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