A photograph captured in 1869 and attributed to William Moore depicts a black South African couple in Victorian dress. The man is seated with his legs apart. He holds a large top hat in his cupped, burly hands. His wife stands next to him. Her hair is wrapped in a headscarf, and a shawl covers the top part of her dress. Her hand rests gently on the man’s shoulder. There is nothing remarkable about this photograph, except for the fact that this particular couple are the warrior prince Jongumsobomvu Maqoma, the “the leopard of Fordyce” – hailed for his military prowess and wisdom – and his wife, Princess Katyi.
Under ordinary circumstances, the two would probably be robed in leopard skins symbolising their position as amaJingqi royals. He would be surveying the land between the Fish and Keiskamma Rivers. Perhaps it would be different if the couple were dressed in Victorian clothing befitting royals. But colonialism not only meant the theft of land, but also the demotion of royalty to mere “chiefs” subject to Queen Victoria’s rule.
There is a language in clothing, communicated before a word is uttered. Colours and patterns tell a story of where you are from and your social rank. Under colonialism, clothing signified transformation. The casting off of the cow hide blanket in favour of trousers and button-up shirts for men was the outward mark of Christian conversion. For women, it was the German print skirts (idaki or isijarmani) often associated with newlywed Xhosa women today that marked a final submission to the mission project.
It is likely this type of Victorian dress was imposed on Maqoma and Katyi. This photograph was captured in the year of his parole after he had been incarcerated for 12 years on Robben Island. Upon closer inspection, these trousers could have been one half of a prisoner’s suit. Katyi was not a prisoner per se, but the wives of Xhosa kings were granted permission to go with their husbands to Robben Island, as historian Stephanie Victor writes.
About 93 years after this photograph was taken, another couple, also a prince and princess, emerged on the first day of a lesser researched treason trial decked in Thembu dress. They were not photographed together though. There are two separate images: one is a portrait of a prince likely to have been taken in the Pretoria prison where he was held for incitement. The other is a photograph of a princess snapped in haste as she entered her home, probably returning from the conclusion of the first day of court proceedings. Their names were Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
Of this significant moment in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recalls, “I had chosen traditional dress to emphasise the symbolism that I was a black African walking into a white man’s court … The kaross was also a sign of contempt for the niceties of white justice.” This marked the beginning of how Madikizela-Mandela used style to announce her ideology.
Fashion and politics
Madikizela-Mandela’s unmatched sense of fashion – a taste she developed by observing the beauty routine of her maternal “granny”, a devout Methodist – became useful when the apartheid state subjected her to censorship and surveillance.
Years after this initial treason trial, another image of Madikizela-Mandela in full Thembu dress in Durban began to circulate. While she belonged to the AmaMpondo, her marriage allowed her to assume her position as Nobandla. She stood out in urban areas reserved for white people. The only reason a black person could even be in such spaces was on the condition that they provide labour for the benefit of whites. Images of black people in largely working class uniforms as prescribed by their employers fit in neatly with the overall apartheid project: reducing black people to perpetual servants. Today the Economic Freedom Fighters’ uniforms have turned that image on its head, using clothing to show the power of the working class.
There is relatively little written about the woman who kept the Mandela name alive. Madikizela-Mandela was so visible in the movement; there should be vast collections of writing on her. But there isn’t – yet. Madikizela-Mandela’s clothes give us significant clues about the politics that shaped her thinking.
The conditions under which Madikizela-Mandela lived meant she was often reduced to speaking only in soundbites – as a result, there is arguably no political figure with as much mastery of the punchy intervention. She understood she could never fully express herself in words without consequences. So her image became her pen, and ultimately one of her weapons against apartheid, cementing her place as a cultural icon of the liberation movement.
Most of the accessible photographs of Madikizela-Mandela are in black and white. One of the most famous of these images is a head shot captured by Alf Kumalo in which she wears a striped headscarf. This means little until you see the ensemble she was wearing in colour by watching short clips of her speaking to workers. These clips only became available almost 20 years after they were filmed. The scarf is mostly green and black – the main colours of the ANC and a subtle reminder of her mission to keep the leadership in the minds of people.
Pictures of Mandela were banned across the country, in the years he was incarcerated, so Madikizela-Mandela’s visibility mattered. When you saw her, you saw the apartheid state’s act of incarcerating men on Robben Island, and you saw a symbol of the 22 million (at the time) black people who were marginalised in the peripheries of South African society.
Changing looks and ideas
Madikizela-Mandela, dressed head to toe in umbhaco (traditional amaXhosa attire) dress and adorned in beads as she arrived at the YMCA in Durban on 14 May 1976, greeted supporters with her fist proudly in the air. She represented a mission to pick up from where colonial resistors such as Prince Maqoma left off. Her attire was also a provocation, daring the state to refresh her banning orders.
When she walked into a Foschini store in Brandfort in the Free State wearing an African-print dashiki caftan dress with beads at the tips of her shoulder-length braids, she undertook an act of defiance against the small box windows outside the store designated for blacks. This was how she incited the people of that town to resist. A year later, she was banished from Brandfort.
Her fashion evolved from three-piece suits and whimsical A-line skirts to military fatigues and gravity-defying Afros, allowing her to be seen as both a communicator of black nationalist ideology as well as a witness to the changing politics of the time, reflecting the emergence of the black consciousness movement and the influence of the black power movement.
Madikizela-Mandela was globally visible, and her style inspired fashion around the world – particularly in the way artists used it to express solidarity with oppressed movements. The international hip hop awareness group Universal Zulu Nation and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation project point back to political and cultural icons. The hostile response to Beyoncé’s Superbowl performance of Formation recalls how specific fashion influences continue to unsettle the white gaze, as it did when Madikizela-Mandela and her husband entered that court 57 years ago.
Madikizela-Mandela’s fashion choices were an important show of resistance. It is more than about neatness. Overalls and aprons can be neat. The umbhaco or African-print dresses she wore after Mandela’s release reminded black people of their dignified heritage and redefined what stateliness looked like, even though she was never South Africa’s first lady. The care she took in curating her image was a message of hope to black South Africans announcing their coming freedom. It stands as a lasting heritage of the iconography of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.