Current Affairs Tribute

The conscience of the nation

The conscience of the nation
  • PublishedMay 1, 2018

Fred Khumalo, journalist and author of Dancing the Death Drill, among other books, who knew Winnie Madikizela-Mandela personally, writes this tribute to a tortured soul who rose above pain and suffering to help deliver freedom to an oppressed and brutalised people.

The pomp, ceremony and national honour that should have been hers but was denied to her during her lifetime was finally rolled out in mid-April during the State Funeral of Winifred Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela, known to all the world simply as Winnie or Mama. The apartheid regime admitted she had been their most terrifying opponent during the independence struggle ‘because she was beyond fear’.

Throughout Nelson Mandela’s long incarceration on Robben Island, she stood against all the forces ranged against her and the struggle and kept his name and image alive. But at the moment of liberation, when her often lonely battle against one of the most vicious regimes the world has ever known should have been crowned, she was dashed from the summit to the nadir. But even during her lowest moments, abandoned by virtually all, she never took a backward step in her fight for justice for all. She went to her grave undefeated and the world stopped in its tracks to pay homage to a great African.

The grey fingers of dawn emerged from the eastern horizon and tried to smooth away the creases and rumples left by careless night.

But dawn’s futile attempt at restoring order by ushering in the new day with dignity, was soon undone by the emergence of a deluge of humanity suddenly taking possession of the streets. They had come in thousands – by aeroplane, by bus, by train, by car, by donkey cart, in wheelchairs steered by their loved ones, on foot – from all corners of South Africa and beyond.

From as early as 5am the masses, singing, hollering, chanting revolutionary slogans, made their way towards Orlando Stadium in Soweto, South Africa. It soon became clear that 14 April 2018 was not going to be an ordinary day here.

For on this overcast day, South Africans would give a State Funeral to a woman many called the ‘Mother of the Nation’, or ‘The Woman President South Africa Never Had’.

The funeral of Winifred Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela, who had died on 2 April, was to be a moment of self-introspection for the country still struggling to come to terms with its past, and its projected future.

Madikizela-Mandela’s own personal journey in many ways mirrors that of the country. Like South Africa which she loved so much and for which she fought so valiantly, she was a difficult book to read. Full of beauty and generosity, but also a minefield of contradictions.

“I’m the product of the masses of my land; I am the product of my enemy,” she once said of herself.

Born in Bizana, Eastern Cape, in 1936, she was only 22 when she married Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, 18 years her senior and already a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle. Three years prior she had qualified as a social worker, working at Soweto’s Baragwanath Hospital. In 1959, the couple’s first daughter Zenani was born, followed a year later by her sister, Zindziswa.

Until much later in life, the two girls would not know their father – certainly not in the conventional sense of a patriarch who takes his children to the park over weekends and reads them bedtime stories.

With the banning of the ANC in 1960, the liberation movement responded by launching Umkhonto weSizwe, its armed wing.

In 1962 Mandela was arrested, and sentenced to life imprisonment the following year. His wife was slapped with a banning order restricting her movements to Johannesburg. The children were wallowing in blissful ignorance of what was happening to their parents.

In June 1963, she visited her husband for the first time on Robben Island. On her return she spoke openly about her husband’s wishes, statements which most South Africans did not get to hear about as her husband, who was banned, could not be quoted in the local media.

Banished but unbowed

In a bid to silence her, the government slapped her with a new, severe banning order in 1965, restricting her movements to the neighbourhood of Orlando West.

In 1969, she was arrested and sent to Pretoria Central Prison where she was held in solitary confinement for 491 days, hitherto the longest stretch a South African had spent in solitary confinement.

In Njabulo Ndebele’s novel, The Cry of Winnie Mandela, the fictional Winnie is likened to Odysseus’s Penelope, who waited for years for her husband to come back from his odyssey, which saw him wandering in the world, fighting gods, conquering and being conquered by goddesses.

But unlike Penelope, Madikizela-Mandela did not just wait with arms folded. She fought. She spoke out. She drove the fear of God into the hearts of security policemen assigned to monitor her movements.

When Soweto exploded on 16 June 1976 with school children boycotting classes, in response to the proposed imposition of Afrikaans (the oppressors’ language), as a medium of instruction at all black schools, Madikizela-Mandela was in the thick of things.

Madikizela-Mandela helped spirit some youngsters into exile – Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Angola, all the way to Nigeria – not only to seek refuge against apartheid brutality, but also undergo military training so they could come back into the country and fight.

As her daughter Zenani said at the funeral: “When you read popular history about the liberation struggle, you can be forgiven for thinking that it was a man’s struggle and a man’s triumph… My mother is one of the many women who rose against patriarchy, prejudice and the might of a nuclear-armed state to bring about the peace and democracy we enjoy today.” 

With the tremors of the 16 June revolution still reverberating across the continent, the apartheid regime in January 1977 banished Madikizela-Mandela to the desolate town of Brandfort, about 400 kilometres from Johannesburg.

The house she took occupation of in the local township of Majwemasweu had no running water or electricity. 

In defiance of her order, she started fraternising with locals and incrementally taught them self-reliance: sewing, literacy, starting communal vegetable gardens.

Tightening the noose

But her provocative side kept rearing its head every now and then. Allister Sparks writes in his book Tomorrow is Another Country that Madikizela-Mandela would, at the local post office, use public phones in a section marked ‘Whites only’.

She remained in Brandfort until 1986. The year before, in response to P. W. Botha’s infamous Rubicon Speech in which he rededicated his regime to tightening the noose against anti-government activity, the ANC in exile had called for ordinary folks to make the country ungovernable.

In what was reminiscent of the 1976 uprising – but now on a bigger national scale – ordinary South Africans took to the streets, attacking government installations.

Conservative elements in the black community, in the form of the Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe movement headed by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, sought to suppress this insurgency. The Truth and Reconciliation process would, years later, hear how the apartheid government armed and financed Inkatha, unleashing what became known as black-on-black violence.

In the face of this bloodletting the apartheid government declared a State of Emergency. The Emergency gave security forces unlimited powers to detain political activists indefinitely in prison. Or to make them disappear, in chilling scenes reminiscent of what happened in Chile during the reign of Augusto Pinochet. 

Blistering inferno

It was into this blistering inferno that Madikizela-Mandela walked when she came back to Soweto.

Back at the helm of the resistance, in 1986 she delivered her infamous speech: “We have no guns – we have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol. Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.”

Necklacing was the term for putting a petrol-soaked burning tyre around a perceived traitor’s neck.

By this time, she had become associated with the Mandela Football Club. Members of the club took it upon themselves to be a vigilante movement, dealing brutally with perceived apartheid spies. In 1988, 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, an anti-apartheid fighter at some stage in the care of Madikizela-Mandela, became labelled a government spy. He was killed. Madikizela-Mandela was implicated in his death.

By the time Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, what had come to be described by analysts as a “low-intensity civil war” was still raging.

In 1991, Madikizela-Mandela was convicted for kidnapping and being an accessory to assault in the case of Stompie. On appeal, her six-year sentence was reduced to a fine, which was bizarre. After the conviction, the Mandelas went into separation. They divorced in 1996.

Exonerated after death

Only after Madikizela-Mandela’s death did George Fivaz, who was police commissioner at the time of the Stompie trial, come out in a TV interview to say that an investigation had found that Madikizela-Mandela had not been involved in the killing.

This made a lot of people angry, with her daughter Zenani saying at the funeral: “It is disappointing to see how they withheld their words during my mother’s lifetime, knowing very well what they would have meant to her.”

With the demise of apartheid, which set in motion black upward mobility, many political elites moved to the suburbs formerly occupied by white people. But Madikizela-Mandela chose to stay in Soweto, where she continued to offer succour to her impoverished neighbours.

At her funeral Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a splinter of the ANC, rightly pointed out that what the Mandelas fought for was still far from being fully achieved: proper redress for the blacks, the majority of whom still live in squalor.

Because she spoke out against continued white privilege, Madikizela-Mandela was painted as an ogre in the dominant narrative. The world wants easy narratives – the good versus the bad. Mandela’s politics of racial reconciliation versus Madikizela-Mandela’s radical we-still-have-unfinished-business-in-this-country stance.

This easy narrative forgets that Mandela himself went to prison for resorting to armed confrontation against the apartheid state when words had failed.

Much as the dominant narrative shows us a Madikizela-Mandela who was all war and no reasoning, there’s an incident that has stayed with me to this day.

In October 1988, students from Phambili High School, a privately funded school in Durban, had boycotted classes for a number of reasons. She flew down from Johannesburg. Once in Durban she gave the students some tough words and told them to go back to class.

Many were stunned as they’d assumed she would condone their actions – she was an anti-establishment fighter after all, wasn’t she? Her intervention illustrated one thing that many tend to forget: she respected the transformative power of education.

Numerous movies have been made and books written about Madikizela-Mandela. But her story continues to elude all. It is clear that even in death, her story, just like the story of South Africa, remains unfinished.

The consolation is that her death has forced the nation to confront unpalatable truths again. If we are prepared to say a conscience is not a fair-weather phenomenon, we can say that Winifred Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela, warts and all, was the true conscience of South Africa before and after apartheid. NA




1936: Winnie Madikizela is born in Bizana in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.

1957: Winnie, a young social worker, meets Nelson Mandela, a lawyer and prominent anti-apartheid activist. They marry a year later. 

1964: Mandela is sentenced to life imprisonment. His wife campaigns tirelessly for his release and becomes the face of resistance against apartheid.

1969: Winnie is jailed for her anti-apartheid activities and spends 491 days in solitary confinement.

1977: The apartheid state banishes Winnie to Brandfort, a small town in Free State province, for nearly a decade.

1986: Winnie gives a controversial speech endorsing “necklacing” – placing a tyre around the necks of suspected collaborators with the regime and burning them alive. “Together… with our matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country,” she says.

1990: Mandela is released from prison after 27 years. His wife is at the gates to meet him.

1991: She is convicted of the kidnapping and assault of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, who was seized by her bodyguards in 1989 and later found dead. Mrs Mandela denies wrongdoing but is found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison, later reduced to a fine.

1994: Winnie is appointed Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in Mandela’s unity government. She is fired after allegations of corruption emerge.

1996: After 38 years of marriage, Winnie and Nelson divorce and she adopts the surname ‘Madikizela-Mandela’.

2003: Winnie is convicted of fraud and theft over a bank loan scam. The theft conviction was later overturned but she received a suspended sentence of three years and six months for fraud.

2007: Winnie is re-elected to parliament. She remained popular among poor, black South Africans and the youth.

2018: After battling a long illness, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela dies peacefully in hospital.

2018: George Fivaz, former police commissioner, says it was found that Madikizela-Mandela had not been involved in the killing of Stompie Seipie.



“She never locked the door because she accepted that she lived in a prison. I saw the humiliation of that woman, but she stood and she gave this country her all in the struggle towards freedom, for social justice, for democracy, for non-racialism, for non-sexism as well.”

Tokyo Sexwale,  ANC and anti-Apartheid stalwart


‘I am here not so much to bury Mama, because Queen Mothers do not die, they multiply into a million red flowers of love and freedom.”

Julius Malema, EFF opposition leader speaking at Winnie’s funeral


‘A leader among leaders has left this earth. To us, as the ANC, a huge gap has been opened and we won’t be able to close it easily, because there aren’t many leaders like comrade Winnie.’

Jacob Zuma, former president


‘Freedom fighters are only appreciated after they die. The ANC honoured her more in death than in life. People honour martyrs rather than marchers.’

Reverend Jesse Jackson


‘She refused to be bowed by the imprisonment of her husband, the perpetual harassment of her family by security forces, detentions, bannings and banishment. Her defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists.’

Archbishop Desmond Tutu


‘They robbed my mother of her rightful legacy when she was alive. To those of you who vilified my mother through books and speeches, don’t think we’ve forgotten. The pain you inflicted on her now lives on in us,’

Zenani Mandela-Dlamini, Winnie’s daughter, speaking at the funeral

Written By
New African

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *