Play offers an intimate glimpse into the life of Winnie Mandela

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela became a beacon of hope for millions of South Africans, says the writer. Picture: Independent Newspapers Archive

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela became a beacon of hope for millions of South Africans, says the writer. Picture: Independent Newspapers Archive

Published May 17, 2024


Vusi Gumbi

Initially planned for a 3-week run, The Cry of Winnie Mandela was extended by two more weeks at the Market Theatre due to popular demand.

The Market Theatre’s moving theatrical presentation of The Cry of Winnie Mandela based on the well-known book by poet, novelist, and essayist Professor Njabulo Ndebele, is anchored on three key terms: departure, waiting (a state of limbo) and return. Alex Burger adapted this poignant new play on perseverance, which was directed by the acclaimed MoMo Matsunyane.

The play revolves around the experiences of four women (Mannete played by Rami Chuene, Delisiwe played by Ayanda Sibisi, Marara played by Siyasanga Papu, Mamello played by Pulane Rampoane and Winnie Mandela played by Nambitha Mpumlwana) who consider what it was like to wait for their men while they were away, as told by a literary professor (Les Nkosi as Prof Ndebele) in his imagination. Their personal narratives are skilfully interwoven by the dynamic theatrical adaptation, which blends dark, solitary, and nuanced aspects of their powerful experiences.

The characters dive deep into the extent of their emotional suffering and the state of limbo they are subjected to as they connect their story to that of the life and times of Winnie Mandela – the woman who championed the liberation of Africans when liberation movements were banned; their leaders jailed and exiled – revealing the significant influence of this period of their lives through a series of intimate and moving conversations.

The plight of women in South Africa during the period of waiting for their men, whether due to migration for work, imprisonment, or other reasons, is marked by various challenges and hardships – a compelling narrative that provides an intimate glimpse into the life of Winnie Mandela and her unwavering spirit. Through the chats the women have, it honours the legacy of the woman who kept the fires burning.

Winnie, a towering figure in the anti-apartheid Struggle, endured a tumultuous journey while waiting for her husband, Nelson Mandela, during his long imprisonment. Her story is one of resilience, sacrifice, and unwavering commitment to the fight against injustice.

As Nelson Mandela spent 27 years behind bars, Winnie faced numerous challenges, both personal and political, in her relentless pursuit of freedom and equality.

The apartheid regime, recognising Winnie’s influence and defiance, subjected her to relentless persecution.


She endured frequent arrests, harassment, and solitary confinement, all in an attempt to break her spirit and undermine her resolve. Yet, Winnie remained undeterred, standing firm in her commitment to the Struggle and refusing to be silenced.

As she waited for Nelson Mandela’s release, Winnie became a beacon of hope for millions of South Africans. Her courage and determination inspired countless others to join the fight against apartheid, even as the regime sought to crush dissent with violence and oppression.

Despite the constant threat to her safety, Winnie emerged as a fearless leader, rallying her community and galvanising support for the liberation movement.

However, Winnie’s journey was not without its dark moments. The years of separation took a toll on her family, straining her relationships with her children and testing the limits of her endurance. The apartheid government’s ruthless campaign of vilification further exacerbated her struggles, tarnishing her reputation and subjecting her to unfounded accusations and being left out in the cold by her political home, the ANC.

As Nambitha Mpumlwana succinctly put it in her portrayal of the Mother of the Nation, “I am your pleasure and I am your pain. I am your beauty, and I am your ugliness. I am your squatter camp shack, and I am your million-rand mansion. I am your pride, and I am your shame. I am your honour, and I am your humiliation!”.

Yet, amidst the adversity, Winnie remained steadfast in her love and loyalty to Nelson Mandela. Her unwavering belief in his cause sustained her through the darkest days, fuelling her determination to see him freed and apartheid dismantled. Even when Mandela’s release seemed an impossible dream, Winnie never lost faith in the righteousness of their cause. His release from jail signalled the conclusion of a period of sacrifice and suffering. The world observed Winnie, a representation of unwavering love and fortitude, standing at his side.

Their love had suffered due to years of struggle and separation, so their reunion was bittersweet.

Mama Winnie’s life (and story) is reflected in the play as one of many others in apartheid South Africa. The absence of husbands, partners, or fathers can create significant emotional strain for women and their families.

They often experience loneliness, anxiety, and uncertainty about their loved ones and the difficult situation of either waiting or imagining a future without them. This emotional burden can take a toll on their mental health and overall well-being, as in the case of Mamello, played by Pulane Rampoana. Women left behind by their men may face social stigma or judgement from their communities.

In some cases, they may be viewed as abandoned or blamed for their partner’s absence, even if it’s due to circumstances beyond their control. This stigma can lead to feelings of shame and isolation, making it harder for women to seek support, as in the case of Marara, played by Siyasanga Papu.

Despite these challenges, the resilience of South African women shines through. Many women find strength in their communities, forming networks of support with other women facing similar struggles – as in the case of Ibandla lamakhosikazi alindileyo (a gathering of women who are waiting) portrayed by the characters in the play.

Although set in apartheid South Africa, 30 years into democracy, a lot of women can relate to the stories of Mannete, Delisiwe, Marara and Mamello. In 2018, a study was carried out by StatsSA, which showed that most families had twice as many children living with their mothers as with their fathers (76% and 36.4%, respectively). In South Africa, out of all the population categories, only 31.7% of black children grow up in a home with their fathers as opposed to 51.3% for coloured children, 86.1% Indian or

Asian children and 80.2% for white children.

This play also reflects the significance of the arts in society. History has always been creatively preserved over the years by varied points of view and scenarios presented in art. By presenting viewpoints that stood out and challenged the status quo, art has also played a crucial role in becoming the forerunner of change in society.

Art serves as a form of social memory. Even more so than historical fact-based documents, artists maintain life as we know it through expressive mediums like music, literature, and other forms of art.

* Gumbi is from the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. He has been selected for the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders to the United States.

Cape Times