The Nelson Mandela Foundation is mourning the loss of Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Our thoughts are with her daughters Zenani and Zindzi, especially, and with all of her family, friends and comrades. We worked with her on a number of projects over the last decade, including the book 491 Days, which drew on the archive of her time as a prisoner. Over the years we have valued her support of our work.
She represents a generation of South African leadership that was exposed to the full brutality of the apartheid regime. Unlike her husband, Nelson Mandela, she was subjected to torture while in prison and carried the damage of that ordeal through the rest of her life. The position she found herself in towards the end of the apartheid era was one of relentless, and ultimately destructive, pressure – on the one hand the torchbearer for Nelson Mandela during his long imprisonment and under intense media scrutiny; on the other a leader in underground structures of the ANC and the subject of continuous security police harassment. In 2014 she was to reflect:
“The years of imprisonment hardened me. Perhaps if you have been given a moment to hold back and wait for the next blow, your emotions wouldn’t be as blunted as they have been in my case. When it happens every day of your life, when that pain becomes a way of life ... I no longer have the emotion of fear. There is no longer anything I can fear. There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn’t any pain I haven’t known.”
Until the end Mama Winnie raised her voice in support of the deep transformation of South African society. She demanded social justice and came to represent the hopes and dreams of our country’s poorest and most vulnerable.
Like Madiba she made mistakes. Like Madiba she had weaknesses. In 1975 Madiba wrote her a letter while she was in Kroonstad Prison in which he reflected on their experiences and on the question of human frailty:
“ ... the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education. These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these. But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being ... Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes. At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say about 15 minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard. You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative features in your life, but the 10th attempt may yield rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.”
The biography of Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela is well known. She was born in the spring of 1936, in Bizana in what was to become the Bantustan of Transkei. Her parents, Columbus and Gertrude Madikizela, were teachers. Her mother died when she was nine. As a young adult she moved to Johannesburg and became the first qualified black medical social worker at Soweto’s Baragwanath Hospital. Research into infant mortality rates in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township and other experiences drew her into activism. In 1958 she married Nelson Mandela with whom she had two daughters, Zenani (born 1959) and Zindzizwa (born 1960).
From 1961 she was subjected to an almost uninterrupted series of legal orders that curbed her ability to work and socialise. In 1962 she lost her husband to long-term imprisonment, and was only reunited with him in 1990. In 1969/70 she was herself detained in solitary confinement for 17 months under the Terrorism Act, a harrowing experience she described in her book 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69.
In 1962 Madikizela-Mandela was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, during which she was restricted to Orlando, Soweto. She worked clandestinely for the ANC, attending meetings and printing and distributing pamphlets, and was put under house arrest in 1970 for repeatedly flouting her banning.
Her 1977 banishment to Brandfort in the Free State came after she established the Black Women’s Federation and the Black Parents’ Association in response to the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto Uprising in which schoolchildren had protested the imposition of lessons in Afrikaans. Many were detained without trial. Both organisations were allied to the Black Consciousness movement.
After returning to Soweto and through the 1980s she took on an increasingly prominent and, ultimately, controversial role in the struggle. Although she was to lead the African National Congress Women’s League between 1993 and 2003 and was, briefly, Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology after 1994, her extraordinary leadership promise was never to be fulfilled.
Perhaps the most enduring image of Madikizela-Mandela is the one of her standing at Mandela’s side on 11 February 1990, their fists raised, as he emerged from over 27 years in prison. It was a shared moment of triumph in a marriage sacrificed to the struggle against apartheid. Within two years the couple were estranged, within six their divorce was official. Apartheid’s toll on countless families and marriages, including the Mandelas, is one that we have still to fully measure.
Hamba kahle, Mama.