The Cry of Winnie Mandela

A wife’s travails

BY JEFFREY MURRAY

Njabulo S. Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela defies easy classification. Its hybrid form – part novel, myth, essay, and biography – matches the complexities of its subject matter. Ten years on from its first publication, this revised edition with new content, which includes an introductory essay by Ndebele himself, as well as essays by Dorothy Driver, Antjie Krog, David Medalie, and Sam Raditlhalo, continues to provoke South Africans (and possibly others?) to confront difficult questions not only about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and our nation, but also about our own personal biographies.

This new edition’s cover no longer bears the striking image of a metal-sculpture representation of Sara Baartman, housed in the main library of the University of Cape Town, but the dedication to her remains: “For Sara Baartman, who endured the horrors of European eyes, was desecrated beyond her death, and finally returned home, to rest”. Like Baartman’s story, which conjures up the complexities of negotiations between Europe and Africa, personal pain and suffering, and the idea of home, so too does Madikizela-Mandela’s story, interwoven with the narratives of four other women from South Africa’s troubled history – all women who waited for their absent husbands, victims of forces beyond their control.

Their stories are framed by the ultimate paradigm of a patient woman, Penelope, that wily wife of Odysseus who waited nineteen long years for her husband to return home to Ithaca from the Trojan War. Comparable to its Greek counterpart, the “Mother of the Nation” and former wife of Nelson Mandela, Madikizela-Mandela’s story has achieved its own mythic quality. And in a country still recuperating from its tragic past, these are stories that need to be read and re-read, especially when told in the delicate and lyrical prose of a storyteller like Ndebele.

The Cry of Winnie Mandela is published by Picador Africa, R150.

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