Mother of the Nation, fallen from grace

During the years of apartheid in South Africa, Winnie Mandela was a symbol of resistance as important as her husband. While Nelson Mandela stayed in prison serving a life sentence, Winnie went in and out of them for defying the government's orders, always courageous, always fighting, and at the same time being a mother to the couple's children. She was a source of strength, Mother of the Nation to many South Africans.

Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela was born in 1936 to a privileged life for a person of colour: Her mother was a teacher, her father a headmaster and a cabinet minister in the Transkei homeland government. Winnie took an education as a social worker and in 1956 started to work at a hospital.

"It was while working as the first black medical social worker at Baragwanath Hospital that I started to become politicised. I started to realise the abject poverty under which most people were forced to live, the appalling conditions created by the inequalities of the system."

She became increasingly involved in politics and took a Bachelor of Arts degree with an International Relations major at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Her first detention happened in 1958, when she protested against the pass laws (black South Africans had to carry a passport at all times). At this time she was already chairperson of a branch of both ANC* and ANCWL**.

She also met and married her husband in 1958. Nelson Mandela was a young lawyer on trial for treason at the time. In 1962 he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. At the same time his wife was ordered to stay in Soweto, but defied these orders. She was thrown into prison for this and other failures to submit to the apartheid system, sometimes for months, sometimes for years at a time. She kept standing proud, fighting in all the ways she could.

In 1990 Nelson Mandela walked out of prison accompanied by Winnie. Apartheid had come to an end. So had Winnie's all-good image, unfortunately. Rumours about her bodyguards, the 'Mandela United Football Club', carrying out kidnappings, torture and murders came out in the open. In 1991 Winnie was found guilty of kidnapping and assisting to the assault of five young activists, one of whom, the 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, died. She was sentenced to six year in prison, but after appealing had them reduced to two years, and suspended. She and her husband separated in 1992; they had a highly publicised divorce in 1996.

Winnie, now called Madikezela-Mandela, was elected to Parliament in 1994, but unseated the next year. Her testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 1997 did not clear her name. She is still associated with the infamous practice of necklacing - placing a tyre over the victim's neck and lighting it. The charismatic and outspoken Winnie is still beloved by many. She is an icon of resistance for black women and should remain so. Her resistance to normal human morals is not an example to follow, however.

* African National Congress
** African National Congress Women's League

In Soweto (South Western Township, outside Johannesburg, South Africa) during the 1940s and 1950s, there was a burgeoning swing/jazz movement, characterised by smoky shebeens (illegal drinking houses), passionate dancing and singing and a mixture of snappy dressers and hardcore drinkers. This was a bit of glamour in the horrid surroundings of the township. The Jazz scene was the cultural pulse of the era for many people living there.

I read an account by one of the locals at a popular shebeen about the night Winnie Mandela came to party. I never realised it, but Winnie Mandela was (is?) extraordinarily beautiful. Back then she was one of the social elite in Soweto, a well to do socialite and enourmously attractive. The account centers on how Winnie Mandela was instantly the center of attention in the shebeen and how she effortlessly exuded class, refinement and spirit. The impression everyone got was that she was one special lady, destined for greatness.

True to form, she met and married one of the most influential young lawyers and political activists in Johannesburg, an ex-boxer from a royal Transkei family by the name of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. The couple were politically charged, young and both leaders in the community. They were powerful and the future hope of the struggle against apartheid.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Along came the Rivonia Trials and Nelson Mandela was thrown in prison for a very long time. Winnie remained a bastion of hope and a symbol of the power of the struggle. She was in and out of jail, always in the headlines and a leader of the youth movement.

It seems that either cynicism, corruption or the complacency of power got to Winnie and she began to become paranoid. She surrounded herself with bodyguards and was always followed by an entourage. She began to wear big hats, always a worrying sign.

When she accompanied Nelson Mandela on his Long Walk to Freedom from Victor Verster Prison, Winnie was, no doubt, already aware that her public image and criminal escapades while Nelson was locked up were highly incongruous to his new mission of moving South Africa into democracy, in one form or another. She basically got the boot.

And then she just went off the rails totally. See agazade's wu above...

[She is] the Mohammed Ali of the ANC ... though Ali has limited himself to three returns to the championship and one spell in jail while Mrs Mandela has had at least half-a-dozen of each. -- editorial in the Mail and Guardian, March 24, 19959

Nomzamo Nobandla Winnifred Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
b. September 26, 1936
Bizana, erstwhile Transkei, now Eastern Cape, South Africa
m. Nelson Mandela, June 1958 (s. 1992, d. 1996)
c: Zenani 1959, Zindziswa (Zindzi) 19601

Early years

Winnie Mandela was born into relative affluence in the erstwhile bantustan of the Transkei. Her father was an administrator in the sham Transkei government, holding the post of minister of the Forestry and Agriculture Department. Winnie's mother, before she died when Winnie was eight, was a Domestic Science (Home Economics) teacher.

Winnie was the fourth of eight children born to Nomathamsanqa Mzaidume. Only three of her siblings survive today, which is not so extreme given that they would all be pensioners.

Winnie attended primary school in her local town of Bizana, and attended high school in Shawbury. Unlike most of her peers, Winnie entered tertiary education - not once, but twice - gaining a diploma in Social Work from the Jan Hofmeyer School in Johannesburg, before attending Wits University (University of the Witwatersrand) - while it was still open to students of all races - gaining a BA in Political Science, majoring in International Relations. What is perhaps most remarkable about her studies is that she had completed them by the tender age of 22 when she married Nelson Mandela.

Despite studying a political science degree, Winnie didn't become politicised herself until she filled the post of the first black medical social worker at infamous Baragwanath Hospital. She undertook a study into African infant mortality rates, and discovered that 10 in every 1000 African babies born, died due to preventable birth complications. Her study also highlighted for her the abject poverty under which most of her kinsfolk lived2.

Once involved in the struggle, it was not long before she met Nelson Mandela, a popular leader in the ANC. Mandela was recently divorced from his first wife, Evelyn, whose beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness and duties as a mother to their four children rendered her unable to cope with her husband's high-flying and dangerous lifestyle3. Mandela was captivated by Winnie's beauty and quickly smitten. To talk of her beauty and to suggest that this was the only bow with which Cupid struck Mandela is to do both of them a disservice: Winnie had already proven herself a great intellect, and would soon prove to be a dedicated campaigner for the rights of the African people. Winnie's father had objected to the match: he felt Mandela was too old for her (being 18 years her senior) and too committed to politics4.

Struggling through The Struggle years

Winnie took to politics quickly. Her first detention was in 1958, when she was one of many women arrested during the anti-pass campaign2. See here and here for explanation of the Pass Laws in apartheid South Africa. Winnie held the joint offices of chair of the Orlando West branch of the ANC and ANC Women’s League2.

Even during the earliest days of her marriage, Winnie often had to get by on her own: her husband was constantly on the move, from township to township, spreading the resistance word5. Still, children came quickly to the Mandela's: Zenani arrived in 1959 and Zindzi followed a year later.

In 1962, Winnie received her first ban, which restricted her to Soweto (South West (African) Township of Johannesburg: second only to Sophiatown). In the same year, her husband was sentenced to five years' imprisonment with hard labour. In 1963 he was again called to stand trial, and in 1964 he was convicted of treason and sent to Robben Island for life6. In 1967, Winnie defied her ban and went to Robben Island to visit her husband, where she was arrested and spent one month at a prison known as The Fort2. Presumably family members took care of her two children, then aged seven and eight.

Winnie was one of the first people detained under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act, spending eighteen months in solitary confinement in the condemned (death row) cell at Pretoria Central prison. Eventually she was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act (which did not cover Communism at all) and was one of the accused on the dock of the "Trial of 22" in 1970. Found guilty, they were all discharged on appeal2. This did not prevent her from staying in prison in Kroonstad until September 1975, however.

Miraculously, the ANC Womens' League had not been banned in the 1960's along with the ANC and most other resistance organisations. Despite her long imprisonment, Winnie still served on the executive committee of the ANCWL until its banning, when she and her colleagues joined the Federation of South African Women2.

There was a storm brewing in early 1976 amidst students in Johannesburg. Teachers were attacked, on one occasion, the police who went to apprehend a student who had stabbed a teacher were stoned to death by their classmates, and by May, students were boycotting schools7. The main source of the students' ire was the fact that they were forced to learn in Afrikaans, a language that was both foreign to them, and which signified the oppressor.

The government were due to bring into effect the Parliamentary Internal Security Commission Act No 67 on June 16th, a date chosen by the recently convened Soweto Students' Representative Council for mass protests against the Bantu Education Act and its requirement that students learn in Afrikaans. Over the course of the next three days, riots spread throughout the townships of Johannesburg, buildings were set ablaze, and hundreds of people died at the hands of the paramilitary police force7. The main events took place on June 16th, which has been commemorated in South Africa as Youth Day since 1995.

Police open fire on a march of school children to Orlando West Secondary School in protest against education in Afrikaans, and widespread resistance follows in which hundreds are killed and others stream into exile. As a result of the 1953 ‘Bantu Education Act’ the state spent nearly 15 times more on white learners than black learners.

The unrest spreads to the Western Cape and the first members of the ‘Class of ‘76’ leave South Africa for training in armed resistance. According to the government people died. Police action resulted in 451 deaths. 3907 people were injured. The police were responsible for 2389 injuries. Both the death and injury figures were disputed by various sources as being too low. 5980 were arrested for offences related to the resistance in the townships. Within four months of the Soweto revolt 160 African communities all over the country were involved in the resistance.

It was estimated that at least 250 000 people in Soweto were actively involved in the résistance. Resistance in the various communities were located in all four provinces and the homelands. A police witness said to the Cillie Commission that at least 46 incidents of arson, strikes and disturbances occurred in Venda, Lebowa and Gazankulu.

Large numbers of students left the country and went into exile7.

Winnie Mandela was implicated in the organisation of the Soweto Uprising, spending six months in jail again at The Fort ("Number 4")5. Upon her release on May 16, 1977, Winnie was exiled to Brandfort, a small town in the [Orange] Free State, which she was banned from leaving for the next nine years. Winnie's isolation in Brandfort was designed by the government because she did not speak the local Sotho dialect. There are two main groups of Bantu languages: Nguni and Sotho. Winnie, a Xhosa, would be able to get around any of the Nguni family of languages, but Sotho was foreign to her3.

While the government had cramped down on Winnie's activities within the borders of South Africa, the events of June 16, 1976 and the brandishing around of Winnie's surname, had drawn the attention of the western world4.

Winnie would not let government bans restrict her movements, however. She repeatedly left the house in Brandfort and returned to Soweto, where she would be arrested, spend time in jail, and be returned to Brandfort. During her time there, her house was also bombed twice and she received several death threats2. Winnie Mandela was rocking boats and making enemies, but she was also making friends: long-suffering African women, amongst the most unempowered in the world, heralded her the Mother of the Nation. Many who suffered alongside her looked to her for strength and continue to do so today.

Downward slope

Into the eighties, Winnie began to become paranoid, and recruited a band of bodyguards under the guise of the Mandela United Football Club. Word on the street in Soweto was that what she called a football club was really a band of thugs brutally assaulting anyone who crossed her4,5. "Necklacing", a form of murder by placing a petrol-filled tyre around their neck and setting it alight, was their preferred means of assassination5. During these dark years, the authorities were quite happy to encourage black-on-black violence, with only token prosecution. But the possibility of prosecuting the wife of an international icon was too good to pass up.

In 1989, 14 year old boy named Stompie Seipei Moketi was kidnapped, tortured and later murdered by members of the MUFC. The ANC leadership wanted to discipline her, claiming not unsurprisingly that she was out of control, but her husband, still in jail but now carrying out clandestine negotiations with state president PW Botha, refused. In 1991, over a year after her husband's release, Winnie was charged with the assault and kidnapping of Stompie and convicted with a sentence of six years. Somehow, she got the sentence reduced to a fine4.

Winnie may have been at his side when Nelson Mandela walked to freedom on February 11, 1990, but their reunion was not the happiest. A wee snip of a lass of 26 when her husband was jailed for a very long time, it was hardly likely that she would remain faithful. Fortunately she showed discretion with her affairs - which was paramount to her place in the struggle, she could hardly be seen betraying a man who had given his life to the freedom of the people - but the rumours had reached Nelson in prison.

Despite the reunion not being the most loving, Madiba (Nelson Mandela's tribal name, by which he is affectionately and respectfully known in South Africa) stood by her while the accusations of the MUFC's off-field activities surfaced. When rumours of an affair between Winnie and one of her bodyguards emerged, Madiba had finally had enough, and the couple separated in 1992. Even in his official statement on their separation, Madiba refused to put Winnie down:

I part from my wife with no recriminations. I embrace her with all the love and affection I have nursed for her both inside and outside of prison from the moment I first met her -- Nelson Mandela, April 19928

At Madiba's presidential inauguration, and at many stately occasions during the early years of his presidency, he was usually accompanied by his youngest daughter, Zindzi5. Despite Winnie's almost exile from the ANC powerhouse, she was still re-elected chair of the ANC Women's League. The long-suffering women of South Africa had not forgotten her struggles, and were ready to forgive her her transgressions. Madiba, on the other hand, was less charitable. She was only invited to join the inauguration celebrations when current president Thabo Mbeki invited her to sit with him and his wife5. Winnie's undeniable support amongst women ensured her a place in the first ANC cabinet. She was sacked from her ministerial post in 19954.

The Mandela's eventually divorced in 1996, on the grounds of adultery. Soon after, Graça Machel, widow of former Moçambiquan president, Samora Machel, became a regular on the arm of Madiba. In a badly-kept secret, the pair wed on his 80th birthday, July 18, 1998, during his last year as president of South Africa. Winnie has never remarried, and now goes by the name Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Into the abyss

Winnie appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997, summoned to answer to allegations of her role in 18 human rights abuses, including 8 murders9. At the same time, she was nominated by the ANCWL, which she chaired (and still chairs) as its candidate for the deputy presidency of the ANC. While the majority of the ANC elite considered her to be a joke, and a nuisance, she was in fact the fifth most popular candidate. In light of her TRC case, however, she withdrew from the election4.

She remains a very strong candidate for the vice-presidency. Whatever the private feelings of the established leaders, she is one of the few leaders within the ANC who have charisma. She would have been down and out ten years ago but she has a remarkable ability to win wars no-one expects her to. -- Wits University political analyst Alfred Stadler, before her withdrawal of candidacy9

The TRC found Winnie to be implicated in murders and that she had allowed her home to be used as a place for assault and mutilation. It reported that the MUFC were involved in "killing, torture, assaults and arson in the community." Winnie had not sought amnesty for her crimes committed during the apartheid years, which she was entitled to claim under the constitution of the TRC, and the Commission reported that prosecution should be considered10. Once again, however, Winnie found herself off the hook.

Winnie's lifestyle had gotten her into trouble before: Madiba had bailed her out financially once before, but in 2002, things got a little more heated around her collar area. In February she was evicted from the Soweto home she had shared with Madiba, which will now be turned into a museum. In June, Winnie was summoned to a parliamentary committee to explain how she lived a lavish lifestyle on a minister's salary. She didn't turn up10. In July, Winnie appeared in court to answer to 85 charges of fraud and theft. She was accompanied by her daughter Zindzi, who it appears, has sadly been drawn down with her mother. She was charged alongside her broker, Addy Moolman, with offences involving more than one million Rand (approximately US$100,000 at the time)11.

Throughout the trial, Winnie enjoyed the support of the ANCWL, which she continued to chair, and many were outside the court on April 25, 2003 when she was sentenced, having been found guilty. The pair had arranged bank loans for fictitious employees of the ANC Womens' League. Winnie was sentenced to five years in prison, with one suspended, again getting off lighter than her co-accused, who received seven with two suspended. Upon pronouncing her sentence, magistrate Peet Johnson said11:

Only a fool would underplay your role in the history of this country. Many of your years have been spent at the side of the greatest statesman of modern times and there's no doubt that you've played an important role in the liberation struggle, but somewhere something went wrong. These facts are not a free ticket to get away with the crimes committed. You should have set an example. After a short period of imprisonment you will be released so that you can use your many talents to serve the public. Your fall from grace was enormous and is well known, and you are a well-loved person who has suffered lots of hardship. At first it seemed that you acted like a Robin Hood, taking from those who have and giving to those who have not. The only reasonable conclusion was that you wanted to get help for the people who approached you.

Winnie released a written statement that said that the outcome had offered her an opportunity to refocus her energies and to do what appealed to her inner ideals11. We wait with bated breath.


  3. Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela
  4. 98/truth_and_reconciliation/202516.stm
  10. 98/truth_and_reconciliation/203938.stm

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