Books paint contrasting pictures of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

South African liberation struggle icon Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. EPA-EFE/Jon Hrusha

Writings on South African liberation struggle icon Winnie Mandela almost all fall into one of two categories – either hagiography or demonology. These two books - Truth, Lies and Alibis. A Winnie Mandela Story, by Fred Bridgland and Sisonke Msimang’s The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela. A Biography of Survival, try to be more nuanced.

Bridgland was a correspondent for Britain’s leading right-wing newspaper, the Daily Telegraph. For years, he dispatched empathetic reports on an anti-communist hero of the cold war, Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA movement, which were at war with Angola’s ruling MPLA – an ally of the ANC.

Readers might take it for granted that anything he writes would be hostile to the ANC. So Bridgland makes a point of prefacing his book on Winnie Mandela by first placing on record that Savimbi became paranoiac, and committed massacres of entire families of his leading officials. Bridgland is currently writing up these atrocities; in effect he attempts to so show his even-handedness.

Sisonke Msimang, author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home, has also written articles for the New York Times, the Guardian, and Al Jazeera. She writes near the start of her biography: “I will not pretend otherwise: I am interested in redeeming Ma Winnie”.

But towards the end, she writes: “It is deeply uncomfortable to acknowledge Winnie’s involvement in Stompie’s death, and in the disappearances of Lolo Sono and Sibuniso Tshabalala, while also holding her up as a hero.

She qualifies her views further:

In a perfect world, her place is not on a pedestal… I am prepared to raise her up in the hopes that, one day, South Africans might ethically and in good conscience take her down.(p.157)

Msimang also writes in her conclusion that she’s even prepared to say give up her admiration for the complicated Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. "I cannot do so, however, without a few conditions … The past must be opened up not just to grief, but to the structural nature of racism.” She means the class exploitation coloured by colonialism and finally apartheid.

This review needs to start with three disclosures. This reviewer is a member of the African National Congress. He is also a friend of the Horst Kleinschmidt mentioned in Bridgland’s book. And he has, in the company of others, briefly met Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Zindi Mandela, and Nelson Mandela.

Double standards

The issues these two biographies raise, of liberators’ wartime actions, are not unique to South Africa. For example, post-WW2 readers, with their knowledge of the holocaust of six million Jews and three million Christian Poles, also have to debate Bomber Harris’ saturation bombing of German residential downtown areas and suburbs.

In chapter two Bridgland summarises the South African police’s Special Branch’s persecution of her. The remaining 27 chapters and epilogue summarise Madikizela-Mandela’s persecution of others. The overwhelming majority of facts in his book were published two decades ago - and never refuted.

His book also flags the issue of those who lobbied the then Chief Justice Corbett about Winnie’s pending trial. This included the then Minister of Justice, Kobie Coetsee, the then head of the National Intelligence Service Neil Barnard, and the then British ambassador Robin Renwick. He evidently didn’t rebuke any of them.

Msimang’s most persuasive arguments are when she points out the sexist double-standards in much of the condemnation of Zanyiwe Madikizela, better known as Winnie Mandela. She emphasises that it’s strange to perceive Winnie’s actions as motivated by psychiatric reasons rather than political.

She highlights that Winnie was not a radical outlier, but that during 1985-86 many ANC leaders and Radio Freedom, the then banned ANC’s underground radio station, made similar statements about insurrection, killing informers, and necklaces:

Winnie was not the only ANC leader who traded in recklessness and fiery rhetoric. But she was the only woman who was visibly doing so. (p.13)

Msimang also points out that Harry Gwala and other ANC warlords were committing in substance the same actions as Winnie Mandela, but with far less condemnation.

The same double-standards also apply to men and women political leaders having adulterous affairs:

If the roles had been reversed and you had been imprisoned, things would have been very different. Nelson would have remarried and you would have languished forgotten on the island, and it would have been no reflection on him. Men have needs. Women sacrifice.

Unsurprisingly, two such contrasting biographies also differ over the facts. Bridgland writes that the two hit men who assassinated Dr. Abu-Baker Asvat - the Black consciousness exponent and doctor who tended to Stompie after his brutally assault to which Madikizela-Mandela was part - gave statements that Winnie Mandela had offered them R20 000 to kill him. Msimang writes that these were merely “rumours” and “No link has ever been established between Dr. Asvat’s death and Winnie Mandela.”

As this review goes to press, the ANC has posthumously awarded Winnie Mandela its highest honour, the Isithwalandwe.

The controversy continues in death as in life.