January 3, 2017

Arrested Memories of the Struggle

Winnie Mandela at 80.
On September 26, 2016, Nkosikazi Nobandle Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela-Mandela, Winnie Mandela, celebrated her 80th birthday. She is one of the most well-known female activists to fight Apartheid in South African.  Arrested, tortured, banished, separated from her children, and deprived of her husband, she endured nightmarish circumstances a young wife and mother should never face. Subjected to frequent attacks on her property, she suffered threats on her life, and was ostracized by some Black South Africans for occupying spaces considered outside of a woman’s domain.

Winnie has, simultaneously, captured the world’s imagination and raised the ire of many. She is a complicated survivor of some of the worst times in South Africa’s history. There are numerous biographies about Winnie Mandela, and even more covering the life of her former husband, Nelson Mandela. Many of the works about him reflect prominently or tangentially on Winnie as a wife, mother, supporter of Nelson’s activism, or activist in her own right. A chapter about Winnie was included in the first edition of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “The Struggle is My Life” (Pathfinder, 1978) but was excluded by the third edition (Pathfinder, 1990) because, as Mandela said, his wife’s work deserved wider treatment than a chapter could provide. In the earlier chapter, Nelson, then serving life on Robben Island, remarked on Winnie’s prison experience stating that she was “magnificently contemptuous of her tormentors” during her incarceration under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act (Mandela, 1978, p. 202).

Pretoria Central Prison
Winnie kept a journal of her prison experience, and “491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69” is based on that manuscript from which she was separated for 41 years until Greta Soggot returned it to her in 2011. Winnie’s 1984 autobiography, “Part of My Soul Went with Him,” reflects on her 491-day experience from a distance. In contrast, “491 Days” is stream of consciousness writing about events and hardships contemporaneous with her 16 months in, mostly, solitary confinement between May 12, 1969 and September 14, 1970. The writing is disjointed in places, goes into excruciating detail in some instances and takes a meta view in others. At times, the regular leaps in thought make the narrative difficult to follow. Nevertheless, it is the kind of interior monologue that is expected of someone undergoing torture, subjected to malnutrition, living in inhumane conditions, suffering ill health, and is deprived of the ability to safely care for her children. The irregularities function as a device and draw us into Prisoner 1323/69’s world.

Winnie Exiled to Brandfort, South Africa after release in 1970.
Winnie’s memoir gives the reader a first-hand understanding of an incarcerated woman’s experience of enduring solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison in 1960s Apartheid South Africa. Her record focuses on issues of social identity, power, knowledge, gender, race, issues of South Africa’s penal structure such as disregard for prisoners’ dignity and state measures to acquire intelligence through cruel means. In important ways, “491-Days” fills in the gaps in Winnie’s 1984 autobiography. She published her prison journal to serve as a reminder of the horrors of Apartheid in hopes that this reminder will discourage a return to systems of discrimination and hatred. The publication is a witness to the progeny of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Nelson Mandela regarding the depth and cost of the struggle on the lives of their immediate family. It painfully articulates the price paid by the matriarch. It is testimony that being deprived of her children, then nine and ten, was brutally painful for Winnie, and provides some insight into the challenges faced by the Mandela children while both of their parents were incarcerated.

“In a way during the past two years I felt so close to you. It was the first time we were together in similar surroundings for that length of time. Eating what you were eating and sleeping on what you sleep on gave me that psychological satisfaction of being with you.”

~Winne Mandela in a letter to her husband written on October 26, 1970 shortly after her release.

Letters to and from Winnie and Nelson, correspondence to their daughters, and communication to and from others engaged in the fight for freedom situate Winnie as part of a loving and supportive network beyond the Pretoria Central Prison. Hence, “491 Days” is evidence that the struggle for human rights is a family legacy that will, for generations, characterize the Mandelas. Researchers and students of South African history, Black liberation, and human rights struggles will find this first-hand record of a female’s experience a valuable perspective on the struggle against Apartheid. This work expands our understanding of the complicated life and times of a woman whose later activities cast a shadow on her years of tremendous resilience.

Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio (2013).

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