(With Agency Report)
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who was born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela on September 26, 1936, in the village of eMbongweni, to a Xhosa family in Bizana, Pondoland, in present South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, died on April 3, 2018. She is survived by their two daughters and eight grand-children.
She was born the fifth of nine children, which included seven sisters and a brother.
Family spokesman, Victor Dlamini, said Mrs. Mandela “succumbed peacefully in the early hours of Monday afternoon surrounded by her family and loved ones” following a long illness, which had seen her go in and out of hospital since the start of the year.
Retired archbishop and Nobel laureate, Desmond Tutu, praised her as a “defining symbol of the struggle against apartheid”.
“Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists,” he added.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “With the departure of Mama Winnie, (we have lost) one of the very few who are left of our stalwarts and icons. She was one of those who would tell us exactly what is wrong and right, and we are going to be missing that guidance.”
Winnie’s parents, Columbus and Gertrude, were both teachers. Gertrude died when Winnie was nine, resulting in the break-up of her family, as all the siblings were sent to live with different relatives.
Winnie, who attended primary school in Bizana, helped her father to labour on the farm, which created a closer bond with him. She was able to benefit from an education that was on par with her White peers at the time.
She passed her junior certificate (Standard 8) with distinction and matriculated at Shawbury High School, a Methodist mission school at Qumbu. It was there that she distinguished herself as a person with exceptional leadership qualities. It was also there, under the tutelage of teachers who were all Fort Hare graduates, that she became more politicised.
In 1953, she was admitted to the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg. She completed her degree in social work in 1955, and was offered a scholarship for further study in the United States. However, she turned it down and opted, instead, for the social worker position at Baragwanath Hospital.
Several years after her degree in social work, she also earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of Witwatersrand. She held a number of jobs in various parts of what was then the Bantustan of Transkei, including with the Transkei government, living at various times in Bizana, Shawbury and Johannesburg. Her first job was as a social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.
Mandela met Winnie when he was in the throes of divorcing his first wife, Evelyn Mase. He was immediately struck by Winnie’s beauty and spirit, and later recalled in his autobiography: “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.”
She was married to Nelson Mandela for 38 years, including 27 years during which he was imprisoned. The marriage was blessed with two daughters, Ezinhle Rooi (born 1959) and Zindzi (born 1960).
Although they were still married at the time of his becoming president of South Africa in May 1994, the couple had separated two years earlier. Their divorce was finalised on 19 March 1996, though Winnie Mandela continued to be a presence in Mandela’s life in later years despite his remarriage in 1998. After their divorce in, she kept his surname and maintained ties with him.
Winnie could be seen almost daily visiting her former husband Nelson Mandela at the Mediclinic heart hospital in Pretoria where he was receiving treatment. Of all the major figures who came to global prominence during the anti-apartheid struggle, Madikizela-Mandela was seen as the most at home in the world of celebrity culture, and for many of the years just before Nelson Mandela’s release from 27 years in prison, she was his public face, bringing word of his thoughts and his state of mind. She was offered academic honours abroad.
With that, so began Winnie Mandela’s encounters with the security police. Later that year, she and thousands of other women were arrested for demonstrating against the pass laws.
Appearing at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set up to unearth atrocities committed by both sides in the anti-apartheid struggle, Madikizela-Mandela refused to show remorse for abductions and murders carried out in her name.
Only after pleading from anguished TRC chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu did she admit grudgingly that “things went horribly wrong”.
In its final report, the TRC ruled that Madikizela-Mandela was “politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by the MUFC”.
Four years later, she was back in court, facing fraud and theft charges in relation to an elaborate bank loan scheme.
“Somewhere it seems that something went wrong,” magistrate Peet Johnson said as he sentenced her to five years in jail, later overturned on appeal. “You should set the example for all of us.”
Due to her political activities, Winnie was regularly detained by the South African government. She was tortured, subjected to house arrest, kept under surveillance, held in solitary confinement for over a year and banished to a remote town.
She emerged as a leading opponent of apartheid during the later years of her husband’s imprisonment (August 1963 – February 1990). For many of those years, she was exiled to the town of Brandfort in the Orange Free State and confined to the area, except for the times she was allowed to visit her husband at the prison on Robben Island. Beginning in 1969, she spent 18 months in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison. It was at this time that Winnie Mandela became well known in the West. She organised local clinics, campaigned actively for equal rights and was promoted by the ANC as a symbol of its struggle against apartheid.
It is worth reiterating that Winnie was already politically interested and involved in activism long before she met her husband. She was particularly affected by the research she had carried out in Alexandra Township as a social worker to establish the rate of infantile mortality, which stood at 10 deaths for every 1,000 births.
In October 1958, Winnie took part in a mass action, which mobilised women to protest against the Apartheid government’s infamous pass laws. This protest in Johannesburg followed a similar action that had taken place in Pretoria in August 1956.
Life with Winnie after his release had been a miserable disappointment; not once had his wife shared his bed with him in the two years following their reunion. “I was the loneliest man,” he said.
She would later respond that she, too, had been lonely. “I have never lived with Mandela,” she said. “I have never known what it was to have a close family where you sat around the table with husband and children. I have no such dear memories. When I gave birth to my children he was never there, even though he was not in jail at the time.”