“There is a woman fighting for freedom down in Africa. In prison is her distinguished husband Nelson Mandela…” those word from Jamaican singer Carlene Davis form the early basis of my introduction to Winnie Madikizela Mandela. It was 1987, I was a recent teacher’s college graduate, focused on upward social mobility, not on purpose. I discerned that this woman was phenomenal then. but was unprepared for her mentorship over the following decades.
As purpose overtook the quest from materialism in my own life, the impact of the Clovers (my mother), Corettas (King), Betties (Shabbazz), Rosas (Parks), Michelles (Obama), Winnies (Mandela) et al has provided mentorship in the power of their own femininity and fierceness. These women were/are at the forefront of movements to change lives in a patriarchal world more inclined to shine light on the men in their lives as agents of change. However, if we dare to challenge such a limited, prejudicial narrative, we can easily discern that the success of such men is etched in the powerful play of the women they were blessed to merge with in partnerships. These women were not behind the men, they were beside, more often than not, BEFORE them in spearheading successful movements for change. They, like many other women, especially women of color, challenge the narrative that place men at the helm and women as followers. SO, can we agree that we have been mis-taught? It is in fact, behind every successful woman, there is a man. YES, I said it!
So today as we mourn the death of Winnie Mandela (81), I recall powerful moments where I felt her power in mentorship. Most recently, as I watched “Long Walk to Freedom” where the super-talented Eldris Elba played Nelson, I was reminded that Winnie was the fire for Nelson and as such was responsible for keeping him alive in and out of prison. It was her radicalism, a more militant brand of activism than her husbands, coupled with her undying passion for freedom that kept the flames of the fight to end apartheid ablaze while Nelson was in prison for 27 years.
Winnie was a beacon of light in the darkest hours of the struggle to end apartheid. She never gave up the fight, never bowed under the pressure to conform, never showed fear in the face of overt and covert racism, she fought fire with fire. Her commitment to end the monstrous oppression known as apartheid never wavered. In that moment, watching her fire and fury light up the screen (as portrayed by actress Naomie Harris), my stomach contracted with a knowing that I too share some of those characteristics, but am often hesitant in acting accordingly as conditioning has had some success in taming my innate rebellious nature against the many injustices that I witness on a daily basis. In that moment of realization, I decided for the rest of my life to be more like Winnie: to stand in the face of injustice, as a radical, no matter the personal cost and no matter the consequences- I want irto be that badass.
So today, as I mourn you my superhero mentor who I know so intimately, but never met, I sit in awe of your life’s work. You have lit a flame that burns brightly, lighting the path towards our global liberation. You were not just the “Mother of the Nation” of South Africa, you were our diasporic Mother. You waved brilliantly your unique brand of Black Feminism as echoed in your definition of the struggles of Black women’s triple yoke of oppression “sex, color and class.” You were not just the wife behind Nelson Mandela, you were his strength, his backbone. In this role as a wife, you redefined love and commitment to extend beyond basal eroticism and displayed a commitment to a movement greater than your individual needs. You were ferocious and controversial and demonstrated over and over that despite the prongs of racism that continuously sought to arrest, embarrass, silence you, you transcended all the efforts and emerged fearless, stating boldly “I no longer have the emotion of fear. There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn’t any pain, I haven’t known.” You were beautiful, bold and regal – A real queen. Your superhero bedazzled cape expanding even further when after a globally disappointing divorce, you remained friends with your ex-husband and his new wife Graca Machel, a feat that most women are not evolved enough to even aspire to.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich coined the phrase, “Well-behaved women seldom make history” and the words became a slogan for girls hoping to break the mold. Winnie’s life exemplified the behavior needed for women to continue making history. Today, Winnie Madikizela Mandela as you wave your royal goodbye in your physical state, sleep well knowing that you have modeled in excellence what breaking molds look like. You unapologetically failed to behave, and we thank you for changing our world as a result of your BADASSNESS.
Queen Winne, I, we all bow to you.
By Nadine L. Leblanc