Unraveling the Muse called Winnie Mandela

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By Vanessa Obioha

The riveting life of the late Winnie Madizikela- Mandela will always be a source of inspiration to filmmakers and other creative people. Her vaunted rank as the wife of the freedom fighter late Nelson Mandela during the dark days of apartheid in South Africa and her diminishing status afterwards that made her one of the most intriguing female political leaders of all time is the kind of cinematic themes people would love to see. Her story, like her husband’s, the late Madiba elicits sympathy, rage, admiration and a hunger for justice.

Born September 26, 1936 according to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Winnie’s life was one torn in lies and truth. She came into the spotlight when her husband, Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for life on the count of treason in 1964, barely six years after they got married. She took on the responsibility to continue her husband’s dream of liberating his people from the brutal hands of the white supremacists. Her actions however had dire consequences, from imprisonment to banishment and eventually exile, Winnie became a reckoning force in the fight against apartheid, reechoing her mission through any means possible. Her torturous plight in the hands of the enemy and tough resolve to fight for her people became the catalyst that earned her international fame.

Along the line, the South African icon reputation was enmeshed in various accusations. Abduction, brutality, embezzlement as well as the widespread case of Stompie, the 14 year-old youth who was murdered by Winnie’s bodyguard punctured her heroic stance. Though she stood by her husband, when he was finally released from prison in 1990, there were enough cracks in their relationship that eventually led to their separation a year later. As her complicity in corruption cases in the country increased, her fame waned. Only her loyal fans revered her while the westerners labeled her a figure of hate. The woman who arguably sought power to free her people was gradually relegated to the background.

In 2011, prolific South African film director, screenwriter and producer Darell Roodt took the risk of making a film adaptation of Anne Marie Bezdrob’s book ‘Winnie Mandela: A Life’. It was not the first time the director was reliving the apartheid days through his lens. He directed the 1992 award-winning film ‘Sarafina’ about the students who were involved in the Soweto Riots. Assembling Hollywood actors like Terrence Howard, Jennifer Hudson, Wendy Crewson, Roodt set his camera in motion, showing a superficial glimpse of a heroine who fought for the freedom of her people and her husband. The romance direction Roodt took was not so lauded.

The late Winnie who passed on recently after being hospitalized was the least chuffed about the production named after her. She wasted no time in showing her chafe by condemning the producers’ blatant disregard to seek her permission before making a movie about her.

Likewise, some South African actors lashed at Roodt for casting black Americans for a South African movie.

Winnie would later have the opportunity to tell her story when a French documentarian and filmmaker Pascale Lamche decided to tell her story. Over a period of two years, Lamche who has done other movies about the harrowing apartheid days of the country such as Sophiatown, was able to spend time with Winnie and get the real facts behind all the decade long accusations piled on her.

“The first time I mentioned I was making a film about Winnie Mandela, it happened to be to a novelist in a bar in Amsterdam. He screwed up his face and said: “What? That murderer!” His response was echoed on numerous occasions around the world. Nelson Mandela was still perceived as a saint and his wife as the fallen woman, or worse.

At the time, we were having trouble finding backers for the film, and faced a great deal of skepticism at documentary film festivals where the idea was pitched. The reactions were fulsomely negative. Self-styled experts on the lay of the land in South Africa assured me I’d need to pay big bucks for access. This proved entirely wrong, as I knew it would be. Others feared I’d be hoodwinked and manipulated. The underbelly of all this negative anticipation was a hard-boiled and preconceived opinion of Winnie. She would remain the Sinner Lady (as in Charlie Mingus’s masterpiece album, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady).

At a certain point I stopped talking and started making the film. The film tells the real story. It may surprise people,” Lamche once said in an interview.

With a synopsis on its website that read ” While her husband served a life sentence‚ paradoxically kept safe and morally uncontaminated‚ Winnie Mandela rode the raw violence of Apartheid‚ fighting on the front line and underground.. This is the untold story of the mysterious forces that combined to take her down‚ labeling him a saint‚ her‚ a sinner‚” Lamche hoped to change the narrative of the fallen heroine, giving her a deserved celebratory status.

While Lamche won top prizes for the documentary ‘Winnie’ at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, she was however pilloried for being one-sided in her report. Some critics argued that her narrative didn’t explore real facts but seem stitched from different interviews with the various talking heads in the 98-minute documentary which included her daughter Zindzi and the partisan biographer-psychologist Anne-Marie du Preez Bezdrob.

Guy Lodge of Variety puts it this way: “Winnie” is best viewed as a starting point: It certainly offers viewers more to chew on than 2011’s misguided (if similarly romanticized) biopic of the same title, not least because Madikizela-Mandela, speaking only as herself, leaves Jennifer Hudson in the dust as a dramatic presence. What’s critically missing here is the historical friction that might encourage those newly intrigued by her story to probe further.”

Away from the reel world, Winnie had been an interesting topic in the literary world.

In 2004, her biography was written by Bezdrob chronicled her life in a gripping narrative. She gave an in-depth look at the icon’s personal and political life. From childhood to marriage, to political activism, fraud and kidnapping charges, to her painful divorce from her husband.

Winnie followed this up with a journal titled “491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 in 2013 where she shared her painful plight in the hands of her detractors as well as some of the letters written between several affected parties at the time, including Winnie and Nelson Mandela, himself then a prisoner on Robben Island.

In another book titled ‘Part of My Soul Went with Him’, Winnie recounted her deracination days. Compiling interviews and letters, she relayed her childhood days and events that led to her husband’s imprisonment as well as her encounter in the hands of her captors. The book was published in 1985.

Winnie died in a Johannesburg hospital at the age of 81 after a long illness, according to her family. President Cyril Ramaphosa during a condolence visit to her home in Soweto said she will be honored with a state funeral on April 14.