Winnie or lose? Why books about the late icon suck
Critics slam biographies as error-strewn, inaccurate, naive and vague or overly sentimental and uncritical
Farewell, then, to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who continues to leave South Africans as divided about her legacy as she did when alive. And so to the several books that attempt to rise above politically correct sentiment and capture in a “balanced manner” a complex historical figure.The most recent biography is Anné Mariè du Preez Bezdrob’s Winnie Mandela: A Life, published in 2003 by Zebra, the Penguin Random House SA imprint. It was fairly well received at the time of publication (when Madikizela-Mandela was indicted for fraud) and was deemed by many an engaging and informative read.
But, as the historian Patricia van der Spuy noted, the biography was also “overly sentimental and uncritical”, based as it was on a “stereotypical view of ‘women’s ability to face difficulties and misfortune with grace, tenacity and humour, and still embrace life with delight’.”
The book has a “flawed premise”, according to Van der Spuy — one, I suppose, that has persisted in much of the discussions around Madikizela-Mandela since her death: “A near-perfect Winnie Mandela is created,” Van der Spuy writes, “who is so different from the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela of the Stompie Seipei case that a radical explanation is required. That explanation is post-traumatic stress disorder. The book argues, in effect, that the apartheid machine destroyed Winnie Mandela. Through the author’s well-meaning compassion, Mandela is reduced to the status of victim. She is not responsible; she cannot help herself.”
And so, Van der Spuy concludes, by presenting her subject as a “romantic, sentimental heroine”, Bezdrop risked “exoticising” Madikizela-Mandela and “participating in the neocolonial project”. The book, she concluded, was a lost opportunity to “seriously examine former hagiographies and to reflect on the shifting portrayals of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela”.
It’s worth noting that Madikizela-Mandela distanced herself from both Bezdrop’s book and, more stridently, the subsequent film based on it, Darrell Roodt’s Winnie Mandela: The Untold Story.A decade earlier, Emma Gilbey’s The Lady: The Life and Times of Winnie Mandela (Jonathan Cape, 1993) was deemed just as unwelcome by its subject. It was however widely received as one of the first serious attempts to analyse how the very qualities that had endeared Winnie Mandela to the oppressed had transformed her into her own worst enemy, and how she came to be feared and rejected as much as she’d been respected in the community she served.
But, as the veteran journalist Benjamin Pogrund pointed out in his review of the book for the UK’s Independent newspaper, much of The Lady was error-strewn, inaccurate, naive and vague about the ANC’s internal politics and its history.
There was, Pogrund said, “little insight into the agony that lay behind the community’s decision to distance itself from Mrs Mandela, or why Nelson Mandela was impelled to maintain his public support for her for so long. Ms Gilbey is superficial about these because, as with the errors she perpetrates, she does not know better. The life and times of Winnie Mandela deserve better.”An earlier biography, Winnie Mandela: Mother of a Nation (Littlehampton Book Services, 1985), is, perhaps mercifully, out of print.
Other significant books include Madikizela-Mandela’s own. Her first was Part of My Soul (Penguin, 1985), a collection of interviews and letters in which she gives her account of her life and political development. It was compiled and edited by Anne Benjamin and Mary Benson.More recently, there was 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 (Picador Africa, 2013), with a foreword by Ahmed Kathrada, which relates to the time in May 1969 when she, along with other anti-apartheid activists, was rounded up, kept in detention for some 16 months and twice tried for charges in terms of the Terrorism Act.
Some 41 years after her eventual release, in September 1970, the widow of one her defence attorneys returned a stack of papers to Madikizela-Mandela which included the journal and notes she had written while in detention, most of the time in solitary confinement.
Much of what she endured and recorded is almost beyond comprehension, but, along with some contemporary letters for her husband, family members and other interested parties, they offer a unique and personal slice of history.
If, as Van der Spuy appears to suggest, future and possibly more scholarly Winnie biographies would hope to overcome the “flawed premise” at the heart of works like Bezdrop’s Winnie Mandela: A Life, then perhaps the material in 491 Days would make the post-traumatic stress disorder claims a bit more plausible.
THE ISSUENext week former FBI director James Comey’s memoir A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership (Macmillan) hits the bookshelves and, as one of the most eagerly awaited books of 2018, looks set to herald a dramatic and very public clash with the man who fired him — Donald Trump — and trigger yet more discomfort and unhappiness with the messy direction of the US president’s leadership.
The buzz around the book is astounding — and the book is set to overtrump, if I may, the previous big insider account on the White House, Michael Wolff’s controversial Fire and Fury. A Higher Loyalty has already proved a popular winner, and is already an Amazon bestseller. Comey’s forthcoming book tour is another winner, too. According to the Observer, tickets to an author appearance in New York later this month are being offered online for as much as $1,000. This, the newspaper noted, rivalled resale prices for Bruce Springsteen’s best-selling Broadway shows.
Comey has contributed to the hoopla and has hyped his book as a showdown with Trump. Last month he tweeted: “Mr President, the American people will hear my story very soon. And they can judge for themselves who is honorable and who is not.”
THE BOTTOM LINE“The novel fails in just about every way it is possible for a novel to fail. It is boring, pompous, prejudiced, atrociously written, badly plotted, stupid, possibly racist and definitely sexist. I could go on. This is not fiction — this is anti-fiction. The book should be handed out on creative writing courses and students told to write books as unlike Penn’s as possible. Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff is one of the most egregious low points in the history of the novel.”
— James Marriott, writing in The Times of London, on actor Sean Penn’s debut novel. The hatchet job’s headline is worth a mention, too: “A Penn in the backside.”