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ISBN: 978-0-9547023-0-4 | 160 pages | Weight: 0.21kg | Paperback | Published 2004 | Rights: English Language UK & European
Categories: African | Fiction | Literature |
The Cry of Winnie Mandela is a powerful story that links the lives of four ordinary South African women with that of Winnie Mandela - all women who waited for their husbands during the many years of the struggle.
"For so many decades, South Africans have been thirsting for this text. I feel privileged to be of the country where it has originated".
Antjie Krog, award-winning writer and journalist.
"Njabulo Ndebele has walked where angels fear to tread: he has made Winnie Mandela a character in an epic story that speaks powerfully about South Africa¹s recent history and legacy."
Beverley Roos, Cape Argus.
Fallen idol: Review date: April 24, 2004
Maya Jaggi on Njabulo Ndebele's searching view of public icons and private liberation, The Cry of Winnie Mandela
Twenty years ago, Njabulo Ndebele, the influential South African critic in exile, called for intimacy and introspection to be restored to a literature dominated, in his view, by the spectacular and exterior, by heroic contests between the powerless and the powerful. At a time when culture was touted as a "weapon of struggle", he honed his singular vision of the "rediscovery of the ordinary" into lyrical fiction on a township boyhood, in Fools and Other Stories (1983).
Ndebele is now vice-chancellor of Cape Town University, and The Cry of Winnie Mandela is his first novel for adults. Published in South Africa last autumn - and the launch title of an independent UK publisher, Ayebia Clarke - it was hailed by Nadine Gordimer as a work of "extraordinary originality [and] imaginative power". It combines real with fictitious characters, invented conversations with recorded quotations, in an audacious attempt to mythologise still raw experience.
Its subject is the "women who waited", hundreds of thousands of South Africans separated interminably from their men by the migrant labour system, political exile, activism and imprisonment, or by their partners' fecklessness. This "absence without duration" is explored through four women and their imagined conversations with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the "most unmarried married woman" and for 27 years the public embodiment of waiting wives. The frame is Homer's Penelope, eternal symbol of the constant wife but a "thing without agency", trapped in a social law created by men that demands an inhuman fidelity.
Of the four women, Mannette breaks Penelope's law of waiting and goes in search of her husband, who left the highlands of Lesotho for the mines but has started another family. Deli bides her time in an East Rand township while her husband qualifies as a doctor abroad, only to find herself divorced for having a child in his absence. Mamello, or Patience, declares herself "fine, but mad" after her politician husband returns from Robben Island, marries another woman and departs for the northern suburbs. Mara faithfully buries her "washout" husband after years of his sleeping around in a "slow process of departure". All are watched by prurient neighbours for signs of infidelity ("If they cannot find the proof, they'll invent it").
They take turns to question their exemplar, "Mother of the Nation", "The Lady" or "Leleidi", who is also interrogated by an alter ego. The novel probes a fallen idol, from her naive romance with the boxer-lawyer, through police raids and torture, to her globally televised emergence from prison hand-in-hand with Nelson Mandela, and his "second solitude" at their estrangement. "So much ugliness was ascribed to you," says one woman, "kidnapping children, gruesome beatings and torture of children, disappearances and deaths". A judge branded her an "unprincipled, unblushing liar".
Yet in its "wonderings without judgment", the novel explores the public figure's vulnerability and arrogance, the brutalising effects of the "master torturer" Major Swanepoel, and her notorious vow to liberate the country with matches and "necklaces", without condemnation or exoneration. Madness and megalomania are hinted at through allusions to Conrad's Kurtz. "In time you believed you owned the struggle," one woman tells her. Yet through questioning their most public symbol, and the expectations placed on her, her interlocutors reflect on their own choices, on freedom and maturity: for women from constricting expectations and collusion; for society from dependence on the delusion of flawless leaders.
What apparently began as an essay has assumed an innovative, hybrid form more reminiscent of Continental Europeans such as Milan Kundera than the anglophone novel. Its discursiveness ranges over social and philosophical problems, from sexual violence to the meaning of nostalgia in a land bulldozed by forced removals, where the First Couple's reunion is grasped at as a willed symbol of homecoming. The problem is that the women's voices remain undifferentiated in their discursive tone. A subtle and provocative meditation on public icons and private liberation, the novel seems still to be searching for a language to match the audacity and originality of its form.
The Cry of Winnie Mandela
by Njabulo S. Ndebele
“Twenty years ago, Njabulo Ndebele, the influential South African critic in exile, called for intimacy and introspection to be restored to a literature dominated, in his view, by the spectacular and exterior, by heroic contests between the powerless and the powerful. At a time when culture was touted as a "weapon of struggle," he honed his singular vision of the "rediscovery of the ordinary" into lyrical fiction on a township boyhood, in Fools and Other Stories (1983).”
Maya Jaggi, The Guardian (Saturday April 24, 2004).
About the Book
A group of women at a specific period in the history of Southern Africa finds their family life under the pressures of capitalist modernity and apartheid. These ordinary, ‘private’ stories are anchored to the more powerful public stories of Penelope of ancient Greek mythology, who waited eighteen years while her husband Odysseus was away and Winnie Mandela who waited for twenty-seven years. The life story of Winnie Mandela remains one of the most great unfolding dramas of our times; a tale of triumps and tragedies that is only just beginning to be examined.
Praise for the Book
“Njabulo Ndebele has walked where angels fear to tread: he has made Winnie Mandela a character in an epic story that speaks powerfully about South Africa’s recent history and legacy. Penelope. Winnie. Two proud women of legendary beauty. And how have they been defined? Through the imperative society places on women who wait for their husbands, their giftedness and destinies bent only to that end and no other. Defined utterly by their faithfulness or the lack of it.”
Beverley Roos, Cape Argus.
“The Cry of Winnie Mandela attains the height of imaginative power to pursue the inconsistencies of human emotion and behaviour that reveal something of the always unattainable truth.”
Nadine Gordimer, South African Writer and Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 1991.
“Ndebele represents a rare breed of a writer: he combines political awareness with a sensitivity towards context, language and characterisation. The result is a gift offering to the present time…”
Ato Quayson, Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies, University of Toronto.
“For so many decades South Africans have been thirsting for this text. I feel privileged to be of the country where it has originated.”
Antjie Krog, South African Award Winning Writer and Journalist.
“The Cry of Winnie Mandela is ingeniously conceived, imaginatively structured and elegantly written. A humane, sympathetic and generous book on the one hand, but unflinching in its honesty.”
Dr Adotey Bing, Former Director of the Africa Centre, London.
About the Author
Njabulo S Ndebele is the author of the celebrated Fools and Other Stories, a children's book Bonolo and the Peach Tree, and The Rediscovery of the Ordinary, a collection of highly influential critical essays. He is currently the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, South Africa.Return to the top of the view