As her stste funeral takes place on 14 April in Johannesburg, it is clear from the outpouring sorrow and mounting opposing views that Winnie Mandela in death – just like she was most of her life – continues to divide opinion. reGina Jane Jere reports on the life of South Africa’s enigmatic anti-apartheid heroine.
Winnie Mandela’s traditional name Nomzano, translates to “one who strives or undergoes trials,” or, according to the urban dictionary, “mother of all endevours who does not give up, to her nothing is impossible”.
And trials, personal and political – Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela, had in abundance. But give up, she never did.
And even in what was probably her last big interview Madikizela-Mandela’s resolve and fighting spirit was intact to the end, as she opened up to the state broadcaster, the SABC, on a wide range of issues.
From grieving for her ex-husband Nelson Mandela and the toll his death took on the family; factional in-fighting and vote-buying in the ruling ANC; her anguish with how black-ruled South Africa has failed black South Africans and the ideals of the anti-apartheid and she concludes the interview saying her last wish “before my final breath” would have been to see Julius Malema come back into the ANC fold.
“I would be extremely naïve if I suggested that the South Africa of today is exactly what we dreamt of…it is no secret that we have problems…originally it looked like we were going to achieve our dream, but political freedom without economic freedom is what has resulted in the challenges we have today We did not accommodate that particular problem sufficiently because of our vicious past,” she said.
“It was easy to hoist the flag and say we are free at last but then the economy still remained in the hands of a few,” she adds in the said in the December 2014 interview, just days after marking the anniversary of the death of her stalwart freedom fighter ex husband and father of her two daughters – Nelson Mandela.
It was easy to hoist the flag and say we are free at last but then the economy still remained in the hands of a few
Winnie was only 22 years old when she married Mandela on 14 June 1958. He was16 years her senior and already deep into his freedom fighting and anti-apartheid activism. He had already been married once and had had 4 children. Winnie although a precocious young woman who as one of the few black social workers in the country at the time, was just beginning to be exposed first hand to the social injustices and ills of apartheid through her work, was not yet as politicized, at the time she met Mandela. However, she was from one of the most powerful clans in Pondoland in Eastern Cape. Her great grandfather Madikizela was the second in command to the famous monarch – Shaka Zulu.
The Mandela “proposal”
Although a lot is made of their romance, Winnie is on record saying she vaguely remembers how exactly they met and that Mandela never proposed.
“He never even asked me to marry him. Of course we had a relationship…and then one day he just said take the car and go and tell your parents that I am marrying you…he was that type of person – so arrogant and very authoritative he gave you instructions you know.. you have to do that you have to do that – that was him. So he just said go and tell your parents I am going to marry you on such and such a day…that was Madiba,” she disclosed in a 2017 interview with the Italian journalist and documentary filmmaker Paolo Emilio Landi.
But marry they did even despite the fact Mandela was banned and had to apply for a permit to attend his own wedding. But to this day, even in both their deaths, their union is one of the most talked about in history.
Their marriage came right in the middle of Mandela’s treason trial which led to the infamous Rivonia sentencing that led her new husband to spend 27 years in prison for fighting against oppression and white domination.
It was therefore inevitable that marriage to Nelson Mandela would draw young Winnie into the struggle too. But it was the extent of her involvement and her evolution as a freedom fighter in her own right, that made the making of Winnie “the Mother of the Nation” as she would affectionately be called in years to come – an accolade many still bestowed on her t until her death on 2 April.
“I was not even really experienced politically. Up to that stage, I was his wife. I had no name. What ever I said was seen as a translation o f his ideas, which at that stage, I was not even sure of. As a result, in the early ’60s I had to develop a personality o f my own because suddenly I was being pushed around by the police and the government,” she said in a 1992 interview.
Winnie, who quickly had two young children soon after marrying Mandela, would go on to fight a courageous and lonely fight when her husband was sentenced to life in prison. And on many occasions she was singled out for particular persecution by apartheid authorities – and at times to clearly be made an example of.
During all those apartheid years, “Winnie, effectively a “widow and single mother, but stood like a colossus staring down the barrel of apartheid guns while others were in jail or fought the fight from the safe capitals of foreign countries,” says South African based lawyer Pusch Commey.
“She was the difference between the ground troops in the line of fire, and the generals in their safe bunkers, far from the madding crowd. She led from the front. And for many black South Africans, when all seemed lost and impossible, she stood out as the only beacon of hope,” he adds.
On many occasions she was singled out for particular persecution by apartheid authorities – and at times to clearly be made an example of.
She soon found herself immersed in politics and becoming a victim of police and intelligence harassment. She would be arrested on several occasions including in1968 when she was even put in solitary confinement for almost 18 months. Between 1970 and 1978 she spent six months in prison after being brought to court three separate times. And for her role in the Soweto Uprising of 1977, she was banished to the nondescript Brandfort in the Orange Free State province, where she knew nobody and was allowed no or little visitations for nine years.
But she stood resolute raising her two girls in the most difficult circumstances. However, more importantly, something changed about Winnie in Brandfort.
“All these banning orders and spells in jail were accompanied by both physical and psychological harassment by the police. The system was intent on breaking her, frustrating her commitment to what her husband had dedicated his life to. It was indeed a tough time for her. Nevertheless, she emerged as a tenacious lioness determined to weather any storms threatening to ruin her life,” once wrote journalist Fred Khumalo in New African and contends that the Winnie that returned to Soweto after Bradfort “was a changed Winnie…She was still the beautiful Winnie of old; a fiery speaker as usual and a militant who challenged the authorities and told them unequivocally that time was running out for them. But she was a new incarnation of Winnie.”
Stompie and Mandela’s freedom
Then came the widely documented and infamous saga of Mandela Football Club and the horrific kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old activist, Stompie Sepei, for which the apartheid system convicted her for in 1991.
Even when she walked hand in hand, in that enduring ‘long walk to freedom’, with Mandela when he was freed from Victor Vester Prison in Cape Town, on 11 February 1990, the damage to damaged to Winnie’s reputation was at an all time high. Within a few years her marriage could not be saved, Mandela asked for a divorce, and many heralded the end of Winnie’s political life.
But she bounced back, only to be confronted with several clashes with some of her ANC comrades and her ex husband, who as president by then, fired her from the post she had been given as deputy minister in 1995.
In what some of her critics say was a volley of defiant behaviour towards the ANC, she increasingly become isolated. But she remained undeterred and kept bringing to the fore the issues of the slow pace of change, more so economic change for the majority of black South Africans and condemning the political and social status quo. she did so even in her SABC interview in which she concludes with these words:
“I pray that we overcome our political problems. I pray that we have to do drastic changes on how we lead this country; I pray for a period of introspection by all the leadership and revisiting the policies that have let down the masses of this country. I pray for a united COSATU, and I pray that somewhere along the line, as ridiculous as it may be, to bring back Julius [Malema], to bring him back home [The ANC] one day, before I sleep.”
As Nomzamo is laid to rest and her legacy a hot point of debate at the moment, what will never be called into questions is her tremendous contribution to the demise of apartheid in South Africa – in that, she triumphed.