Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a stalwart of the anti-apartheid struggle passed away in a Johannesburg hospital on April2, 2018, at the age of 81. Born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela in the village of Mbongweni, Bizana, in the Transkei and the fourth of eight children, Winnie was the daughter of two teachers. Hers was a life of struggle and strife right from her days as a young child. She was bereaved at just nine years old, when her mother, Gertrude, died. After her grandma’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, and of course, a stance that shaped her belief and ideology for black empowerment.
Winnie met former South Africa’s president, the late Nelson Mandela in 1957, who was married at the time to Evelyn Mase but the marriage was breaking up. The next year, they married – she was a young bride, 16 years his junior, glamorous and strong-willed. They remained married for 38 years and had two children together.However, they were destined to have little time together as political activism and a period in hiding kept Mandela apart from her. He was jailed for life in 1964 and only released in 1990. Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s marriage ended in 1996, but the bond was never broken. Even while on admission, Winnie was seen almost daily visiting her former husband at the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria. A large hearted personality, She continued to be a presence in Mandela’s life despite his remarriage to Graça Machel. She was sometimes seen laughing and joking with her successor, Machel. Never shy of the spotlight, she was also a central figure in the days of mourning and funeral of the Late Madiba.
Winnie represented a generation of South African leadership that was exposed to the full brutality of the apartheid regime. Unlike her ex-husband, Mandela, she was subjected to torture while in prison and carried the damage of that ordeal through the rest of her life. The position she found herself in towards the end of the apartheid was one of relentless, and ultimately, destructive pressure – on one hand the torchbearer for Mandela during his long imprisonment and under intense media scrutiny; on the other, a leader in underground structures of the ANC and the subject of continuous security harassment and abuse.
Until the end, Winnie raised her voice in support of the deep transformation of South African society. She demanded social justice and came to represent the hopes and dreams of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable. These are some of the values for which she will be remembered.
Like Madiba, she made mistakes. Like Madiba, she had weaknesses but today, her supporters 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. As the world mourns the amazon, the indefatigable fighter who bore her marks with grace, the ‘mother of new South Africa’, she will forever be remembered as a courageous and fearless black woman who sacrificed much of her life for freedom in South Africa and remained a symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle up to her death.