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Sunday, 8 April 2018

Who was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela?

On 2 April 2018 Winnie Madikizela-Mandela passed away at the age of 81. Known across the world as Winnie Mandela she was an ardent anti-Apartheid activist who had far more agency than just being the wife of Nelson Mandela. Today we look at her life to understand her role in the history of South Africa.

South Africa and early Life
Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela was born in Bizana in the Eastern Cape in 1936. Her name, Nomzamo, means 'one who strives or undergoes trials' which was a prophetic name for her later career. Even before independence in 1910 South Africa was a settler society on the same lines as the future Zimbabwe and Kikuyuland in present day Kenya. White farmers had historically taken arable land from the local population and in the cities Africans and Indians were met with discrimination. Before official Apartheid began in 1948 legislation had been put in place stripping Africans, Indians, and 'Coloureds' (mixed race) people of the same rights awarded to the white population. In 1912 the African National Congress (ANC) was founded to combat racism in South Africa.

Winnie was the sixth child of eleven to two teachers, but tragedy struck at the age of nine when her mother died causing her family to be separated. Despite this she managed to become head girl at her school before going on to study social work at Jan Hofmeyr School, and later international relations at the University of Witwatersrand. It should be noted that since the National Party's official creation of the Apartheid policy in 1948 it had been extremely difficult for black Africans to go into higher education - it was even difficult before this with Nelson Mandela (Winnie's senior by 16 years) commenting on how narrowly he was accepted. It is really a testament to her character and ability that she managed to get in at all. After graduating she went through several small jobs before becoming the first black female social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg at the age of 21. As a young, well-educated black woman it is likely that she became politicized relatively quickly, after all she entered her teen years just as Apartheid officially became law. During her student years she had been affiliated with the Non-European Unity Movement. It was in 1957 when she first met Nelson.

Winnie and Nelson

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom Mandela described the first time he saw Winnie: 'I drove a friend from Orlando to the medical school at the University of Witwatersrand and went past Baragwanath Hospital, the leading black hospital in Johannesburg. As I passed a nearby bus stop, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a lovely young woman waiting for the bus. I was struck by her beauty.' At the time Mandela's first marriage to Evelyn Ntoko Mase was coming to an end and he was preparing for the 'Treason Trial' where he and 155 other anti-Apartheid activists had been arrested for treason. Winnie and her brother had been visiting Mandela and his partner Oliver Tambo to seek legal help. Mandela wrote 'I cannot say for certain if there is such a thing as love at first sight, but I do know that the moment I first glimpsed Winnie Nomzamo, I knew that I wanted to have her as my wife.' The two got on extremely well, so much so that on 14 June 1958 they were married. When on trial Nelson couldn't work so often they had to live off of the wages from Winnie's social work but for what it was they lived happily at 8115 Orlando West in Johannesburg. 

Winnie's role in the anti-Apartheid movement has strangely been forgotten by the general public since the collapse of Apartheid, but even before Nelson's imprisonment she was active in the movement. A lot of domestic activism was organised at the grassroots level which Winnie took part in, including many student and women's protests. While pregnant she was even arrested and there was a genuine fear that she would give birth while in prison. She was released and in 1958 gave birth to her first daughter, Zenani; Zenani is a Xhosa word for 'What have you brought into the world?' suggesting that one had to contribute something to society. Winnie's headstrong attitude was shown here: Nelson mother had come to the birth to let Zanani have a Xhosa baptism with an inyanga, tribal healer, but Winnie saw it as outdated and unhealthy so rejected it. In 1960 her second daughter, Zindzi, was born in the township of Soweto in Johannesburg. However, family life was short lived. Both Winnie and Nelson were constantly harassed by the government with Nelson going into exile for organizing the ANC's armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). In 1964 he was imprisoned and would not be released until 1990.

The Anti-Apartheid Struggle
Alone with two young children Winnie never lost hope and continued in the anti-Apartheid struggle. The 1960s and 1970s were some of the worse years of Apartheid with the state actively murdering activists, increasing legal discrimination, and even disenfranchising black Africans. Despite these setbacks Winnie would became a prominent figure in the anti-Apartheid movement while also focusing on particularly black women's emancipation. The state started targeting her and her family as well; one time a Special Branch officer broke into their Orlando home and when she reacted, quite understandably, angry the lieutenant laid a charge of assault against her. To allow their daughters to get an education Winnie had sent them to a school with them designated as Indians (although persecuted South Africa's Indian population faced less discrimination compared to the black populace) so with Nelson's advice she ended up sending them to a boarding school in Swaziland. While visiting him prison they set up a code to give each other information. Nelson would ask 'How is Ngutyana doing?' which was one of Winnie's clan names so she could tell him how she actually was doing as the guards did not know this. In 1969 Winnie was arrested and imprisoned for the first time for 18-months for anti-Apartheid activities. It would be the first of many arrests. 

In June 1976 20,000 students protested the imposition of Afrikaans in schools originating in Soweto which police brutally crushed down on generating international furor. Many activists were arrested by the government for this and Winnie was one thanks to her role in the Black Parents' Association. Instead of prison she was instead sent into internal exile in the Free State away from her home in Soweto. Winnie, Zindzi, and all their possessions were dumped in front of a tin-roofed shack in Brandfort, a rural area where Sesotho, not Xhosa, was spoken. They had no toilet, running water and heat; were placed under constant police surveillance; and the only shops were hostile to African customers. However, Winnie managed to pull through. She had organised Operation Hunger which helped redistribute food to poor families, started a creche for the township, and raised funds for a medical clinic - something which few had access to. Soon local from both the Sesotho and Afrikaner populations grew to love her. Zindzi was soon allowed guests and could move about, especially as Zanani had married into the ANC supporting Swazi royal family, but Winnie could only leave Brandfort to visit Nelson or got to hospital. Winnie soon got international attention - Oliver Tambo had managed to turn Mandela into a key symbol of Apartheid's cruelty abroad and when word got out that his wife was also being persecuted this made her a symbol as well. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s despite opposition from the state she would continue her activism.

By the 1980s Winnie was given more room to breathe, although on one trip to Johannesburg in 1985 for medical treatment her house in Brandfort and the clinic were firebombed. The 1980s were Apartheid's last desperate years so security forces became harsher and opponents became more willing to use violence. Winnie was one who started advocating for more violent measures including 'necklacing' - putting a wheel on someone's neck, dousing it in petrol and then setting it on fire. A group called the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC) was set up to act as her bodyguard but quite often resorted to acts of kidnapping, assassination, extortion and at times even torture. One example which became a blot of her record was the kidnapping and murder of 14-year old United Democratic Front activist James Seipei, better known as Stompie Moeketsi, in 1989. She was charged with kidnapping in 1991 for this reason. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998 concluded that 'Ms Winnie Madikizela Mandela [was] politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by the MUFC' but that her role in the actual murder of Seipei was 'negligent'. 

After Apartheid

In 1990 after years of imprisonment Nelson was freed from prison and Winnie's jubilant cry of happiness as he walked out of prison has become well known world wide. It took a further four years for Apartheid to formally end in South Africa's first multi-racial election. During this four-year period both Nelson and Winnie constantly continued to campaign for equality. Winnie was critical of Nelson's seemingly willingness to compromise to the South African president F.W. de Klerk. However, soon their marriage would fall apart. In Long Walk to Freedom Nelson would attribute this to them falling apart after literally decades apart while several historians, such as Martin Meredith, have attributed this to Winnie's involvement with the MUFC and several of her infidelities. Despite this for the most part both remained close. Winnie kept her married name but then also used her family name becoming Madikizela-Mandela. Due to the divorce though Zindzi acted as First Lady during the first part of her father's presidency. Winnie would remain a major player in the ANC actively criticizing the shortcomings of Mandela's presidency. Late Apartheid had destroyed the economy and Mandela was fearful that his proposed reforms could cause an exodus of the white population as what happened in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. This left many millions of black Africans still languishing in poverty and wealth largely in the hands of a few figures so Winnie took up their cry.

In 2003 Winnie was convicted on over 40 charges of fraud so she resigned from all her roles in the ANC. Despite this controversy she still continued her campaigns for various social justice including immigrant rights and women's rights. For this reason she remained very popular both inside and outside the ANC, and especially in other countries. During the 2007 National Executive Committee elections for the ANC she returned to formal politics where she came first. In 2009 she even was one of the top placed figure on the ANC's electoral success. Winnie remained close to Nelson and she spent his last few moments with him in 2013, and she was photographed in tears with his widow Graca Machel. Finally in January 2018 she received an honorary degree from Makerere University, Uganda. Then on 2 April 2018 she tragically passed away.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela remains today one of the most famous and influential anti-Apartheid activists and is still widely known as 'Mother of the Nation'. Thousands across the world currently mourn her for good reason. Like her husband she fought for equality and a fairer society, and she will be missed by both South Africa and the world. 

The sources I have used are as follows:
-Obituary: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela of South Africa
-Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, (Cape Town: Pan Macmillan, 2013)
-Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, (London: Abacus, 1994)
-Martin Meredith, The State of Africa: A History of the Continent since Independence, (London: Simon & Schuster, 2005)
- Anne Mare du Preez Bezdrob, Winnie Mandela: A Life, (Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2003)
Also this interesting article about how legacies are viewed:

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