Winnie’s cry resonates a decade on
The Cry of Winnie Mandela by Njabulo S Ndebele was first published 10 years ago. Using Madikizela-Mandela as inspiration, it tells the stories of four other women, much like the mythical Penelope, who also have to wait for husbands. Charles Cilliers interviews Ndebele following the release of a new edition of his novel.
You made a number of revisions for the new edition. What did you change and what was that the experience of making those changes like?
The changes in the new edition are not that extensive.
Over the years, when preparing for public readings on invitation, I would come across parts of the text that, from a stylistic perspective, could have been better written.
Other parts could have been imagined more sharply for drama or theme.
A new edition was an opportunity to effect corrective revisions.
However, I was careful that the revisions did not amount to a new work.
The new edition was not a sequel. I needed to retain the integrity of the original.
An example of a minor revision concerns one of my favourite minor characters, Mrs Treurnicht.
She is the proprietor of Laingsburg Road Hotel where Winnie stops at four in the morning to refresh herself on her way to Victor Verster prison for the release of her husband.
I had Winnie take an almost ritualistic shower, and revised their parting scene to accentuate the intimate generosity between two women who met briefly but left a mark on each other.
Somewhat more extensive revisions relate to Winnie Mandela’s own story.
I revised it for greater, if more painful, self-reflection by the character. I went back to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings and found more material that I thought warranted further public reflection.
I was deeply moved by the interaction between Winnie Mandela and the couple Nicodemus and Caroline Sono at the hearings. It was a profoundly emotional moment that must have deeply affected the participants. The experience enables Winnie to make a remarkable statement: ‘How possible is it to lead a lawful life in future after a lawless Struggle?’
Did you get a sense of yourself as an older version of you editing the words of a younger version?
My sense is that no one reads and understands the same book the same way at each subsequent reading.
Clearly the text, carrying its inner resonance, remains the same, but each reading yields new insights, new perspectives on the same narrated events.
It is as if impact of current external events and one’s reactions to them insert themselves into one’s reading experience.
The text seems to grow with you.
In the case of this revised text, to illustrate, I was hard at work on the introduction at the same time as the public shame of the Gupta family air force base incident was raging.
By then, I had already completed the revisions to the novel.
It then struck me that there was something in the manner in which public officers in government and in the military responded to these unsavoury events, which reminded me of the impression I formed of some of Winnie Mandela’s testimony at the TRC hearings.
I reflected on the capacity of powerful public figures to subvert public consensus on the meaning of public events in which they are involved, by substituting for such consensus the imposed improbabilities of truths of power.
Such improbabilities become ‘truthful’ simply because they are asserted and performed with the semblance of conviction, which is then repeated several times for affirmation.
Such convictions first become necessary to perform when the performer recognises the discomforting dissonance between the wrongfulness of his or her actions and what they know to be ethically right.
The heroic performance erases ethical discomfort they more it is repeated.
Instead of recognising ethical dissonance as a possible site of tragedy, they opt for heroic posture that carries little ethical content while purporting to convey statements of principle.
You write that Madikizela-Mandela did not read the book when it first came out. Do you know if she has read it now?
I really do not know if she has since read it. In the introduction I speculate on this issue at some length.
I am ever grateful that she came to the book’s launch. She made the evening very special and memorable.
I can understand that if she makes known definitively that she has read the novel she may expose herself to some pressure to say what she thinks of it.
But if she has indeed read it, I consider that it is within her rights to say or not to say what her experience of reading it was.
After all, it was not a biography and does not require her to confirm or deny anything.
Do you think she still lives large in the psyche of South African women, to the extent that they would use her as a reference point in the manner explored in your book?
I cannot tell for sure. It is a purely speculative matter.
The artistic purposes for which she was deployed in the story are well defined in it.
In the real world, beyond the fictional narrative, I suspect South African women will have taken many positions in relation to her.
She will have had avid admirers, and equally avid detractors.
There could even be a significant category of the indifferent.
There could be those who have honoured her for her political role, without necessarily admiring her as a person.
There could be those who loved her as a person, and lived comfortably or uncomfortably with her public role.
There could be those such as me, who admired her both for her role and as a person of considerable strength, and then began to be assailed by doubts.
My artistic sensibilities allowed me to live comfortably with both the loved character and the problematic one.
My task was not to judge but to probe, and to probe deeply without avoiding whatever I came across.
It was a quest for balance without avoidance.
In your opinion, have any other women stepped up in the last few years to play the role of charismatic leading women who can be seen as role models to women and girls in SA? In other words, who embodies the struggle of women nowadays?
I do not feel confident to answer such questions.
But I am of the sense that the dominance of powerful individuals, whether they are men or women, is giving way to social, as opposed to collective, power.
If any people do establish a collective to achieve some defined purpose in an organised manner, it is likely to be informed by a new, emergent sense of South African society with new values as shaped formally by our Constitution, and informally by people’s interactions in the social realm, searching intuitively for new relationships in an emergent society.
We have yet to experience that kind of South Africa as it is still in the making.
A new sensibility will replace certitudes of the past with the authority of a new sense of belonging.
Dominant political individuals, a product of the era of heroes in anti-colonial Africa, at least those who are left of that ilk, particularly those who have been in liberation movements, visualise the past more easily than the actual demands of the present in creating a future.
In South Africa, I expect them to phase out in the medium term no matter how much they struggle to stay in power.
At worst, they may be so resilient in staying in power they can only be kicked out in a revolution.
Being fixated on a notion of an unchanging constituency, they might just go that route, blind to a gathering storm, in the same way then president Thabo Mbeki was reportedly blind to sea changes around him in his own party.
As a male writer, what were the biggest challenges for you of exploring the perspectives of so many different women?
This is a question I have been asked many times in 10 years of the novel’s life. It is one of the questions that necessitated an introduction.
Nadine Gordimer wrote to me of some of her impressions of reading the novel.
On this particular issue she wrote: ‘Here’s a feminist fiction of strong emotional conviction written by a man.
Perhaps could only be written by a man.’ I treasure this comment from a Nobel prize-winning woman of enormous literary accomplishment.
I confess, however, to having been somewhat uneasy about the work being described as ‘a feminist fiction’.
I feared that such a well-meant statement might become a label, and I fear labels.
While having their uses, they do often simplify and take away depth from anything they are meant to describe.
In reality if there is any feminism in The Cry of Winnie Mandela it was one outcome among others, rather than a driving intention.
I write in the introduction: ‘Anyone who wants to tell a story that has seized hold of them can enter the lives of people who are not their own, who live in countries not their own, who are men when she is a woman, and who are women when he is a man.
From the wellspring of common human attributes, the artistic imagination, at the moment of composition, develops and senses complex means of assessing and calibrating authenticity. Artists know when they have got it right, and when they haven’t.’
On a lighter note, I once called – on a different matter – a well-known woman who was a Cabinet minister.
‘What a coincidence,’ she said, as she happened to be reading the novel when I called.
Whenever our conversation took a pause, she would exclaim: ‘Njabulo, just how do you know?’ We never settled what it was that she wanted to know how I knew!
The Cry of Winnie Mandela explores the painful theme of couples being separated by circumstances in SA. Do you think the circumstances that tear families apart in this way have changed in any way, or do you see the same problem now as when you first contemplated this 20 years ago?
Circumstances, I’m afraid, do not appear to have changed significantly in the last 20 years.
Let’s face it, it has taken some 200 years of colonisation and imperialism to systematically destroy the African family in South Africa.
When we achieved our democracy in 1994, our new government did not focus on ‘the family’ in its various manifestations, as a priority in the search for a new social order.
Equally so, did we not have a national project of the century to rebuild the human spatial environment?
Our living conditions continue to assail the family.
Many fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands and sons went down in Marikana, dislocating more families in a continuous replay of what the British began in breaking up the African family to exploit African labour.
Colonial legislators must be celebrating in their graves for their continuing achievement.
Black, African mining magnates have accorded new legitimacy to this history.
With a decade to reflect on, what, in your opinion, has been the impact of The Cry of Winnie Mandela on the literary landscape and on individual readers in particular?
I think that its hybridity as a narrative, discursive essay, and public biography pried open another angle from which to explore the contemporary South African story.
How different is The Cry of Winnie Mandela from some of your other work?
Its hybridity is its distinguishing feature.
Who have you found tend to be the book’s biggest audience?
I frankly cannot tell with any certainty. It could be that more women than men have read it. I would be pleasantly surprised if there were more male than female readers of it.
Do you expect this new edition will reach a bigger audience? Why?
I would hope so.
This edition, although aimed at a general reader, might appeal to readers who want to access immediately-considered thoughts of readers who wrote deeply about its significance to them.
In addition to my introduction, in which I try to answer some questions I was consistently asked about the book in the last 10 years, there are three articles for discussion by Dorothy Driver, Antjie Krog, David Medalie, and Sam Radithlalo.