Nelson, winnie, and the politics of gender

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Nations are not born, they are made; in Benedict Anderson’s phrase, they are “imagined communities.” Summoning up a sense of belonging among people who are strangers to each other is no easy task, and it is even more fraught in countries emerging from histories of settler colonialism, where fellow citizens are former enemies. The fantasy of the nation as a familyhas often been used to make strangers imagine themselves as something like kin, and it is no surprise, then, that in South Africa Nelson Mandela has been cast in the role of “father of the nation.” The project of building the post-apartheid “rainbow” nation depended a good deal on how his authoritative, yet emotive masculinity made very different kinds of people feel included in his adoptive embrace. Iconic in her own right, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is a far more contradictory and tragic figure: the “mother” of the struggle who fell from grace. Both Nelson and Winnie are to some extent the creations of our collective imagination, screens onto which dreams and nightmares have been projected. The drama of their intertwined lives has been an unusual founding-family romance and has affected not only how South Africans have thought about race and nation, but how gender, sexuality, and family have been envisioned. The unfolding public saga of Nelson Mandela’s “private” life, with its marriages, divorces, separations, reunions, and bereavements, has been emblematic of the South African experience during apartheid and its aftermath. The personal is political for an icon, and gender performance is an integral part of the theater of politics. All of us perform our gender in an intricate, mysterious mix of the innate, the habitual, and the deliberate, but Mandela’s self-fashioning also has an element of the strategic. While his persona has always had an assured, Old World, gentlemanly quality – perhaps because of his aristocratic youth in the Thembu royal court and his missionary education, or perhaps because he was blessed with height, strength, and grace – he has also forged a series of distinctively modern ways to be a black South African man throughout his political career, departing from convention in significant ways. Contrast, for example, current South African President Jacob Zuma’s unabashedly patriarchal deployment of the politics of ethnicity, through his much-publicized polygamy, with Mandela’s preference for companionate marriage throughout his life. While he was hardly an egalitarian husband, particularly in the early years, his embrace of secular humanism is visible in his approach to marriage as a freely chosen partnership; and he has always chosen women with strong personalities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge companion to Nelson Mandela
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages21
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011


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