Mam' Winnie Madikizela Mandela
The Life and Times of a legendary Icon
The Life and Times of Mam' Winnie Madikizela Mandela
[IsiXhosa Podcast Series below. Updated daily]
Often referred to as the Mother of the Nation, Winnie earned this title because, not only was she strongly opposed to the apartheid regime, but she was also able to give to those less fortunate than her despite the many challenges she faced.
Nomzamo Madikizela was the fourth child to be born to Columbus and Gertrude Nomathamsanqa (nee Mzaidume) Madikizela. Her father was a very strict man who admired hard work and as such had preconceived ideas about Germans and their love for work, he insisted that his daughter be called Winifred. Columbus and Gertrude lived in Bizana, emaMpondweni - the land of the amaMpondo) - in the Transkei with all their children. Their children were Christopher, Vuyelwa, Irene, Nancy, Beauty, Princess, Lungile and Msuthu
Columbus Madikizela was a missionary school teacher and later became a minister in the Department of Forestry and Agriculture in the Transkei during Kaizer Matanzima's rule. Gertrude, on the other hand, was both a domestic science teacher, as well as a devout Methodist Christian by religion. She was also renowned for her beauty and usually stood out as a result of her background. She was a descendant of a union between a white settler and a local Mpondo woman. Because of the way she looked, Columbus's mother could never accept the idea of her son's 'coloured' wife and this was an attitude to which her grandchildren were exposed. In her autobiography, Part of My Soul, Winnie writes that the remarks her grandmother made had actually exposed her to racism from an early age.
Having been raised by strict parents who were also disciplinarians, by the age of six, Winnie was already learning to be helpful with the animals as she milked the cows, tended the sheep, raised crops and also played out in the fields. In 1944, when Winnie was 10, her father got a job and left education for good. He and the whole family moved house to live at Embongweni. It was during this time that was suspected to have contracted TB, a result of caring for her sick daughter, Vuyelwa, who finally succumbed to the disease. Gertrude also died soon after Vuyelwa's death, a six month old Msuthu - Winnie's youngest brother - behind.
After the death of their mother, the relatives had to decide on what was going to be done with the Madikizela siblings. The two eldest, Christopher and Irene, went back to boarding school soon after the funeral. Nancy was taken by an aunt while Winnie went to live with her uncle, Gilbert, where she became the eldest child for a short time before returning to her father's. It was during this stage that she was forced to grow up and assume her mother's responsibilities in the absence of her mother. She cared for Princess an nursed Msuthu. Winnie grew very close to her father, who displayed his affection for her by bringing her books and magazines to read.
In the same year of the death of their mother, Columbus's school was closed down as it was seen to be overcrowded. Winnie, who had also attended the school, was forced to find another school, but was unable to find a place immediately. She stayed at home looking after the family for six months until she got a place at a secondary school in her mother's village called Ndunge.
The secondary school years
Soon after moving to Ndunge fights ensued between Winnie and her father because in her absence, he had taken the younger children to live with children. Whenever Winnie returned home and her siblings were not there, she practically forced her father to fetch them from wherever they were.
Within a year, Winnie changed schools and moved to a boarding school, Emfundisweni Secondary, in the Bizana district. Here she became known as the bright and generous student who was always willing to help other students with their homework. Although she did not always have her head buried in books, she was always passionate about sports such as netball, rounders and ball games. She also took a keen interest in singing in the choir as a result she began her own choir once she returned home for her school holidays.
During her secondary school years, Winnie's father had heard of a social work college for black students, Jan Hofmeyr in Johannesburg, and he wanted his daughter to attend it. She, on the other hand, worked very hard at attaining good grades in order to be accepted at the social work school. In 1951, she went on to enroll at Shawbury High School, almost 200 kilometers away from Bizana, to complete her secondary schooling. Here she was educated by teachers who were graduates from Fort Hare University and they were at the centre of black political activism. She became exposed, for the first time, to political views and sat for her matric examinations in 1953, during a time when there was unrest in the country due to the Defiance Campaign. This was the first time she had heard of the names Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.
The experience at Jan Hofmeyr College
Winnie was the first student from a rural background to be accepted into the college, and on her arrival, she was collected by two women from the station to the hostel. On of the things that stood out the most about her during this period was her dazzling beauty. Emma Gilbey writes: "By the time she arrived in Johannesburg she had turned into a staggeringly beautiful young student, tall and slender, having lost the last of her puppy fat, with enormous, luminous, dark eyes and an air of vulnerability ... She was enchanting and seductive. Men would stand and stare as she walked down the street..."
During her years at Jan Hofmeyr, Winnie was politically inactive and took not interest in politics. This was an attitude that was reflected by many who attended the college as they were told that activism was was a tool only used to deal with social problems. She studied hard and was noted to be especially good on the practical side of things involved in the course. Her first practical work was with the Salvation Army Delinquent Girls' Home where she used her organisational skills to group the girls into sports teams. This was a way to control a group that was notorious for being quarrelsome.
Transkei is now incorporated as part of the Eastern Cape in South Africa. Yet, she is charismatic and is able to captivate an audience with the intensity of her gaze and speech. Winnie Mandela is the type of woman who commands attention when she walks into a room full of people. She is a beautiful looking woman and is proud to dress up in designer African clothes – even if you wanted to, you just cannot ignore this lady. When interviewed, she is grace personified and comes across as a warm and intelligent woman.
On her return home during one of her field work trips, she discovered that her father had arranged for her to marry Qaqawuli, the son of a local chief. She was not happy about this and she soon fled to Johannesburg. Soon after this, however, Chief Kaizer Matanzima asked Winnie's hand in marriage (to be his second or third wife) after a brief courtship period between them. Winnie refused this on grounds that he too politically inflexible.
At the end of her studies, she qualified and received a diploma in social work and began working at Baragwaneth Hospital, in Johannesburg. Subsequently, she became South Africa's first black medical social worker at the hospital.
Winnie the social worker
As a social worker, Winnie proved to be very dedicated, hardworking and resourceful. She confronted poverty on a day-to-day basis and was very enthusiastic and loved children. She spent time at the children's ward, providing housing, care and supervision for those whose parents could not care for them. She also provided them with food, shelter and paid their school fees at times. She would also talk to the employers of workers who could not work due to illness. She was very bold and took on authorities whenever there was need. She maintained the reputation of a courageous person.
It was only when she worked at the Baragwaneth Hospital that she became acutely aware of the huge gap between the privileged white minority and the high levels of poverty that the black to which black people were subjected. She noticed how bad the medical services were for ill black people and even completed a project that included research that showed than ten out one thousand black babies died during birth. Deaths that need not have happened.
During this time, she was highly active and met young people from the African National Congress (ANC) and her political voice was first heard in the nineteen-fifties and she was arrested and detained as a political prisoner for the first time in 1958. This did not deter her and she was heavily involved with encouraging the women of South Africa to stand up and refuse to be subjected to the laws of apartheid.
She became friends with Adelaide Tsukudu, a nurse at Baragwaneth and also Oliver Tambo's fiancé - Tambo had set a law practice with Nelson Mandela. It was through Adelaide that Winnie met with both Tambo and Mandela. However, the meeting between Winnie and Nelson was initiated by Tambo. Soon after their meeting, Nelson called Winnie to arrange for a date. In an interview about this occasion, Winnie responded: "Of course I was petrified - he was much older than me and he was a patron of my school of social work. We had never seen him, he was just a name on the letterheads; he was too important for us students to even know him." Winnie did not refuse to go and this was to be the start of their relationship.
The relationship between Winnie and Nelson
Their first date characterised the pattern that their relationship was to follow. Although it was on a Sunday, Nelson was at work and Winnie met him there as he had sent a friend to pick her up. After finishing his work, he took her out for a quick lunch and then admitted that he actually wanted to ask her to raise money for the ANC.
The couple grew closer as they spent more and more time together. Nelson had been living apart from Evelyn Ntoko Mase (his ex-wife) for nearly a year when he met Winnie, who was usually reluctant to ask him anything about his personal life. Having acquired a divorce, he immediately asked Winnie to marry him, which she accepted. They announced their engagement on 25 May and married 14 June 1958. However, they could not hold their ceremony in Johannesburg as Nelson was banned and on trial for political reasons.
Even in the early years of their marriage, she had to learn to survive on her own (with their two daughters, Zinzi and Zenani), as Mandela toured different townships, passing on the anti-apartheid message. After his arrest and imprisonment in 1962, she was banned – this meant that she became a prisoner within Soweto, the largest township in South Africa. In typical Winnie style, she ignored the ban and visited her husband, Nelson, in prison in Cape Town in 1967. Her reward for this was a one month jail jail sentence.
Winnie's life with Nelson in prison
Over the years she was banned and jailed. At one time she was put into solitary confinement on the death row, probably , the then government’s endeavour to weaken her beliefs. One wonders how the children coped with an absent father and a mother who was victimised in this way. After her release form a Kroonstad prison in 1975, she was part of the newly formed African National Congress Women’s League – a movement that till today has a powerful political voice. It was not long before the Women’s League was banned as well – this did not deter Winnie and her female comrades – they continued to struggle against the apartheid laws.
Winnie was involved with the Soweto 1976 uprising and was sentenced to jail again – this time, she had to spend half a year in prison and after her release she was not allowed to go back to Soweto. Once again, her home life was tilted upside down. The South African government re-stationed her in the town of Brandfort and there she remained for nine years, enduring assaults on her house and received numerous death threats. Being the strong woman that she was, she again ignored her banning order and left Brandfort for visits to Soweto – for this she was arrested each time and had to spend time in jail.
Is this what made her controversial? Not at all – there were many other black people who endured the same victimisation. After all, it was her tenacity and loyalty that earned her the title "mother of the nation". She was respected worldwide and among the majority of black people. What put Winnie in a class of her own, besides being married to an icon and hero to millions of people worldwide, was her fearless verbal attack on the apartheid government. They responded in kind with arrests, banning orders and jail terms, but they were never able to destroy her or weaken her belief.
Ultimately, it was Winnie who almost destroyed herself. She formed what was known as The Mandela United Football Team. They spent more time protecting Mrs Mandela than playing football and soon rumours abounded about their involvement in clandestine activities. Her "football team" became powerful, eliminating anyone who would dare to oppose them. More rumours surfaced when it was said that many governmental informers were ordered by Winnie to death by "necklacing" (when a tire is placed over an "accused's" neck and lit).
A 14-year old Stompie Moeketsi was their nemesis was abducted by this powerful "football" team, tortured and eventually murdered. The worst part is that this happened just a few months before the release of Nelson Mandela from captivity - a time when at last, it looked as though progress was being made to break down the barriers of apartheid.
Nelson was released and man and wife were re-united. Nelson Mandela, an icon, stood by his wife even though he had heard all the rumours of her mafiosa-like football team. He supported her and defended her at all times - even when she and her football team stood trial for the murder of Stompie, he was at her side. He believed in her. It was found that she had been involved with the death of Stompie and received a light jail sentence, but in typical Winnie-style, she managed to have the judgment overturned and walked away with a fine. One of her infamous bodyguards was sentenced for the actual death of Stompie.
The end of Winnie's marriage
By now, cracks appeared in the Mandela marriage - especially after rumours surfaced of an alleged relationship between the lady and one of her bodyguards. Nelson Mandela divorced Winnie Mandela and when he was inaugurated as first democratically-elected president of South Africa, one of his daughters was by his side - Winnie wasn't even invited to share with the podium and immediate interior of the celebrations that were held on that day - not until, Thabo Mbeki (Nelson's successor) personally invited her to sit with him and his wife. Winnie had found a way to survive again.
Against all expectations, she had been re-elected chairperson of the ANC Women's League several times and her voice is still a strong one. She despises the press who understandably relish any opportunity to elaborate on her lifestyle. This woman, this Winnie Mandela, has spent a lifetime being victimised and oppressed. Could this be why when she was allowed to have some kind of power, she went overboard and took her anger out on a fourteen year boy? The records show that she was indirectly involved with his death, but is this any excuse? To the many that hate her, no.
She is a unique woman and her drive and art of survival is something to be admired. The shadow of the death of poor Stompie should and will always haunt her - if anything, maybe his death brought her to her senses. May she continue to be strong, opposing injustices, but remembering not to commit any injustices herself.