The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela
When she died last year at the age of 81, the public conversation about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy arranged itself around two poles: her long and turbulent marriage to Nelson Mandela, and her image as a tragic figure. But Winnie Mandela was always, in her defiance and her rage and her spirit, far more complex and compelling than that conversation might suggest.
In this welcome biography, the Perth-based South African writer Sisonke Msimang recognises how this towering woman, equal parts “dazzling and confounding”, was treated both in life and death. Winnie Mandela’s erasure, Msimang says, “felt all too familiar. Women are written out of history all the time.”
Writing in the second person, as if addressing Winnie Mandela herself, Msimang paints a vivid portrait of a woman who was imprisoned, almost driven to madness by torture, harassed, detained, and slandered for almost her entire life, yet time and again gave the tormentors of her people no satisfaction.
In one thrilling moment, on the courthouse steps just as Nelson Mandela is sentenced to life in prison, she reaches for him through the crowd and is accosted by a white police officer, who grabs her by the arm. He reminds her that her permit – a reality for black South Africans, whose lives during apartheid were dictated by a cruel system of permits and curfews – states she must return to Johannesburg immediately or risk imprisonment herself. “You look at this small, silly white man and, without saying a word, you kick him. Then you turn back and look for Nelson’s face in the crowd.”
Despite the book’s engaging narrative, its brevity makes it a condensed read. This is particularly apparent in the last third, where Msimang attempts to contextualise the tragic events that immediately preceded the collapse of the racist apartheid state, without excusing Winnie Mandela’s complicity in them. It’s a delicate thread to follow and Msimang handles it deftly, but one is still left wishing for a more extensive discussion in this section.
Towards the end of the book, Msimang answers the question she poses at the beginning: “Is it possible to admire – indeed, to love – a complicated woman?” Her answer is that it’s not only possible but also necessary: without Winnie Mandela and women like her, there is no liberation for any of us.
Text, 160pp, $14.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "Sisonke Msimang, The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela". Subscribe here.