Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 1, 2019

The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela (2019), by Sisonke Msimang

We like our heroines to be courageous, but we don’t want them to be messy.

So says Sisonke Msimang in this clear-eyed portrait of Winnie Mandela, who was fêted all over the world as the loyal wife of Nelson Mandela while the South African Apartheid regime treated her brutally, but was shunned worldwide when she became implicated in violence herself.   This is the blurb:

The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela charts the rise and fall—and rise, again—of one of South Africa’s most controversial political figures. ‘Ma Winnie’ fought apartheid with uncommon ferocity, but her implication in kidnapping, torture and killings—including the murder of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei—would later see her shunned.

Sisonke Msimang argues that this complicated woman was not witch but warrior: that her violence, like that of the men she fought alongside, was a function of her political views rather than a descent into madness. In resurrecting Ma Winnie, Msimang asks what it means to reclaim this powerful woman as an icon while honouring apartheid’s victims—those who were collateral damage and whose stories have yet to be told.

Feminism powers this book along, but The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela is more than a book about how female political leaders are perceived and treated differently to their male counterparts.  It’s also about the dilemmas faced by the leadership of any organisation fighting for political freedom.  What strategies should be used, when non-violence has failed? What kind of violence can be justified in an unequal war?  Can we reconcile the violent behaviour of freedom fighters, if they are activists in a just cause? And how do we respond if the violence gets out of hand because the participants have become brutalised and insensitive as a consequence of violence they’ve suffered themselves?

Most of us would prefer that strategies be non-violent, modelled on Gandhi’s campaign in India.  But Nelson Mandela—the man now hailed as a secular saint—co-founded MK:

Umkhonto we Sizwe (meaning “Spear of the Nation”) was the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), co-founded by Nelson Mandela in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre. Its mission was to fight against the South African government. (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove unnecessary links and footnotes)

MK wasn’t just designated a terrorist organisation by South Africa, but also by the US.  Oliver Tambo, another hero of the movement, was directly responsible for guerrilla actions which killed civilians:

Along with his comrades Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, and Walter Sisulu, Tambo directed and facilitated several attacks against the apartheid state. In a 1985 interview, Tambo was quoted as saying, “In the past, we were saying the ANC will not deliberately take innocent life. But now, looking at what is happening in South Africa, it is difficult to say civilians are not going to die.”

The post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997-1998 identified Tambo as the person who gave final approval for the 20 May 1983 Church Street bombing, which resulted in the death of 19 people and injuries to 197-217. The attack was orchestrated by a special operations unit of the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), commanded by Aboobaker Ismail. Such units had been authorised by Tambo as President of the ANC in 1979. At the time of the attack, they reported to Joe Slovo as chief of staff.

The ANC’s submission said that the bombing was in response to a South African cross-border raid into Lesotho in December 1982 which killed 42 ANC supporters and civilians, and the assassination of Ruth First, an ANC activist and wife of Joe Slovo, in Maputo, Mozambique. It claimed that 11 of the casualties were SADF [South African Defence Force] personnel and hence a military target. The legal representative of some of the victims argued that as they were administrative staff, including telephonists and typists, they could not be considered a legitimate military target. (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove unnecessary links and footnotes)

A forensic analysis in the chapter titled ‘Ungovernable’ Msimang makes it clear that Winnie Mandela was not the only ANC leader to endorse necklacing for traitors and informers.  But Winnie Mandela’s is the only name mentioned on the Wikipedia page.  The ANC under the leadership of Oliver Tambo issued guides to ‘revolutionary conduct’ on Radio Freedom which acknowledged that the people’s war meant black-on-black violence against enemies and informers.  It also urged violence against whites as well.

‘We must attack them at their homes and holiday resorts just as we have been attacking black bootlickers at their homes.  This must now happen to their white colleagues.  All along it has only been black mothers who have been mourning.  Now the time has come that all of us must mourn.  White families must also wear black costumes.’

The broadcast explains that MK’s actions at the time ‘are a continuation of petrol-bomb attacks, the necklaces against the sellouts and puppets in the townships, the grenade and stone-throwing attacks that are being carried out daily by oppressed workers and youths…against the heavily armed troops and police.’  (pp.89-90)

The ANC’s unwillingness to condemn the black-on-black violence is clear from its own records:

…this notion of dealing with informers effectively comes up frequently in ANC documents of this era.  At the very least, it is clear that the party is signalling that it understands the masses’ practice of necklacing ‘sellouts and puppets.’  By not condemning the act, the ANC plays a delicate and dangerous game, feeding the atmosphere of recklessness and amping up the flamboyantly violent rhetoric of the moment. (p.91)

And indeed even in foreign capitals like London and Paris, where it might pay to be less outspoken on these matters, the ANC does not hold back:

On 10 October [1985]. the official ANC representative to the United States says publicly in a media interview, ‘We want to make the death of a collaborator so grotesque that people will never think of it.’ (p. 91)

It is clear that with the passage of time, the ANC leadership have managed to distance themselves from all this successfully.  But Winnie Mandela still stands condemned.

Is it just because she is a woman, and one who did not make a successful transition to a position in government?  Obviously not, since her trial, conviction and successful appeal in the matter of the murder of Stompie Seipei had a fatal effect on her reputation, exacerbated by her lack of remorse for her role in the kidnapping which led to his death, even at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).  Msimang interrogates the evidence from the case and the appeal, and, addressing her subject intimately as she so often does in this book, finds that:

The case reveals a clear pattern of criminal behaviour by each of the accused.  It is an apartheid courtroom with no moral authority, but still it is evident that crimes were committed.

That said, it is impossible to know what really happened, because the cast of unsavoury characters who testify against you offer conflicting versions.  One says he saw you stab Stompie; another confesses to having murdered the boy himself. Someone says you were there; another says you were not. So many of the people involved in this affair are unreliable.  Worse, many are known spies—traitors and informers.  They are the kind of people who had no place in the movement in the first place. (p.115)

Msimang suggests reasons that may have influenced Winnie Mandela’s intransigence at the TRC:

Embedded in the TRC’s social DNA are three fundamental flaws.  The first is that the commission treats the former enemies of the struggle as though both sides were equal actors in a conventional war.  The presumption of moral equivalence offends you.  The notion of equal accountability between two such unequal opponents is laughable.

The second flaw, as you see it, is that the bar for amnesty is set too low.  This is because the commission is deeply invested in the idea of truth-telling as a form of justice rather than a step towards justice.  Those who tell the truth about their crimes and demonstrate they were acting on the orders of higher-ups, in service of political objectives, will be given amnesty.

The third flaw is that the commission’s scope is far too narrow.  Crimes committed at a broad structural level are excluded from its investigations, meaning that black South Africans are denied a public forum in which to reckon with the violations of human dignity inherent in carrying a pass or being forced to live in segregated communities.  The entire racial-classification scheme was an affront to human dignity, and yet the TRC has no mandate to deal with this matter.  Neither can it deal with the systemic economic crimes that make poverty such a feature of black life.  Simply by virtue of being born black in South Africa, every single black person is owed reparations—but at this critical moment, the founding moment of the new republic, this crucial fact is ignored. (p.127)

The TRC, which holds Winnie Mandela to account for nine days, does not seem to have held to account, the people responsible for repeatedly detaining her, subjecting her to torture, imposing banning orders on her, banishing her to a remote rural town, and keeping her in solitary confinement for an outrageous 491 days.

What are we to make of this?

Msimang says I will not pretend otherwise: I am interesting in redeeming Ma Winnie. She writes that we praise women for surviving abuse and torture, but when the resultant trauma and suffering make them angry and volatile, we fear and deride them. 

There aren’t enough stories shared of real-life women who are both courageous and messy.  There aren’t enough stories about women prepared to use violence.  Whether or not you endorse that violence, the point is that such women challenge every stereotype there is about women and their ‘nature’.  Winnie Mandela’s story is crucial in this regard—it follows an unconventional path.  She was her husband’s voice throughout those long years he spent in prison, but she was so much more than that.  Winnie was her own person.  She fought for others, and when you read her words and reflect on her life, you can see that she fought for herself too.

Restoring Winnie Mandela to her rightful place in history in spite of her contradictions is only just.  (p.142)

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.

I will be attending a session with Sisonke Msimang at the Auckland Writers Festival later this May.

Author: Sisonke Msimang
Title: The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 151 pages
ISBN: 9781925773675
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela and good bookshops everywhere.


  1. Fascinating post on what seems like a very insightful and nuanced book. I only had a basic knowledge of Winnie Mandela’s life as well as a basic understanding of the negative things that have been said about her. It seems that this book sheds a lot of light on the reality of her life. It also sounds like it takes on the very complex issues that you mention above. If Mandela has been treated differently because she was a woman it is sadly not surprising.


    • Msimang divides her time between Australia and South Africa now, and I am really delighted that we have an author here with such forensic skills of analysis, and that she is bringing us the South Africa story with a fearless attitude towards truth. This book deserves to be read around the world because it’s as much about how the media can distort ‘what we know’ about a person, as it is about Winnie Mandela herself.


  2. Fascinating review. I was very sorry not to be able to make Sisonke’s recent event at the ANU and hear her discuss the issues in person. I enjoyed Sisonke’s Always Another Country, which, in a funny coincidence, was one of the books discussed at an African book club that I visited while I was in Joburg recently. Looking forward to reading Sisonke’s take on all the messiness that surrounds Winnie. Thanks for reminding me to buy the book!


    • Thanks, Irma, Yes, I was really impressed by Always Another Country Too. Definitely a literary asset to whichever country she’s in at the time!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Given the right wing dictators the US supports and has always supported around the world the word “terrorism” usually means any action by non-white freedom fighters. Being listed as a terrorist organization by the US and its allies is hardly proof of whether or not the organization is fighting for ‘good’.


    • Well, it’s a perennial issue: what’s the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist when the methods they use are the same?


  4. Since my feelings about Winnie Mandela are ambiguous to start with, I’d be happy to read this book! Like Irma, I’m sorry I missed her when she was here a couple of weeks ago.


    • Have you read The Cry of Winnie Mandela? I would start with that: it’s about the women of South Africa and how the vast majority were separated from their men and the expectations that people had of them.. Miners’ wives, for example, whose husbands left the village to earn money to support the family and had leave to come home only once a year. The women were expected to be faithful of course, but some men never came home at all because they found other women, or were killed in the mines, or were arrested by the security forces. And their wives, still expected to be faithful, never knew what had happened to them. The world expected Winnie to be faithful for decades, not just sexually but to her husband’s political and philosophical beliefs, which is a big ask, when you think about it… It’s a book which completely changed my perspective about things…


      • NO I haven’t Lisa, but thanks for this recommendation. If I get the chance I will. It’s the same old story isn’t it …


        • The thing is, it shows you just how dysfunctional society was. I mean, apartheid was obviously dysfunctional, but its effects went beyond separation of the races and the poverty and lack of opportunity, it separated families too. Children were brought up by their grandparents and saw their parents only twice a year if they were lucky. So on top of everything else, the family, the one thing that might have been a support to endure it all, was torn apart. And just as the impact of the Stolen Generations in Australia goes far beyond the children who were taken away, those decades of dysfunctional family life in SA continue to have an impact.

          Liked by 1 person

          • True – Nadine Gordimer’s short stories and Doris Lessing’s SA novels convey some of the separation of families, too. I don’t remember the details of these stories now, but I remember their chilling (helpless-making) effect.

            Liked by 1 person

            • If I can find it on the shelves, I’ll send the book up to you. It’s not very long, only about 200 pages…

              Liked by 1 person

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