On Monday the country received the devastating news of the passing of Mama Nomzamo ‘Winnie’ Madikizela-Mandela with a profound sense of sadness. The world will remember Winnie Mandela as a woman who lived at the coalface of a hostile state that was hell-bent, on a daily basis, to break her and relegate her to the fringes of society – but with each hostile act they seemed to fuel her into becoming a much bigger force feared by the entire state apparatus.
Most people have come to accept that the 13 months Winnie spent in solitary confinement in prison, the daily hounding by the police, being uprooted to different parts of the country as part of a strategy to remove her from the public space, are partly responsible for the aggressive streak she would show most of her adult life.
When people see Winnie standing in front of a police Caspir armoured car demanding that the police release political prisoners, armed with only her voice and resolve, they wonder whether it is not the hardening of the heart that may result in having a husband languishing in prison, where she could only see him through bulletproof glass, surrounded by security personnel, that forged her power.
Yes this is part of the fire that forged her. Winnie had already seen the cold face of white minority rule long before she met Nelson Mandela and had decided that the humiliation of black people would never happen with her silence. She would fight, whatever the cost, whatever the sacrifice. The first encounter with the ugly face of black segregation and white cruelty, at least according to some historians, was when she was nine years old. It is said that Winnie had asked her dad for permission to go to a party in her town of Bizana where there was a celebration of the end of World War I in 1945. Reluctantly her father agreed.
When Winnie arrived at the venue with her friends, they were told it was for whites only – no black people allowed. As children, all dressed up, ready to have fun in what was clearly a euphoric atmosphere that swept the world and the country, the sense of exclusion from this euphoria hit the nine-year-old Winnie hard as she would not understand it.
Winnie had already exhibited a certain brilliance way above her age, which had made her a golden girl in her school and her home, so to be treated as a golden girl on one hand, and be rejected as nothing on the other, did not make sense to her at all. There is nothing that says she went back home and confronted her father about this, but what would follow later was suddenly a girl awake to the fact that maybe, just maybe, the world was not what her parents at home may portray it be.
It is a second incident, when she was 11, where a black family, a father feeding a mother who was then breastfeeding a child sitting in the chairs of one particular shop, where the white owner came with great disrespect, chased the family away like dogs, claiming “no kaffirs should come and dirty his shop”, that set Winnie off. Winnie expected her father, her hero who was the moral authority at home and a disciplinarian, to do something about the incident but her father just stood there, looking defeated. Looking around, she saw other black men just observing this humiliation of another black man, another family. Winnie’s fire was burning inside like fire shut up in her bones, and it would explode later in her life.
Winnie, as with other women who became great influences in her life later on, was not going to allow the apartheid government to suck life out of them and render them zombies who lived in hope for a better day. They were going to live life to the fullest and push the frontiers as much as they could.
After high school, bright as a star, Winnie discovered, in the City of Gold, just how brutal the apartheid system is, but she also found a world of black people who were living, creating a rhythm, love, life, a world they can call their own. Politics would be the centre of her life but she would also be drawn into other interests, fashion, the life of the city, and dancing.
I have always felt a certain sense of jealousy about the ‘60s, almost as if there is no other time where great things happened than in the ‘60s. The music, revolutions, a new world order, its clear that although apartheid was at its peak in the ‘60s, the world around was changing and cultures were colliding, beginning to influence one another, and Winnie was right at the centre of it.
It is however her work as a social worker which took her to the depths of black pain, in townships and squatter camps, infant immortality, death traps, pain, suffering, and life too. These are people who looked like her, who were largely where they were because of exclusion from the franchise, and there would be no other bigger cause, no profession, no motivation other than to free black people from this bondage. Winnie was sold to the cause of black people from then on.
Winnie met Madiba in 1957 and although Madiba was already a famous Rivonia trialist then, Winnie had also garnered her own accolades by then, appearing in newspapers due to her amazing work.
There is a debate as when Winnie in her own right became an independent threat to the apartheid state and not just Mandela’s wife. Many say it is when herself, Lilian Ngoyi and Albertina Sisulu and thousands of other women were arrested for a 1958 march against pass laws. Here these women decided not to asks for bail but to stay in prison for two weeks as part of their continued protests. This surprised the security apparatus because they were used to people who jumped at an opportunity to leave jail and go back to society, but these women, some pregnant, decided to stay in prison voluntarily. From then on, the state apparatus would watch these women very closely – they were capable of a lot of things.
Of course, Winnie’s life was far from simply being heroic. No one seems to know for sure when Winnie ended up on the fringes of society as a discredited woman, but there are a few narratives. One is that the lonely time of her husband’s incarceration and her being uprooted at one point and placed in the middle of Mpumalanga, and the general threat to the State that she was, attracted a lot of sympathisers whom she took in but who ended up betraying her. One writer describes it as a “cesspool of spies” that came and went around Winnie in the name of solidarity with her. By the time she woke up to this, she would be raided four times a day at times, and this further hardened her heart against betrayal and may have driven her to make that infamous speech that seemed to call for necklacing of spies, which was widely condemned.
Winnie Mandela was the product of her environment through and through and, unlike the hard life that Madiba had in prison, and the sleepless life of OR Tambo traversing the world and turning it against the apartheid government, Winnie’s life could never have a rhythm.
It was full of chaos, harassment, unpredictability, torture, and solitary confinement, and whatever person she became after that, whatever errors she made, she was tested not like many others; she stumbled, but she never bowed her head to the apartheid apparatus – she stood for her people to the bitter end.
Farewell Mama Winnie, you have left us with a weighty legacy which we pray we are worthy to carry on. DM