Amid the millions of warm words paid in tribute to Nelson Mandela after his death last month, notably absent was praise for his former wife, Winnie. Her role was at best portrayed as an appendage to the great man; at worst, a harmful and evil influence on the liberation struggle. Thankfully, this oversight will begin to be addressed this weekend, with her crucial role in the fight for freedom acknowledged in Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which is released today.
- Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
- Production year: 2013
- Country: Rest of the world
- Cert (UK): 12A
- Runtime: 146 mins
- Directors: Justin Chadwick
- Cast: Deon Lotz, Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto
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The fact is that, for South African women, Winnie’s role was more fundamental than her husband’s. Though the world’s leading opinion formers have been all too keen to demonise her, Chadwick’s film is a reminder that Winnie, with the help of her daughter Zindzi, was largely responsible for perpetuating Nelson’s image as the embodiment of the liberation struggle.
More importantly, the Mother of the Nation suffered, not only because of Nelson’s incarceration, but also through her own constant arrests and torture. Despite the cowardly, misogynistic regime’s torment of a single mother and her daughters, Winnie remained strong and resilient in her defiance. The film is clear about this.
In one scene, Winnie, played by British actor Naomie Harris, is being wrenched from her children in the middle of the night (the police always came at night). “Take your hands off my children!” she shouts repeatedly. As her new life begins to unfold, of a wife without a husband and of constant police harassment and violence, Winnie uses any means at her disposal to show her defiance, even during her imprisonment. “I piss on you,” an exhausted and emaciated Winnie hisses at one of her jailers. He looks down and, indeed, she has made a puddle on the floor near his boots. Unlike Nelson, Winnie had no desire to be acknowledged by a sadistic oppressor.
While he prevaricated, she remained solid. And South Africans appreciated her stance. The Mandelas were, of course, the perfect couple that all of us, the young future wives and husbands, aspired to be: visibly in love, sharing the same political beliefs and willing to stand tall and united in their fight for a fair South Africa.
When Winnie and Nelson’s marriage collapsed, South African women felt betrayed. A big argument took place between men and women who were suddenly on opposite sides. Mandela’s concept of a “rainbow nation” started to crack and expose the abyss whence it came. How could we be expected to truly reconcile with and forgive the people who had murdered and destroyed our families when the great man himself could not reconcile with and forgive our Great Mother – the woman without whose efforts and sacrifices his memory would have been long lost, together with the names of countless others who had spent those years on Robben Island? When she faced criminal charges for the killing of Stompie Moeketsi, the women were gobsmacked.
Our hearts bled for Stompie and his mother, and recognised the brutality of his killing. But we understood that the system she was fighting against was brutal and brutalising. Where was the reconciliation that had been so freely offered to Europeans, for Mama Winnie? After all she had been through, could Nelson and the ANC really not be reconciled to the fact that she had been fighting a war “by any means necessary”?
At that time I was newly wed and newly returned to South Africa. I was dismayed to find that my husband could not see how ominous it was for our new democracy (and our new marriage) that this golden couple could not stay together. All of us women had been looking forward with pride to Winnie being our first-ever first lady, long before Michelle. We felt cheated. Mama Winnie had worked so hard and suffered so much for our so-called democracy, yet she had to suffer further humiliation with her husband at the helm.
In his autobiography, published in 1995, Mandela tried to explain his decision to defy his ANC comrades who were with him on Robben Island, and accept the upgrade to solitary house arrest where he was to be visited by National party government representatives. This revelation shocked me and left me with the sour taste of Nelson forgetting the all-for-one and one-for-all principle that had given him the right to represent us all in South Africa. The film does not flinch from the moment when Mandela showed his tendency to autocracy by demanding that we forgive the oppressor because he had done so.
Nelson’s betrayal of Winnie together with the majority of South Africans when he chose to toe a new pro-capitalist ANC party line, gave licence to South African men to slide towards autocracy in their personal relationships and bully us women seemingly for ever. My country has the highest rate of violence against women in the world. The South African Institute of Security Studies reports that between one woman in four and one in six is in an abusive relationship, a woman is killed by her partnerevery six days, and an average of 80% of rural women are victims of domestic violence. And on it goes, without much sign of hope for future generations.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom shows the result of the apartheid experiment; it shows that the policy of separation was not just about keeping Africans apart from Europeans, but also about separating African husbands from their wives. The African family, which seems a myth my mother told me about, was destroyed to such an extent that we are surprised when we find African couples celebrating golden anniversaries. Perhaps if Winnie and Nelson had stayed together things would be different.
The film ends as it began with Mandela’s voiceover: “I still dream the same dream.” Why the same dream? Perhaps Nelson is being haunted by the spectre of Uhuru (freedom) that his rainbow nation has compromised, but which thankfully Mama Winnie still passionately believes in. It is the dream that many South Africans still wish for our country.
By Gugulethu okaMseleku | Published in The Guardian on January 3, 2014