Flawed Heroines

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 09, 2018

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeQueen 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.

4 Responses to “Flawed Heroines”


  • Winnie Mandela was a hero. If she’d been white, there would be no debate

    By Afua Hirsch
    April 3, 2018

    Heroes are curious things. Ours have roots in the ancient Graeco-Roman sense of the concept, which places a premium on military victory. What’s problematic is how many of our heroes embody an inherent level of violence, as is unsurprisingly the case with people whose main accomplishments arise from war. We are tolerant about people who regarded the working classes as an abomination (Wellington), the transatlantic slave trade as a good idea (Nelson) or Indians as repulsive (Churchill), because we think the ends – defeating Napoleon or Hitler – justified the means.

    Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, as the press coverage of her death this week shows, is not entitled to the same rose-tinted eulogy as our white British men. She is “controversial” and a “bully”. One newspaper columnist was boldly willing to abandon his usual restraint in not writing ill of the dead specially for this “odious, toxic individual”.

    The media reports have raised the horrific murder of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi, though few have been unduly troubled by the fact that this was a crime she always denied any involvement in, or by the ample evidence of the lengths to which the apartheid regime went to infiltrate and smear her and her followers.

    Continue here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/03/winnie-mandela-hero-white-protest-apartheid

  • just right. You are just that.JUST RIGHT on Winnie

  • Dr Cujoe, you didn’t explain what was flawed with your mis-representing headlines, I would have expected you to be more indept with the legacy of Liberating Icon Madikizela Mandela, this is what is expected of a white imperialist writer like Alan Cowell, are you for real? do you know of any icon enduring what that Great Woman had to go through and not being broken? Malcolm X’ mother was in that very same caliber, you of all people should know how she ended. Dr Cujoe, over time you tend to write about aspiring Women, can any one of your attributes step into her shoes? Nelson Mandela was twice her age when she got married to him, even though he never allowed her to be part of his political activities, she became the face of the international struggle in South Africa, what is flawed about that Dr Cujoe? this Woman was harassed, banished and jailed, never allowed to visit any school her children attended, not forgetting that her children was born with Mandela serving life in prison. Solitary confinement in prison and at her home, i doubt you Dr Cujoe would have endure her perils. Madikizela was a soldier in a war she did not start, but had to partake, the stakes was to high to fail, “Drama is the only thing that changes attitude and attitude changes behavior” Mam Madikizela was dealt with unplayable card hands, and as a TRUE, TRUE HEROINE she was never broken, the kind of Woman every Good Man should have in his corner. We need some Winnie Madikizela Mandela in Trinidad, she is unsurpassed.LONG LIVE, LONG LIVE, LONG LIVE, real Black Woman have someone to live up to forever.Long Live MADIKIZELA.

  • We all look for heroes, people we like to emulate, lives we like to follow and dreams of living their high life. However when a people is oppressed and their dreams are crushed we can see the worst in their humanity. We must not be too eager to judge such souls subjected to the whip of the oppressor.

    Winnie was a complex woman living in a world that caused her to suffer from the emotional wounds inflicted on her. The chief one being separated from her husband who could have been a stabilizing factor. Yet those emotional wounds manifested itself in strange ways. It caused her to act in nondescript ways.

    Whatever her trials and tribulations may have been, I salute her at end of a difficult journey with many strange and jagged turns. May her soul RIP

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