Telling HERstory: Nomzamo Winfreda ‘Winnie’ Madikizela-Mandela and the politics of ‘celebration’

By: Gcobani Qambela*, Bose Maposa** and Nadia Ahmadou***

Drum Magazine 60th – Magazine Ad – Winnie Mandela. Sourced at:

Writing on “Birthdays, Legacies, Love, Leadership: Letter to Nelson Mandela” Esther Armah in the Huffington Post takes us to Philadelphia in 1996 where Winnie Madikizela Mandela was the keynote speaker at the Million Woman March. Armah notes that some White American liberal women questioned the legitimacy of Madikizela-Mandela’s presence at the march. “I thought about re-written narratives. These women who claim a home in feminism, but failed to recognize how your [Winnie] revolutionary choices ultimately helped move a people to political freedom and certainly enabled a man to become a symbol. I wonder how you are now?” asks Esther in her letter. Armah’s letter was written two days after Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday on the 18th of July 2012. The Day was marked with much international funfair and celebration under the umbrella of Nelson Mandela Day.

In her letter Esther notes that “It is not that I refuse to celebrate your ex’s [Nelson Mandela] birthday, it is that I don’t know yours. And I should. And we should. But we did not find the space to sanction your walk through bloody revolution. You did not leave apartheid’s legacy with the glory your ex did. That wasn’t your story.” Wednesday the 26th of September 2012 marked Winnie Madikizela Mandela’s 76th birthday, but unlike her former husband, there was very little funfair or national, let alone global celebrations of this woman’s work who came to earn the title of ‘mother of the Nation’ in South Africa. It is often said that history is a social construct, and on close examination of the construction of both South African and African history more broadly, it would appear that the social construct is also a  masculine one; the telling of  HIStory much to the silencing of HERstory and the general female narrative.

This is also an international phenomenon where often the masculine version of heroism is told, to the neglect of the female contributions. Take a look at the history of the civil rights/ independence movement for instance; in the United States you hear mainly about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, while in African countries like Tanzania for instance you hear about Julius Nyerere, in Ghana Kwame Nkrumah and in South Africa Nelson Mandela – and the contributions of women like Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Angela Davis, Dorothy Height and Coretta Scott King and many others are left almost ‘audible’ and less frequently celebrated.

The big question here is in terms of whose responsibility it is to celebrate the successes of the heroines, such as Winnie, who ultimately played and continue to play a significant role in political freedoms and civil rights beyond even South Africa. It is surprising, reading through Nelson Mandela’s autobiography how often he mentions Winnie’s role, as a supporting wife, supporting mother, caregiver to the family during his absence and so on and so forth. Little mention is made of her political role in the struggle or as an example and a voice for the many women who were as involved in the political movements in South Africa, as much as their male counterparts.

There is a tendency to continuously relegate women to this caregiver position, no matter their role and status in society. Women like Winnie, in similar situations, continue to be assessed by their gender, as women. This implies that either their role as a mother or caregiver is applauded or their political role is relegated. Or simply that they are forgotten in the annals of history, as their male counterparts are celebrated for achievements that more often than not were in large part due to the role they played, in whichever capacity, as fellow humans, fellow companions and not simply as women in the struggle. It seems almost like an injustice, like something was stolen, a precious moment in history cast aside to satisfy gender stereotypes, or simply unrecognised because well, women are either feminists or caregivers, nothing in between.

Is it the feminists’ responsibility to promote the successes of such women? Or is it each and everyone’s responsibility, including that of their male and female counterparts to the struggle? The point here is that, perhaps, as ordinary individuals it is important for us, as we revisit our histories, to also look for HERstory because even when it is not mentioned, HERstory is ever present, hiding behind the glorious representations of history.


*Gcobani Qmabela is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum / BLF Contributor. Find his short biography and previous articles here.

**Bose Maposa is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum / BLF Contributor. Find her short biography and previous articles here.

*** Nadia Ahmadou is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum / BLF Contributor. Find her short biography and previous articles here.


One Response to Telling HERstory: Nomzamo Winfreda ‘Winnie’ Madikizela-Mandela and the politics of ‘celebration’

  1. I hope all of us rise to the challenge, and begin to fiercely promote the successes of women like Winnie.

    For reasons, unbeknown to me, many of us seem happy to drink the James Brown cool-aid without much engagement. If indeed “its [or was] a man’s world”, why aren’t we engaging with the idea that “it would be [or would have been] nothing without a woman” by explicating the reasons? Gentle-persons, in this article, you have engaged with this idea, thank you!

    Again, I hope the rest of us will follow suit and celebrate other iconic and ordinary women, without making invisible other dimensions of their success.

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