Remembering Mam’ Winnie a year later

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By Nomali Cele

In 1987, Sathima Bea Benjamin joined a line of women, who would go to characterise Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life and legacy. More than anyone else, women were the first ones to pay their respects and tribute to the work of Madikizela-Mandela, both as a struggle icon and a woman left alone in a hostile world to care for her children. American poet, author and activist Alice Walker followed suit with her poem “Winnie Mandela We Love You”

After the family announced last year that Mam’ uWinnie had passed away, it was once again black women who took up the baton. But our mourning wasn’t given its time as before we knew it, we had to assemble like the Dora Milaje and guard the barracks.

A feeling that was true and constant for me at my big big age of 26 is that I was unprepared to be in a world where Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had died. She was older so I, perhaps should have made peace with the fact that it was coming. But she wasn’t just a name in a history book (the two-to-five pages women get). She was tangible to me, I suppose much like she was to youth of previous generations while Nelson Mandela served a prison sentence and all liberation movements were banned.

She wasn’t just a photograph or a name in abstract to me. I’m 17 years old and a star athlete, a girl like me, has had her win be overshadowed by international bigotry; I switch on the news and Mam’ uWinnie is right there holding Caster Semenya.

In 2015, I watched my Twitter timeline helplessly as #FeesMustFall organisers and ordinary students documented the brutality they were facing at univeristies for demanding an accessible education. My mind didn’t go to the president at the time or young leaders who could surely relate. My minde went to her. I wondered where she was and whether she would be sharing her message of support and solidarity with the students.

Of all the leaders, former and current parliamentarians, she had been the one most outspoken about the inequality in this country. Surely she would understand what the students were fighting for; surely she would call out the brutal retaliation that was happening everywhere from campuses to the parliament precinct.

Leaving Orlando Stadium on Saturday, 14 April 2019, the streets soaked from rain and with traffic in every direction I looked, while I made up and unmade my mind about how exactly I would commute home, I saw men running on the street expertly avoiding the puddles on the road singing “uWinnie is my commander!” And it was comforting, as comforting as it was to see the Women’s league sitting side-by-side with Omama Bomanyano.

In a 2015 essay on Africa is a Country, Joy Shan writes, “the story of South Africa’s liberation struggle tells the story of the black man. Black women fought for freedom, but they could only move, speak, and act within the patriarchal culture upheld by most resistance groups.

“As a woman, she was expected to wait for the men to bring liberation. But in their absence, Madikizela-Mandela acted as the driving force of the banned ANC—defiant, outspoken, and courageous. Her own party tried to cast her as a domestic trope (a “wife of-”, the “mother of the nation”), but Madikizela-Mandela chose to lead in her own right.”

As Beyoncé would say, young black women got in formation during and after the mourning period after Madikizela-Mandela’s passing last year. Not only was the mandate not to let her legacy and contributions be erased, misconstrued or misremembered; but many were invested in remembering her in her fullness. Many of us sharing our memories as captured by a Peter Magubane or Alf Kumalo photograph.  Others were fortunate enough to have had memories made up of pictures their own minds had taken because, for one brief moment, she stopped her world, stood next to them and shook their hands.

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Afropotina women in all black and their doeks in memory of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

In March of 2019, the motion to rename the international airport in Cape Town to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela went to parliament and there were objection. In a familiar jab that followed Madikizela-Mandela in life, MP Dikeledi Magadzi raised her objection to the renaming of the airport afterMadikizela-Mandela because, an instotution as big and important as that airport had to be named after a liberator that was “tried and tested” and they have to have “substance and virtue in the country”. All respectability politics, really. Something for which Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela was always too honest, too black, too big-hearted and too woman.

Remembering Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and elevating her contributions to their rightful place has been the task and joy of other black women for decades. And it’s the least we can do.

For more memories of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, click here.

Featured art by Mmabatho Montsho

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