To talk honestly about Nomazamo Winfred Madikilzela is to confront the reality of black men’s complicity with white supremacist patriarchy.
It is not lost on me that even as we mourn the loss of a formidable, unrelenting fighter for freedom, we must in the process fight to defend her legacy from the vultures of the system that tried and failed to break her so many times. I am also fully aware that many will try and relegate Winnie to “Mandela’s wife;” shallow, sexist erasure of her work and her agency as a womyn who existed not simply as an appendage to someone else but as the face of the movement that confronted a violently racist apartheid South Africa. What is even more interesting to me however, is the role of black men in all this. When I learnt that Ma’Winnie had passed, I was filled with a deep sadness that I’m going to try and articulate in this piece.
There has been no time in our histories where black womyn have not fought besides, ahead of and for black men for liberation. Even today, we continue to march with, speak out and join in the struggle against the oppressions black men are subjected to. The reverse however is not true for us. Black men continue to terrorize, rape, abuse, assault and side with black womyn’s oppressors against us. In talking about black liberation, it is crucial that we unpack the impunity that surrounds the uniquely sexist and harmful ways in which womyn have been treated, even as we have continued to do the emotional and physical work of championing black liberation.
Ma’Winnie stood against all odds and refused to diminish herself or what she believed even when the party she held and the men she supported faltered. The response to her endurance was dismissal, slut shaming at its very worst and erasure of her work. Compared to the noble peace prizes, the land and the forgiveness that the perpetuators received, one would assume that she was the villain in this story. In attempting to survive, black men have adopted the very violent nature of white supremacist patriarchy, and because of the nature of this hierarchal oppression, black womyn are the recipients of their rage. As a result, black liberation is now centered around the needs, rules and narratives of black (mostly cisgender) men. It is this system that demonizes radical womyn who dare to reject conformity and allows for the embrace of watered down respectability politics.
No amount of theorizing can undo the great injustice that has been done to black womyn whose radical politics, attitudes and fight against injustice in all its forms has always included the liberation of the black man; but the time has come to call out such behavior and refuse to be forgiving of the violent process of the abuse and erasure of black womyn revolutionaries.
The task that lies ahead is therefore to begin to reimagine a vision of black liberation that is divorced from this very narrow confine that has been defined for us. What is black liberation if it doesn’t recognize and celebrate the black womyn who are in the forefront fighting for black men even when they do not fight for us? What is black liberation if it is rooted in homophobia and is centered on classism? The true question of who we need liberating from at this point is one we must answer. If black men continue to adopt the same oppressive tactics of white supremacist patriarchy, then black womyn will be left with no other option than to forge ahead without them. To ignore or deny the oppressive nature of the privilege these men have is to not pay attention to what is happening around us. The task then is for black men to reach the understanding that womyn hating and sexism only serve to defeat the goal of black liberation. Without this understanding, black womyn who have staked their lives to fight for the cause will continue to suffer dearly.
Winnie Madikilzela – Mandela will be remembered for who she was, for what she symbolizes; a relentless feminist icon who refused to negotiate her humanity and by extension the humanity of all black womyn. She is a force that black feminists must continue to celebrate and the voice we must replay when faced with adversity.
Rest in Power Ma’Winnie. You continue to live in many of our hearts.