Winnie Madikizela-Mandela joined the ancestors on April 2nd at the age of 81, leaving the nation of South Africa bereft of an iconic leader and the world in mourning. Although she came to public prominence as the wife of freedom fighter, and later president, Nelson Mandela, she built sarong and lasting legacy of her own. Winnie passed as a valued member of the Parliament, the nation’s governing body. This was a significant victory after devoting her life to the reestablishment of a nation governed by the indigenous people of the land. Winnie was also able to witness a major victory before her death. Early last month, Parliament passed, by a 241 to 83 majority, a law allowing the government to seize — without compensation — land owned by white farmers.
Egregious disparities in landownership had persisted more than two decades after the African National Congress assumed rule. Winnie had persistently pressed for this reform to deliver some measure of justice to a people brutalized and disenfranchised under the apartheid regime. Born one of nine children in the rural area of Transkei in 1936, the future “Mother of the Nation” was born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela. (Nomzamo means, “She, who will go through trials” in the Xhosa language.) After moving to Johannesburg as a young adult, she became the nation’s first Black female social worker. Nelson and Winnie were introduced by his friend Oliver Tambo; she was a friend of Tambo’s wife Adelaide. Winnie said that even in those early days of dating, Mandela was consumed with his calling. He had opened, along with Tambo, the first Black law firm in South Africa, and was quickly rising as a leader in the antiapartheid movement. “I had so little time to love him,” she said.
Married to the world’s most famous political prisoner, Winnie Mandela kept the faith and the fight over the 27 years of his imprisonment, organizing for the retaking of ownership of the lad from white settlers. During that time she raised the couple’s two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, while organizing relentlessly as well, for the protection of people involved in the resistance. And citizens, including many young people and children, were being murdered in the streets, on the road, and in their homes by the government’s merciless armed forces.
Her activism on behalf of the people and her advocacy for justice for her husband kept Winnie the target of a suppression campaign. Regularly detained and tortured by the government, she was, in one incidence, released from prison in October 1970, after having spent 491 days in solitary confinement. In 1977, she was sentenced to live in banishment for more than 10 years in a home that initially had no floor or ceiling, no running water or electricity and that was surrounded by steel mesh and barbed wire. She lived alone, as Zenani had married and moved away and Zinzi was sent away to school, when Winnie saw depression infecting the young woman’s spirit as a result of the banishment. Yet Winne managed to make a few friends in the little town of Brandfort. She made a few friends, educated some people about their rights, and paid for a local student to go to school, all while escaping the eye of the armed guards.
After her return to society, Winnie remained a freedom fighter, maintaining the acumen and fortitude to help organize people across the globe in a long, but eventually successful, campaign to press for the release of her husband and for the abolition of apartheid. It is not often noted just how instrumental she was in these victories. She personally petitioned a government official to begin the proceedings for her husband’s release. Then prior to his release in 1990, Winnie was offered a home to live in with her husband in a remote area. She refused, saying that she would live with him only when he was rightfully returned to his people. And she prevailed.
Her time with her husband would not be long, however. They were divorced two years later in a controversial trial, him citing loneliness and accusing her of an affair. She countered with accusations of her own that she did not quite make clear. It appeared that being apart for close to 30 years had taken an almost-inevitable toll on the marriage.
Despite a protracted character-assassination campaign by the former apartheid government, Winnie held the hearts and minds of her most ardent supporters and would later regain the support of the people overall. In 1991, she was implicated in the murder of “Stompie” (James Seipel), supposedly ordering it because he was a police informant. Her years of active resistance had always been marked by heartbreaking betrayals by people she thought were friends and allies, but who were actually sent by the government to spy on her. In this case, the state imprisoned close members of her team, then threatened them with death (capital punishment) if they did not testify that Winnie ordered and orchestrated the kidnapping of Stompie and other youth. They complied, and she was arrested.
Winnie’s six-year jail sentence was later appealed and reduced to a fine and a two-year suspended sentence – proof according to many – that it was known all along that she had no involvement. But despite the support at home, the intended damage to her international reputation had been done, chiefly because the world was led to believe that she had been charged with murder, although she never was.
A 2017 film titled, Winnie, premiered on PBS in February. In the documentary, director Pascale Lamche interviews former members of the government’s surveillance and legal team who lay out, step-by-step, exactly how they went about framing Winnie and turning public opinion against her. Unrelated to the film, however, is the fact that some of Winnie’s public statements and private missteps served to bolster the efforts of her accusers. Although her final days were marked by victory with the passing of the landownership law, she suffered a defeat as well when the Supreme Court of this new South Africa ruled that she held no claim to Nelson Mandela’s village home, which she’d hoped to secure for their daughters. Her memory, her mission and her sacrifices will always be remembered, however.
Our Time Press asked a few local women active in various arenas to speak on their memory of Winnie Mandela. Their comments follow:
Councilwoman Inez Barron:
“We are saddened to learn the news of the passing of our sister warrior, Winnie Mandela. The sacrifices, the leadership and the stamina which she displayed, not only during the time of the battle for independence, but beyond that time, are memorable and exemplary. We know that she has left a great legacy, we appreciate her sacrifices and we extend our deepest condolences to her family.”
CEO, Morris Allsop Public Affairs, former publisher of the Big Black Book:
“She was so courageous – in her fight, her thoughts and in how she had to live her life when her husband went to jail! She had some support, she had certain principles she wanted to live by and freedom was still her guiding light. And so, I think we have to salute her as a woman of the ‘Dura Milaje,’ because she was a warrior. May we be inspired and display the strength and courage that she did.”
Co-founder, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, VP/CPDO, Moms Rising:
“Winnie Mandela represents a national leader and what it means to be a strategist. She was one of the architects of the global movement to dismantle apartheid. We talk about how inspirational she was as this maternal figure and an amazing partner in her campaign to free her husband from prison. I always want to uplift Winnie Mandela as a global activist who really marshaled the world. I don’t think any country was untouched by the antiapartheid movement through her efforts to change her country. That’s just powerful!”
Moikgantsi Kgama, founder of ImageNation Cinema Foundation
“Many think we know Winnie because she was married to Nelson Mandela,” said Kgama. “But the fact is, we know Nelson Mandela because Winnie consistently agitated for his release and the total dismantling of apartheid. She was the more radical and less comprising of the two. This is probably why mainstream media rarely gives her the credit she deserves.”
Winnie Mandela is survived by her daughters Zenani Mandela-Dlamini and Zinzi Mandela.