Sitting with the wonderful and the tragic within us

‘Strike the women and you strike the rock’-I recall hearing these words as a young girl when I accompanied my mother at marches against women abuse in the 90’s. I think back to those days surrounded by social workers chanting ‘strike the women and you strike the rock’, wondering what the statement meant and wondering where it came from. Years later I discovered that it was the words of female activists who marched to the Union Building in Pretoria on August, 9, 1956, calling for an end to the pass laws and advocating for women’s rights in South Africa. Winnie Madikizela Mandela, echoed these words in 1966 as she continued to fight for women’s rights. It is words that have become synonymous with the fight against women abuse. Growing up in post-apartheid, I didn’t know much about this South African icon and apartheid activist. All I knew was, she was the president’s wife, and amazed that she waited for him for 27 years to be released. They looked so happy to be reunited on the day of his release on February, 11, 1990. Like the nation I found myself in awe of their love story and commitment to one another. She was the First Lady, until she was no more.

Winnie Madikizela Mandela has been a controversial figure in South African history. With the release of her memoires, interviews, telling of her life story in film and book, we get a glimpse into this controversial figure, her career as a social worker, her marriage to Nelson Mandela, her own experiences of torture at the hands of officials during the apartheid regime and how that shaped and impacted the activist role she took on in the ANC. Quotes from her that come to mind with regard to this is:

“There is no longer anything I can fear. There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn’t any pain I haven’t known.”
– 1987

“I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy.”
– 1996

The reason these quotes stick out for me is primarily related to the work that I do with torture survivors. Doing this work over the past 4 years has opened me to a new understanding of what pain, humiliation, isolation and torture can do to the human spirit. As we hold in mind Winnie the activist, the leader, the icon, the First Lady, we also need to hold in mind Winnie the person, the human being, who was tortured whilst imprisoned, the mother, who was separated from her children, unable to provide for them at times as she could not continue her work duties as a social worker. What did this do to the person, what hatred and pain did it ignite. I am by no means condoning the violence that she has been associated with, by no means minimizing the violent actions committed by her and in her name during the struggle, that have followed her through the years. I believe that violence is never the answer to our pain and our hatred, as violence begets violence and the pain and hatred continue in spaces, times and generations. This is evident as we reflect on our country and the manner in which violence continues to be a prominent feature to survive, exert power or simply be heard.

As I write this piece a few days after her death, I really felt compelled, compelled to reflect on this dynamic and rather complex women. And I urge the reader to understand these as my personal reflections and nothing more.

Over the years, as I learnt more about her, I always found myself holding two parts: one part, the strength of this women, the endurance, the love; the other part, is one of a leader that has lost her path, a women hurt, broken, angry. It is only in working with torture survivors that I have become able to hold the parts as a whole and not as polar opposites to each other. She was all the above and more. In conversations about her with people, I found it interesting that they either held the one part or the other, she was either praised or not. This made me think about how symbolic both Winnie and Mandela have been to us a nation.

Winnie is symbolic of the parts of us as a nation that may be uncomfortable, the parts of us that are hurt by injustices such as #LifeEsidimeni, unfairness such as social inequalities #feesmustfall #youthunemployment, poor service delivery #xenophobicattacks #violentprotests. The part of us that is not held, whose grievances and pain are not acknowledged and only through violence we feel impact is made, feel voices are heard. And as a society we shun the violence and ignore the pain. Make payments as a form of reparation then expect it to go away. As I reflect on Winnie being symbolic of the parts of ourselves as a nation that we may struggle to own. Mandela symbolizes the other part of us as a nation, a symbol of peace, forgiveness and hope. We held on to the idea of a rainbow nation, it was beautiful, it was inspirational. But what about those who were not ready, were too hurt, the memories of trauma too recent? Did we suppress those that didn’t agree, and in turn suppress feelings of anger and pain as a nation, until it reached a point of un-containment and spilling out. News headlines in the last few years in South Africa is testimony to this spilling.

As we end the era of Zuma and enter into a new era with Cyril Ramaphosa, I wonder if the leaders of our nation are ready to hold the nation as a whole, will the hopeful and the discontented be sitting at the same table and be heard and understood. Or do we once again, mark those who bring the uncomfortable sides of us out to the side, only to have the pain and discontent play out as it has been doing? Will we continue to suppress those that make us feel uncomfortable, because they force us to face the pain, or will we acknowledge that to heal pain must be felt?

Written by Sumaiya Mohamed

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