A sea of green-and-black-clad women of all ages sway in the stands of Orlando Stadium in Soweto, clapping their hands, chanting and singing — all in honor of the late anti-apartheid stalwart, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who died on April 2, at the age of 81, and was laid to rest on Saturday in Johannesburg.
They applauded when a speaker at Madikizela-Mandela’s official memorial service in Soweto on Wednesday warned against continuing patriarchy – black and white — and prejudice in South Africa. She said the woman who became the public face of the struggle against white-minority rule had always fought against such discrimination.
Members of the governing party’s women’s league, wearing green and black, who attended Madikizela-Mandela’s memorial service this past week ululating in the stands of the stadium, added: “She didn’t die, she multiplied” to their tuneful chants.
This refrain has caught fire.
Paying her last respects outside Madikizela-Mandela’s home in Soweto and wearing a Winnie-style head wrap that the anti-apartheid veteran made her trademark, 22-year-old student, Neo Ngcobo, says she has joined the unofficial movement that has flourished since Madikizela-Mandela’s death.
“Mama Winnie didn’t die, and indeed she did multiply,” says Ngcobo. “Because what she left us with is the spirit to fight for what we want as women — especially as young women. There are many challenges that we face and she has given us inspiration to fight for what we really, really want in life.”
Ngcobo is among a growing number of young South Africans who are punching their fists in the air, reminiscent of many images recorded of Madikizela-Mandela over the decades. “Amandla,” she would shout. “Power to the people.”
In solidarity, youngsters are posting images on social media of themselves wearing South African head coverings called doeks, fists held aloft in Madikizela-Mandela’s familiar salute.
“Mama Winnie has left us with a legacy of love,” Ngcobo said. “She has multiplied in terms of inspiring all young women to get up and fight for what they really, really want. Women empowerment, lifting each other up. That is exactly what we mean by ‘she did not die, she multiplied.’ ”
Ngcobo’s shy, 10-year-old sister, Andisiwe, who also wears a doek, says simply that she is inspired by Madikizela-Mandela.
“I respect her and love her,” she said. “Rest in peace, Mama.”
In a eulogy during her mother’s funeral on Saturday, in Soweto’s Orlando stadium, Madikizela-Mandela’s daughter, Zenani Mandela-Dlamini, thanked young South Africans.
“As a family, we have watched in awe as young women stood up and took a stand of deep solidarity with my mother,” said Mandela-Dlamini.
“I know that she would be proud of each of you and grateful for your acts of personal courage; for joining hands in the #IAmWinnie movement, wearing your doeks and bravely mounting a narrative that counters the one that had become, to our profound dismay, my mother’s public story over the last 25 years of her life,” she said.
Mandela-Dlamini told the mourners that, like her mother, they “showed that we can be beautiful, powerful and revolutionary – even as we challenge the lies that have been peddled [about her] for so long.” She countered the negative current of a narrative describing Madikizela-Mandela as a polarizing figure with an appetite for violence, who was convicted of abducting a teen activist.
The elder daughter of Winnie and Nelson Mandela said her mother’s reputation had been repeatedly smeared and the role of women in the struggle to end apartheid and white-minority rule in South Africa marginalized.
“When you read popular history about the liberation struggle as it currently stands, you can be forgiven for thinking that it was a man’s struggle and a man’s triumph,” she said.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Mandela-Dlamini continued. “My mother is one of the many women who rose against patriarchy, prejudice and the might of a nuclear-armed state to bring about the peace and democracy we enjoy today.”
She said the apartheid regime developed a sophisticated and brutal infrastructure “for our oppression. It was intolerant of any talk of democracy, especially from a woman activist,” she said.
At Madikizela-Mandela’s memorial, Bathabile Dlamini, head of the African National Congress women’s league, said women are capable of being change-makers in a South African society that says they can’t be.
Sisonke Msimang, an author who has written extensively on Madikizela-Mandela, says the issue of male domination remains a problem and argues Madikizela-Mandela’s revolutionary legacy is a renewed militancy in South Africa.
“I have talked a lot about how patriarchy affected the way we viewed her,” Msimang said. “The way South Africans have responded [to her death], women in particular, younger South Africans in particular, has really demonstrated that the country is ready for a deeper conversation.”
Msimang says South Africa has had to reclaim Madikizela-Mandela and her legacy, in order to explain her to the rest of the world. Pointing to the trend of Winnie-style head wraps, she says this is symbolic on multiple levels.
She says the doek is a symbol of African womanhood, while also being understood by many as a symbol of subservience, worn by women who worked in white people’s homes and were forced to cover their hair.
“At the same time, the doek is chic and trendy, and many women wear it in a very modern way,” she said. “So I think it operates on very many levels, and I think what has been wonderful about photos and people wearing the doek. And if you look at the photos, they have the doek and they have the fist in the air” – just like Madikizela-Mandela.
“Winnie Mandela was always good with the defiance,” said Msimang. Take her refrain: “Amandla! Power to the people.”
“It means both that women are reclaiming the space and Africans are reclaiming the space and reclaiming what Winnie Mandela means to them,” Msimang said.
She says that Madikizela-Mandela always made the point that anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela did not make her. (The couple was married for almost 40 years and divorced in 1996.)
“She was an accomplished woman and freedom fighter in her own right and took instructions from nobody,” Msimang said, “yet patriarchy besmirched her reputation.”
“Men who were involved in the armed struggle were held up as heroes. Winnie, who was also involved in the armed struggle, was portrayed as someone who had lost her way,” said Msimang. “So I think there’s a lot to be done about the double standards and hypocrisy in talking about women’s involvement in the liberation struggle. Winnie Mandela was a prime example of what happens to be women who speak too loudly and step out of line, as it were.”
To quote a saying — patriarchy is the gift which keeps giving. A national awakening appears to be blossoming in South Africa and is increasingly challenging that status quo.
The young student, Neo Ngcobo, says this could mark a turning point.
“That is an excellent trait that Mama Winnie had, until the very last day, I believe, that is what she was fighting for,” she said. “She always wanted patriarchy to end and for women to get the recognition they deserve. We have a long way to go.”
Ngcobo says she’s hopeful, especially now.
“It’s very sad that Mama Winnie has died,” she said. “And only now we wake up and see the need to fight and go on with the struggle, with her fighting spirit. We must take it upon ourselves to continue fighting, as she fought.”