Winnie Nomzano Madikizela-Mandela, former wife of African icon, Nelson Mandela, died last week in a Johannesburg hospital. Even though she was 81, the world received the news of her death with shock.
With her death, the tallest oak in the apartheid struggle, only marginally shorter than Mandela’s, has fallen. Her death marks the end of an era.
It was no surprise that the African National Congress (ANC) cannot be consoled. “Winnie Mandela didn’t die,” the South African ruling party said, “She multiplied.” The ANC has scheduled state funeral in her honour on 11th and 14th April. It has instructed that she be honoured and the social media is alight with thousands of women in black donning berets, her combat gear.
We salute this fearless woman for her unforgettable service to Africa. The apartheid struggle defined her life. She eventually became its embodiment, for whereas Nelson Mandela was its symbol, Winnie was the spear, the arrow-head, and a specially-built-vehicle for the struggle. Her raised clenched fists and the Zulu battle-cry ‘Amandla’ became recognisable all over the world as the resistance to apartheid.
The heartless operators of apartheid did not know what to do with her than to oppress her and by so doing advertise to the world their inhumanity and callousness. They banned, incarcerated, tortured and humiliated her. They exiled her for years and once banished her to a remote town and confined her to the area; they also put her under house arrest and held her in solitary confinement for 18 months. But she was unbowed because she always emerged looking like a saint while her torturers appeared like miserable and desperate dictators. The more she was oppressed, the more sympathy the struggle received from all over the world. And the more the supporters of apartheid raised questions about the regime. Thus, in the years when the ANC was technically in exile and practically dormant, Winnie Mandela single-handedly kept the struggle going, mobilizing the youths and the children.
As the struggle progressed under her activism, the world soon began to appreciate her good work. In 1985, she won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award with Allan Boesak and Beyers Naude. In 1988, she received the Candance Award for Distinguished Service from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. At the time of these awards, she had become a household name all over the world. Yet, she had humble origins. Both of her parents were school teachers. She was the fourth of eight children, seven girls and a boy. Her mother died when she was nine, but she showed early signs of leadership when she became the head-girl of her high school in Bizana, Pondoland in the Eastern Cape Province. She then went to Johannesburg to study social work at the Jan Hofmeyr School. She earned a degree in social work in 1956 and also a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of the Witwatersrand. Her working career was in the Bantustan of Transkei, including a position in the Transkei government. She lived at various times at Bizana, Shawbury and Johannesburg. Indeed, her first job as a social worker was at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.
She met Nelson Mandela, who was then still married to Evelyn Mase, in Soweto in 1957 and the couple married the following year. They had two daughters, Zenani in 1958 and Zindziwa in 1960. Mandela was imprisoned in 1963. The couple united in February 1990 when Mandela was released from prison. Two years later, however, the couple separated. Mandela cited “her infidelity” as the cause. Their divorce was concluded in March 1996, when she adopted the compound surname, Madikizela-Mandela, although they remained in contact. As a senior ANC figure, she took part in the post-apartheid government, but was dismissed over allegations of graft.
The one dark chapter in her life was toward the end of apartheid when she had run-ins with the law and was in court for some criminal charges. Indeed, she was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to five years in prison forcing her to resign all her leadership positions in the government and the ANC. She, however, won on appeal when the judge found that “the crimes were not committed for personal gain.”
In 2009, she won her seat in parliament and remained a member till death. She was loved by the grassroots of the ANC and she had written her name in the hearts of most South Africans and all Africans who would forever remember how she changed the course of history through her courage and fortitude.