Winnie Madikizela Mandela was born in 1936. She is the former wife of the late and former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. She was married to Mandela for thirty-eight years including the twenty-seven years he was in prison. Two years after Mandela’s release from prison, the two got divorced.
Born in Eastern Cape Province, Winnie grew up experiencing the cruelty of apartheid. The segregation at the time was too visible and the whites and the blacks lived separately. She loathed the system that deprived her and her fellow blacks of their own human rights and dignity. Despite restrictions on education for blacks during apartheid, in 1953 Winnie was admitted to the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg.
She was the first black professional social worker in South Africa. She turned down a scholarship for further studies in the United States of America in order to take up a challenging career in medical social welfare at the Baragwaneth Hospital in Johannesburg, where one of her boarding house roommates, Adelaide Tsukudu, worked as a staff nurse. It was through her friendship with Adelaide that she met Adelaide’s fiancé Oliver Tambo, and they introduced her to a prominent lawyer and member of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, Nelson Mandela.
Mandela was then on trial along with 156 other people in the now infamous ‘treason trial’ lasting from August 1958 to March 1961. It is from this period that Winnie Madikizela’s devotion to the welfare of ordinary people matured from efforts to help people cope with the extreme hardship of their lives to efforts to challenge and transform the governmental structures and social relations which created and reproduced hardship for the majority population.
In June 1958, Nelson Mandela married Winnie Madikizela. But their union would not last for long. On June 12 1964, Mandela was arrested amongst other seven men. They were convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the state. They were sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial. With this came a long and enduring twenty-seven years of Winnie struggling to fight for her husband’s release from prison. “I don’t think the world would have known a Nelson Mandela were it not for Winnie,” Saths Copper – Psychological society of South Africa. One of the ways that she created a global outcry for Mandela’s release from prison was through musicians. As South Africa’s songstress Yvonne Chaka Chaka recalls, Winnie would constantly urge them to talk about Mandela’s release. “Whether we were in the shows, stadiums, she would be there to say, you musicians, you writers talk about Mandela being released. For me I think this is the woman who kept the Mandela name alive,” told Yvonne.
She was constantly jailed for fighting against apartheid and in the 1980s she was banished to Brandfort. “She must have become very angry and wanted to seek some kind of vengeance for that. She became more outspoken and in some instances she defied the authorities openly,” recalled Cooper.
Though she was not meant to interact with people in Brandfort, she would move on to defy the restrictions and engaged with some of the community members like Norah Nomafa. She helped to build a hospice and a crèche. But she would later defy the banishment and went back to Soweto after the ever harassing police destroyed the clinic. The move was seeing as bold. Soweto in the late 1980s was a running battle field between the police and groups of Africans opposing apartheid.
In a 1986 speech in Manville, she called for violence.
“I am back with you where I belong. This is now the right time to take your country. We shall use the same language the Boers are using against us. We have no arms, we have stones, and we have boxes of matches. With our necklaces we will liberate this country,” said Winnie Mandela. But something tragic happened. Stompie Seipei, a twelve-year-old boy was killed in Winnie’s house. In a court hearing, she was found guilty for complicity of murder. But many South Africans believed she had nothing to do with the murder.
“I sympathized a lot because I had seen first-hand what she did for us and in the community,” recalled Monde Ndaba – Winnie’s former neighbor. “She opened her house to young children, everybody and unfortunately bad things happened there. I don’t think it was of her making,” told Yvonne. “From bad to good, she must be forgiven because she had done good things to help people not to die,” told Sintiswa Mkaanazi – Winnie’s former neighbor.
Faces of Africa – Winnie Mandela: Black Saint or Sinner? Part 2
After Mandela release from prison in 1990, everybody was excited. At last freedom was in the air after a long journey of struggle and fighting apartheid. “We were ecstatic and life was real again. It was just too much excitement,” recalled Winnie Mandela – former wife of the late Nelson Mandela. But Winnie Madikizela’s happiness was short lived. The ghosts from the past would soon resurrect and she would endure both praise and despise. In 1991 she was found guilty of complicity for murder of the twelve-year-old Stompie Seipei. Later, she was allegedly found guilty of adultery during Mandela’s imprisonment.
As if this was not enough, in 1994 she got divorced. The scandals Winnie faced were harming Mandela’s bid for the 1994 presidential elections. And so, Mandela separated from Winnie and gave a strong public declaration on the matter saying, “my love for her remains undiminished. However, in the view of the tensions that have risen owing to the differences between ourselves in a number of issues in recent months, we have mutually agreed that a separation would be best for each one of us.” Mandela would go on to become the first black elected president of South Africa. He made Winnie the deputy minister in his cabinet, seen like a reward for her efforts to liberate him. But she would not enjoy her new position, a year later she was found responsible for mismanagement and she was dismissed.
From there on, things kept going horribly wrong for Winnie. She was called before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997. The TRC was set up to investigate wrong doings during apartheid era. The 1988 Stompie Seipei murder case was in the public domain yet again. Winnie gave a forced apology, one which has been scrutinized by scholars. She had this to say, “It is true things went horribly wrong. I fully agreed with that. And for that part, of those painful years when things went horribly wrong and we were aware that they would affect us that led to that, for that I am deeply sorry.” This was seen as a cold hearted apology. Many scholars like Sheila Meintjes a professor in political studies have studied it. “There’s no question that that was a performance. It was an orchestrated performance I think. I’m sure there were people who were governing the way she was presenting herself,” told Sheila.
Others like Piers Pigou, a political analyst said Winnie considered TRC as a smear campaign against her bid for the senior position in the ANC. “Mrs. Mandela response throughout was that everyone was lying, everyone was mad or crazy or had some kind of vendetta against her,” said Pigou. But Winnie would somehow turn her tainted image and her life attracted artists and even film producers. There’s a clothing line by her name, ‘Winnie Mandela Signature Collection’ by a South African designer. In 2013, ‘Long Walk with Winnie Mandela’ movie was released and in 2011 ‘Winnie’ was produced by a South African filmmaker Darrell Roodt. In the South Africa’s opera scene, Winnie Mandela got recognition when Bongani Ndodana composed the Winnie Mandela opera in 2011. “She has suffered tragedies and she has lived through some of the most fundamental periods of our progress to liberation. And for me this whole life she has led is a tumbler that is very operatic. So it was not a difficult thing for me to conceive of her life as an opera,” told Bongani.
Though she has endured praise and despise in her life, Winnie remains a respected figure in the South African society for her role in liberating and keeping her husband’s name alive while in prison and fighting the oppressive system, apartheid. “This is a woman who spent twenty seven years on the frontline fighting to liberate her husband despite anything that happened then, the Stompie incident, the so called lovers all of that stuff, who cares! The point is, if it wasn’t for Winnie Mandela, we wouldn’t be sitting in this garden now having this conversation. She was a champion of the liberation struggle in South Africa,” asserted Darrell. But as things seemed to have calmed for Winnie, another tragedy struck, her husband died in December 2013, and unfortunately Mandela had not included Winnie in his will. People sympathized with her but her subsequent reaction shocked the nation once more.
“Some people do see it as unfair that he didn’t provide some kind of symbolic gesture towards Mrs. Mandela. But her subsequent actions in terms of trying to get the house in Qunu, I think portray her in an extremely negative light,” told Pigou.
But Winnie’s story is a deep one, one that will take time to be understood fully as Sheila sums it.
“It’s these contradicting elements that are fascinating about her. There’s still more to be written about her, to be said about her, more to be understood about her, that we can get a really rounded picture of this really remarkable person who suffered the most enormous harassment, torture, but who through it all sought of remain with her dignity somehow intact,” told Sheila.