April 2nd, 2018: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela dies at the age of 81 in a Johannesburg hospital, after a life of struggle and scandal, of sacrifice and victory, in the fight against apartheid.
Today mostly known because of her marriage to Nelson Mandela, the former liberation fighter and President of South Africa, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela always resented to be defined by her husband. “I am not Mandela’s product”, she said in an interview, “I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy”
Her enemy was the enemy of many: the apartheid-regime in South Africa oppressed on every level of the social, economical and political life the black majority of South Africans in favour of the white-rule of apartheid, which lasted until the beginning of the 1990s.
In this fight against apartheid Ms. Madikizela-Mandela took an important role, fighting besides others, including Nelson Mandela, to whom she was alreay married at the time. However, she did not fight for her husband or because of him. She made the choice of joining the fight on her own, as many others did. Maybe they were inspired by her husband, but certainly not defined by him. Therefore, their stories actually begin before Nelson Mandela.
Her story begins on Sept. 26, 1936, when she was born in Mbongweni in Pondoland, in what is now the Easter Cape Province, as the fourth of eight children. Her parents, both teachers, were named Columbus and Gertrude. At the time her name was not Winnie. In the Xhosa tradition, to which she and her family belong, you have a name when you are born and as you grow up and become a man or a woman, a member of society, you earn yourself a new name. While Winifred was the name she got in school by her teacher, her birth name was Nomzamo, which means “She who tries”.
In school Nomzamo certainly did not just try, she succeeded. Becoming the head girl at her high school, she went on to Johannesburg to study social work and later earn a Bachelor degree in international relations from the University of Witwatersrand. Having a Bachelor degree at the time was something extremely rare for a black South African.
Already a young woman at that point, Winnie turned down a scholarship in the United States of America to become the first black social worker in the Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.
In 1957 she met Nelson Mandela, who, at the time, worked as a lawyer. However, her first encounter with him was not his first encounter with her. He had seen her a few days before from his car, while she was waiting for the bus and he “was struck by her beauty”, as he writes in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. On the very day they met for the first time, Nelson Mandela said he would marry her, and so he did. Winnie’s father warned his daughter at the day of the wedding, that a life with Nelson, whose childhood name Rolihlahla literally means “Troublemaker”, would not be an easy life, but one of struggle.
Even though most people connect the struggle against apartheid mostly with Nelson Mandela, who became the symbol of this fight, thousands of others played a crucial role fighting next to him. One of them was certainly Winnie, his wife.
Throughout the years she supported him. Soon after their wedding, Nelson went into hiding to build and lead the military arm of the African National Congress. After his capture he went into prison for almost three decades. In his autobiography Nelson says many times that in prison the fight did not seem real sometimes, but somehow far away. He blames himself for not being there for his family and struggles to combine his feeling of responsibility towards his family with his duties towards all South Africans. What he sees is that while for him the fight was some kind of paused, due to his time in prison, for all the others the fight continued.
As it did for Winnie; working in the A.N.C.’s women’s League’s leadership and being the wife of the face of the struggle, she was a target for the authorities for more than one reason. Many times she was banned, sometimes for years. Being banned meant not to be allowed to enter certain areas, like Johannesburg or Soweto, where she had built her entire life, or being banned from visiting her husband.
After the many protests against the Government, she was imprisoned more than once, one time for 17 months, where she was beaten and tortured.
However, her life was also one of missteps and many see her more for her flaws and failures, than for her victories. In late 1980s she had allowed a local gang to use the outbuildings around her residence in Soweto. The gang, which began acting as her bodyguards, started terrorizing the neighbourhood and in the kidnapping scandal of 1991 someone was killed. Winnie was found guilty by the courts for ordering the kidnapping, but her sentence was soon to be reduced from 6 years in prison to a monetary payment. This, however, was not supposed to be her last misstep. In 2003 she was accused of having taken fraudulent financial actions in her position as the head of the A.N.C’s Women’s league, but on appeal the verdict was overruled by the judge because she had no personal gain out of the shady transactions.
While some loyalists see her as the Mother of South Africa, others only see the flaws and missteps. However, most people do not see her at all, and if they do they only see her standing in the shadow of a great man.
None of these options serve her justice. We cannot choose the good characteristics over the bad or the bad over the good ones, and neither can we see great women just as wives of great men or great men just as husbands to great wives; we have to see the entirety of someone’s personality and try to understand what made them behave the way they did, so that we can learn out of their mistakes and live up to the example they set for us.