Mama Winnie was born in Mbizana in the Eastern Cape on 26 September 1936 and passed away in Johannesburg on Monday, 2 April 2018. Mama Winnie represents a generation of South African leadership and black women who were exposed to the full brutality of the apartheid regime because of their political activity.
She endured continuous harassment at the hands of the apartheid security police and was subjected to torture while in prison. While the pain that she endured during these years could not be forgotten, she did not allow it to break her spirit and humanity. Until the end, Mama Winnie raised her voice in support of meaningful transformation in South African society.
She demanded social justice, and came to represent the hopes and dreams of our country’s poorest and most vulnerable. Mama Winnie was born to Columbus Kokani and Gertrude Nomathamsanqa Madikizela, both of whom were teachers. As a young adult she moved to Johannesburg and became the first qualified black medical social worker at Soweto’s then Baragwanath Hospital (now called Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital).
Research into infant mortality rates in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township, as well as other experiences of apartheid South Africa, drew her into activism. On 14 June 1958, she married Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela with whom she had two daughters, Zenani and Zindziswa. Their early married life was turbulent; peppered with constant police raids,African National Congress (ANC) meetings, protest actions and legal cases. In October 1958, Mama Winnie took part in a mass women’s protest against the apartheid government’s infamous pass laws, organised by Mama Lilian Ngoyi, Mama Albertina Sisulu and others.
During the protest, the police arrested over 1 000 women. Mama Winnie and others spent two weeks in prison as a sign of further protest. It was an event which brought Mama Winnie’s political leadership capabilities to the fore.
She played a leading role in the “We Stand by Our Leaders” campaign in support of the Treason Trialists of 1956-1961. Amongst her trusted confidantes was Mama Ngoyi who, along with Mama Helen Joseph, were the only two women accused in the Treason Trial. From 1961 she was subjected to an almost uninterrupted series of legal orders that curbed her ability to work and socialise.
In 1962 she lost her husband to long-term imprisonment and was only reunited with him in 1990. Mama Winnie herself was constantly harassed and bullied, and her children targeted. In 1962 she was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, during which time she was restricted to Orlando, Soweto. This restricted her movements to the magisterial district of Johannesburg, prohibited her from entering any educational premises and barred her from attending or addressing any meetings or gatherings where more than two people were present. She worked clandestinely for the ANC; attending meetings, printing and distributing pamphlets, and was put under house arrest in 1970 for repeatedly flouting her banning orders.
In 1965 a more severe banning order barred her from moving anywhere beyond Orlando West. The ramification of this banning order was the cost of losing her job as a social worker. On the night of 12 May 1969, Mama Winnie and her children were woken to the familiar sounds of a police raid. The police tore her away from her children under the Terrorism Act of 1967. She was detained in solitary confinement for 491 days (17 months) under the Terrorism Act.
As soon as Mama Winnie was released, the apartheid machinery slapped another more stringent banning order on her, severely restricting her movements. Despite the banning order, she managed to visit her husband on Robben Island, for some 30 minutes. In May 1973, she was arrested again and given a 12-month sentence at Kroonstad Women’s Prison. She was released after six months and surprisingly, her banning order was not renewed. In May 1976, Mama Winnie worked with Dr Nthato Motlana to establish the Soweto Parents’ Association and had their hands full with youth and parents who had been arrested, injured or killed in the protest of June 1976. Following the student protest in Soweto, Mama Winnie was held in custody for five months without charge and in January 1977, she was served with a fresh banning order that exiled her to Brandfort in the Free State. By all accounts, her banishment to Brandfort backfired.
While there, she established a local gardening collective, soup kitchen, mobile health unit, sewing club, daycare centre, and an orphan and juvenile centre. She defied the system and returned to Soweto and throughout the 1980s, she took on an increasingly prominent role in the struggle against apartheid. The 1980s were characterised by an unprecedented level of mass participation and community struggles throughout the country, and particularly driven by Mama Winnie, in Soweto. The apartheid government responded with extreme violence, including troops in the townships and two states of emergency. Mama Winnie’s commitment to the struggle for humanity, in particular for women, led to her being elected in 1993 as the President of the ANC Women’s League and subsequently re-elected in 1997 until 2003.
She was appointed as the Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology after 1994. In 1984 she published the book Part of My Soul and in 2013, 491 Days: Prisoner number 1323/69, which she dedicated to her late granddaughter Zenani. It draws on a journal she secretly wrote during her imprisonment. In the book, she speaks of the pain of being separated from her children and about how this shaped her into the person that she became. Mama Winnie was a proud black African woman who fought and persevered for her country against injustice. She knew it was a thankless job and did not endure the hardship in pursuit of any personal glorification but instead for the emancipation of her people. She provided refuge to many young activists who identified with freedom and social justice. For this she was given the title of Honorary President of the Congress of South African Students, for life.
Mama Winnie is survived by her daughters: their Royal Highnesses Zenani Dlamini and Zindziswa Mandela; her grandchildren: Zaziwe, Zamaswazi, Zinhle, Zoleka, Zondwa, Bambatha, Zozuko and Zwelabo; and her great-grandchildren: Ziyanda, Ziphokazi, Zwelami, Zamakhosi, Zazi, Ziwelene, Zenkosi, Zanyiwe, Zinokuhle, Ziyalo and Zenzelwe. Aahh’ Nobandla, aahh’ Nobandla, ahh’ Nobandla!!! Ntombi Yakwa Madikizela Ngutyana Phapha Makhal’endlovu Nqwanda Msuthu Msengethwa