Winnie: She Is Multiplied

Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela died on Monday, April 2, at age 81. She was a leader in South Africa’s fight against apartheid, named “Mother of the Nation” by the people of the Townships—the poorest, those who suffered most.

She was a spiritual, tactical, strategic, political, psychological leader; a military commander, a member of parliament, a cabinet minister; also a mother, a wife, a prisoner in solitary confinement for years, a torture survivor, a vagrant after police burned down her home. And she was also the victim of smears that tarnished her legend—smears of corruption, kidnapping, even murder—from both the right-wing government and from “revolutionary” men who could not tolerate a woman of power. She was divorced by her husband, Nelson Mandela, after his release from prison, because he had heard rumors that during the 27 years of his confinement, she had engaged in one love affair (and women are not supposed to be sexual beings), and also because she thought he had settled for too little in the final compromise with the apartheid government. After the divorce (and his remarriage) even those public figures who conceded her importance began to refer to her as “flawed.”

A fine documentary, “Winnie,” by the filmmaker Pascale Lamche was recently released in certain theaters and in the US on Netflix and PBS; Lamche has documented the smears, through revealing interviews she held with those who had deliberately besmirched Winnie’s reputation, interviews in which they openly boast about having done so.

When I visited South Africa in the late 1980s I found it difficult to weigh the contrast between the revolutionary establishment’s depiction of her (which infected the world’s perception of her) against the utterly opposite way in which she was clearly trusted and beloved by the South African people. Nor am I naive enough to ignore certain histories in which the people (“Das Volk”) have revered disastrous leaders. But this was markedly different.

I wrote a poem not long after, which I published in Upstairs in the Garden, my New and Selected Poems. The book is now also in all e-book formats. There is a section in it about Winnie. Well-meaning friends and editors urged me to delete that section, since Winnie was then held in global disrepute. But the faces and voices of women I’d spoken with in Soweto, Gugelutu, and other Townships urged me through memory to keep those stanzas intact. I’m glad I did.

Now the South African government has decided that Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela warrants a state funeral. It will take place later this month, in Soweto, in Orlando Stadium since vast crowds are expected. How she would laugh at the irony. And now, after decades, the poem is vindicated. But far more importantly, so is she.

South African women have been wearing black headscarves in mourning. Their chant is “Ma Winnie has not died. She has multiplied.”

Here is my tribute—excerpts from my poem “Arbitrary Bread”:

…Men make impressions, arbitrary decisions, names
for themselves, wars, profits, laws, reputations,
deals, fortunes, threats, enemies, promises, tracks.

Women make do, ends meet, babies, way, clothing,
breakfast and dinner and supper, quilts, homes,
apologies, baskets, beds, light of it, room….

Beginning again, unlearning how
to make jokes, compromises and bargains,
the best of it. Relearning how
to make trouble, a living, a practice of politics.
Cracking wheat, crushing millet, dissolving
salt crystals, pounding the dough. Waiting
the first rise. Reshaping the dough. Waiting
the second. Heating the oven of metal or clay.

Winnie Mandela stands outside
the smoking timbers of what yesterday
was her home. She stares. She does not enter.
Lost articles—inanimate speechless things—flare
to mind, each vivid, crisped, with grief.
The books. The diaries. The humble gifts
from ordinary people. The wedding pictures.
The letters, thirty years of them, from him
in prison. While she raised the children,
carried messages, was banned, was under house arrest,
in jail and out again, while she made visits
to him, made speeches, made an example
of herself, was made his symbol, was made
a metaphor for freedom.

Men manage to make
their revolutions from abstraction. But no slogans
can be made from the thoughts of a woman
sifting the ashes of her life.
The last bed in which they ever slept together,
gone now. The baby pictures. The headscarf her mother
left her, the recipes. The saved invitations
to far countries where she could not go.
The mirror she aged in.

Over and over, practicing how
to make a fresh start, making the most of knowing
the worst of it—not what’s assumed:
that they can torture, degrade, kill, erase you,
but this—that they can just tire you out….

Again and again learning how
to make peace:
cracking open the whole grain of anger,
crushing the fear, dissolving the sense
of futility, deliberately making
pounding, shaping, reshaping the act—
arbitrary but this time our own….

Clay is the wild crystal
making itself through eons of weathering
by the pounding, cracking, crushing of rocks,
the dissolving of rocks, the absorption
of water in minuscule pores, developing “defects”
in crystalline lattices which collect energy, store it,
transmit it. This is one definition
of a life form.

A regular crystal is perfect, blank until
it receives an imposed pattern of charges.
But clay replicates, layering
pattern on pattern of ions coded in flaws.
Disorder, the woman scientist whispers,
is precisely the thing which can hold information.
Strike an ordinary lump of clay with a hammer:
it blows ultraviolet energy for a month….

I want to make
this so plain
that every woman can feed herself with it,
make it her own, make it
mean what she chooses, make
demands of it, make
it available, make
mischief, a difference, a miracle, ready.

I want to say this in the quietest voice possible:
Give us this day
our arbitrary bread.
Do I make myself

Copyright 1990 by Robin Morgan. All Rights Reserved.
From: Robin Morgan. “Upstairs in the Garden” iBooks