New And Classic Book Reviews
Forced to be a fugitive.
Winnie Mandela Mother of a Nation
Winnie M andela was first called ‘mother of a nation’ when she was 33 years old. At the time, she was enduring weeks of solitary confinement in Pretoria prison and had undergone five days and nights of intensive mental torture. She had been returned to her cell utterly exhausted, and almost overlooked a tiny piece of silver foil at the k bottom of her sanitary bucket. She picked ii up and unwTapped it, finding a inside. It ended with the words ‘mother ui a nation, we are with you.’ She pricked out a reply in the silver paper and replaced it in the bucket, knowing she was no longer ~ alone in her tiny, airless cell.
This incident illustrates not only the ~ veneration in which Winnie Mandela has ~ long been held as a political leader, but also the irrepressible networks of support that sustain the opponents of apartheid.
Nancy Harrison’s biography begins with a description of Winnie Mandela’s childhood in rural Pondoland and the influence of her father, who ran the local primary school and who instilled in her a deep sense of the injustice of white minority rule. Winnie always did exceptionally well in her studies and from her secondary school won a place in a social work college in Johannesburg. After qualifying she was offered a job as the first black medical social worker in South Africa.
It was while she was working in Johannesburg that she met and married Nelson Mandela, who was already an established leader in the African National Congress (ANC). Though they had only four years together before her husband was sent to the notorious prison on Robben Island, this extraordinary marriage was to change the course of Winnie’s life as she became a symbol of resistance outside the prison walls. For most of her adult life Winnie has been subjected to vicious harassment and abuse. She has been arrested and detained countless times, watched constantly, her home raided and searched; she has had to contend with informers, false friends, rumours and gossip designed to undermine her loyalty to her husband. When none of this succeeded in preventing her from being involved in acts of resistance she was banished to Brandfort in 1977, a small impoverished town miles from anywhere.
This book runs up to the middle of 1984, ending with a moving account of Winnie Mandela’s life in exile. What began as total isolation grew to become a community of support and inspiration. Against all odds she soon managed to convince the black town dwellers that she was not a dangerous person, to be avoided at all costs. She succeeded in gaining their trust as she set up a small clinic and encouraged the women to start up a bakery and make their own clothes.
I had just finished the book, which ends with a flourish of optimism, when I learned that security forces had raided Winnie Mandela’s home and destroyed the clinic, forcing her into hiding.
However, I found Nancy Harrison’s book shallow and unsatisfying. Harrison has been unable to transcend the limitations of the biography and writes as an outsider: she herself admits in the epilogue that ‘in common with the majority of white South Africans I lived most of my life without even meeting a black person socially.’ Rather than read her version of this extraordinarily courageous and resilient woman’s life, you will find that you learn more about the Mandelas, more about apartheid and more about the resistance to it if you wait for Winnie Mandela’s own account which will be published soon.
More Valuable Than Gold
‘Although I am eleven I understand most of the strike, I like going on the picket line with my mum and dad and friends, and the boys in blue watching us.’ Leanne, age eleven, Staffs.
Although the most momentous strike in the history of the British Labour Movement is over, its effects - in the shape of new visions of community and the experience of solidarity that extend beyond work-place politics - will live on. This book of writing and poetry is a testament to the usually private feelings of those miners’ children whose experience of politics and community life have been transformed by their participation in the dispute. Their often funny, touching accounts are a monument to the true victories of the strike.
Available from booksellers and from MVTG,
Life in exile
The Unbelonging is about some women’s experience of extreme oppression: it is only partly about being black, as much of it could equally apply to many pink, brown or yellow girls. It has all the cruelty (and more) of a fairy tale, but without the happy ending. Maximum pain is caused to a sensitive young girl called Hyacinth by the harshness of those around her. Bewildered and afraid, she is defenceless except when pushed to the limits of her endurance, or impelled by the force of her ambition to study and return to Jamaica, the land of her childhood and her dreams.
The horrors of this girl’s early life between the ages of eleven and thirteen are so great that my daughter of the same age, reading about them, in the first chapter, put the book down and said she must be exaggerating. When I went on to read the rest I was glad she had put the book down, because the horror got worse. Even to read about incest at my daughter’s age might frighten and upset her deeply and permanently, so I could imagine what the fact of it could do to the child in the book. The beatings, the terror, the emotional and mental turmoil, are described in vivid and physical detail, the symptoms becoming inexorably familiar, in stark contrast with the lyrical brightness and colour of her dreams.
Even when she returns to Jamaica to find her memory has betrayed her (or so it appears) her shock and horror is so great that it overcomes all her affection for her aunt, who is scarcely recognisable. Hyacinth’s last refuge and hope of belonging is lost. However she still has her memories (however romanticised) and continues to live amongst them and hide herself there, clinging on to the only vision of happiness she had known, leaving me wondering if she will ever succeed in being happy in reality.
On Friday March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf left a graceful and grateful note for Leonard, and drowned herself. Death rehearsed with a wistful intensity in all her novels, and obscenely raging on the vast canvas of World War Two, gently closed over the sickening despair that menaced one sometimes engulfed her during her lifetime. It could not wash away Woolf’s enduring voice of imaginative daring, lyrical protest, or her tightly-controlled but unlimited capacity for feeling.
It will never be known how far Woolf’s suicide was the result of the war. Certainly she had been gazing at it approach with appalled, unblinking horror for many years. Her pacifism had been challenged by a detestation of fascism; she had seen her friends fighting t, and her beloved nephew Julian die on the anti-fascist side in the Spanish Civil War. Three Guineas is a testament to Woolf’s confrontation with this personal conflict between fascism and pacifism. It is also a radical and uncomfortable statement of the close relationship between patriarchy and fascism, and the links between the oppression of women and the state of war. Writing this book at a time when patriotism was whipped to a fever point and masculine heroism was a sacred virtue - brooking no whisper of criticism - was an act of moral courage, a refusal to bay with the hounds of war.
Three Guineas is written as a reply to a letter apparently received from a well-meaning lawyer who has asked her to join a society for ‘the preservation of peace’ and to give it funds. Col, patiently rational and ironically deferential, Woolf expresses to ‘Sir’ her belief that the seeds of violence lie all around us. For men, war is a profession, a source of happiness and excitement, a proof of manly qualities. Like honorary degrees, baubles distributed by the ‘pimps’ of the brain-selling trade, the symbols and the honours of war - tufts of fur on the head, medals, badges, marches and self-congratulatory rituals - hypnotise us so that we become rigid, with the glazed eyes of rabbits caught in a headlamps glare
According to Virginia Woolf, peace will only arise out of ‘freedom from unreal loyalties’. To achieve this goal, she is prepared to donate three guineas. She demands, first, female education that will not teach ‘the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital.’ For this she gives her first guinea. Her second guinea goes to the encouragement of women in the professions: although Woolf realises that while ‘behind us lies the private house with its nullity, its immorality, it hypocrisy, its servility’, the public world of careers offers little better than this with ‘its possessiveness, its jealousy, it pugnacity, its greed.’ Her third demand is for a ‘Society of Outsiders’ which will operate without organisation, hierarchy or power. Woolf will have nothing to do with the status quothat elevates war, adoringly oppresses women and rules with empty words and rapacious hearts. She want no society except that which refuses such values, nor any country when the whole world should be ‘the country of women’.
Since its publication in 1938, Three Guineas has been largely ignored or attacked. Certainly it is a flawed and fractured book, stiff through restrained anguish and sarcastic through repressed rage. But Woolf’s message - alas - is as needed today as it was when she wrote it, during ‘the black night that now covers Europe’. Her mockery of inflamed male vanity and self-importance, her articulate indignation, her exposure of the roots of war within all societies that are deaf to the voices of women and her defiant hope that we can find ‘new words and new methods’ before its too late make painful reading in the shadows of recent history. What feminist ‘discovered in the 1970s Woolf urges nearly fifty years ago: that ‘public and private worlds are inseparably connected… the tyrannies and servilities of one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other… it is one world, one life’.
Referring to a picture of war victims, she continues: ‘But the human figure even in a photograph suggests that we cannot dissociate ourselves from that figure but are ourselves that figure. It suggest that we are not passive spectators doomed to in resisting obedience, but our thoughts and actions can ourselves change that figure. A common interest unites us; it is one world, one life. How essential it is that we should realise the unity that the dead bodies, the ruined houses prove. For such will be our ruin if you in the immensity of your public abstractions forget the private figure, or if we in the intensity of our private emotions forget the public world. Both houses will be ruined, the public and the private, the material and the spiritual, for they are inseparably connected. But with your letter before us we have reason to hope. For by asking for our help you recognise that connection; and by reading your words we are reminded of the other connections that lie far deeper than the facts on the surface.’ In 1938 Virginia Woolf’s voice was a brave and lonely one. It is cause for hope that it has now been joined by a swelling chorus.