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Black activist Winnie Mandela is cheered by supporters after appearing in the Krugersdorp Magistrate's court, West of Johannesburg on Jan. 22, 1986 in Krugersdorp, South Africa.
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Girls & Women

A New Book About Winnie Mandela Changes Perspectives of Her Controversial Legacy


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was more than what the media thought of her and author Sisonke Msimang attempts to educate people about a side of her that they didn’t know of or was simply overlooked. Join the movement to end extreme poverty by taking action here to support the Global Goals.  

Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s personal story and legacy have been overshadowed by controversy in recent years. 

Following the kidnapping and torture of a number of young activists during the apartheid era — and the death of young activist Moeketsi ‘Stompie’ Sepei in January 1989 — Mama Winnie was alleged to have been implicated in the violence. 

While she denied the claims, rumours of her involvement in the kidnapping and torture have left a shadow over her legacy. 

Now, author and social commentator Sisonke Msimang’s latest book, The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela, gives a different account into who Mama Winnie was.

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She, like many women around the world, experienced severe gender inequality during her life and career. For some, according to Msimang, she was just the late statesman Nelson Mandela’s wife and nothing more.

“When Mama Winnie passed away [on April 2, 2018] she was depicted as simply being Mandela’s wife, as though the only thing she did was in service of the man,” Msimang said in a video posted on YouTube this month.

In her latest book, however, Msimang said she wanted to give a different perspective on Mama Winnie, transforming the misogyny and controversy into celebration.

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“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,” she wrote in an article for City Press.

“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,” she continued.

Msimang — like many who are familiar with Madikizela-Mandela’s life as a mother, wife, sister, career woman, anti-apartheid activist, and political figure — has felt uncomfortable about the public conversation around the late struggle icon.

“I felt deeply uncomfortable about the years that had marred her life and about the shadow that violence had cast on her political legacy,” Msimang continued in the article. “I was ashamed of her having been implicated in violence, and ashamed by my response to it.”

Mama Winnie was an activist for almost her entire life, having reportedly woken up to politics and the situation of the world around her when she was just nine years old, according to SA History Online — a site dedicated to preserving South Africa’s political history.

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“In 1945, when she was only nine years old, Winnie had her first conscious experience of what the strictures and injustices of racism and apartheid meant in South Africa,” according to the site.

It came as news arrived that World War II had ended, according to the site, and there were celebrations to be held. When Winnie and her family arrived at the celebrations, however, the celebrations were “for whites only” — and she, her siblings, and her father had to wait outside.

Yet, in a time that wasn’t necessarily ready to embrace a strong, opinionated, forceful woman in such a public position, Madikizela-Mandela “attracted negative attention because she did, in fact, act with impunity.”

Life in Madikizela-Mandela’s time wasn’t easy for many women, especially those as vocal as Mama Winnie, as life in politics demanded a lot of sacrifices and endurance.

A lot of detail about Mama Winnie’s experiences during apartheid and the struggle against it can be found in the book she wrote — 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 — in which she takes readers to the dark days of her life, the period of detention and two trials.

Of those 491 days, Madikizela-Mandela spent months in solitary confinement, and she describes the beatings and torture she experienced.

But her legacy of struggle was distorted over the years with what journalist and academic Sean Jacobs refers to as “apartheid propaganda” — leading to a very polarised public perception of Madikizela-Mandela, so people generally love her or hate her.

And it’s this polarised perception that Msimang hopes to change through her work, “removing her from the binaries to which women are often consigned.”

“Winnie does not need to be this or not,” she continues in the article. “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.”