In Tribute to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ‘Mother of South Africa’

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Winnie, 2017(Film still)

The fierce anti-apartheid activist and wife to Nelson Mandela passed away this week – and while her reputation is not without conflict, her legacy is immutable

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died on Monday aged 81, and with her death has arisen a ferocious debate about her life and legacy. For some, she was the ‘Mother of South Africa’, a revolutionary who fought the brutality of the apartheid regime to bring equality to her country. For others, she was the ‘Mugger of South Africa’, a ruthless ideologue who endorsed violence and abused her role in government for personal gain while her husband worked for cooperation and peace.

The world likes their heroes to be saintly, white and, ideally, male. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was hard and outspoken and a woman, which complicates things. While Mandela spent 27 years in prison, negotiating with his captors before eventually completing the Long Walk to Freedom, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and becoming the first black president of South Africa, his wife was a different kind of revolutionary. While Mandela preached forgiveness and reconciliation, Winnie endorsed, even encouraged, violence as a means to topple the racist government and liberate her people. By no stretch did she fit the mould of a president’s wife. “I am not the sort of person to carry beautiful flowers and be an ornament to everyone,” she said. In her life she committed both heroic and heinous acts; in acknowledging the light and dark of her legacy, it is possible to create a picture of a fallible woman whose mistakes cannot be justified but can, perhaps, be understood.

Seminal Moments

Winnie had been a radical long before she met Mandela, growing up against a backdrop of searing racial hatred and working as a hospital social worker. The scale of her influence changed in 1957 when she was 22 and the 40-year-old ANC leader Nelson Mandela caught sight of her waiting at a bus stop. He quickly divorced his wife and they were married a year later, but wedded bliss was brought to a halt in 1960 when the government banned the ANC and issued warrants for the arrest of its leaders. Mandela went on the run, but was caught in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

Winnie continued the struggle in his name, enduring threats, harassment, banishment and imprisonment, including a 491-day stint in solitary confinement. She wrote, “The years of imprisonment hardened me… I no longer have the emotion of fear... There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn’t any pain I haven’t known.” She was unapologetic about approving violence against her opponents, most infamously when in 1989 her security detail – known as the Mandela United Football Squad – kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi, believing him to be a police informer. 

On 11 February 1990, Madikizela-Mandela was at her husband’s side as he walked free from prison, their fists raised together in the Black Power salute. But within a couple of years the marriage had collapsed amid talk of Winnie’s adultery. “I was married to the ANC,” she said. “It was the best marriage I ever had.” 

Her later years were hard – she was sacked from Mandela’s government for corruption, held “politically and morally accountable” for grievous acts of violence committed by the MUFC, and the papers had multiple field days with her extravagance, verbal attacks on her ex-husband and 2003 convictions for fraud and theft. As the memories of the reality of life under apartheid faded, she remained, a brazen, technicolour reminder of the mistakes and violence of the past. With the ANC now the dominant power, Winnie was far less palatable than standing ferocious at the vanguard of the opposition.

Defining Features

Winnie’s given name was Nomzamo, which roughly translates as “she who must endure trials”, a prophetic name for a woman whose life was defined by hardship, brutality and relentless commitment to her cause. Following the collapse of apartheid, and the re-legitimisation of the ANC, Nelson and Winnie went down very different paths. While her ex-husband became a symbol of peace and forgiveness, Winnie’s various missteps turned her into a source of shame. Her reputation both in South Africa and around the world transformed from “mother” to “mugger”, with history reappraising her behaviour during the apartheid years and finding her corrupt and unforgivable.

But she was defiant, unafraid to be unpopular, and refusing to apologise for her actions or those done in her name. “I am not sorry. I will never be sorry,” she said in an interview. “I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything.” And nothing could dent her popularity among the masses of South Africa – she was still an elected member of parliament right up to her death.

She’s AnOther Woman because…

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was flawed and difficult. She actively sanctioned violence and committed fraud, and she refused to admit that she had ever made a mistake. But she was fighting a unique war, at a unique time, using the tools at her disposal. “I am a product of the masses of my country,” she said. “I am the product of my enemy.”

Just like Mandela, she was fighting to change the world, and just like Mandela, she sacrificed her life for her cause, experiencing the trauma of detainment, threats and solitary confinement. But where Mandela has been deified, she has been vilified. Does racism play a part? Undoubtedly. Misogyny? Absolutely. Winnie rejected the unthreatening passivity of the female gender stereotype, choosing to use typically ‘male’ methods – knives, guns and ‘necklaces’, petrol soaked tyres slung around victims’ necks and set alight – over peaceful negotiation. But she was operating within the framework of her time, when violence was the universal language.

We must remember and condemn her mistakes, of course, but as anti-apartheid activist and opposition politician Mosiuoa Lekota said following the news of Winnie’s death: “Those who did nothing under apartheid never made mistakes.”

Winnie, a documentuary about the life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, is available to watch on Netflix now.