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Esther Armah Headshot

Birthdays, Legacies, Love, Leadership: Letter to Winnie Mandela

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Dear Mama Winnie,

Wednesday was Nelson's birthday. Headlines celebrating him as peace leader and iconic African symbol adorn papers in the four corners of the globe. I'm thinking of you, wondering how you are today. Like so many millions all over the world, I love and respect your ex. All over the world, your ex's name on lips - black, brown, white, yellow red, white - is a smile, a celebration. Yet, your name is a pause, a silence, a quiet - our now created memory of your magic turned mayhem, a time that is best forgotten. It is not that I refuse to celebrate your ex's birthday, it is that I don't know yours. And I should. And we should. But we did not find space to sanction your walk through bloody revolution. You did not leave apartheid's legacy with the glory your ex did. That wasn't your story.

You became the other woman, not in your marriage, but in a movement. You became this third wheel in the African National Congress (ANC), a revolutionary home-wrecker in this new South Africa, a casualty in a relationship between the ANC, apartheid leader F W De Klerk and the intrusive eyes of a global mainstream media that no longer wanted your presence nor recognized your contribution. You know the way the world side-eyes the side chick, knows exactly who she is but avoids any mention of her that is not disparaging. How did you become that? You became the punch line in a Chris Rock joke about how much easier it was for Nelson Mandela to survive 27 years of incarceration but then submit to divorce 6 months after he was released. All this after you walked hand in hand with a husband who created freedom songs behind walls and bars for more than two decades. Your walls and bars were global and lethal when they came. We watched as first your freedom ride was this global celebration. Here in New York, now my new home, the streets rang out to calls of both your names, real live revolutionary love against the odds, an apparent power couple. We loved it. I was in London. I remember Brixton, South London when hand in hand you and your husband walked streets lined with hope, change, and revolution.

So soon after, you became a woman whose woman-ness was forgotten. And, yes relationships break down, they end. This is not about that. Your body - like so many millions - became a battlefield as men fought for political power. Being tough on you as the world watched was evidence of this new South Africa. Headlines detailing horrific actions that led to the loss of life of a boy would become the narrative that would haunt and condemn you. Battlefields create dead bodies at the hands of all engaged in war. In war, blood drips from all hands, so you often can't tell whose blood or from whose hands by the end of war. But this was not that. This was a people defending themselves against state- sanctioned violence, a legitimate defense on an international stage. Your blood and your hands were marked. De Klerk suffered no such fate. He won a peace prize, alongside your ex. Steve Biko's killer endured no such humiliation. But you did. I watched. We watched. And you took the stand, stood on the stage and wanted to fight, to protest this treatment, to call out this behavior, to condemn this re-written narrative. Revolutionaries don't inherit thrones, however.

Remembering: Philadelphia 1996. You were the keynote speaker for the Million Woman March. I listened as some American White liberal women spoke of you in degrading tones, questioned your presence, and challenged the validity of this platform just because your name was attached. I thought about re-written narratives. These women who claim a home in feminism, but failed to recognize how your revolutionary choices ultimately helped move a people to political freedom and certainly enabled a man to become a symbol. I wonder, how you are now? 1997 was my first time in your homeland. A virgin traveler to this particular corner of the Continent, a stranger in this familiar land - I imagined this would be home, space to breathe and be. Midrand, Johannesburg was where I stayed initially and then I travelled around the country, saw the beauty of mountains hugging Cape Town, and tasted the poison of apartheid's cancerous legacy. I did not understand the potency of legacy. I had never felt apartheid until then, only protested against it.

Got in a cab made my way to another space in the township. I stood and listened as an Xhosa woman spat her words of anger at your now ex demanding whose authority he had when he asked the Black majority to forgive the White minority. "'Forgive them," he said. Two words aimed at a white minority who had profited from legislating your inhumanity, creating economic injustice from that legislation and then demanding it be maintained even as Soweto babies bled and died fighting to breathe legislated freedom. Your ex told a nation "'Forgive them."'. I see brown eyes. A Xhosa woman's eyes asking me who she should forgive for her children buried because they weren't willing to sit and wait for freedom while their parents were too afraid to step back into the fire of rubber necklaces and brutal regimes. She wanted her babies home. God called them home, ancestral spaces no mother wants to experience. I thought about your daughters; left in homes when authorities came and snatched you due to your latest revolutionary infringement. Their fear as their mother was continuously disappeared, their father already incarcerated, their trauma left untended and what that ceded for them as they became women.

I listened as Desmond Tutu, loved and cherished, sounded his clarion call for truth and reconciliation. The Commission he created was hailed as a model for the world to emulate, a place of unraveling secrets of horror. Was it just that? Or was it also a rewarded hypocrisy - treasure by a global predominantly White male media congratulating Black men for not punishing White men who committed state- sanctioned violent and heinous acts on Black bodies. Your fate was not to escape. You were punished, humiliated on a world stage, and banished from the public gaze. Yes, still a force in townships, on streets, with the people but invisible via a world lens - that space was now occupied by your ex, Desmond Tutu, F W De Klerk, the global mainstream media. You were no longer a revolutionary, you became a cause for apology. Desmond Tutu demanded you apologize to the world for your actions on the battlefield, actions that others walked away from - unscarred and unscathed. This is Africa, post independence, post apartheid. This Continent whose leadership is always celebrated as long as it acts outside of its own people's interests and instead represents those of the minority - the 1%. In South Africa, that equals whites. The 99% equals Black South Africans. You occupied freedom, freedom was a slave master who took your efforts, energy, strategy and defiance and sold it at the auction block of political compromise. So, I wonder if there were moments when freedom and forgiveness became an 'f' word; the taste of blood and pain on your tongue.
Let me be clear. Forgiveness is revolutionary practice, not race baiting. What I was waiting for was your ex's suggestion that you forgive yourself. I call this emotional justice - looking at the toll of injustice on who we become emotionally and how that legacy reaches from those past moments into our present and far into our future, demanding our attention. That your ex forgives you for what you endured in your bid to walk a delicate treacherous balance in that apartheid world. I wonder about that. Forgiveness for me, like black love, is revolutionary. So, I waited to hear your ex ask black South African men and women to forgive themselves and each other for what they must have put themselves and their families through in order to navigate hostile apartheid waters and come out breathing. That didn't happen. Your ex asked the Black majority to forgive the white minority - and he continues to be rewarded for that act.

Your ex is an icon, a living symbol, and a celebrated hero. You are not that. Your name is revered by those dismissed as marginal revolutionaries calling for now long gone times of your heyday, when towns to which you were banished still heard your call for freedom and equality for the South African Black majority. I am not mad at Nelson, nor his beautiful wife Graca Machel. This is not about that. This is about emotional justice - it is about a woman's contribution to a nation's freedom not being re-written and new narratives of negation and subjugation replacing revolution. It's tough when your ex is the icon and folks want to reduce you to the bitter ex-wife who never really helped realize not just her husband's dream, but that of a nation. Silence was my mother's best friend out of untreated trauma. It didn't work for her or this girl child. I don't want that to be a cancerous force for you either. So, as we honored your ex's birthday; I wondered how you are? As I acknowledge, celebrate and smile for Mr. Nelson Mandela, I just wanted to check in with you. I hope you are well.

Love, Esther

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