“I became aware at an early stage that whites felt superior to us. And I could see how shabby my father looked in comparison to the white teachers. That hurts your pride when you are a child; and you tell yourself: If they failed in those nine Xhosa wars, I am one of them and I will start from where those Xhosas left off and get my land back.”
– Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
Revolutions, whether violent or peaceful, exact high personal prices. Those paid by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela are no exception. As the Mother of the Nation, she was a very beautiful and talented person. According to Niel Barnard, the head of apartheid South Africa’s National Intelligence Services (NIS), “… she had all the potential to outshine the quintessential American first lady Jackie Kennedy”.
In a very deep sense, Mama Winnie qualifies for the title of being the Mother of the Nation: for salvation or liberation can only be achieved through the cross of suffering and through that suffering of one black woman, the liberation of many was secured. Mama has tasted what redemptive suffering is. She has suffered because every black child deserved more than what the South African way of life was able to offer black people.
Mama Winnie’s imposing stature has served to make visible the stature-less nobodies that apartheid South Africa reduced black people to. Her human experiences served as a looking glass into the important details of the experiences of all the black people living under the apartheid regime and subjected to systematic harassment, detention and imprisonment.
Mama Winnie’s revolutionary passion may have courted controversy or evoked strong and divergent emotions but to the very end it was irrepressible. She was a woman of faith, compassion and indomitable resolve. She personified the rising aspirations and political awakening of the black African majority, and in doing so, inspired many across the African continent and beyond.
Through her many sacrifices and fierce determination, she survived persistent torture and harassment by the apartheid regime, banishment, betrayal by friends and allies and 491 days in solitary confinement.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life has come full circle and she has more than fulfilled her father’s expectations as a hard-working, caring and committed social worker and the expectations of the black spirit as its unwavering and courageous advocate.
I had the privilege of working with Mama Winnie as her youth spokesperson, the culmination of which was accompanying her to the One Young World conference held in Johannesburg in 2013 where she spoke on the merits of youth training and employment, civic activism and the importance of ideas in society.
From the first day I met her to our last meeting before her untimely passing, Mama Winnie was always lucid with a razor-sharp, questioning mind, an intriguing sense of humour and a roaring laughter to accompany it as well as a bosom full of sincerity that always drew one near into a comfortable setting in which anything could be discussed.
She always asked me about my peri-urban home town, Kuruman, and what the developments were for the people living in the biggest but poorest province in the country (the Northern Cape). She took a keen interest in the lives of others. Throughout our time together, she still had the unyielding attitude of a political fighter who puts up with even the most desperate circumstances without losing sight of her aim, who is not deterred by setbacks, but gains new strength from them.
Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela always carried Pondo aristocratic grace and an infectious vitality – characteristics that seemed to make up a most compelling personality and express a fascinating mix of contradictory feelings that fed off each other: lingering sorrow, cheerfulness, detachment and impish humour. It is this tension between these contradictions that is fascinating: the closeness of pain and unrestrained laughter – the love of beauty even though she had lived through life’s ugliness.
Mama led a momentous life and we thank her and her family for sharing themselves with us. As young people we are inspired and spurred on to pick up where she left off – filling in the gaps, righting the wrongs and empowering those in need. We are able to do this because she taught us how. DM
Thato Mmereki is a Johannesburg-based media and public sector consultant, One Young World ambassador and founding entrepreneur at The Commissionaire Group South Africa