"Rarely can there have been someone who was called to greatness,” read one obituary I woke up to in London on April 3, “and yet failed that calling so decisively as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.”
Obituaries are filed by the media and dusted off at a moment’s notice in the event of sudden requirements. This was co-written by a man who died in 2016. “In Harlem, they call her ‘the Queen of Africa’, in South Africa ‘The Mother of the Nation’,” he wrote, “but she was neither, her reputation mired in murder and fraud.”
I thought of the screenings I’ve presented of the film Winnie, in Harlem and London and so many other towns and cities around the world, and the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Winnie’s story and then my thoughts returned to the smug, complacent condemnation of her life’s work, so entrenched in the world’s media.
Was I going to have to travel the world, engaging all who would come, look and listen, while others wielded the powers of a simple, damning obituary to define Winnie’s legacy?
To mark the sad and dignified passing of Mama Winnie, the international media treated us to earlier writings, a palimpsest of the half-baked and the entrenched, layered with old fake news.
Rushed journalists unwittingly fed from the same pool of the oft-repeated and vintage rumour that echoed with the comforting ring of “common knowledge”.
Every headline sought some kind of safety in the questionable notion of “balance”: let us credit her for the love she inspired but remind our readers, our viewers, that of course, this lady went bad. Worse still, had she not been a menace, stirring conflict in a society undergoing a miraculous transition under the stewardship of rather saintly men?
I wasn’t the only one affronted by these intransigent, seemingly immutable narratives, by this cynical branding exercise.
Had no one been listening to security agent Paul Erasmus of the Stratcom unit, in his first declaration to the TRC in 1997, when he admitted “turning out a mass of disinformation and negative propaganda” against her?
He explained that President Mandela was the “obvious target” but that his impeccable integrity made it difficult. His wife, of course, was a different matter.
Erasmus’s concerted efforts relied on “rumours and the media” to smear her with an unending stream of made-up stories relating to drink, drugs, nervous breakdowns and keeping an open bed for numerous and indiscriminate lovers.
I expect that it was difficult to hear those inklings of a deeper and darker reality at work in the heady days of rainbows and miracles. And I wonder, as with all fairy tales, did the story need a Wicked Person to expunge all the violence of the Struggle for freedom?
History is pockmarked with the treatment meted out to women who have gone against the grain: traditional healers, naysayers and activists with minds of their own.
I found myself listening a lot to Charlie Mingus’s brilliant album, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, during the making of the film Winnie. It chimed with what Zindzi Mandela had said to me: “They tried to pitch my parents like the saint and the sinner.”
The movement entitled Of Love, Pain and Passioned Revolt, then Farewell my Beloved, till It’s Freedom Day seemed prescient in 1963, with Madiba in jail, handed over by the CIA, and the struggle of the Rivonia Trial engaged, with Robben Island still ahead. It was on the steps of the court house where Accused Number One, Nelson Mandela, and his comrades had been condemned for life, that in 1964 Winnie first entered the global frame.
Her clear-headed, charismatic, gentle-voiced rebuttals to the loaded questions by the BBC’s Robin Day were a triumph of politics over emotion. She was so young and so brilliant, a “fitting wife” for a great nationalist leader.
Mingus’s complex jazz brought me closer also to my late partner, Peter Makurube, who’d stirred things up in the beginning for me.
He took me to meet Zindzi and encouraged us to talk to one another. “Make that film! Dig deep!” he insisted, “Contextualise.”
Peter was convinced that only a combination of outsider eyes and insider sympathy and the perspective of a woman’s experience could cut through the hoary bough and dense bramble surrounding a sleeping truth.
Many viewers in South Africa will by now have seen or heard of the film we made with the support of the Arts and Culture Department and the National Film and Video Foundation, for which we are deeply thankful. Some will have been at the Encounters premiere last year, which ended with a standing ovation for Mama Winnie.
Having watched the film for the first time, surrounded by a large audience in Johannesburg, she found herself in a state of shock and awed relief, she told me.
She recognised herself in a film for the first time, she said. She had an inkling of what her legacy might become.
I met the former director of Stratcom, Vic McPherson, in his sunlit garden. He sat politely telling me about things like psychological warfare and people being hanged after their trade unions and political organisations had been infiltrated by his black agents - and I marvelled inwardly at what Hannah Arendt had once called “the banality of evil”.
And once our camera was packed safely away, in his enthusiasm to share just how far out of the shadows my interested attention was encouraging him to step, he added a chilling rider: “I was the one who sent Ruth First the letter-bomb,” he said, with a chuckle. “Of course it was meant for her husband.”
All these wives, targeted in lieu of their husbands. All these wives, who had great political agency of their own and paid for it so dearly.
There is much work still to do. So much that didn’t fit into one feature-length film, so much already gathered that I had no space for - wonderful stories by Hotstix Mabuse, Pal Martins and others.
And a clearer explanation of what drove Jerry Richardson, a key informant of the Security Branch in the 1980s, to kill poor Stompie Sepei.
We are planning more. What I hope the existing film shows is that South Africa, in that critical time when the future was being negotiated, would have benefited from the joint visions of Winnie and Nelson Mandela. “She was that wake-up factor,” Zindzi says in the film. Her parents shared a common goal with different perspectives.
They were a real power couple: he a global icon and sage politician, she with her ears and instincts, a little closer to the ground. But it was an idea that many feared at the time, the radical idea that together, in their party, the nation’s fate might be in safe hands.
And if there’s a message in the film it’s this: the notion and reality of “apartheid” was what was in question and at fault in those critical years from 1985-1997 which I explore in the film.
Apartheid. That system which engineered the separating and dividing and dehumanisation of people in the exercise of economic and political power.
And to effectively oppose the long-term, nefarious consequences of apartheid, togetherness was what was needed. Togetherness, in the face of the messiness of transition. Some of that messiness was good: the complexity and diversity of South Africa - and some of it was very damaging: the racial, sexual and economic inequalities that disfigure our world.
I hope that the joint legacy of Winnie and Nelson Mandela will be a constant reminder to all of the core principles of the Freedom Charter of 1955, a progressive charter for social justice and greater equality, in a nation damaged by a long history guided by a quite different moral compass.
* Pascale Lamche is the director of the documentary Winnie.