i am winnie mandela! unapologetic and unbossed

April 2, 2019
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What would Winnie do?

I imagine you already know exactly which Winnie I’m speaking of. That I don’t have to lay out the various scenarios in our complicated lives that would lead me — a woman, immigrant, and Black to ask myself this question or to have to conjure her up. I imagine you know that when we speak of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (born Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela), we speak of courage. Undiluted. Unapologetic. Unwavering. And dare I say, unbossed.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, former wife of Former South African President Nelson Mandela dressed in Xhosa tribe garbe attends a gathering of traditional leaders from all over the country in Pretoria on November 5, 2009 at Freedom Park in honour of former President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. The Ndebele people are African tribes located in South Africa and Zimbabwe. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOE (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

There have been times in my life where I’ve had to muster up Winnie’s courage. When I do, I speak her name. She is not alone in my roll call, of course. There is also my mother’s name (Nomgcobo), a fellow ANC comrade. There is Nina Simone, Frida Kahlo, Queen Nzinga, and many more. But Winnie occupies a more vivid part of my imagination. Perhaps because her life has been meticulously documented in ways we’ve rarely seen of a South African woman, besides Miriam Makeba. There are books, documentaries, films, even government propaganda and surveillance. The apartheid state and white media around the world held an obsessive gaze on Winnie and kept it there for years, because she was defiant and dared to say “No, I won’t!”

I grew up surrounded by fiery women like Winnie. Outspoken, determined, self-assured women who spoke truth to their power, with their mother tongues (from isiXhosa to Sesotho), through their organizing, their activism, and often, with amatye (stones) neatly tucked in pinafores, ready to be thrown at police vans. In Winnie’s case, she used that spirit to stand up to the South African government. As a child growing up in the Eastern Cape (then called Transkei) during apartheid, I remember hearing stories of mam’ Winnie. Like my own mother, Winnie began her professional life as a nurse – it’s what upwardly mobile South African women did. That, or become a teacher. I imagine, like my mother, she too had been sold the “dream” of a “normal” life — that of a wife, living in her segregated township, teaching at segregated schools, nursing at Whites-only hospitals, bathing at segregated beaches, all while raising her Black children against the backdrop of a racist, morally bankrupt system. But something awakened inside her along the way. For Winnie, it was the arrest of her husband, Nelson Mandela, in 1962. For my mother and so many more, it would be the Soweto Uprising in 1976.

S. African ANC ldr. Nelson Mandela standing w. wife Winnie. (Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Winnie’s awakening never ceased, and because of that fire inside of her, she would never back down. While resisting her husband’s imprisonment, Winnie found her own voice. She created a legacy, independent of her identity as a wife. “The harder they try to silence him, the louder I will become!” she once declared.

Winnie was not without her flaws. Her history is complicated. It is at times violent. It is quintessentially South African. And though she was a mythical figure to some, to many South African women, she is home. In her, we saw something familiar: isibindi (gall). We saw our freedom fighter mothers, aunties, and grannies. Winnie was a general from afar. By the time of her death, she had commandeered the imaginations of generations of African women to come. We will be chanting “I Am Winnie Mandela!” for years to come. As we reflect a year after her passing, I choose to remember that, like Harriet and Sojourner, “she did not die; she multiplied!”

So, what would Winnie do? She would muster up the courage. She would conjure up some magic. And she would work up the nerve to stand up for what is right, unapologetically. She would be unbossed.

Winnie Mandela in Traditional Dress (Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)