexities that inform their beliefs. Madikizela-Mandela’s flaws have never been overlooked by those who worship her, it’s just that we understand the complexities that made her strong and also fallible.
It’s a human trait, not something that is solely associated with how men and, in this case, black men expect us to “behave” according to the rules laid out by them.
In truth, this generation of feminists feels pressured to build upon and continue the victories of our elders who brought white supremacy to its knees as we continue to pursue our own struggles and know that we can also be victorious despite our weaknesses; that our sexual freedom and personal moralities do not determine our greatness or our weaknesses – as men seem to think they do.
Mam’ Winnie challenged everything that makes the patriarchy quiver – she was a black, educated woman who was deviant and adored.
The big problem with Makhanya’s one-sided piece is the terrible attempt to slut-shame Mam’ Winnie under the pretence of being critical. Does Makhanya do the same to the men he writes about? Does he use their philandering ways to undermine their political thought?
In an earlier piece on Mam’ Winnie, a perplexed Makhanya tries to figure out why women like me hold her in such high esteem as a role model. His conclusion? It’s her beauty – it beguiles the masses and makes them adore her. When did Makhanya ever define a male politician based on his handsomeness?
His double standards when it comes to analysing men and women are typical of a complacent patriarchy that refuses to be self-reflective and treat women as truly equal. He and his boys’ club make the rules and they are built on structural misogyny that they probably don’t even recognise in themselves.
What he does, in fact, is perpetuate the lies and mythologies spun around the complexities of Mam’ Winnie and, by extension, myself and women like me because I am Mam’ Winnie. Because, within a world constructed to tear apart my body and mental state, I have to be audacious and difficult and vocal about the indecencies of this society towards defiant black women firmly aiming their fists at the gospel of whiteness and patriarchy. Mam’ Winnie’s imperfections and flaws are precisely why we adore her.