Read Women Write 2014/15: Book 20: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: 491 Days.

Winnie Mandela, prison, journal

Ever since reading Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull in 2012 I have had a strange fascination with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. As an aside,Country of My Skull touched me very deeply. I recall sitting at my desk one afternoon, head literally on the book, and sobbing because of its powerful depiction of the TRC hearings. I am not yet brave enough to read it again, and so won’t be reviewing it for this project. But if you would like to learn about this process then I highly recommend it.

Growing up, Madikizela-Mandela was someone whose narrative was overshadowed, for me, by Nelson Mandela’s and so it was only much later in life that I began to read about her, and the important role she had to play in South Africa’s history. Thanks to the patriarchy for that.

Apology is something I have been fascinated with since I took a course on violence at Rhodes in 2006. The idea that you can harm someone, and then use a few words or gestures to show them that you in some way take back what you have done seemed to me to be inherently problematic. Perhaps I am just unforgiving, or perhaps I know from personal experience that the connections between apology and forgiveness are more tenuous than we often allow them to be. From this instability of connection emerges the option of forgiveness without apology or apology that doesn’t quite achieve forgiveness. It was in this framework that I began to engage with Madikizela-Mandela for the first time.

In Country of My Skull I learned about Madikizela-Mandela’s contribution to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and her implication in the abduction and murder of children. I became obsessed with her time at the TRC, watched all of the footage on youtube, and spent a great deal of time mulling over the issue. I must be honest and say that my heart hardened in some way to a woman who could not allow a mother the chance to grieve properly.

In 2013, I went to watch Long Walk to Freedom. I had only read the first part of the book, but obviously knew the story, and was interested to see the depiction of my country’s history. This movie shook my hardened heart.

Of course, I do not support violence in any form and it is well documented that the Mandela United Football Club was involved in extreme violence. But, she was there, holding it together, at the front lines, and she didn’t have the option of thinking about peace. But, the movie meant I considered for the first time how frustrating it must have been for Madikizela-Mandela to have been left to hold the fort at home, to have been whipped away at night without any idea where your children would end up, imprisoned in solitary confinement, and then to have an estranged husband emerge after such a long time and be expected to give up control of things to him, or to change the way things had been done.

As a feminist, this expectation that he would automatically know best really pissed me off. I felt such rage for her at what must have felt like a betrayal, to have been doing what she thought best and to be chastised for it. I began to rethink my treatment of her.

And so, with this background I bought 491 Days, from a bookseller on Church Street, with the intention of giving her some mental airplay. The book details her time in solitary confinement through history, letters, and a foreword and afterword.I was surprised to find that in the prologue of the text Madikizela-Mandela expresses doubts about the current political administration. Yet again this was a reminder to me that history has deprived me of a fair assessment of Madikizela-Mandela, and what we need is more books written about women involved in the struggle, and in other elements of South Africa’s formation.

Two things in particular stuck out for me from 491 Days.

First, that what Madikizela-Mandela and her fellow inmates had to endure was undeniably torture. To be deprived of food, sanitation, medication, and communication is cruel and inhumane. I have no idea what happened to her jailors, but I did not feel forgiving towards them reading this book. I do not feel forgiving towards them now.

Second, and linked to the first point, when you are deprived of communication and correspondence in a climate that is as uncertain and duplicitous as apartheid South Africa was, this must do something to profoundly affect the way you are able to trust. To live a life of constant suspicion and mistrust must be incredibly tiring and painful. To send out letter after letter and be unsure whether it has been received, or a reply has been sent, must be harrowing. To be deprived of hearing from your loved ones is cruel.

It brought home to me how important it is to communicate, to ensure that we are reaching the people we care about. That to be a person who is able to trust, and to have never had that trust come under fire, is an extremely privileged person to be.