The Cry of Winnie Mandela: A Novel – Njabulo S. Ndebele

The Cry of Winnie Mandela (2003) is one of the most significant literary works written by an African in this new century. It is innovative in form, courageous in its subject matter, unsettling in its interrogation of South African society, and decidedly feminist and humanist in its outlook.

The author, Njabulo Ndebele, mixes fiction, fact, biography and speculation to tell the stories of five South African women in the first part of the novel. These women are presented as descendants of Penelope, who waited nineteen years for Odysseus to return home. The manner of these women’s separations from their husbands is not unique or remarkable, especially in a country where families were routinely torn asunder, a consequence of an apartheid system which required the destabilization of black families. In order, the First Descendant’s husband left his family home in Lesotho work in the mines of South Africa. The Second Descendant’s husband went abroad to study medicine in the hope of becoming the first black doctor of a small East Rand township. The Third Descendant waited for her activist husband to return from exile. The Fourth Descendant’s husband was physically present but emotionally absent. None of the four men returned to resume their role of husbands. This first section of the book reads like an essay, a very well-written and compelling piece on society’s demand of fidelity from women in these periods of waiting.

The second part of the book is a wild ride in comparison to the first.  It is an unleashing of questions and of feelings. Our four descendants meet:

You must surely know something definite about them now. Each is an illustration of a thought. Yet, they all seem to be struggling to wriggle out of the cocoon of thought, seeking to emerge as fully-fledged beings. Seemingly, that’s what happens when thought, under the pressure of memory and narrative, steadily gives way to desire. Is it possible that our four descendants, as instances of thought turning into desire, can find themselves together in a room? Why not? The intangibility and randomness of imagination permit them absolute mobility. In this universe our descendants travel where they want, taking whatever shape they want, listening to whatever wanders in their ears.

They form an ibandla, a congregation, within which they discuss and share their lives. At one of these meeting, in a desire to go beyond their regular conversations and to find a new way of examining their lives, they decide to invite Winnie Mandela, the Fifth Descendant, into their group. Winnie Mandela’s period of waiting for Nelson Mandela was very public and quite unlike any other.

Only Winnie was history in the making. There was no stability for her, only the inexorable unfolding of events; the constant tempting of experience. The flight of Winnie’s life promised no foreknown destinations. It was an ongoing public conversation, perhaps too public to be understood

In the following sections, each of the women, drawing on her journey of waiting, poses questions to, and attempts to provide the answers for, Winnie Mandela. The Second Descendant, Delisiwe, asks Winnie about her “lowest moment” as she waited for Nelson. “What kind of pressures lead a famous, married woman to write her lover a letter that ends up in the newspapers, turning her private life into public spectacle?”. She talks about young men who desired to cuckold a famous man “while at the same time desiring fame for doing so”. She touches on issues of loneliness, sexuality, violence and rape. She then wonders whether Winnie has achieved mellowness through the pitfalls that accompanied her period of waiting. Mamello, the Third Descendant, recalls Winnie’s activism against apartheid and her subsequent victimization. Over time, Winnie became the visible symbol of the struggle and according to Mamello, Winnie came to believe that she was exceptional. As Mamello searches for the real Winnie, she also damns her:

So much ugliness was ascribed to you: kidnapping children; gruesome beatings and torture of children; disappearance and deaths…

She describes Winnie’s appearance at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a “kind of victory that arouses moral suspicion”. Winnie is

the most visible manifestation of the culture of political posture that may have had its use at a particular point in time, but which now bedevils our ability to recognize the real needs of a new society. This culture is characterized by a formulaic superficiality. You personify extreme political perception unmediated by nuance: nuance having been drained out of us by the blatant obscenity of apartheid…”

Marara, the Fourth Descendant, questions Winnie on the idea of home in an era of so much dislocation:

Winnie, there are many who hoped that the sight of you and Nelson walking hand-in-hand down the street would represent the beginning of the reconciliation of extremes; the end of dislocation.”

Of course, Nelson’s return ultimately ends in divorce from Winnie. And Mara asks “ why didn’t you find each other so that you could give permanence to our restoration? Why make us vulnerable again at such a moment?” And she further asks, as she seeks to explain what has happened to her country post-apartheid:

“ Has this got anything to do with the dislocating traumas of “interrupted experiences” ? How has the growth of the imagination or the nurturing of new values been affected by the dramatic oscillation of individuals and communities between comfort and discomfort, between home and homelessness, home and exile, between riches and poverty, love and hate, hope and despair, knowledge and ignorance, progress and regression, fame and ignominy, heroism and roguery, honour and dishonour, marriage and divorce, sophistication and crudeness, life and death, returns and departures? Have dislocation and contradiction become part of the structures of thinking and feeling that may define our character? A nation of extremes! Which way will the balance ultimately go between creativity and destruction?”

Perhaps in your inability to find each other with Nelson, you were telling us to earn our freedom through the conscious embracing of uncertainty and contradiction”.

Tough questions and heart-rending stuff. This section, indeed this whole book, always reduces me to tears. Africans always think that independence and freedom come in neat little packages with bows on top!  `Mannete, the First Descendant and the oldest among the ibandla, talks with Winnie about that final moment when the awaited husband returns.

It is logical, but also such a delight, when Winnie Mandela addressed the ibandla.  Nedebele’s Winnie is as I have imagined her over the years. She is eloquent, bold, sassy, compelling, charismatic, vulnerable and sneaky. She creates an alter-ego to speak when she feels that the issues hit too close to home. She literally takes the ibandla on a journey on the highways of South Africa to the landmarks of her life. She talks about her imprisonment, torture, state raids on her home and banishment to Brandfort. She describes the days leading up to Nelson’s release as the most difficult part of her waiting. The hearings at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were her “hell and heaven”. Ndebele holds nothing back in his portrayal of Winnie and makes no apologies nor tries to explain away the atrocities that Mama Mandela has been wrongly accussed of.  I’m in awe of Nelson Mandela because he chose to walk away from all that power and adulation after just one term of office as the first president of a new South Africa. That power and adulation is its own prison. Turning his back on all that was his second walk to freedom. But I have a very soft spot for Winnie Mandela. The good, the bad, her complexity, courage, strength, political posturing and her legendary defiance. Ndebele’s condemnation and empathy for Winnie Mandela resonates with me.

This book is an achievement. How can an African male writer compose a work that situates a vital interrogation and discussion of a nation and its people within the realm of African women’s lives? A space that is often chauvinistically dismissed as ‘kitchen politics”. Where and how did he develop this intelligent sensitivity?  Some books are just essential reading. The Cry of Winnie Mandela is such a book. I reread this book often so there will be more commentary on it in the future. But for now and after this long post, I will end with `Mannete’s advice on how to handle a husband’s return:

Yes. First, before he comes back into my life, he must reappear in the same way he disappeared. This is the beauty of it: the beginning of his journey towards me, if he’ll be willing to take it. This means, I’ll watch him come to my house through a door he will find so different he has to have a question about it; he’ll walk in upright through a door. There’s no way he cannot ask the question, whether to me or to himself: how did the door come to be different? Yes, the door to my house is my door. Then what?

Here I must slow down and savour the thought. You see, we have always tried to provide the solutions to problems that have not yet occurred. The reflex thought that you live with every day is that one day when your man returns, you have the emotional obligation to embrace him. You rehearse in your mind the reflex embrace of welcome. Simulating naturalness to perfection. After all, didn’t you miss him so much? No. Resist. Stay away from the trap of obligation. Turn obligation into serene detachment. Become a woman with her thoughts. A woman who observes. A woman who observes her man of long ago come in through her door. A woman of detachment who observes and holds on to her options, which suddenly rush at her like a tidal wave. Savour the passion of enormous possibility.

A woman of detachment, who observes, is a woman who finally realises that what she really missed about her man was no longer him, but the idea of him. So one day, when the idea comes back in through the door, you think it’s him. It could be a fatal mistake. Hold back and observe. Keep those arms folded over the cushion of your breasts. Don’t even ask where he has been. Ever. A nostalgic, sentimental, thoughtless embrace and a silly question about where he has been are a deadly combination that will see your options disappear as you begin to enter his history at the expense of yours. If you ask him where he has been, your question will become his door to his house. And you’re finished, my girl. That’s when you begin the great response. Responding to him as you slowly enter his house until you are completely swallowed up by it. And being there, you’ll never relax in it; not knowing when he may throw you out if it.



  1. A stunning review and a definite must-read. I have always admired Winnie Mandela and the atorcities attributed to her I take it, were an abberation of the difficult times under which she was operating .


  2. […] The Cry of Winnie Mandela by Njabulo Ndebele – I’ll probably read this book every year until I croak; this was my fourth reading.   It helps that it is a novella.  Ndebele’s exploration of womanhood and contemporary South African society is a wonder to me. […]


  3. This book moved me beyond my expectations, I too will be returning to it in future. What an author! Your review of it brings me straight back into its beautifully haunting mood.

    Your site is like a cookie jar by the way 🙂


    • Oh, thank you for the kind and flattering sentiments :). It means a lot coming from you. The book rocks me every time I pick it up. And as an African woman, I’m so honored that Ndebele wrote it the way that he did. There is hope yet for our men! Do come back often.


  4. Wow this does sound like an absolute must read. I will certainly be adding it to my list. I’m especially interested in it after reading A Human Being Died That Night, I want to see how the portrayal of Winnie Mandela in this book compares to the little bit that I read of her in the other. Great review.


    • I know of only three African male writers who actually understand that women are humans beings too. They are Sembene Ousmane, Nuruddin Farah and Njabulo Ndebele. But, Njabulo goes further than the other two.


    • It is a *fascinating blend* of forms as well. It’s a work of fiction but parts of it would work well as non-fiction. Which I guess is not surprising, given that the author is an academic.


    • It is published by Ayebia Publishing (in the UK) so it will be relatively easy for you to locate at a shop or in a library. Thanks, Stu.


    • I forgot to even add in the review that the book is only 121 pages. It’s really a novella and it packs quite a punch. I hope you enjoy it. There is still a lot that I want to say about it.


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