[OPINION] Damaged Goods: Patriarchy, Power and Disposable Women

A story that is often not told about apartheid and the liberation struggle is that the two warring ideologies – that history will remember as being poles apart – actually had many uncanny similarities. They both positioned men, and male power, at the apex of authority.

The apartheid ideology was predicated primarily on race and its entire legal, social and political economy was built on the ‘fact’ of white supremacy. But apartheid was also gendered. If blacks – or Natives as we were called in the parlance of the time - were inferior, then Native women were the most inferior.

The entire political economy of apartheid was built on the notion of black women as ‘surplus appendages’. Native women were unwanted in cities and towns, were regarded pesky distractions to black men - the ‘muscular machines’ required to dig for gold – and thus were best contained on the Native Reserves, as custodians of custom content in their own subjugation.

Apartheid was a race-based caste system which positioned white men at the very top and black women at the very bottom. Apartheid was not only raced, it was gendered. Winnie Mandela’s challenge to apartheid was not only a challenge to white supremacy it was a challenge to male power.

Winnie challenged the founding ethos of apartheid: white male power, authority, and entitlement. Winnie’s defiance in the context of the political milieu of the 1950s marked her as significantly different to the subjugated ‘girls’ who laboured in white homes and farms and whose agency was tightly controlled by apartheid’s myriad, interlocking and invasive laws.

Apartheid was not only raced and gendered, it was classed. Winnie’s class as an educated woman from a family of means and substance further disrupted the accepted norms and expectations associated with Native women. She was, as she often said, her father’s princess.

Winnie was vocal, educated, articulate, valued and adored - the very antithesis of the ‘surplus appendages’ of the white nationalist project.

Winnie as a Native woman was not only unwanted as an interloper in ‘white man’s town’, she was also unwanted as an assertive, unbending, and eloquent black woman who did not drink the Cool Aid of her own apparent inferiority.

Winnie’s outright defiance of white male authority was an attack on the very foundations on which the entire apartheid edifice was born: white male hetero-patriarchy.

South African history has a long tradition of slut-shaming black women as a means of social and political control. It was a political and social strategy used to curtail the movement and social aspirations of black women, to try to stem the tide of Native women migrating to Johannesburg from the early 1900s. Controlling the influx of ‘loose native women’ into towns and cities became a national obsession.

Black women were portrayed in newspapers, in public fora, in Parliamentary debates as sexually licentious, as beer brewers, as riddled with diseases, and ultimately as a source of sexual contamination of white men and as a threat to the purity of the white race. Native women may not have carried passes, but the hoops required to get permission to travel to cities and towns were intended as a structural disincentive.

Winnie Mandela was hated by the apartheid state because above her identity as Nelson Mandela’s wife, as a self-possessed black woman, she defied every expectation of her race, class and gender. She was hated not only because she was black, but because she was an uppity Native woman who defied the subservient position accorded to her in the race-based caste system. Violence was among the many tactics used to try to break Winnie Mandela, which included bannings, banishments, detentions, constant surveillance, and torture. Footage of Winnie in the 1970s and 1980s are riddled with scenes of her being pushed, shoved, manhandled and harangued by white policemen and soldiers.

The apartheid state also waged a violent ideological warfare on Winnie Mandela by targeting her sexuality and casting doubts on her morality. Notions of the drunken, licentious, sexually indiscriminating black woman fell on fertile ground nurtured over decades. The stereotype of deviant black female sexuality is as integral to the ideology of Apartheid as the stereotype of the all-knowing, all-powerful white saviour.

Mondli Makhanya, Editor-In-Chief of the City Press, deploys this familiar stereotype in establishing his argument that Winnie Mandela is not a woman to emulate in a column titled We must not want to be Winnie (City Press, 9.4.2018). Makhanya riffs of the familiar tune of black women as inherently cheap, accessible to any and all men, and sexually indiscriminate, especially when drunk. Makhanya’s narrative begins by establishing Winnie Mandela as a drunken ‘ho hanging out with bad company. He goes on to invoke every sexist stereotype of ‘wayward women’ to further his argument of Winnie as a self-seeking, over-reacher, and an unfaithful and deceitful wife.

“When it comes to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, you can either tell the story of a saint or of a villain,” writes Makhanya. But he is not telling a story of a saint or a villain. Villains and saints are invariably men. He is peddling a story of a Madonna or a whore.

But there is a problem.

What is at stake for a black woman to be so casually trashed in the guise of political commentary about the country’s singularly most significant woman revolutionary? Who are the people most directly implicated here? Who is he addressing? Who would seek to emulate Winnie Mandela? Who is the unspoken, but intended audience of Makhanya’s virulent misogyny?

The choice of the phrase ‘damaged goods’ is not incidental. It is one guaranteed to resonate with men, with hetero-patriarchs for whom a used woman is something to be reviled. Makhanya’s calculated use of the term resonates in a context where black girls are taught that their only virtue lies between their legs; in a country where virginity testing is an acceptable cultural practice, but which never questions why, when it comes to exercising sexual agency, girls become whores and boys become men.

In exhorting us to reject Winnie as ‘damaged goods’, Makhanya’s argument invokes a stereotype with a long history of being hurtful, harmful, and hateful to black women. Any attempt to entertain his argument enjoins black women to reject Winnie Mandela in a narrative entirely reliant on racist and sexist stereotypes that demean us: the women hurt most by both by white racism and black misogyny. And does so in the current political milieu where media reports of the most graphic violations of black women’s bodies are so ubiquitous they have lost their ability to shock.

Black women love Winnie precisely because she is flawed. Her imperfections, her failings, her mis-steps, when viewed within the arc of her life, her struggle, and what she achieved, mark her as one of the ordinary men and women whose liberation she dedicated her life to. Her life was epic, but messy. Like many of ours. She was neither a Madonna nor a whore. It is not a love grounded in blind adulation. Her homophobia rankles for those of us for whom sexual orientation rights are as critical as race and gender.

The virulence of Makhanya’s attack on Winnie (and by extension all black women) is replicated in real life in brutal, and often deadly attacks – misogyny is as pervasive and intrusive in our lives as apartheid was. It is as pervasive as the casual acceptance of the degradation, humiliation and slut shaming of black women, especially those who dare to live outside the boundaries of acceptability defined by men.

A story that is often not told about apartheid and the liberation struggle is that the two warring ideologies were both patriarchal, violent, and misogynistic. As more and more revelations emerge about the life and times of Winnie Mandela, what is becoming indisputable is that the apartheid state used the fourth estate to do its dirty work. Makhanya, it would seem, continues to do white patriarchy’s dirty work with malevolent effect.

Gail Smith is a feminist writer and journalist.