There is arguably nobody in South Africa politics that has been more demonised in the media than Mam’ Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, commonly juxtaposed to her morally uncontaminated ex-husband. A documentary on her life and role in South Africa’s liberation struggle is premiering all over the world and won the Sundance Film award for Best Director for a World Cinema Documentary. Jacqueline Tizora reviews the documentary.
‘Winnie’ is probably the most accurate biographical depiction of such a revered figure, an allegory of freedom, Mam’ Winnie Madikizela. It is also probably the first documentary about apartheid that does not pay lip service to Mandela’s pristine image of the ‘good black’ and the standard all black people and leaders are held to.
The majority of the country’s enthusiastic celebration of Mandela Day last month, with no qualms with the legacy he left behind, further illustrates why a documentary on Winnie is more relevant than ever. The film challenges the accepted history of apartheid, and reminds us that Mam’ Winnie deserves her own public holiday given her labour and sacrifices on the frontline of the war against apartheid.
The film’s timeline starts in 1964, the year Mandela was jailed along with other ANC comrades. It is worth emphasising that Mam’ Winnie was politically active long before she met her future husband. At just 19 she worked as medical social worker at Baragwanath Hospital. She rejected a scholarship to further her studies in the United States to take the hospital post, and at such a young age made history as the first Black person to fill that post. She also conducted research in Alexandra township to establish the infant mortality rate in the area, concluding that it was 10 deaths for every 1 000 births. For a relatively small area, this is heartbreaking and directly related to the poor apartheid healthcare system available to black people.
This documentary effortlessly contextualises Mam’ Winnie’s individual struggle as part of the bigger fight against black patriarchy in anti-racism struggles. It’s an issue faced by all womxn and queer activists. This intersection is what many – predominantly male – filmmakers neglect to address, further mansplaining black history and erasing the very same black people who put their bodies on the line to liberate the black men who turned around and oppressed them for years to come.
Black male dominance and sexism in the movement is pervasive in the struggle against racism. It’s an obstacle black womxn like Mam’ Winnie constantly find themselves fighting, all in pursuit of the bigger picture: a life without the physical constraints of a racist societal, physical and mental jail. Liberation movements such as the anti-apartheid movement in a patriarchal society often allow – quoting by bell hooks – “the black man to recover the manhood that had been destroyed by racism, to transform himself from a Negro into a black man.” To assert themselves as such, oppression of their womxn and queer counterparts is the only option.
Male leaders of the movement such as Nelson Mandela often used womxn and took the credit for entire movements. Most of the time, womxn internalised this which prevented them from achieving or even aspiring to be leaders of the movement. Mam’ Winnie was not deterred and taking a backseat was not an option. She continued to work aggressively to achieve her goals, and grew personally and politically within the movement, inspiring the next generation of black womxn and queer activists.
She was a potent symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle. Men knew this all too well, so black men even colluded with white men to actively demote and delegitimise her character. These are men from the same organisation she mothered and kept alive from an idea or dream into a reality, even at her weakest and in exile.
It’s saddening to think that the entire country had been sold yet another lie – as if we had recovered from the fact that the Rainbow Nation was a myth – that Mam’ Winnie was a loose cannon and an unruly ANC member whose underhanded actions flew in the face of the ANC’s manifesto. The documentary shows that men, regardless of race, are capable of realising and acknowledging the potential of a figure like Mam’ Winnie and, instead of harvesting and cultivating it, pull out all the stops to break her down. Knowing how potent she was, they shifted the world’s focus onto Mandela even though he was locked away and safe, whilst they had at Mam’ Winnie. It’s sickening how they torment her, even in post-apartheid South Africa.
Unfortunately, it seems as if it will take Mam’ Winnie becoming an ancestor for people to develop the ‘Wake up factor’ attributed to her mother in the film. The documentary’s most important feat is that it changes South African history as we know it and counters the male-dominated narrative we have been fed for years. The fact that it exists is a feat in itself as many institutions conspired to denigrate her character publicly to the extent that no film would ever chronicle her life.
If this is not enough to compel you to see it, it is worth noting that the documentary also pays ode to Mam’ Winnie’s fashion sense. Mam’ Winnie had 99 problems but looking shabby was not one of them; it’s breathtaking how drop-dead gorgeous she looked fighting white supremacy and patriarchy.
Pascale Lamche’s documentary will not be released in any cinemas, due to the film’s extensive use of rare archival footage. The biggest obstacle to the film’s mainstream circulation is reserving the rights to the archive footage, so screening of the film is confined to film festivals in South Africa. Dismal news, as this is easily one of the most important films about the one of the most important apartheid heroes. Nevertheless, if you have the opportunity to see it, do not think twice.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent The Daily Vox’s editorial policy.
*The term “womxn” is used intentionally to be inclusive of all femme identifying bodies, not just cisgendered women.
Jacqueline Tizora is a reader and writer