You would raise your right arm and clench your fist. I would say ‘amandla mayibuye’: that tickled you a lot. Will you be another Winnie Mandela?
My mother kept a baby book, documenting my existence from the moment of my birth until I was three. I’ve been connected to Winnie since I was born, just as children are baptized: committed to a God whose name had not yet rung in their ears; holy water poured on their infant heads. My mother raised me in the church of Winifred; my baptism consisted of tales of her uncontrollable and ferocious desire: a political yearning for freedom. I remember reading bell hooks where she says “all my life I have wanted to be free ” and the feeling of excitement that bubbled inside me, yet I knew that I had heard it from Winnie first. I knew of her but I had never seen her: she was ghostly, the stuff of legends.
Justin Chadwick’s 2013 film A Long Walk to Freedom premiered amid news of its protagonist’s death, elevating its portrayal of the struggle against apartheid to the level of an elegy for Nelson Mandela. And what an elegy it is: a musical, jubilant, heartfelt, goodbye to a man whose life had proved inspirational to so many. His quiet death accentuated his martyrdom: the sacrifice of 27 years to an idea. The audience listens, awestruck by his pithy, quotable speeches, tears dripping from their eyes. Grainy newsreels and footage from the era feign objectivity and lend the film the aura of a documentary, but A Long Walk to Freedom doesn’t interest me as the work of historical investigation and memorialisation it strives to be.
Maybe that was because I had had enough of male African political heroes. Maybe I was tired of their false promises or disgusted by the many ways in which women could be and still are shortchanged, absent or silenced in the political realm. (To me, Nelson had just been the man who stood next to Oprah, smiling and waving with gratitude.) It was also a kind of jealousy: my mother was a politician in Nigeria but I had never seen her or other women in a similar position attain the kind of success men did. As a result, I harboured resentment in me like a seed. The proverb ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’ circulated around parties and schools when I was young: the poisonous idea that a woman is a backdrop to a man’s success slipped easily from people’s mouths. In an odd way, though, with Winnie it proved true. Behind the smiling façade of ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’ all I could see was her face, rising from behind her husband’s like a colossus, dominating the landscape. For that reason, my understanding of the film was altered: I witnessed simultaneously the destruction and ascent of an icon. Winnie no longer retains the shape she had in my youth, but in her forcefulness and presence she still moves me to examine the treatment of women in politics, the roles they play and their erasure from these age-defining struggles.
Most women in the film are depicted as smiling Madonnas: colourful scarves bursting from their heads like crowns of flowers; they effortlessly clasp their children to their waists, laughing and gesturing. Later their bloodied bodies line the streets; a woman gasps, bent over with the weight of her tears. Nelson Mandela’s story was one shaped and moulded by women, yet here they are like glue, almost invisible, existing solely to hold pieces of the male story together. Idris Elba plays the charming young Nelson with a confident, thick-skinned swagger. Before he meets the force of nature that is Winnie and she irrevocably changes him, he has affairs with women. He flirts extravagantly with them and he eventually marries one: his first wife, Evelyn, the only other woman featured heavily in the film. Then the political activist that seems to be standing up inside of him splits the seams of a complacent life, interrupting their staid domesticity.
A model of devoted motherhood, quaintly detached from politics, Evelyn is the antithesis of the fierce, violent Winnie. Towards the beginning of the film Mandela asks Evelyn about the political worth of the African National Conference. ‘I think they like to talk,’ she responds, her deadpan assessment drawing Mandela further away from the ANC and leading him towards marriage and a conventional God- fearing life. Much later, after Mandela’s release from Robben Island, Winnie mocks the hardened politicians with whom he is trying to negotiate: ‘These old men just want to talk.’ These statements are worlds apart and born of radically different experiences, but they mirror each other. Even so, both portray women as politically lacking – in both the zeal of their male counterparts and the restraint and the ability to compromise. The absence of an in-between, a woman in possession of an assured, wise and developed political voice, is one of the film’s greatest weaknesses.
Meanwhile, the contributions of female activists who worked alongside Mandela and even preceded him remain unexplored. Let us remember the Alexandra Women’s Brigade: a group, as activist Hyman Basner writes, composed of ‘formidable church women and beer brewers who made themselves responsible for the township’s solidarity and good order, especially among faint-hearted or riotously disposed men.’ Let us remember also Lillian Tshabalala, a leader of the Daughters of Africa and founder of the African Democratic Party: a diverse, leftist alternative to the ANC. Despite their callous airbrushing from Chadwick’s film, the Daughters of Africa worked tirelessly on urban economic and social issues for more than a decade before Mandela joined their struggle. They marched in 1956 to protest apartheid restrictions on black women’s mobility and formed an indelible part of the defiance and anti-apartheid campaign. For the majority of the film, though, women are either shown as victims or they fade quietly into the background.
Naomie Harris, who played Winnie Mandela, stated in a January 2014 interview with The Spectator: ‘It’s not down to me to justify [Winnie’s] actions because I’m not her spokesperson. But I do want to explain how this young girl becomes the woman she becomes. There are two main ways she is portrayed: as this Mother of Africa saint figure, and then there are those who demonise her and say she’s a fraudster and a murderer. What I wanted to do was create a character that combines both elements of her.’ Portraying Winnie as a complex and multifaceted human being and politician should not be a revolutionary act. The fact that it is says much about the portrayal of women and black women in particular, with the spectre of the ‘angry black woman’ ever-looming. But the self-congratulatory idea that the film is embarking on a new and exciting portrayal of Winnie Mandela’s life is one of its major weaknesses.
While Winnie’s humanity is recognised, the film is too myopic to acknowledge any of her achievements. In Mandela’s prison flashbacks she is shown as petal-soft, perfect and radiant. In reality, while he dreams and fantasises in his small prison cell, she suffers her own private hell: 18 months of solitary confinement. But she doesn’t win like her husband does. She doesn’t gain the respect and admiration of her captors, unlike Mandela, who, in one triumphant scene, wins a pair of long trousers from the guards. My mother says that she loved Winnie for the way she kept her husband’s dreams of South Africa alive, and the film alludes to this through the idealism and zeal of their young daughter. But Winnie’s role is reduced to scenes depicting imprisonment, capture and her own spite, which reduces her status to that of a prop designed to help us experience the pain and anguish of the political struggle more keenly, or even to give us something to hate. Both Nelson and Winnie undergo harrowing incarcerations, but what does it say about the portrayal of women in politics that the dominant female figure is so dehumanised (in both the film and reality) that we fear and loathe her brutality more than we do the gatekeepers of the regime which wrecked her life and her marriage, and the lives of so many others?
After her release, Winnie’s radical actions are only hinted at: she lifts a fist in the air, she never smiles again; she is sullied. News of an affair rises to the surface, and we reflexively ignore Mandela’s chequered past. Winnie isn’t afraid of her patriotism or ashamed of her actions, flawed as they are. In her defiant gaze there is an unimpeachable strength: a conviction of purpose and will. There is no redemption for her in the way there is for Mandela, no forgiveness. She learns to live with this.
Chadwick’s film strives to make the viewer feel something: to present stark historical truth so we gape in horror and are carried away on a wave of emotion and reconciliation. But watching it, I feel that I am made blind to the truth by the conventions of a neat, cheerful, hope-filled story. For me, A Long Walk to Freedom only succeeds in the way that it takes me by the hand and draws me deeper into my past and myself. When Winnie is taken away from her children, I see a montage of my own mother’s political campaigns, her travels and departures, and stories from my grandmother’s time in office as one of the few female members of Nigeria’s House of Representatives . I am glad for them. But in A Long Walk to Freedom the stories of women and their part in political struggles are abridged and erased. We only see what could have been: their furious hopes cut off.