Few historical figures had a greater impact upon my politics than Winnie Mandela. While as a student loosely involved in the student divestment movement and the call for sanctions against South Africa by the U.S., Nelson Mandela might have been the person we demanded to be released but Winnie Mandela was in the public eye. I watched more than one documentary and listened to dozens of programs about her activism in South Africa under the worst of circumstances in that country during the 1980’s. It was regular viewing in my home and it then pushed me to read more on the struggle. The struggle against apartheid for me personally became the immediate issue. As the civil rights generations sought to unravel Jim Crow, my generation wanted Nelson Mandela and all the other political prisoners freed and we wanted apartheid to end. Winnie Mandela, who was out each day struggling for it thousands of miles away, was the living embodiment of this ideal.
With the release of another book on her life, The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela, by Sisonke Msimang, it is, to me, a chance to re-visit this remarkable woman and human being. Her struggle is laid bare here in 144 succinct pages. It is a tightly woven account that reads like a letter from Msimang to Winnie Mandela (Mandela died in 2018), that is full of love, appreciation, criticism, but which also seeks to make her story be understood better. This excerpt near the end encapsulates this political biography.
“There aren’t enough stories 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 those who use 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 and 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 she fought for herself too.
Restoring Winnie Mandela to her rightful place in history in spite of her contradictions is only just. The larger than life figures who populate our history books capture our imagination because they have live their lives in ways that gives us deeper insight into what it means to be human… In seeing Winnie more fully than she might ever have thought possible — affirming her existence, recognizing and remembering and critically appraising her life in all its complexity and drama — we reward her sacrifices without exonerating her sins.” (Sisonke Msimang)