Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was a South African activist during the Apartheid. She had a career in social work, she was an activist, she was the President of the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s League and was elected to Parliament in 1994. She was also the wife of Nelson Mandela.

Winnie passed away on the 2nd of April 2018 and I would like to explore her life and contribution that stood separate to her husband, because she herself had an intense career as a social activist worth discussing. I have to note here that she was also a deeply flawed human being and by all accounts facilitated horrible things and associated with some horrible people.There is a timeline and listing of faults, charges and incidents here.

The general run through of her life is as follows:

  • Winnie studied to become a Social Worker at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg in 1953.
  • At the time, South Africa was in the midst of Apartheid – a time during which Indigenous African people experienced extreme violence, segregation and mistreatment whilst those of European descent experienced access to privilege, wealth, and health.
  • Winnie was the first black social worker at the Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg.
  • Winnie met and married Nelson Mandela in the 1950s – he was already deeply political at this time.
  • During her husband’s extensive periods of imprisonment Winnie continued surreptitiously working towards the defeat of Apartheid as a member of the ANC.
  • Winnie herself was tortured and detained in solitary confinement for a year, was placed under house arrest and had her house firebombed.
  • Her arrest was as per the “1967 Terrorism Act, No 83, which allowed the arrest of anyone perceived to be endangering the maintenance of law and order. It stipulated that anyone could be arrested without warrant, detained for an indefinite period of time, interrogated and kept in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer or a relative” (source).
  • Throughout all this, Winnie continued to publicly speak out against the mistreatment of native Africans, including through engagement with international media.
  • She was constantly harassed, imprisoned, restricted, raided and intervened with by government officials and police. She was even banished from her own country for a period of time.
  • In 1994, in the same year that Nelson Mandela became president (the first black president of South Africa), Winnie was elected into Parliament and appointed deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology.
  • She was removed from this assignment in 1995 (by Mandela) due to her rumoured  and proven affiliations with radical groups and ideologies.
  • After this time, Winnie was convicted against charges of human rights violations. My understanding of this is that she set up guards to torture and kill black Africans who were assisting the Apartheid.

There’s a fascinating quote by Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe that I read, on her marrying Nelson Mandela: “The decision in itself was a big decision‚ because she got married to the trouble itself … That is a major decision. It reflects the character of the person”.

She got married to the trouble itself… It’s such a unique way of looking at how her marriage with him set up the events that happened throughout her life. It makes me sit and wonder what her life would have been, had she continued on as the social worker at the hospital. Clearly she was a strong willed, brave woman not willing to bow down to social norms, but how that would have manifested is interesting to ponder.

I have to identify that it would be foolish for me to believe that I could understand what it took for her to survive during the time of Apartheid, known by the government as trouble and with a husband away. It’s why I’m worried about commenting on those elements of illegality that tarnish her life. Was it a case of kill or be killed? Does that matter? I’m not sure and I am not informed enough to make any kind of statement on that.

Winnie was married to her husband during his imprisonment spanning nearly 40 years. So for nearly 40 years, Winnie did what women do best: she got on with it. In the same way that has happened thousands of times over throughout history, she dug her heels in and she continued pushing forward while her husband was away. This is a particularly unique example of that scenario, but it is what it boils down to. She had to make decisions for her and her family, like sending their children to another country to board for their safety, that impacted on her life drastically and that would have surely taken a great personal toll.

She lived a lonely life both in her marriage and her friendships, with many people entering her life to be later discovered as spies. She did in fact do social work until 1965, when government restrictions placed upon her movements meant that she was no longer able to travel to her place of work. What this must do to a person is anybody’s guess. At one interrogation it is reported that she was kept awake for five full days and nights. The impact on her well being must have been monumental, and I wonder what part this played in her later actions.

I could keep musing on Winnie all day. Just like every human on this planet, Winnie contributed both positively and negatively to this world. I believe, however, that it is important that we learn of her story, of her faults and her power and bravery, and try to approach her story with curiosity and compassion.

Thank you to the following links:

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