Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: 26 September 1936-2 April 2018

Late Monday afternoon the airwaves filled with stories of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as people phoned in to express their grief over the passing of this legendary South African political activist.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela show off their firstborn daughter, Zindzi, at their home in Orlando West, Soweto, 1961

Nelson and Winnie Mandela show off their firstborn daughter, Zindzi, at their home in Orlando West, Soweto, 1961

Born on the 26th September 1936, Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela, known popularly as ‘Winnie’, was the daughter of two teachers, and the fifth of nine children. With educators for parents it was important that Winnie receive a good education, and after obtaining a first-class pass from the Methodist mission school, Shawsbury, Winnie went on to study at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg, where she met the man who was to be her husband, and forever change the course of her life, Nelson Mandela.

But while Winnie may live in the shadows of Mandela in the annals of history, she was a fiercely independant character who was already politicised before her life became intertwined with Mandela. While studying in Johannesburg Winnie saw the full effects of apartheid on a daily basis. She was particularly affected by research she had carried out in Alex on the high rate of infantile mortality, which highlighted the plight of African people living in the city. She was also good friends with Adelaide Tsukudu, with whom she shared a dorm room with at college. Adelaide would go on to marry ANC president, Oliver Tambo.

In 1955, Winnie graduated top of her class, and was offered the position of medical social worker at Baragwanath Hospital, making her the first black member of staff to fill the post. During her time at Baragwanath, Winnie’s reputation began to grow, with stories and photographs about her appearing in newspapers, acknowleging the achievements of this young girl from Pondoland.

Winnie was just 21 years old when she married Nelson Mandela, who was 16 years her senior. Mandela was already a well known political figure, and was standing trial for treason when the couple got married in 1958. In fact, the Mandelas had only four years of marriage before Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, with much of that time spent in court, or with Mandela in hiding. And while no one could ever take away from what Nelson Mandela gave up for his country, there is no denying that Winnie Mandela too sacrificed her life for the cause of a democratic South Africa.

Winnie Mandela at her home in Brandfort. The house had no electricity and no running water

Winnie Mandela at her home in Brandfort. The house had no electricity and no running water

Winnie spent the majority of the time that Mandela was in prison under a banning order, with her children constantly harassed, and their home being searched on an almost daily basis. She was eventually forced to send her two daughters to school in Swaziland, after schools repeatedly expelled them, and was herself banished by the apartheid government, and forced to live in Brandfort in the Free State, away from everything she knew and loved.

Prior to being sent away Winnie spent 17 months in solitary confinement under the 1967 Terrorism Act, No 83, which allowed for the arrest, without a warrant, of anyone perceived to be endangering the maintenance of law and order. For the first two hundred days Winnie had no contact with anyone aside from her interrogators, and was kept in a concrete cell with insect-infested urine-stained blankets for bedding, and a bare electric light bulb which burned constantly, robbing her of any sense of night or day. During her interrogation, Winnie was kept awake for five days and nights in an attempt to break her will. On the 1st December 1969, Winnie’s trial finally began, and she was eventually found not guilty after having spent nearly a year and a half in jail. In May 1973, Winnie was arrested again, this time for meeting with another banned person. She was handed a twelve month sentence, but was released after having served six months in jail.

Winnie Mandela spent the majority of her time between the years 1962 to 1986 under a series of banning orders that saw her movements severely restricted. She was at the mercy of the apartheid government and was subjected to constant searches and interrogations, with government spies infiltrating her social and political circles time and again. Speaking of how the incessant harassment by the state had hardened her, Winnie said:

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.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died at Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg on the 2nd April 2018 at the age of 81, having suffered a long-term illness. An official memorial service will take place at the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto on the 11th April, and an official funeral will be held at Orlando Stadium in Soweto on the 14th April.

Images courtesy of and

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