The woman behind the legend

The name Mandela is synonymous with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa that rewrote the countries history towards the end of the 20th century. As well as her role as a campaigner during this movement, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was the second wife of the late Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela.

Born in 1936, in a village in Bizana located in the modern Eastern Cape, Winnie Mandela dedicated her  life to social change over her 81 years, until she passed passed away after a long illness  at the Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg on 2 April 2018.

Her Legacy – “Mother of the Nation”

Despite her then husband Nelson’s incarceration in 1962, Winnie maintained a strong stance against the apartheid movement, becoming a leader of a growing radical anti-apartheid youth movement in Soweto in the 1960s which publicly flouted segregation laws.

She was arrested in 1969 and imprisoned for 17 months, 13 of them in solitary confinement, where she was also tortured. She was imprisoned again for five months in 1976 for urging thousands of students to take to the streets of Soweto, in protest of government policy, resulting in race riots. After this she was banished to the remote white town of Brandfort.

In a continual reflection of her unyielding spirit, this attempt to isolate her also backfired. According to PBS frontline, her house became something of a pilgrimage site for political sympathizers and visiting diplomats, including Ted Kennedy.

She continued her social work at a local scale, by establishing numerous social services in the community, including a soup kitchen and a healthcare center. She was released after 8 years, and returned to the turbulent political environment of Johannesburg.

Even within the anti-apartheid community, Winnie was seen as divisive; simultaneously inspiring and alienating. In a 2010 interview with The Evening Standard, which she subsequently denied, Winnie suggested that Mandela “let us down.”

Madikizela-Mandela died a political figure as resonant in South Africa today as Nelson Mandela. In fact, her radical focus on African nationalism, land reform and militance make her legacy less contested in the modern climate than his peace and reconciliation-centered politics, which are regarded with skepticism by the current generation.

South Africa’s journey towards equality has been far from harmonious and so with her death, Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy is quickly being reassessed. Her path, many believe, may have delivered the fruits of freedom more quickly than Nelson’s path, which favored peace and reconciliation over the more militant road that Madikizela-Mandela often said the African National Congress should have undertaken.

She was the archetypal good bad woman. Her ungovernable, take-no-prisoners style is well-loved in South Africa where heroines are often crafted from the tough streets of political and social struggle.

One tale is that she begged her father to attend a welcome home ceremony for soldiers after the Second World War, but they were turned away at the city hall because it was “for whites only.” It was one of the many instances of oppression and segregation that created the freedom fighter who would someday be chronicled in books and films.

Madikizela-Mandela chose social work as her field because it allowed her to both care for her community and organize politically.

She was drawn into the circles of ANC politics when she shared digs with Adelaide Tsukudu, who was then courting the ANC Youth League leader Oliver Tambo, a law partner with Nelson Mandela.  A chance meeting at a bus stop led to a marriage that lasted some four decades whose love, did not arguably end until he died.

Madikizela-Mandela was at his bedside when Mandela died and, along with his widow Graça Machel, mourned him as a husband in the long days of official memorials and funerals that followed.

Recent Activity

Ms Madikizela-Mandela described being there for the final moments of her ex-husband’s life in 2013, and appeared in a prominent position at memorial services in his honour.

She herself led a quiet life out of the spotlight in her latter years, although her influence did not wane. Her 80th birthday party in September 2016 was attended by notable figures including the current president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande and Cape Town mayor, Patricia de Lille.

Conclusion & who she leaves behind?

Along with millions around the world, Winnie will be mourned by the two children she shared with Nelson Mandela, Zindziswa Mandela and Zenani Mandela. Unlike their famous parents,  the two daughters have stayed relatively out of the South African limelight.

South African politician, Zindziswa has been serving as the ambassador to Denmark since 2015. Born on December 23, 1960 Zindziswa appears to have inherited her mother’s spirit. Despite disruptions to her education caused by her mother’s exile to the Free State in 1977, Zindziswa earned her BA degree at the University of Cape Town in 1985.

To the end, Ms. Madikizela-Mandela remained a polarizing figure in South Africa, admired by loyalists who were prepared to focus on her contribution to ending apartheid, vilified by critics who foremost saw her flaws. Few can ignore her unsettling contradictions, however the fundamental role she played in South Africa’s struggle for its independence cannot be denied.

Phumla ngoxolo [Rest in Peace] Mama Winnie