South Africa: More than just Mandela’s ex wife

South Africa: More than just Mandela’s ex wife


Date: April 6, 2018
  • SHARE:

By Tarisai Nyamweda

Johannesburg, 6 April: As South Africa mourns the passing of veteran and anti-apartheid legend Winnie Madikizela-Mandela varying narratives of her roles in society as a freedom fighter, politician, a leader, a woman and mother have emerged in the media.

An ENCA trailer when the news broke out called her the hero or villain, icon or law breaker, abused or betrayed.

International headlines  included “ex-wife of Nelson Mandela”. Some of the most hurtful headlines appearing on Reuters and    Daily Mail   included Winnie Mandela, ‘mother’, then ‘mugger’, of new South Africa and “The heroine of the anti-apartheid movement who became a ‘blood soaked bully’ who shamed Mandela.”

This polarised understanding has also reflected in media interviews  exploring her contribution through a prism of scandals, controversies and complexities. Nelson Mandela reminded us constantly that he was no saint. No leader is. Why  is Madikizela Mandela not measured by the same yard stick as her male counter-parts? Why do the words “complex”, “flawed”, “controversial”, “marred legacy” “toxic individual” “ungovernable woman” follow her to her grave? Compared to the coverage of Mandela’s death, Madikizela-Mandela’s passing has seen some choosing to chastise her for speaking her truth to power and doing so boldly in the eyes of the oppressor.

The desire to to fit Madikizela-Mandela in a box, over simplifying and stereotyping, gives a one dimensional and unfair understanding of who she was. Even in her death we see the multiple layers of characteristics she had. Many of these are shunned when they relate to women because they are not universally accepted gendered roles of women especially when they are publicly fearless and defiant of and aggressive to a status quo which is oppressive and dehumanising. She was multi-dimensional woman who fought a dual war against racism and sexism. Her resistance to both made her too powerful to comprehend for unidimensional and narrow minded media and individuals.

Madikizela-Mandela, popularly known as Mam’ Winnie became the mother of the nation because of the many sacrifices she made for the country. She embodied strength, resilience, commitment and Africaness.  She went above and beyond fulfilling her dual roles of being a mother, a wife and a fearless activist. She was thrust in a world of political activism as a young woman but carved her way into history, writing herstory and becoming an icon in her own right.

She kept Mandela’s memory alive in the most difficult of times when he was imprisoned and continued to rally many African women and men behind him. She represented the many women who had their loved ones incarcerated and they could identify with her. With all that was thrown at her she fought equally as hard as her male counterparts in the struggle. In a file tape aired on television on the day of her passing she noted that she did not ride on Mandela glory but made her own way.

Julius Malema, Commander In Chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has described her as the president that we did not have because she was female and African.

Madikizela-Mandela sought to fight the patriarchal system and was very vocal about it. She continued to inspire the women’s movement becoming the president of the African National Congress Women’s league (ANCWL) in 1993. Bathabile Dlamini, Minister of Women and ANC Women’s League President, echoed Malema’s sentiments noting that Madikizela-Mandela was good enough to be the president but failed because we were not brave enough to let this happen.

She believed in the celebration of women every day. She believed in the power of the youth and their ability to continue with the struggle for women. Madikizela-Mandela empathised with the downtrodden. Even in her late years she supported the fees must fall youth activists who campaigned for free education.

Madikizela-Mandela represented strength for many women in the country and abroad. Her passing is a loss to the many women who looked up to her and followed in her footsteps.  Her passing has sparked an outpouring of grief among feminist movements around Africa. For example in Zimbabwe women parliamentarians are organising a memorial service to honour her life. Today, African women on the continent and in the diaspora called to action with thehashtag #AllBlackWithADoek will honour her memory with the slogan: Winnie Mandela did not die. She multiplied.

More stories of women in the struggle for African liberation such as that of Madikizela-Mandela should be told and their powerful contributions revered. There are many untold stories of these women struggle icons that younger generations ought to know and learn from.

Women politicians and leaders should be proud to stand firm on the shoulders of the likes of Madikizela-Mandela. One of the most important things women could learn from Madikizela-Mandela’s life is to speak out against injustices and stand firm. We need to draw courage and conviction from the experiences of the likes of Madikizela-Mandela.

This is the legacy she leaves. She was far more than President Mandela’s ex-wife. This under- representation of Madikizela-Mandela comes from a system that devalues women especially black African women and their role and contribution to society and the struggle.

Her death is an opportunity to redefine the narratives about women leaders especially African women who have gone against odds to stand up for peace, justice and equality for all. It is a time to cultivate our own informed narratives on African women and these should be narratives that do not sell us short.

It is a time to  declare heroines. The way Madikizela-Mandela’s story is told matters.

Tarisai Nyamweda is Gender Links Media Manager. This article is part of the GL news and blogs service.


One thought on “South Africa: More than just Mandela’s ex wife”

A good piece of documented legacy for the Late Hon. Winnie…

Comment on South Africa: More than just Mandela’s ex wife

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *