Devi Rajab’s earlier impression of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has undergone some serious transformation.
Durban - I had never been in a room with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela before, let alone shared a platform with her. Yet I had clear opinions of her, as in fact many of us do.
She is a household name, pretty much like margarine with its dubious claims of being both good and bad for us. I found her more like pure butter though as I lapped up every word that she uttered.
My earlier impression of her underwent some serious transformation. We were sharing a platform in a pan-African storytelling evening at the women’s prison in Constitution Hill. The project, Behind the Faces, is the brainchild of Pippa Hetherington and Kim Chaloner. Through storytelling they aim to honour African women promoting gender equality and empowering women in line with the 2015 Millennium Development goals critical to Africa.
I was telling the story of Velliamma Munusamy Mudaliar, a child activist who marched with her mother and other women from Natal to the Transvaal in defiance of the racist laws of the pre-apartheid white government led by General Jan Smuts. She was arrested in Volksrust and jailed for three months with hard labour and died of an illness contracted during her imprisonment. The story had relevance because it happened exactly 100 years ago in November 1913.
Madikizela-Mandela, in telling her own story based on the diary she kept while in prison for 491 days, acknowledged several times the fact that the Struggle started a long time before her imprisonment and that it still has not ended. The story of Velliamma astounded her and it seemed that it resonated deeply within her orbit of personal justice.
But it also raised the issue of separate realities where ignorance of each others’ histories either makes us invisible or compartmentalises us as “we and them”.
The “them” we choose not to know about outside of a stereotype. Crudely put, the whites are all oppressors, the blacks are all victims and the Indians are all Guptas. This is why this project of storytelling is such a vital one as it transcends boundaries that separate a people and urges them to reclaim their complete histories. Africa belongs to all her people, who have trampled, nested or sculptured her shores and from whose bosom Homo sapiens are believed to have originated.
What challenges us is a new generation of slogan-churning youth who do not know their true history.
“We must never forget our past urges,” Madikizela-Mandela. “It is what roots us and reminds us that what happened to us as a people must never happen again.”
In a moving dialogue between grandmother and granddaughter, she tells of the pain of having to leave her children behind when she was imprisoned and of the humiliation of being regarded as subhuman.
“They could not feel the pain of a mother separated from her children, neither did they care about our children.” In the Constitutional Court adjacent to the women’s jail hangs a blue dress designed by Judith Mason, an artist, as a symbolic gift to Phila Ndwande who was stripped naked and shot dead by apartheid’s security police for not speaking up against her comrades.
In the end she made panties out of a plastic bag to cover herself as her final act of self-defence. Oppression knows no boundaries.
My mind went back to the Vietnam War and the case of Lieutenant William Calley and his men who had shot dead hundreds of innocent Vietnamese women and children, but at his trial he could not relate to the inhumanity of his acts.
For him the Vietcong were not human beings. The process of dehumanisation is embedded in the human psyche in tragic conditions of racial, religious or ethnic hatred. (The Nazis, Israel and Palestine come quickly to the fore).
This is what Madikizela-Mandela was trying to remind us of. To the question raised by a young woman seeking advice from her about the future of our country, she replied that fighting apartheid was, in many respects, easier.
“We knew who our enemies were and they were in Pretoria. So we marched and toyi-toyied and were united against apartheid. Now our enemy is our very own compatriots who are corrupt and uninterested in the poor. We have come to realise that transformation isn’t as easy as we thought it would be and this is why it is important for us to develop partnerships with the captains of industry.”
She ended on a chilling note of warning to the ANC that if they are not worthy of good governance, Mandela himself had said that the people should rise against them and hold them accountable in the same manner and vigour as we fought against the apartheid regime. Surely it is the people of South Africa that are greater than an organisation or its leaders in a defunct state.
I had a sense that she was speaking to all the colours of the rainbow. It is our story after all.
*Dr Devi Rajab is a psychologist, academic and author.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.