Winnie (2017): Fearlessness, Silenced Agency, & the Maintenance of Mandela

South Africa’s history is rooted in Apartheid and Mandela reverence…but what about Winnie. During Mandela’s unforgettable 27 year prison sentence, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was the only womxn able to openly support the ANC and go back home, according to the documentary. She has been erased from South Africa’s liberation movement, but under Pascale Lamche’s direction there is opportunity to learn.

A fearless womxn

Last night at a screening hosted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation,  I wondered when was the last time I heard Mama’s voice? Specifically, when was the last time her voice could be heard devoid of Apartheid strife punctuating the background. Barring public appearances to celebrate her life, as those can be superficial, the crown jewel of the Mandela legacy has been purposefully axed from history. Why? Because there is nothing more threatening than a womxn who is self-aware, confident, and powerful.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was a force during the Apartheid era. While men were living lives on the run, Winnie bore the contemptuous government regime face on. The people of the townships knew her face, new her stance, and believed in her while Nelson among other leaders were incarcerated or forced to operate in secret. During the liberation movement, it was Winnie’s face and voice that could be easily recognized; the same cannot be said for her former husband (by virtue of his captivity).

Maintaining Mandela

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela & Nelson Mandela pictured on the day of his release from prison

In many contexts, wives are tasked with maintaining and propping up the ego of their husbands. To put it simply, the job of “making him feel like a man” is a womxn’s. During Apartheid, the job of holding Nelson Mandela as well as other comrades accountable to the people was Winnie’s.

In the documentary, the liberation leader’s daughter, Zindzi Mandela, comments on her mother’s response to the initial offer of Nelson’s conditional release in the 1980s. Zindzi found her mother’s voice to be consistent throughout the movement. They had all come too far in their fight against oppression to compromise themselves by engaging in premature negotiations with their oppressors.

By the time Mandela came out, the documentary depicts just how insidious the removal of Winnie was. There was nothing natural or organic about Winnie’s ‘sudden’ demise once her ex-husband was released. Nelson Mandela, the liberator and freedom fighter, was delivered to South Africans on Winnie’s back and propped up by her shame.

Now what…

You will feel anger and disappointment towards the men we’ve been conditioned to revere here in South Africa. As a womxn, I felt hopeless, but I am aware now. That is why I needed “Winnie”. The doccie forces viewers to engage with the patriarchy and marginalization of womxn during the struggle. More so, it engages with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s account of events in her own voice, something we have not always been able to enjoy in the wake of questionably produced biopics.

I am ready to see her name appear in full in history books, “Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela”. It is time we pay attention to the womxn that should have been our first Madame President. It is time for Winnie.

Watch the trailer for “Winnie” below.

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