17 April 2018

South Africa: How Winnie Mandela Taught African Women to Rewrite Their Narratives and Realities

The death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was first met with negative headlines by numerous local and global publications. The demonisation of an African woman comes easily to the Western media. But in this case, African women formed a vanguard against such negative stereotypical narratives and wrote Mama Winnie's history with a golden pen, appropriately placing her where she belongs; a revolutionary leader and the spear of the nation.

A black woman is the easiest person to condemn, or dehumanise and the othering of women of colour happens all too often in society and in the media. An African woman is even linked to the 'civilization problems' on the continent. The black woman is easily misunderstood and blamed and said to be too stubborn, too bold, too strong and in many cases seen as sexual objects. The narrative of a strong black and determined woman has been demonised many times by the Western press, and in popular culture. One can only think of Serena Williams and see how she has been represented and how Serena has contested the manner in which she is framed. For Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the narrative of her struggle against Apartheid was hidden under the name of her former husband, Nelson Mandela. A lot of publications in the Western press were quick to jump to form a narrative around her death, and characterised and defined her as 'angry' and 'unforgiving.'

Various headlines from the Western press and even in South Africa collaborated in condemning Mama Winnie in one way or the other, and peddled a particular negative narrative. The New York Times stated: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whose fight against apartheid was later overshadowed by scandal, has died at 81. Reuters World wrote: Winnie Mandela, 'mother' then 'mugger' of new South Africa (this particular headline was repeated by The New York Times and The independent). The BBC followed the same path: The life of Winnie Mandela, a controversial anti-apartheid political icon.

For a continent that has been the victim of the danger of a single story, the Western press did not expect the backlash it received from African women. The stark contrast between the comparison of Nelson Mandela and Winnie was evident, with undertones of how both Winnie and Nelson acted at the end of the Apartheid regime. Winnie was constantly referred to as unforgiving and bitter. The need for a black woman to explain and justify her anger against an unjust system beats all forms of logic. And must forgiveness be forced? The 'victim' has all the right to remain unforgiving, and the oppressor has the duty and responsibility to always make sure that whatever wrongs were made must be corrected, including but not limited to giving up stolen land and ill-gotten wealth.

For some reason the Western press has been in the habit of naming and defining our heroes for us. Telling us who behaved well and who did not and who deserves recognition. Institutions such as the Nobel Prize have unwittingly played a role in forming this narrative, and other social and cultural institutions are also guilty of propagating such one-sided narratives.

Neither P.W. Botha nor F.W. De Klerk, the last Apartheid president has received as much scrutiny and condemnation as Mama Winnie has received. Chinua Achebe clearly stated that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Even in his most savage action, the white man has always found a way to glorify himself, even framing himself as the victim.

The task of rewriting the narrative of Mama Winnie has been a collaborative effort by African women who stood at the juncture of oppression; patriarchy and racism, calling a spade a spade. The rewriting of this narrative is not just for Mama Winnie, it is for every African woman whose struggles, strength and resilience has gone unmentioned, buried in stereotypical headlines from the Western press and the gaze of patriarchy and racism. It is easy to identify oppression from outside, but more difficult to deal with oppression from within especially at a time of war. For Mama Winnie, the voices of African women such as South African poet Lebo Mashile, Kenyan author Shailja Patel, and Kenyan academic, Dr Wandia Njoya among many other women continue to reclaim the narrative from the Western media.

The place of Mama Winnie is not by the side of Nelson Mandela. She deserves a place of her own where she is identified for her revolutionary actions and leadership. Mama Winnie might not have known this, but every time she clenched her fist in revolutionary salute, she wrote her own story and other women were witness to that story. It is easy to focus on what Mandela went through in jail, and forget what Winnie fought for while outside.

For a country like South Africa that has a long list of revolutionaries who fought against the draconian Apartheid government, most names mentioned are that of men. What of the women in the struggle? The women who stood vanguard at homes? The naming of Mama Winnie should inspire more women to be added to the list of freedom fighters and their stories should be told and celebrated in the media and literature.

A South African saying goes thus: Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo, you strike a woman, you strike a rock.The hypocrisy of the Western press has no doubt met a rock. African women have rightfully addressed Mama Winnie as who she was; a revolutionary, a comrade and the spear of the nation.

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