Winnie Madikizela-Mandela passed away on Monday in South Africa at the age of 81. While most of the world only knows of her from her marriage to Nelson Mandela, Winnie was an ardent anti-apartheid activist in her own right. She is so much more than just the wife of Nelson Mandela, she is a woman who kept the struggle alive when most of the leaders were imprisoned, in exile, or dead. In many ways, it was through her strength, leadership, and commitment that made it possible for the struggle to succeed in liberating the country and ending apartheid.
Her marriage to Nelson did not make Winnie an activist. In fact, she was an activist prior to meeting him in the 1950s. She worked as a social worker in Johannesburg at the Baragwanath Hospital, and it was from this experience that she reality that social change was necessary in South Africa.
In 1958, Winnie and Nelson married. They would be married for 38 years, however for 27 of those years they were apart as Nelson was imprisoned.
That same year, Winnie embarked on her first entry into political activism when she joined a women’s march in Johannesburg. Led by Lillian Ngoyi, the march against pass laws included thousands of women from throughout Johannesburg. According to Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob, author of Winnie Mandela: A Life, “There were professional women and office workers in smart suits, factory workers in overalls, rural residents wrapped in tribal blankets. Some were young and educated, others old, bent, and illiterate.” The police cracked down on the protest, arresting more than 1,000 women, including Winnie.
Winnie refused to apply for a pass book, which was required by law. She saw this insulting documentation as racist and as a form of oppression, and her protest was to refuse to take part in it. As a further protest, she refused to pay the bail and chose instead to remain in prison.
Winnie was inspired by the actions of the women she saw as leaders in the movement, including Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu, Ruth Mompati, and Ruth First. These women were committed leaders in the anti-apartheid movement, and Winnie drew strength and inspiration from them.
In 1962, Nelson was arrested and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial. Winnie, who was left to raise their two young daughters alone, assumed the mantle of leadership in the struggle.
“Much as she loved and admired her husband, she would not hide in his shadow, or become known as nothing more than just his wife,” du Preez Bezdrob states.
The state quickly turned their attention to her, banning her numerous times which cost her her job as a social worker and prevented her from being able to visit her husband in prison on Robben Island. In 1969, Winnie was arrested under the Terrorism Act and held in solitary confinement for 491 days, where she was subjected to extreme emotional, psychological, and physical torture.
In Winnie’s own words, “The years of imprisonment hardened me… I no longer have the emotion of fear… There is no longer anything I can fear.”
In the anti-apartheid movement, most of the leaders of the ANC were in prison (like Nelson Mandela) or in exile (like Oliver Tambo). In that power vacuum, Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement arose in the late 1960s. Winnie was inspired by this movement, supporting it at a time when few in the ANC did.
When the Soweto Uprising broke out in 1976, the students turned to her for guidance and support, with her being the most respected leader they had in the country. The youth related to her, trusted her, and never questioned her leadership. As a result, she earned the title “Mother of the Nation.”
Winne was in a unique position as she had connections with the Old Guard, being married to Nelson and good friends with Walter and Albertina Sisulu, yet she also could connect with the anger and frustration of the youth in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Winnie was the only person who could act as the link between the Old Guard and the Young Turks,” according to du Preez Bezdrob. “She understood and empathized with the anger of the youth, and they, in turn, trusted and looked up to her.”
“To the downtrodden masses, she had become a heroine, an African Joan of Arc: a leader to be reckoned with.”
“Winnie had become an icon, the visible face of the liberation struggle,” says du Preez Bezdrob.
According to Milton Nkosi of the BBC, “at a time when many other anti-apartheid leaders were languishing in jail or in exile, she not only represented the liberation movement. She was The Movement.”
From bombs to raids, arrests to banning orders, the state waged an all-out war on Winnie as they saw her as the clear leader of the liberation movement. Nothing could stop her, though, in her determination to see the struggle victorious.
Even while she was banished to the Free State town of Brandfort for eight years, Winnie organized boycotts, started a health clinic, set up a soup kitchen, created a project to rescue and rehabilitate orphans and juvenile delinquents, and organized a daycare center in the rural town.
“She refused to be bowed by the imprisonment of her husband, the perpetual harassment of her family by security forces, detentions, bannings and banishment,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a statement after her death. “Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists.”
Her character, sheer strength and willpower could not be suppressed.
In January 1985, US Senator Edward Kennedy visited her in Brandfort, describing her as someone who was “very courageous”. Winnie met with Sen. Kennedy as well as countless other international dignitaries to try to secure her husband’s release from prison.
It was a poignant moment – an African woman, removed from society as punishment for asking for basic human rights, getting a visit from one of the most powerful politicians in the US. This sent a clear message that she – and black people – were not alone in the struggle against apartheid.
Winnie played an essential role in keeping her husband’s name and memory alive. While in imprison for 27 years, his picture was banned so few people had an idea of what he looked like in South Africa, and even his words were illegal to publish in the newspaper. She had worked to publicly call for his release, and her efforts finally paid off, as in 1980, the “Free Mandela” campaign was launched internationally. The United Nations Security Council joined the call, and the campaign quickly became an internal movement.
“She kept the memory of her imprisoned husband Nelson Mandela alive during his years on Robben Island and helped give the struggle for justice in South Africa one its most recognizable faces,” the family’s statement said in the wake of her passing.
However, by the 1980s, after decades of being apart and the country drastically changing, Nelson and Winnie slowly grew apart. According to du Preez Bezdrob, “she was the overt revolutionary, angry, defiant and controversial; he was the statesman-in-the-making, steadily garnering respect and rising in international stature.”
While others in the ANC leadership advocated for diplomacy and negotiations by the end of the 1980s, especially after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, Winnie was by no means ready to renounce the armed struggle. She continued to wear her military uniform in public, and even controversially supported the practice of necklacing when she said in 1986, “together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country.”
In 1993 she was elected president of the ANC’s Women’s League. In 1994, was elected to the first democratically elected parliament in South African history, and her husband appointed her Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture.
Despite her marriage to Nelson falling apart by 1996, she remained committed to the nation. She was still a member of parliament and an ANC member at the time of her death.
Winnie’s legacy was, in some people’s eyes, tainted by the seemingly endless controversies and court cases over the last several decades, centering around everything from murder and kidnapping to fraud, theft, tax evasion, and corruption. However, she also led the struggle during its darkest years. She valiantly stood up and continued to challenge the apartheid government, not being deterred by their relentless acts of intimidation and persecution. It certainly cannot be argued that her leadership, courage, and determination helped bring about freedom and democracy in South Africa.
It is symbolic that when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February 1990, it was not just Nelson that walked out, but Winnie was right there by his side, her fist held up as triumphantly as his.
“Mrs. Madikizela-Mandela was one of the greatest icons of the struggle against apartheid,” her family’s statement said. “She fought valiantly against the apartheid state and sacrificed her life for the freedom of the country.”