‘Black women cannot breathe’ – Naledi Chirwa
These were the words uttered by a fierce activist Naledi Chirwa as she paid tribute to Mama Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikezela-Mandela at a memorial service held at the Constitutional Hill by the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Thinking about these words made me realise that indeed black women have not been given a chance to breathe, to be free, and to exercise their rights like their male counterparts without a certain cloud hanging over their head. Mama Nomzamo affectionately known as Winnie was not given a chance to breathe, not during the apartheid years and not even in post democratic South Africa. You would expect that a woman who gave up her life, her kids to fight the greatest and cruellest injustices meted out by the apartheid regime would finally get a chance to breathe in a liberated South Africa.
Who is Mama Winnie Madikezela Mandela to me, Palesa Motshoene? She is my hero; she is a role model, a picture of strength, of a unifier, of humility, of fearlessness, of courage, of a leader, of a mother, not just any mother but a mother of the nation. She is a woman who has managed to stand tall despite her vilification by some sections of society. She is a woman who has managed to stand by her actions despite how she has been treated by some sections of society. She is a woman, whom every black woman should look up to for resilience, tenacity and the ability to remain steadfast during times of trials and tribulations.
Mama Winnie was a Queen, a fashionable, stylish Queen, whether she wore a doek, or a wig, with make-up or not, she remained a queen. Her beauty was breathtaking. Mama never judged women on what they wore, on how they looked and what they did. She was a greatest supporter of women and wanted the best for the women of South Africa. She believed they deserved better, more recognition of the work they did. I’m reminded by her heart wrenching interview with Ms. Felicia Mabuza-Suttle several years ago, were she spoke about how struggle female veterans were never honoured or given proper recognition. The likes of Mama Lillian Ngoyi, Mama Florence Mphosho, Mama Helen Joseph, Mama Florence Motamela, Mama Miriam Sotinda and many others. She spoke about how they were never acknowledged with accolades. She was concerned about how these struggle heroines were unknown to the younger generations about how they gave up their lives for the liberation of this country. I share her sentiments, South African women have gone through the most but are the most phenomenal women I have come across. Mama Winnie is that perfect imperfect embodiment of a picture of that South African woman.
She suffered immensely but she never sold out. She was separated from her husband, so early in her marriage after Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, which left her as a single black woman, raising her children on her own under a brutalized system of government which was against blacks.
“You are imprisoned in this little cell. When you stretch your hands you touch the walls. You are reduced to a nobody, a non-value. It is like killing you alive. You are alive because you breathe. You are deprived of everything – your dignity, your everything.” she wrote in her journal describing her 491 days imprisonment. She was humiliated by the apartheid police who incarcerated her, at some point she mentions that she was interrogated for a straight 7 days and 7 nights until she urinated blood, this incarceration separated her once again from her children but there couldn’t have been a painful punishment like the one of her banishment to Brandfort in the Free State. She spoke of not knowing what it felt like to be in marriage, how it felt to be a mother who took her kids to school, made them lunch and helped with their homework. Yet this is the same woman that some sections of society continued to label, to insult with all sorts of name powered by the disingenuous South African media in the quest to re-write her legacy.
Mama Nomzamo had an opportunity after her banishment to leave the country but she didn’t, she chose to stay in South Africa and despite her banishment to house number 802, in ‘Phatakahle’, she continued to fight for the liberation of the South African people. She opted to stay in Phatakahle and even though had cut a lonely figure she had a lot of time to embark in humanitarian work by initiating feeding schemes for children, she opened up a clinic and crèche for the community of Brandfort. In as much as the apartheid regime wanted to break her, her spirit remained unbreakable.
Now this is what I know of Mama Winnie, this is the legacy of Mama Winnie I know and no one dare tell me otherwise. Listen this is what they don’t want us to know as they go on and attempt to re-write her history, her legacy. Remember we live in a patriarchal society that always has women on the back foot, regardless of how much they continue to prove that they are worthy and deserve the same respect as men. Mama Winnie was an anti-apartheid revolutionary activist; she was a humanitarian, a feminist, a gallant fighter of the liberation of South Africa, even in post-democratic South Africa. She proved time and time again that she was worthy and fought a better fight then many men at the time.
I’m saddened by her passing, it’s been hard to accept her passing as you expect someone like Mama Winnie to live on forever, very strange huh…I relate to her as a young woman who also has to constantly prove that she is worthy in society that constantly celebrates men. I end of this tribute; by making a compassionate plea to the government of South Africa to start making history a compulsory subject, so that every young child will know about South African undistorted history, about all our struggle veterans and what they did for South Africa. I also call upon the government to look into the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) sexist policy on hyperandrogenism which is characterised by high testosterone and applies to women who compete in track events between 400 and 1500 metres; this policy could potentially end South Africa’s golden girl Caster Semenya’s career in athletics. I am sure that Mama would have also fought for this; in her honour I pray that we do not forget and that we make sure that her memory FOREVER LIVES ON.
May you rest in Peace Mama, My Queen, my Heroine, Mbokodo, Qhawe lama Qhawe. Women like me will continue with the baton, to be strong, to be courageous, to be unapologetic and always stand up for that which we believe in. Your memory will never be forgotten nor shall it ever be re-written again.
Cde Palesa Motsoene a young woman activist and a member of ANCYL and YCL