It was a special occasion for STIAS when the revised edition of The Cry of Winnie Mandela was recently launched here, an event where the author Njabulo S. Ndebele (a permanent visiting fellow of STIAS) read from the text and discussed his re-thinking of this highly acclaimed novel — described by Nadine Gordimer as ‘[a work] of extraordinary originality and imaginative power.’
Here Annie Gagiano, Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at Stellenbosch University, shares her impressions of the evening:
The Cry of Winnie Mandela attracted a great deal of attention in its first version (published in 2003 by David Philip). Although still looked for by readers and scholars, it went out of print and the text became hard to get hold of. Alerted to this by the reading public, the author approached the publishers to reprint the text, as the contract had specified, but they were unable to do so. Briefly sketching this ‘business background’ to what became the new (revised) version of the text, Njabulo Ndebele told the audience at the STIAS launch that he found himself unexpectedly in possession of a strong entrepreneurial streak and he took the idea of a republication to a different publisher, Picador Africa. As there was now an opportunity for reconsideration of the original text under a somewhat different dispensation than ten years ago, however, he found that the second edition required not only some overhauling, but the writing of an extensive new introduction. Originally intended to take only some weeks, he found that writing this essay or meditation took nearly three months.
This is where STIAS came in, because the writing of the Introduction – subtitled ‘Contemplating Winnie Mandela’ – in which Prof. Ndebele worked out the relevance and resonance of his text and of his title character – took place at STIAS earlier in 2013. It was an enthusiastic group who gathered for the launch of the new edition early on a wet evening, but we all knew that an opportunity to hear Prof. Ndebele’s quiet voice is one for which one readily braves a bit of rain. As we listened, he took us back to one of his first troubled encounters with the Winnie Mandela figure (having strongly admired her steadfastness) – the evening of February 18th, 1989 on Roma campus in Lesotho when a staff gathering he was attending was profoundly disturbed by the announcement on television (by Murphy Morobe) that the UDF was formally distancing itself from Mrs Mandela in view of the reports of reprehensible conduct of the so-called Mandela Football Club, actually a group of Soweto youths acting as her private bodyguards terrorising the area. On that evening, Prof. Ndebele conveyed, he felt mostly a deep sympathy for this lonely woman, cut off from a beloved husband by the apartheid state’s incarceration of Nelson Mandela, but as time went on, her figure acquired a much more disturbing ambiguity.
He decided to write a novel that would be a sort of peopled meditation on what had been a strangely neglected but central figure of black South African life: the ‘waiting woman’ or the women who wait – abafazi abalindile. Winnie Mandela, as he knew, epitomised and was by far the most visible of these women, whose husbands were jailed, or had gone into exile, or were studying abroad, or were preoccupied with and away travelling for work or the political cause – or were mere philanderers neglectful of their homes and families. Mrs Mandela, in the transformation of her image as the faithful Mandela wife keeping the flame of black South African aspirations to freedom and political recognition in their own country alive to the tarnished figure sketched by the Morobe announcement (and the woman whose painful love life was brutally exposed in the media), was the archetype who could illustrate the dreadful toll taken on the female psyche by the irreconcilable demands of maintaining family honour in a lonely, chaste existence on the one hand and on the other, the undeniable needs for fulfilling companionship and passion. Nevertheless, Prof. Ndebele had no desire to write her biography and declined suggestions that he interview Mrs Mandela, preferring the solitary but unhampered work of the moral imagination grappling with the profile of Winnie Mandela as this would be known to the other four imagined South African waiting women who make up the cast of his drama – with a surprise guest appearance by Penelope (from Homer’s Odyssey) near the end.
In the novel, the speaking turns of the other four women and their accounts of their lives and the ways in which they address and compare themselves to Winnie Mandela make for moving reading, but at the STIAS launch, prof. Ndebele concentrated (as he does in his Introduction) on Mrs Mandela; the defiant, compelling and troubling figure that she became and has remained, still attracting public attention whatever she does. As he indicated, Winnie Mandela has come to epitomise something further, something even more worrying under the present governance rubric – that of the public figure whose acts are simultaneously questionable (in the sense that they are morally dubious in a way that is particularly undesirable in a powerful person who bears huge responsibilities) and yet also unquestionable in the sense of being unassailable; unchallengeable even when their wrongdoing is surmised, exposed or widely known.
The powerful (like Mrs Madikizela-Mandela and others at the top) exercise a powerful hold over others, especially those who yield to the glamour of power or who, by adhering to them, become, themselves, bound to these leaders but able to exercise power themselves even if in untoward ways (as Prof. Njabulo’s candid references to the ‘Guptagate’ scandal demonstrated). His talk at the launch and the opening section of his Introduction in particular, as well as his example in general, illustrate the way to prevent one’s embroilment by the lure of power – which is to keep one’s distance and softly to insist on one’s independence. Prof. Ndebele did this (as he explained) simply by delaying his acceptance of a summons to the great woman’s side when she unexpectedly turned up at the book launch of the first version of The Cry of Winnie Mandela (and proceeded to upstage him slightly with a longer book signing queue than his own). The distance he implicitly advocates, however, is not that of a sneering self-righteousness or facile moral condemnation; it is (as both the speech and the book as whole demonstrate) a compassionate understanding, arduously achieved by retracing the terrible pressures which South Africa has exerted and continues to exert on its citizens of all types, and the damage it has inflicted on so many, while also providing the opportunities for us to do better, to be more understanding, and to lead by way of example.
The talk ended on a cheerful note when Prof. Ndebele referred to the wonderful crop of young South Africans who will receive bursaries from the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation whom he and others had interviewed that morning. Those present were treated to a finger supper and a range of beverages and the opportunity for book buying and signing as well as the lively discussions (with STIAS fellows Prof. Ndebele, Athol Fugard and Prof. Loyiso Nongxa among others) that followed the thought-provoking address.