Africa and the world at large are in mourning following the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, heroine of South Africa’s anti-Apartheid struggle. The ex-wife of the former South African President Nelson Mandela, died at a hospital in Johannesburg aged 81.
Winnie Mandela: A Life Of Struggle
A daughter of South Africa’s Pondo Tribe, Winnie’s roots lay in Pondoland within the heartland of Apartheid Rural South Africa. A testament to her forward thinking character is evident in the fact that she was the first Black Social Worker to be attached to a Government Hospital.
It is in her role as a Government Social Worker that she became aware of the plight of Africans in Apartheid South Africa. This in my view represents the best way to understand Winnie Mandela, fundamentally as a Social Worker and Activist.
Her Social Activism continued to shine even when she was ‘banned’ and moved to remote areas like Brandford by the Apartheid State due to her Revolutionary activities. Even under these circumstances, she started a day care center and numerous other welfare improvement initiatives for the Black population…Its clear that she always carried the struggle within her heart.
It is during this early period in her life as a Social Worker in Johannesburg that she met Nelson Mandela who called her at Baragwanath Hospital and asked to meet with her initially to help raise funds for the Legal Defence in the Treason Trial which ended in the Acquittal of the Accused Activists….The rest as they say is History.
1958 Winnie & Nelson Mandela Wedding Photo
During her husband’s 27-year incarceration, Winnie campaigned tirelessly for his release and for the rights of black South Africans, establishing a massive personal following.
Tortured and subjected to repeated house arrest, she was kept under surveillance and, in 1977, banished to a remote town in another province.
Winnie said the experience of more than a year in solitary confinement changed her. “What brutalised me so much was that I knew what it is to hate,” she said.
“The years of imprisonment hardened me … Perhaps if you have been given a moment to hold back and wait for the next blow, your emotions wouldn’t be blunted as they have been in my case. When it happens every day of your life, when that pain becomes a way of life … there is no longer anything I can fear. There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn’t any pain I haven’t known.”
As the violence of the apartheid authorities reached new intensity, Winnie was drawn into a world of internecine betrayal, reprisals and atrocity.
“We have no guns – we have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol,” she told a township crowd. “Together, hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.” Necklacing was the term for killing a perceived traitor with a petrol-filled burning tyre around the neck”.
Firebrand: Winnie at Protest 1980s
Most notoriously, Winnie was found guilty of ordering the kidnapping of a 14-year-old boy, Stompie Seipei, also known as Stompie Moeketsi, who was beaten and later had his throat slit by members of her personal bodyguard, the “Mandela United Football Club”, in 1989.
Victory: Nelson & Winnie Mandela Following Nelson’s Release
Within a year however, Winnie gave the clenched-fist salute of Black Power as she walked hand-in-hand with Mandela out of Cape Town’s Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1990.
For husband and wife, it was a crowning moment that led four years later to the end of centuries of white domination when Mandela became South Africa’s first Black president.
But for Winnie, the end of apartheid marked the start of a string of legal and political troubles.
In its final report, the TRC ruled that Madikizela-Mandela was “politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by the MUFC”.
Winnie and Mandela separated in 1992 and her reputation slipped further when he sacked her from his cabinet in 1995 after allegations of corruption. The couple divorced a year later.
Still unafraid of controversy, she remained Politically active, and in 2009 she won a Parliamentary seat. Though she was harsh about his record in office, Winnie could be seen almost daily visiting her ailing former husband during his last months in 2013.
Winnie’s life reflects the tragedy of the Black Woman…A young mother and Wife deprived of her Husband, and basically left to fend for herself within a Racist State, it is hardly surprising that Winnie became radicalised particularly following her innumerable detentions, torture, interrogation and constant harassment by the Security Police.
The fact that her spirit was not broken in such adversity is a testament to her strength and that of African women.
Following her death, eulogies have poured in from South Africa and across the World, and it is perhaps the observation made by EFF Leader Julius Malema that Winnie was the victim of Society’s unfair double-standards and fear of the Strong Black Woman that is most poignant in my view.
Armchair criticism is always the easiest thing to do, and I wonder how many of us would have been able to cope as Winnie did under such dire circumstances.
It is in the solitude and intimacy of the Prison letters exchanged between Winnie and Nelson Mandela during his 27 year incarceration that the true magnitude of Winnie’s heroism can be appreciated.
The unsealed Nelson Mandela Prison archive Letters which we’ve posted on our Pinterest Page, and which you can view by clicking the provided link at the end, are taken from the Book ‘Prisoner In The Garden’ and reveal the anguish and burden of an ordinary couple caught in the storm of Revolutionary struggle as they desperately attempt to preserve an elusive Marital normalcy in extreme adversity.
If we can read and put ourselves in Winnie’s shoes at the time these letters were exchanged, perhaps we can begin to understand the real Winnie Mandela.
Check out the videos below as Winnie speaks for herself during the time of her Brandfort ‘banishment’ in the 80s, and also when she delivers a fiery speech calling for a violent street driven People’s Revolution because the people do not have weapons to fight the oppressive Apartheid Government.
These two videos provide a Lens by which we can understand Winnie’s Radical attitude to the Apartheid State, and perhaps even in Post-Apartheid South Africa in which she constantly criticized Nelson Mandela for not doing enough for Black People post 1994.
Banishment Of Winnie Mandela 1983 Interview
Winnie Calls For Violent Revolution
The real Winnie and Nelson Mandela story documentary which can be viewed on our YouTube Channel’s ‘History & Politics’ Playlist is highly recommended.
We salute Winnie Mandela and thank her for her self-less contribution to the freedom of Africans everywhere.
R.I.P…..21 Gun Salute!!
Winnie & Nelson Mandela Prison Letters
Prisoner In The Garden: Nelson Mandela’s Prison Archive