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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Cry of Winnie Mandela

Njabulo S. Ndebele

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To purchase The Cry of Winnie Mandela

Title: The Cry of Winnie Mandela
Author: Njabulo S. Ndebele
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 121 pages
Availability: The Cry of Winnie Mandela - US
The Cry of Winnie Mandela - UK
The Cry of Winnie Mandela - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting idea, well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 24/4/2004 Maya Jaggi

  From the Reviews:
  • "What apparently began as an essay has assumed an innovative, hybrid form more reminiscent of Continental Europeans such as Milan Kundera than the anglophone novel. Its discursiveness ranges over social and philosophical problems, from sexual violence to the meaning of nostalgia in a land bulldozed by forced removals, where the First Couple's reunion is grasped at as a willed symbol of homecoming. The problem is that the women's voices remain undifferentiated in their discursive tone. A subtle and provocative meditation on public icons and private liberation, the novel seems still to be searching for a language to match the audacity and originality of its form." - Maya Jaggi, The Guardian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Cry of Winnie Mandela is a two-part novel. In the first part, Ndebele introduces the stories of 'Penelope's descendants' -- four South African (and Lesothan) women who were, under different circumstances, separated from their husbands for great lengths of time and waited for their return, like Penelope for Odysseus. One husband went to work in the mines and eventually settled down there, starting a new family; another got a scholarship to study medicine abroad, another was politically active and disappeared first in exile and then was jailed on Robben Island. Physical separation invariably led to complete separation, as the men went their different ways, unwilling to return to where they had started.
       In the second part the women share their stories and thoughts, each addressing them also to Mother-of-the-Nation Winnie Mandela, a woman who had spent much of her life waiting for her man but now also finds herself disgraced and maligned. Beside their four testimonies, Winnie Mandela also comes to voice, responding to what they say with her own testimony.
       Ndebele sketches out these women's different fates with comfortable ease; they are a compelling set of everyday tragic stories, with the women themselves brought to life quite well. They suffer to varying degrees, feeling both impotence at being unable to influence events as well as guilt (particularly the one who had a child out of wedlock). They are not passive, but even when they go in search of their men and seek them out they can not change their situations: the men have abandoned them entirely.
       The Cry of Winnie Mandela does not merely relate these different stories, but also tries to connect and explain them. Separation was a feature of so many South African lives, especially under apartheid, whether because the men went where the work was -- often far away from their families -- or because any political engagement often led to forced separation (a life on the run, or in jail or exile). Admirably, Ndebele considers a variety of explanations and consequences, allowing his characters to wonder, for example, about the role of this in shaping the confused and often violent situation in contemporary South Africa at the beginning of the 21st century:

     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 ?
       Winnie Mandela is a fascinating figure to focus on, both for her decades of waiting for her man and her actions (and how she was perceived) after Nelson Mandela came to political power.
       The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has played an enormous role in trying to establish a sort of middle ground -- a national (hi)story that all can, if not agree upon at least live with. Instead of using examples of the brutal and outrageous crimes committed by whites under apartheid, Ndebele brings up Winnie's appearance before the TRC, having one of the women note how, under the pressure from Archbishop Tutu she "expressed regret" -- yet it merely:
sounded like a minor concession to the moral authority of the man of God who stood before you: "If that's really what you want me to say, what you really want to hear from me, OK ..."
It was the victory of image and posture, which had become fused into a compelling reality of their own.
        In her own testimony to these women, Winnie also addresses her different circumstances -- notably her celebrity (which is what it amounts to): while these women suffered their separations essentially in private, every one of Winnie's steps was public. She explains:
     Public figure mystique partly results from the wild play of public interpretations. The privacy of the public figure lies precisely there: in the clamour of public truths about her. But between those truths and the public figure is a redeeming silence . Her anonymity is hidden in that precious, most delicate site of public ignorance, proclaiming itself as knowledge. Do you really want me to give up that precious space ? I've held onto it when all kinds of people wanted me to confirm their truths about me. All manner of people wanting me to be their creations.
       In this narrative, of course, she is also a mere creation: Ndebele is in complete control -- and pushes the figure he controls to go along with it. Yet nowhere is it clearer that the public perception of the (famous) person and the reality may be entirely separate than when Ndebele has her say:
     So I, too, Winifred Nomazamo Zanyiwe Mandela, will be a character in my own story, certain in the knowledge that I myself could never be my own creation, even less yours.
       So aside from being a study of the costs to (South African) individuals and society of the long-term separation of loved ones, The Cry of Winnie Mandela is also a quite fascinating exploration of the nature of celebrity. While occasionally an uneasy mix of fiction and essayistic digression, on the whole it is very well done, and offers an interesting perspective on recent South African history and society.

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The Cry of Winnie Mandela: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       South African author Njabulo S. Ndebele was born in 1948.

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© 2009 the complete review

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