“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 perhaps this insight that best explained her complexities. Alternately revered and reviled, she became an icon of the anti-apartheid struggle that was sometimes – perhaps euphemistically – referred to as misunderstood. Certainly there was controversy around what she represented, yet she never lost her place in the landscape of struggle icons.
She was born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela in the village of Mbongweni, Bizana, in the Transkei. The fourth of eight children, Winnie was the daughter of two teachers. She was bereaved at just nine years old, when her mother, Gertrude, died. After Gertrude’s death, the siblings were sent to live with different relatives – the first of what would be many losses and separations in Winnie’s life.
Education was viewed as paramount in the Madikizela family. A bright student, Winnie went on to study at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg, after which she is reported to have been the first professional black social worker in South Africa. It was through this channel that she first encountered her boarding house roommate, Adelaide Tsukudu, who was working as a staff nurse at Baragwanath Hospital.
Adelaide’s fiancé, Oliver Tambo, introduced her to a young lawyer and member of the African National Congress Youth League, Nelson Mandela, who was at the time standing with over 100 others in what would later become the infamous treason trials.
John Carlin writes in The Independent, “Nelson, they say, was struck like a thunderbolt the first time he saw her. He was in his late thirties, she was 20. He was married to Eveline, a sweet, soft, gentle woman who … spent the second half of her life running a grocery store in the remote little Transkei village of Comfimvaba, never remarrying. Nelson and Eveline had three children. They had been married for more than ten years the day he met Winnie. Eveline had no chance. Within months, Nelson divorced her and married Winnie.”
Carlin describes his own reaction to the charismatic Winnie, whom he encountered in 1990, just before Mandela’s release. “Winnie is a mountain of a woman,” he writes, “tall, more solid than fat, with formidable shoulders. She is old enough to be my mother. But during the 40 minutes I spent alone with her I was absolutely, helplessly beguiled. She had kept me waiting for two hours in the lounge while she performed her morning toilette. When she appeared, she glowed. She was regal and coquettish at the same time. Eyes big and bright and staring straight into mine, she purred suggestively about her impending reunion with her husband. She felt like a young bride all over again, she said.”
Carlin’s opinion of Winnie took a steep downturn after he met her; his “eyes opened”, he says, when nine months after their meeting, an investigation with the BBC’s Radio File was concluded in which he and colleagues probed the affairs of the now-infamous Football Club.
“We learnt that Winnie had founded the club in 1986, ostensibly to provide amusement for unemployed young men, [but] really to create around herself a queenly retinue that evolved over the next three years into a thuggish neighbourhood mafia,” is Carlin’s assessment. “We met Dudu Chili, a neighbour of Winnie’s, whose home was set on fire by the football club and whose 11-year-old niece, Finky, they shot through the head. We also met Nico Sono, who told us he had last seen his son, Lolo, battered and bleeding in the back of Winnie’s van. Winnie was sitting in the passenger seat. Mr Sono pleaded with Winnie to let him go. She said: ‘No, he’s a sell-out.’ That was in November 1989, more than a month before Stompie died. Mr Sono has never seen his son since.” Few South Africans will forget the charging of Winnie for the kidnapping and murder of Stompie Seipei, which ultimately resulted in a fine and a two-year suspended sentence.
The Football Club case became emblematic of South Africa’s struggle to interpret Winnie. Was she a struggle heroine who endured untold suffering while her husband was imprisoned and she continued to fight apartheid, herself being subjected to torture and solitary confinement for a year and a half, or was she a cold-blooded, corrupt monster? In post-apartheid South Africa, there were further controversies: In 2001, she was charged and in 2003 found guilty on multiple counts of bank fraud and theft. Winnie profited from a number of deals involving false bank loans and funeral policies granted to poor people, who would not have qualified without her endorsement. She also, however, spearheaded a number of philanthropic initiatives.
Her relationship with Nelson Mandela, too, became an enigma. In 1992, the couple separated, following news that Winnie had been unfaithful. In 1996, their divorce was finalised. Publicly, Mandela revealed little. Meanwhile, Winnie left her Cabinet post in 1995 but proved as resilient as ever; she was re-elected president of the African National Congress Women’s League in 1997.
By the time Mandela died at the age of 95, Winnie and his widow, Graca Machel, mourned side by side. Both women were honoured as significant supports in shaping the Mandela legacy.
“The two women occupied very different places in Mr. Mandela’s 95-year life,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Winnie Mandela was a member of the African National Congress that Mr. Mandela led to power. While her husband was in prison for 27 years, she fought on the outside against the white apartheid regime. She endured her own arrests, beatings and harassment.”
After Mandela’s death, however, Winnie became embroiled in another controversy following a dispute over her claim for Mandela’s Qunu land. Despite the statesman’s reticence during his lifetime, his will spoke louder than words: it made provision for his stepchildren, colleagues and staff, but left nothing for Winnie. A further conspicuous omission involved his and Winnie’s biological daughters, who had received considerable sums during his lifetime but received nothing further after his death. In April 2016, the Mthatha High Court dismissed Winnie’s claim for Mandela’s Qunu home.
Nelson and Winnie’s relationship is unlikely to have unravelled purely for personal reasons, and equally as unlikely to have done so purely for political ones. Although reconciliation to some degree appeared to have occurred by the time of Mandela’s death, there had been some indication of a difference in political views after 1990. “Mandela let us down,” Winnie famously said of the negotiations to end apartheid. “He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘white’. It has a few token blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded. I cannot forgive him for going to receive the Nobel [Peace Prize in 1993] with his jailer [FW] de Klerk. Hand in hand they went. Do you think De Klerk released him from the goodness of his heart? He had to. The times dictated it, the world had changed, and our struggle was not a flash in the pan, it was bloody to say the least and we had given rivers of blood. I had kept it alive with every means at my disposal.”
For those who became disillusioned with post-apartheid South Africa, voices like Winnie’s were crucial. If Nelson was an icon of restraint, Winnie embodied that which had been left unsaid. “I am not sorry. I will never be sorry. I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything,” she said, adding for good measure: “Look at this Truth and Reconciliation charade. He [Mandela] should never have agreed to it. What good does the truth do? How does it help anyone to know where and how their loved ones were killed or buried? That Bishop Tutu who turned it all into a religious circus came here.” In some ways, she paved the way for voices like those within the EFF.
This could not, however, have been predicted by examining the Mandelas’ earlier communications. In 1989, in Mandela’s last Christmas card to Winnie, he told her he loved her and what a difference it made in his life to have her. In October 1970, after the pain of her confinement, she wrote him a poignant reminder of the dysfunction of their circumstances: “In a way during the past two years I felt so close to you. It was the first time we were together in similar surroundings for that length of time. Eating what you were eating and sleeping on what you sleep on gave me that psychological satisfaction of being with you.” It was not her first detention, but it was her longest.
He, in turn, had written to her: “I had to wait for two weeks before I could send you my warmest congratulations for serving 491, and still emerge the lively girl you are, and in high spirits. To you and your determined friends I say welcome back! Were I at home when you returned I should have stolen a white goat from a rich man, slaughtered it and given you ivanya ne ntloya to down it. Only in this way can a beggar like myself fête and honour his heroes.”
It is difficult to imagine the devastation the couple – and indeed the family – must have gone through during these years. Winnie wrote in Part of my Soul Went with Him, “The first few weeks and months after Nelson was gone, that was utter hell. Solitude, loneliness, is worse than fear – the most wretchedly painful illness the body and mind could be subjected to.” She wrote, too, of her experiences in prison in 491 Days, Prisoner Number 1323/69, telling of the toll on herself psychologically as well as on her daughters. While some mothers keep bags packed when they are heavily pregnant, for example, in case of going into labour, Winnie in those days kept a bag packed in case of the police coming to arrest her. On 12 May 1969 at around 2am, they did. She grabbed the bag in question and had to go. Her children, Zindzi (8) and Zeni (10), clung to her legs crying for her not to go.
Winnie wrote of the conditions in prison, “You are imprisoned in this little cell. When you stretch your hands you touch the walls. You are reduced to a nobody, a non-value. It is like killing you alive… You are deprived of everything – your dignity, your everything.” She became ill while she was there and wished to take her own life, although ultimately she did not do so. “I decided I would commit suicide but would do so gradually so that I should die of natural causes to spare Nelson and the children the pains of knowing I had taken my life,” she wrote in April 1970. “I thought there would be no better method of focusing the world attention on the terror of the Terrorism Act than this.”
Solitary confinement, she said, was designed to leave one as a “body without a soul”.
During her husband’s imprisonment, Winnie endured multiple detentions, interrogations and banning orders. She was charged under the Terrorism Act, the Suppression of Communism Act and the Unlawful Organisations Act. She and a group of other activists were at one stage charged with some 540 offences. She was later served with a five-year banning order and placed under house arrest. In the space of 13 years, she lived for less than a year without a banning order.
Writer Carolyn Moon summarised Winnie’s legacy: “Her supporters today still … understand that fighting for freedom in oppressive societies underscores the best but also, at times, the worst in the human condition.”
Winnie herself put it a little more wryly: “I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy.” Perhaps there were never truer words spoken. DM
Photo: Winnie Madikizela Mandela during the ANC’s Elective Conference in December 2017. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee.
"By scepticism...we arrive first at suspension of judgement, and second at freedom from disturbance." ~ Sextus Empiricus