Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 20, 2012

The Cry of Winnie Mandela (2003), by Njabulo Ndebele

Everybody knows the story of Winnie Mandela, venerated as the stoic wife of the world’s secular saint Nelson Mandela while he languished in prison on Robben Island under the South African apartheid regime, only to be vilified as a wicked woman in the last few years before his release.

This remarkable book, The Cry of Winnie Mandela, A Novel uses the story of Penelope from Greek myth, to analyse the untenable position of women whose husbands are absent for long periods of time.  It’s written from a post-colonial and feminist view of the world, and it draws on all kinds of postmodern flourishes:

  • It’s faction, blending fact and fiction and using real living people;
  • It plays with intertextuality because while the references to Homer absorb the myth, it also will change the way you read the Penelope story (unless you’ve already read Margaret Atwood’s playful feminist reworking of it in The Penelopiad).  It also alludes to a famous story called The Suit by Can Themba (1924–1968), a banned South African short story writer who fled to Swaziland and wrote about the frustrations of  tertiary-educated urban black people.  That story focuses on the extreme punishment meted out to an unfaithful wife.
  • It’s a pastiche, beginning on the very first page with ‘a blurb from an imaginary book about a South African woman during the long years of struggle against apartheid’.  A blurb within the pages of a book: I haven’t seen this before.  Here it is:

So what does a woman do in the absence of her husband, who is in jail, in the mines, in exile, or is dead, or away studying, or spends most on the road as a salesman, or who, while not having gone awywhere in particular, is never at home because he just busy fooling around? This woman has seen all kinds of departures, has endured the uncertainties of waiting, and has hoped for the return of her man.  Departure, waiting and return; they define her experience of the past, present and future.  They frame her life at the centre of a great South African story not yet told.
This book tells the stories of four unknown women, and that of South Africa’s most famous woman, who waited. (p1)


Although the narrator uses a confiding, almost chatty tone, Part One doesn’t seem like a novel.  In the chapter entitled Penelope’s Descendants, Ndebele introduces four women whose husbands are absent for different reasons.  Each of these women illustrates the invidious position of the woman who waits, a situation that arose during the transition to a modern economy in the colonial era and persisted under apartheid. African men went away to work for prolonged periods of time in the mines of the Kimberly and the factories of Johannesburg, seeing almost nothing of their families.  In the apartheid era,  these cruel separations grew worse: activists against the regime could be, as Mandela was, in indefinite detention, or they had to flee into exile to evade the security forces.

Like Penelope waiting for Odysseus, the women waiting at home in South Africa are expected to be faithful, to fend off aspiring suitors, and to remain hopeful.  They dare not articulate any fear that the longed-for return is beginning to be dreaded, that the man may be different, or that the woman who has somehow made a new life of her own is no longer captive to the memory of passion long ago.  Any transgression is harshly judged, as we see in The Odyssey when Penelope is wrongly thought to have capitulated after 18 years.   What’s more, an unfaithful woman is never trusted by her new man, who fears she will be unfaithful again …

Each of the Four Descendants of Penelope tells her story:

  • ‘Mannete Mofolo’s husband goes away to work in the mines, becomes urbanised, and never comes home because he’s taken up with a new wife and family. ‘Mannete breaks the Law of Waiting and goes to look for him. But she never finds him, and doesn’t know whether he is dead or alive.
  • Delisiwe Dulcie S’khososana, a domestic science teacher, fired by the ambition that her husband will be the first Black doctor in her township, sacrifices everything for years and years while her husband studies in the UK, only to become pregnant by another man in a moment of weakness.  She  is rejected by her husband on his belated return, some years after others have achieved the goal of becoming black doctors.
  • Mamello Molette marries her childhood sweetheart who fails to come home one day because – unbeknown to her – he’s an activist and he’s fled into exile.  She cares for his elderly parents until after 10 years absence he returns but is captured and sentenced to 15 years in gaol. When he gets his freedom in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s release, he becomes A Big Noise in the politics of the New South Africa.  But he does not come home.  He rejects Mamello because (he says) she does not understand The Cause and he marries a White woman.  Mamello suffers repeated nervous breakdowns because of all this.
  • Marara Joyce Baloyi remains loyal to a dissolute, philandering husband, even buying him an expensive casket when he died. She’s not sure if she remained faithful because she feared the humiliation meted out to an unfaithful wife in Can Themba’s short story The Suit or it’s just that she can’t easily find a lover. But she knows that if she remarries, the local gossips will regard that as proof that she was always having affairs anyway.

These four women form an ibandla, a group or a gathering, and one of them suggests a game.  Each one is allowed to ask Winnie Mandela a question, and because this is a book not real life, the rules of realistic time and space don’t apply and yes, Winnie joins them.

  • Why, asks Deli, did Winnie allow her jealous rantings to make a spectacle of her in the press? Men are moral opportunists, but she is the betrayer of the ideal of female fidelity and moral decency expected of the ‘Mother of the Nation’.  Has she mellowed now?
  • Mamello wants to know if she has succumbed to the Quesalid Effect? Was she corrupted through becoming an insider?  Did the torture inflicted by Major Theunis Swanepol affect her psyche?
  • Mara ponders the violence that erupted in the wake of Nelson Mandela’a release.  Winnie’s dream was everyone’s dream, and they were the power couple – what went wrong?
  • ‘Mannete judges Winnie, as so many others have.  She tells Winnie that she ‘gave away’ her moment of return and the gesture of reconciliation.

Winnie’s narrative style in her reply is different to the tone of the Four Descendants.  To quote Kinna, from Kinna Reads:

It is logical, but also such a delight, when Winnie Mandela addressed the ibandla.  …  She is eloquent, bold, sassy, compelling, charismatic, vulnerable and sneaky. She creates an alter-ego to speak when she feels that the issues hit too close to home. She literally takes the ibandla on a journey on the highways of South Africa to the landmarks of her life. She talks about her imprisonment, torture, state raids on her home and banishment to Brandfort. She describes the days leading up to Nelson’s release as the most difficult part of her waiting. The hearings at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were her “hell and heaven”. Ndebele holds nothing back in his portrayal of Winnie and makes no apologies nor tries to explain away the atrocities that Winnie has committed.

She is different to them anyway because her waiting is over, but she is also different because she refuses to play the role assigned by society.  She will not be what other people need her to be.  She has been shaped by Nelson’s commitment to a great cause and like him, wonders if it was enough to justify leaving her.   She denied culpability at the Truth and Justice Reconciliation Commission because she won’t take responsibility for things that have multiple causes.

In the concluding chapter they are joined by Penelope.  She is travelling the world to spread the message that the ‘burden of unconditional fidelity should be lifted from the shoulders of women’. (p. 145)

This is a strong, purposeful book that asks difficult questions.  Its unconventional structure and style won’t please everyone, and it won’t please those who have judged Winnie Mandela and found her wanting.  But I found it an exciting book which made me think about South African politics and society differently.  I am grateful to Kinna from Kinna Reads for reviewing and recommending it.

Update 3/4/18 The media is today reporting the death of Winnie Madikizela Mandela and amongst the tributes there is an opportunity at the Johannesburg Review of Books to read from her memoir 491 Days Prisoner Number 132369.  Her recount of the conditions of solitary confinement are appalling, and then there is this:

When I was in detention for all those months, my two children nearly died. When I came out they were so lean; they had had such a hard time. They were covered in sores, malnutrition sores. And they wonder why I am like I am. And they have a nerve to say, ‘Oh Madiba is such a peaceful person, you know. We wonder how he had such a wife who is so violent?’ The leadership on Robben Island was never touched; the leadership on Robben Island had no idea what it was like to engage the enemy physically. The leadership was removed and cushioned behind prison walls; they had their three meals a day. In fact, ironically, we must thank the authorities for keeping our leadership alive; they were not tortured. They did not know what we were talking about and when we were reported to be so violent, engaged in the physical struggle, fighting the Boers underground, they did not understand because none of them had ever been subjected to that, not even Madiba himself—they never touched him, they would not have dared.

I have wondered before about what it must have been like to be married to a secular saint…

Author: Njabulo Ndebele
Title: The Cry of Winnie Mandela
Publisher: Ayebia Clarke Publishing UK, 2003
ISBN: 9780954702304
Source: Personal library


Fishpond: The Cry of Winnie Mandela 


  1. very interesting idea ,she is some one that has drifted from saintly to vilified in the public eyes ,I feel a straight bio would be great but like concept of this linking it to myth but wary of the line between fact and fiction ,all the best stu


    • Hi Stu, I think there is a bio of Winnie Mandela and yes, I’d like to read it too. But I think the purpose of this is something quite different: in fact I think the author is deliberately avoiding making judgements about what she did. He does quote the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calling her a liar, but that’s not quite the same thing.
      It’s interesting to me that she has been elected to the SA parliament, so obviously there are many people who support her, whatever the allegations.


  2. A wonderful review, Lisa and a definite must-read for me. Thanks for sharing


    • Hi, thanks for dropping by!
      It had been too long since I’d read a book from Africa!


  3. I remember Winnie Mandela well – from those violent times during apartheid in South africa, when time Nelson was in prison. Winnie was something of a guerrilla fighter, who led a bunch of wild young blacks. She was no shrinking violet, and was supposed to have murdered one young activist who wouldn’t tow the line – her line, and was reputed to have been unfaithful to Nelson. However, considering the times, when brutality and murder by both sides was rampant, she was a remarkable figure.

    Thanks Lisa for such an excellent review.


    • Thanks, Ken. Re your query about moderation (which I haven’t published) please remember that I am at work all day and don’t get home to moderate comments until evening or later).


      • Hi Lisa,
        I assumed it must be automatic and my piece would not appear – but it did, I’m glad to say.


  4. What a lovely review, if I may, Lisa Hill! I want to read this book! (The author)


    • Hello! how lovely to meet the author this way:)
      I loved this book: it made me think about so many things in different ways and bringing it all together with myth is a stroke of genius. I hope to read more of your work one day:)
      Thank you for dropping by!


  5. […] If you hold an opinion about Winnie Mandela and you’re not afraid to have your assumptions challenged, I recommend reading this book, alongside The Cry of Winnie Mandela, by Njabulo Ndebele. […]


  6. […] Everyone knows Winnie, and everyone has an opinion about her, usually a negative one.  But because I’d read The Cry of Winnie Mandela by Njabulo Ndebele (2003), which is about the impossible position of so […]


  7. […] you’re not afraid to have your assumptions challenged, I recommend reading this book, alongside The Cry of Winnie Mandela, a novel, by Njabulo Ndebele. This novel tells the story of four descendants of Penelope in Homer’s Ulysses who share the […]


  8. […] you’re not afraid to have your assumptions challenged, I recommend reading this book, alongside The Cry of Winnie Mandela, a novel, by Njabulo Ndebele. This novel tells the story of four descendants of Penelope in Homer’s Ulysses who share the […]


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