Professor Sheds Light on the Legacy of Winnie Mandela

Associate Professor of English Neelika Jayawardane of State University of New York at Oswego visited Colgate to give a lecture titled “Winnie Madikizela Mandela and the Camera: Reflections on the Mother of the Nation” on Wednesday, March 11. Winnie Madikzela Mandela, the wife of famed South African President Nelson Mandela, is a dominating figure in the cultural sphere.  She has been an incredibly important figure in the struggle for South African independence, having served many years in prison like her husband. Mandela used multiple different media outlets to shape and disseminate an image that she wanted the world to perceive her as throughout the struggle. She was an expert in crafting this image and primarily used photography and fashion to generate her own narrative based on the demands of the time.

Jayawardane first discussed the two different general portrayals of Mandela seen in literature and the media. The first is of Mandela as a representative of the people, someone who suffered the indignities of the daily harassment and violence. In this light, she is seen as a nurturing mother who has been scarred by the struggle.     

The other image of Mandela is much more negative. This portrayal depicts her as monstrous, a woman who has been so disfigured by the struggle that she must be excluded from the state of grace and reconciliation. This narrative conveys the idea that Mandela’s time in prison caused her inner demons to be released, demons that had to be reigned in by her husband.

Jayawardane then discussed various ways in which Mandela shaped her image through photography and fashion. Mandela worked with photographer Alf Kumalo to photograph various events throughout her life to send different messages about who she was. She took photos with her husband and children or ironing clothes dressed in pearls to show herself as a devoted, loyal wife. These depictions showed Mandela as a woman concerned with family, despite the fact that she did not spend much of her married life with her husband. Mandela also posed for photographs fixing a car with her friend as an act of defiance to the cultural norms, to show that she could do men’s work while the men were away. When she was not allowed to leave her home, she used the bars of her gate to make it look like she was in a prison cell to showcase her imprisonment at home.

Mandela also juxtaposed native and Western dress in these photographs to appear civilized, appearing distinctly South African while resisting the narrative of apartheid. According to Jayawardane, this masterful manipulation of her self-image forces others to identify with Winnie and to place themselves in the picture.

Students in attendance expressed positive sentiments about the lecture.

“When people take selfies they do it to show their environment [and] make themselves look good. The idea that there is a clear purpose to the photos we take of ourselves is relatable and made the content of the lecture more accessible,” sophomore Eli Brick said “Specifically, I was moved by the images with the wedding cake that Winnie Mandela would take out once a year and eat a little bit of on her anniversary while Nelson Mandela was in prison.”

“I really enjoyed the experience to learn more about such an influential and iconic woman. I was very interested in the ways that Winnie Mandela portrayed herself on film and the effects this had on how she was regarded and perceived by outsiders,” junior Emma Loftus said.