Death will not likely diminish the contributions of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to the emancipation of South Africa from the clutches of apartheid. Neither will the depravities of human nature becloud her assessment as a woman who became the beacon of that struggle. As a politician and activist, Winnie was the feminine face of Amandla, the battle cry that pierced the soul of racism and racialism in that once cursed enclave. She was even more famous as the spouse of the legendary Nelson Mandela for whom she bore two children. Winnie served as a Member of Parliament from 1994 until her death, and was a deputy minister from 1994 to 1996. As a member of the African National Congress (ANC) political party, she served on the ANC’s National Executive Committee and headed its Women’s League. Madikizela-Mandela was known to her supporters as the “Mother of the Nation”.
Aptly described as the Duchess of anti-apartheid campaign, she was born to a Xhosa family in Bizana and became a social worker. In 1963, after Mandela was imprisoned following the Rivonia Trial; she became his public face during the 27 years he spent in the jailhouse on Robben Island. During that period, she rose to prominence within the domestic anti-apartheid movement. She was arrested and detained by state security services on various occasions and spent several months in solitary confinement.
The young Winnie grew up in what is now Eastern Cape Province and came to Johannesburg as the city’s first black female social worker. Her research into the high infant mortality rate in a black township, which she linked to poverty caused by racism, first sparked her interest in politics.
Even before they were separated by Nelson Mandela’s long stay in prison, she had become politicised, being jailed for two weeks while pregnant for participating in a women’s protest of apartheid restrictions on blacks.
The apartheid police later harassed her, sometimes dragging her from bed at night without giving her a chance to make arrangements for her daughters.
In 1977, she was banished to a remote town, Brandfort, where neighbours were forbidden to speak to her. She was banned from meeting with more than one person at a time.
The woman who returned to Johannesburg in 1985 was much harder, more ruthless and bellicose, branded by the cruelty of apartheid and determined vengeance.
A woman of mixed behaviour, in the mid-1980’s Madikizela-Mandela exerted a “reign of terror” in Soweto, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) established by her husband’s government to investigate human rights abuses revealed many of her violent activities during that period. Nelson Mandela was released from prison on 11 February 1990, and the couple separated in 1992; their divorce was finalised in March 1996. They remained in contact, and she visited him when he was ill in later life. As a senior ANC figure, she took part in the post-apartheid ANC government, although was dismissed from her post amid allegations of corruption. In 2003, she was convicted of theft and fraud. She temporarily retreated from active political involvement, returning several years later.
Neither flashy nor flamboyant, she had qualities that are more useful: vast experience, a feel for how people outside the corridors of power live and struggle and the deserved trust of her colleagues. Winnie loved her country, and it showed. She was the symbol of statesmanship, patriotism, vision, and courage. These were some of the excellent leadership qualities that had guided her through her years of active public service. We salute this role model that inspired, prayed and contributed her quota to the service of God and fatherland.
It has been said that there are two types of people in politics: those who want to be great and those who want to do great things. Winnie was the latter and Africa is better off for it. She believed that everyone is exceptional and not created for the sole reason of being a member of a family; but everyone must have a voice. She always had a deep sense of commitment and desire to empower, improve and uplift people, especially the under-privileged and the disadvantaged.
Africa and, indeed, the world will miss her light, her sunshine, her timeliness, her cleanliness, her uprightness and love for humanity.