In Their Own Words: Women Who Lead (South Africa), 10/22/2019, #7

In this week’s set of readings, I was reminded that black female political leaders have very complex sets of experiences that impact their political trajectory and life outcomes. They are often thrust into the shadows of their spouses, yet also expected to fulfill their obligations in their absence. They have a lot to reconcile in terms of what they owe to their race. And they, too, victims of institutional punitive policy. Because of this, the feelings elicited from reading Winnie Madikizela Mandela’s autobiography were very erratic – I gained insight into how she was constructed into a rhetorical widow and also into the abuse, intimidation, harassment, imprisonment and solitary confinement she endured while fighting against the apartheid regime. I also saw flaws that caused me to critique her. I will explore some of these ideas in my response, which will have a looser structure and an unrelated flow of ideas. 

I have found that with a lot of women who have husbands who occupied positions of political power, people deliberately (or sometimes unintentionally) link them to their husbands. This reflects the well-documented idea that women are to be viewed as extensions of men. Their agency only goes as far as possession by their fathers, husbands, and brothers. This failure to recognize women, particularly black women, as separate entities from their husbands also reflects, more generally, an unwillingness to fully consider them as autonomous beings with independent ideas and behaviors. It is especially interesting that people did this to Winnie Madikizela Mandela, given that her political ideas differed from Nelson Mandela’s. I was also reminded of other leaders we have covered in our class who also faced similar challenges. For example, people would constantly ask Shirley Chisholm whether her husband approved of her leadership in Congress. 

Linda Horwitz’s “We Are What We Pretend to Be: The Cautionary Tale of Reading Winnie Mandela as a Rhetorical Widow” framed Winnie Madikizela Mandela’s position as rhetorical widowhood, a social role in which “rhetorical exigency and authority comes from her husband’s inability to speak.” I saw evidence of this particular phenomenon in her autobiography. In the epilogue, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela recognized the reductive perceptions people had of her and made it known that she wanted to establish her own individual presence: 

I was aware of the fact that suddenly I discovered, ‘Oh, I have no name now’ – everything I did as ‘Mandela’s wife’. I lost my individuality: ‘Mandela’s wife said this’, ‘Mandela’s wife was arrested’. It did not matter who the hell I was; it did not matter that I was a Madikizela; it did not matter that I was a human being. And it was understandable to the oppressor that whatever they did to Mandela’s wife, she deserved it.

This legitimizes the ideas that I put forth: that women are viewed as extensions of men and that in the case that a man’s authority is unavailable, it is only then that their voice (which still represents a man’s) will be considered or valued for its contribution. Despite this, I think it is important to note that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was a significant political figure in her own right. She was the target of relentless abuse over a span of years and was a powerful symbol of resistance against the South African government. She was also very dynamic, and had her own shortcomings and controversies, which are worth discussion. I disagreed with the ways she expressed some ideas related to the positioning of black women in society in her speech, “Being a Black Woman in Society.” In particular, she notes: 

Black women are discriminated by the white supremacy; they have to contend with male prejudice fed by patriarchal notions, they suffer abuse from white women who are also  beneficiaries of white supremacy. At the same time, they are expected to form alliances with these women to defeat male privilege. They are expected to be in solidarity with their male folks to fight racial oppression. In this regard they have little choice. They cannot sit on the sideline and watch the black male being reduced to an endangered species. After all, these men are the fathers of  their children, the lovers, and their sons. In short, there is no other species that understand oppression as black women do.

Though the majority of this point holds true for me, I have come to disagree with the last line. I don’t think it is necessarily true that black men understand oppression as black women do. Throughout the course, looking at a lot of black female leaders, many of them were abused by black men at some point in their lives. It is not a bug, but rather a feature, of the lived experience of black women. Even in Winnie’s case, I saw this expectation of preserving the image and goals of black men reflected by the fact that she was expected to engage in so much labor and remain allegiant to Nelson Mandela during his 27-year imprisonment. 



Horwitz, Linda. “We Are What We Pretend to Be: The Cautionary Tale of Reading Winnie Mandela as a Rhetorical Widow.” Meridians , Vol. 11, No. 1 (2011), pp. 66-90.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela “491 Days.  Prisoner Number 1323/69.

Winnie Nomzamo Madikezela Mandela “Being A Black Woman In The World – Part 1 & II” Expo for Today’s Black Woman held in Chicago, Illinois]

Featured Image:

“5 Ways Winnie Mandela Influenced the Lives of Women in South Africa.” African Impact, April 2018. (David Turnley/ Corbis/ VCG via Getty Images)


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