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Flawed Heroines

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 09, 2018

Queen Njinga of Africa ruled Ndongo (located in present-day Angola) from 1624-1663. Despite her outstanding accomplishments, "Europeans at the time portrayed her as a bloodthirsty cannibal who thought nothing of murdering babies and slaughtering her enemies." This is the conclusion that Linda Heywood, a Trinidadian professor of history at Boston University, arrives at in her new biography, Njinga of Angola: African Warrior Queen (2017).

Professor Heywood makes two observations. First: Europeans charged Queen Njinga with "dressing as a man, leading armies, keeping harems of male and female consorts, and rejecting the female virtues of caring and nurturing." Fictional accounts depicted her "as a degenerate woman driven by unorthodox sexual desires who reveled in barbaric rituals."

Second: Queen Njinga defied thirteen Portuguese governors who ruled Angola between 1622 and 1663 and made important alliances with several neighboring states. Her "religious diplomacy enabled her to make direct contact with the pope, who accepted her as a Christian ruler, and to establish Christianity within her kingdom."

These different portraits of Queen Njinga suggest that black women have never had it easy in their lonely role in the fight for the liberation of their people. I didn't appreciate the unselfish role that Coretta Scott King played in the black liberation struggle in the United States until I visited the MLK Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.

On Monday, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died in Johannesburg after a long illness. Things fell apart for her last April when she lost her legal battle to secure ownership of Nelson Mandela's home in his ancestral village of Quinn. According to Alan Cowell, "After learning that she had lost the case, she was hospitalized" (New York Times, April 2).

During the 27 years that her husband was imprisoned she was his voice to the world. The apartheid regime harassed and placed her in solitary confinement. Cowell writes: "She was officially 'banned' under draconian restrictions intended to make her a nonperson, unable to work, socialize, move freely or be quoted in the South African news media, even as she raised their two daughters, Zenani and Zindzisawa."

In Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend, Christo Brand tells how Winnie smuggled their baby granddaughter, Zaziwe, into Robben Island Prison so that Nelson could get a glimpse of her. "[Winnie] had shielded the tiny girl from the rain under a blanket as she traveled on the ferry from the mainland, relegated to the top deck as blacks were not allowed inside the boat."

Once Mandela realized his granddaughter was on the compound, he asked Brand if he could see her. "My answer was 'no' knowing that the visits were bugged." Telling Winnie he had never held a black child before, "Brand took the baby and allowed a teary Mandela to kiss and hold his grandchild." These gestures kept Nelson alive.

Nelson and Winnie parted because of Winnie's outlandish behavior, not the least of which was her open romantic relationship with Dali Mpofu, a young lawyer. George Bizos, Winnie's lawyer, wrote: "[Nelson] had never expected Winnie to be celibate while he was in prison, only that she be discreet. He couldn't accept that the relationship continued so openly after his release" (Odyssey to Freedom).

Winnie committed many indiscretions, but she lived in a violent society. The apartheid system that Hendrik Verwoerd introduced in 1948 declared its opposition "to any mixture of blood between the European and non-European races [and] the territorial and political segregation of the natives" from the Europeans.

Confining natives to homelands made South Africa an even more violent society now that force had to be used to keep the natives in their place. Frantz Fanon observes, the native who decides to challenge the colonial system must be "ready for violence at all times. From birth it is clear to her that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called in question by absolute violence" (The Wretched of the Earth).

This is why Nelson was so torn when he had to pick up a gun to liberate his people. He says, "For fifty years, the ANC had treated nonviolence as a core principle, beyond question or debate. Henceforth, the ANC would be a different kind of organization….I, who had never been a soldier, who had never fought in battle, who had never fired a gun at an enemy, had been given the task of starting an army" (Long Walk to Freedom).

David Pilling defined Winnie's political trajectory as follows: "If Nelson Mandela was the saint of the anti-apartheid movement, Winnie…was its fallen angel. While his 27 years in prison from 1963 shielded Mandela from the daily realities of fighting a racist white regime, she was thrust pell-mell into the ugly, violent and dark vortexes of the struggle against oppression" (Financial Times, April 4).

Winnie's life is a great example of the saying: "Before you criticize someone walk a mile in their shoes." President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his tribute: "Even in the deepest moments of our struggle for liberation Mam Winnie was an abiding symbol of our people to be free. In the midst of repression she was the voice of defiance and resistance" (The Irish Times, April 6).

Like Queen Njinga, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela will always be an example of African peoples' struggle for liberation.

Professor Cudjoe's email is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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