She was a freedom fighter, anti-apartheid activist and cultural icon.
When Gertrude and Columbus Madikizela had their fourth daughter in 1936, they gave her the name ‘Nomzamo’. If indeed parents have premonitions of their children’s future lives, then Winnie Mandela was aptly named: Nomzamo in their native Xhosa language means ‘She who strives’. For more than six decades, the Mother of the [South African] Nation spent her life striving for justice for herself, her family and her country until her death on Monday at the age of 81.
Her famed marriage to the symbol of anti-apartheid, Nelson Mandela was bound to make her a collaborator in the fight against racial segregation in that country; but her struggle actually began before the two met. At a time when it was a rarity for black people to go to school, she attended the Jan H. Hofmeyr School of Social Work and earned a degree in social work at 20. ‘I started to realise the abject poverty under which most people were forced to live, the appalling conditions created by the inequalities of the system,’ she once said.
It wasn’t until two years later that she met a handsome forty-year-old man at a bus stop where she was trying to get home from her job as a social worker. Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela was a tall, charming man and soon enough a romance ensued between them. Winnie was wary that the man was married and had three children already. He convinced her that the marriage had become strained as a result of his involvement in politics. Eventually, Mandela’s first wife Evelyn Mase filed for divorce, citing adultery on the part of her husband. That same year, 1958, Mandela and Winnie got married. Their happiness was doomed to be short-lived.
In five years, the couple had had two daughters, Zenani and Zindziwa but due to his work in fighting against apartheid, Mandela was frequently picked up and charged to court. However, in 1963, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of planning a violent overthrow of the government.
The responsibility of continuing the struggle fell on the young wife’s shoulders and she carried on where Mandela stopped. She was arrested and detained several times, often tortured but her spirit was never broken. She led the political movement and the political party ANC like an Athena. In 1969 she was kept in solitary confinement for eighteen months. Even when she was banished to exile in 1977, her house was bombed twice by apartheid operatives.
But her work was not without controversy- she was widely criticized for endorsing the killing of political opponents and quoted in 1986 as saying ‘With our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country’. (Necklacing as in the burning of people with tyres around their necks). She was also said to have a security force called ‘Mandela United Football Club’ whose role was to kill opponents and turncoats. Most notoriously, she and her bodyguards were accused of slitting the throat of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi who they suspected to be a police informer. She was given a six-year jail term but offered the option of a fine. Her criminal accusations also included several cases of intimidation and blackmail. Little wonder publications like New York Times described her as a tarnished symbol.
When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, she was on his arm liked Hugh Masekela sang in his Bring Him Home song. She was by default the First Lady of the new democratic South Africa. Again like it was before Mandela’s conviction, the love was short-lived. The couple separated in 1992 and finally divorced in 1994. Winnie’s affair with a young lawyer, Dali Mpofu proved too bitter a pill for the old man to swallow. Still, she was part of his cabinet as Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology until she was sacked in 1995 after allegations of corruption. She later included her maiden name in full appellation, going by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
In 2003 she was again found guilty of embezzlement and given a suspended sentence of three years but she returned to politics as a member of Parliament from 2009 until her death.
Every hero has an Achilles’ heel: perhaps Winnie Mandela’s hubris was her unflinching conviction in whatever she believed in, even when it seemed like the end didn’t necessarily justify the means. She was unflinching, unflinching and blessed (or is it cursed) with a scathing tongue. She once reportedly called Archbishop Desmond Tutu (another revered figure in South Africa) a cretin. Mandela himself was not left out of her sharp criticism. His conciliatory approach to the new South Africa was something she didn’t agree with. ‘Mandela did go to prison and he went in there as a burning young revolutionary’, she once said in an interview. ‘But look what came out. Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks.’
Nevertheless, her devotion to Mandela continued until he died. Many observers believed that the two were soulmates and never actually stopped loving each other, even if she once went to court to prove that their divorce was a fraud and he completely left her out of his will. Graca Machel whom Mandela later married also had a courteous relationship with her and once said ‘It’s unfortunate that in our lives we don’t interact very easily but I want to state very clearly that Winnie is my hero. Winnie is someone I respect highly.’
Since her passing on Monday, several news outlets have described her as a flawed heroine, mugger and controversial. But she would not have minded: her life, she repeatedly said, was dedicated to the struggle against white rule. In her words, ‘I was married to the ANC. It was the best marriage I ever had. I am not sorry. I will never be sorry. I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything.’
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is survived by two daughters, eight grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and a nation in mourning.
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