A life of refusal. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and violence in South Africa

From Firenze University Press Journal: Storia delle Donne

Shireen Hassim

One of the most troubling questions arising from struggles against oppression is how to understand the nature of political violence. Although violence is a persistent feature of colonial conquest and the spread of capitalism, its uses by revolutionary movements are always a matter of ethical and strategic debate. Under what conditions is violence justified, who are legitimate targets, and what are the implications of the use of violence for the societies in whose name liberation is pursued?

In South African liberation movements, the question of armed struggle was highly contentious. The Pan Africanist Congress formed a military wing, Poqo, in 1960 and the African National Congress followed with the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961. These decisions led to divisions between those who chose violent insurrection over non-violent methods of political change. However, not all revolutionary political violence in South Africa was contained with-in these official structures.

By its nature, the legitimation of violent insurrection created the space in which many people could act in the name of revolution even though the lines of party authorization were unclear. This problem was especially complicated by the 1980s, when it seemed that the boundaries between acts of violence that had a clear political intention and target, and those that might be considered primarily criminal became somewhat porous. The increasing repression by the state, and the emergence of multiple forms of violent challenge not only to the state but also to black people who were considered by activists to be collaborators with the state, altered the debates about political violence.In these debates, the role of women in political violence is thinly addressed.

Where women were implicated in acts of political violence, they were considered to be exceptional within a dominant framing of maternalism in nationalist historiography. This portrays women as the peace-able wing of political movement; even in in-stances when they are not passive, then they are interpreted as be-ing peace-makers. The imagery of women as the mothers of the nation deploys essentialist ideas of women as caring and nurturing, reluctantly dragged into politics as a result of the attacks on their men by a cruel system. This kind of master narrative does not easily accommodate analyses of actions by women who do not fall easily into the nationalist tropes. By contrast, several feminist his-tories have presented an alternative picture of women as political agents, consciously engaging in collective movements and choosing strategies to address the various dimensions of power –not just relations of race but also of class, gender and sexuality.

Even in these histories, however, the issue of women’s uses of violent techniques of politics remains under-researched, if at all. Women are much more likely to be seen as the victims of violence, and particularly of sexual and domestic violence, than as perpetrators.In this context, the case of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s complicities with violent political strategies is particularly interesting. Madikizela-Mandela is one of the most prominent women in the South African liberation struggle, the ultimate “mother of the nation”. During the late 1960s, she developed an underground net-work, acting as a satellite cell of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in Soweto. Although not highly successful in launching insurgent actions, Madikizela-Mandela identified as a member of MK.

During the late 1980s she was accused of participating in or authorising heinous acts of violence against young black men who were sheltering in her home in Soweto. As I discuss below, the accusations were politically explosive within the anti-apartheid movement.In this article, I return to these allegations against Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in order to understand Madikizela-Mandela’s own motivations and explanation for the use of physical discipline against young activists. I am interested in whether the maternalist stereotypes of women as political activists stand up to the actual forms in which women may act. In this case, I am interested in the disjuncture between the imaginary of the mother of the nation as a nurturing figure, and the ways in which Winnie Madikizela-Mandela herself acted as a disciplining force, using her power as leader of a political movement in a variety of registers, not all of which may be encompassed in maternalist explanations.

Her actions, I argue, both destabilized maternalist imagery and reconstituted forms of violent masculinity, an entanglement that offers new ways of think-ing about Madikizela-Mandela’s portrayal in political histories. I am most concerned, though, with how Winnie Madikizela-Mandela accounted for her actions in her own words and on her own terms. These accounts are reconstructed from her interviews and texts, as well as from her testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.13128/SDD-15572

Read Full Text: https://oaj.fupress.net/index.php/sdd/article/view/2513



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The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy