Thursday, April 5, 2018

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela 1936 – 2018

Michael - Thursday

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

Monday saw the passing of another milestone in South Africa with the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, first wife of Nelson Mandela. She is mourned not only as a struggle icon, but as someone who fought tirelessly for women’s rights and recognition in South Africa.
In some ways, she had an even harder life than he did.  While he was in jail, she was left alone to bring up the children and to carry on the struggle against the apartheid regime. Arrested multiple times and held in solitary confinement—or much worse treatment—she was eventually banned and exiled to house arrest in the country town of Brandfort in the Orange Free State, a place where she had no relatives or support and where she was only permitted to have at most two visitors at a time. She was closely watched. On one occasion three relatives visited unexpectedly, and afterwards she was hauled to the police station for disobeying the banning order.

Amazingly, the government didn’t realize that what it was doing was creating another martyr to the cause by treating her so viciously, and she became a leader of the ANC in exile just as much as the men and woman in Zambia and on Robben Island.
"The years of imprisonment hardened me,” Winnie Madikizela-Mandela said of herself. “Perhaps if you have been given a moment to hold back and wait for the next blow, your emotions wouldn't be 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.”
It is hard to imagine that sort of Kafkaesque life not for days or weeks or months or years, but for decades. Is it surprising that it taught her to hate, and that she would reach for any tool to drive the struggle forward? For her, without any doubt, the end justified the means. And the means eventually included her own reign of terror, including the infamous ‘necklacing’ where people—almost invariable blacks—condemned as collaborators or for other ill-specified crimes were summarily executed by having a tire full of petrol set alight around their necks. She was behind the so-called ‘Mandela United Football Team’—a group of young thugs who enforced her decisions. In a strange way, by stripping her of everything (eventually even her children), the government had given her a type of absolute power—and you know what they say about that.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu called Madikizela-Mandela “a defining symbol of the struggle against apartheid” and although she was highly critical of his inclusive politics, Tutu said in a statement on Monday that “her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me”.
Their meeting at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was less inspirational. Questioned about the murders that had resulted from her wielding of the Football Club, she was unrepentant, saying that she regretted nothing, and would do the same again if faced with the same circumstances. But with Tutu’s gentle insistence, she eventually conceded that, at a certain point, “things went badly wrong.”
How could she do otherwise? It was her whole life she was being asked to justify, not merely her actions. This was a woman who felt she had earned the right not to be judged by other people.
The chairman of the prestigious Nelson Mandela Foundation, Njabula Ndebele, tried to sum it up this way:
“All South Africans are indebted to Mama Winnie, whether they acknowledge it or not. From the witness of her life, we knew we could stand tall; we knew also we could falter and stumble. Either condition was an affirmation of life.”


  1. Amandla! Winnie Mandela.

    You were a hero and still are in the courageous anti-apartheid resistance. Not only do people in South Africa hold her in high esteem, but do so people around the world, including women.

    She had to deal with what no one, no woman should have to face. I did not walk in her shoes, nor did I have to live under apartheid repression, as an African woman, so I pass no judgment.

    And as I just wrote about Albertina Sisulu, she would have been 100 years old this year. She was a leader of the 20,000-strong march of women in Pretoria in 1956 against the pass system for African women.

    International Women's History Month is over by a few days, but these women belong in this history as icons.

  2. She will be remembered long after the Zumas and Mbekes. What a woman!

  3. A brilliant obituary bringing clarity to an iconic yet enigmatic life.

  4. Thank you so much for this, Michael. So often in history that faults or misdeeds of powerful men are blamed on the evil influence of their women. Powerful women are never given such quarter. You have shown Winnie here a human being. Not even a person with her power and determination could come out of her experiences unscarred. Her wounds were incredibly deep. The press was inclined to paint as the villain of her own life. The villains, the monsters, were really the men who tortured her. They are the ones who deserve the blame for what they turned her into. I am grateful to you for letting me see this so clearly today.

  5. Thanks for all the comments. She was, indeed, a most extraordinary woman. Many women were leaders in various ways of the anti apartheid struggle. Not that many received the credit they deserved.

  6. Absolutely true. Women who were leaders and activists, those who were tortured and imprisoned, those who somehow continued to resist should be lionized as the heroes they were.

    On a slightly different note, but with merit is the film about Ruth First starring Barbara Hershey. Although she
    was not mistreated and abused daily like Winnie Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and the other African women leaders and organizers, First was jailed. Later, First was murdered in Mozambique by agents of the apartheid regime. It came up who did it during the Truth and Reconciliation hearings.

    The film about Ruth First is based on a book written by her daughter, Shawn Slovo. (I think that's the daughter who wrote the book.)

  7. Thanks for the suggestion, Kathy. I'll look out for the movie.

  8. Trevor Noah paid tribute to Winnie Mandela on his show this week. He talked about how when the men were imprisoned, the women were the activists.

    He also quoted the South African proverb, "When you have struck a woman, you have struck a rock."

    Nicely done.