South Africa’s Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, endearingly called Mama Winnie and “Mother of the Nation,” passed away in early April. A funeral service was held on April 14th, organized by the African National Congress, a group criticized for distancing itself from her. The ceremony featured a number of prominent speakers, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Madikizela-Mandela’s daughter. The thousands of mourners in attendance had come to bid their farewells to one of South Africa’s most powerful, and, at times, most controversial, anti-apartheid activist.
With Madikizela-Mandela’s death, South African politicians have scrambled to associate themselves with her popular legacy. Biographers and historians, on the other hand, now face the difficulty of presenting a complete portrait of the woman, reconciling the righteousness of her politics with some of the less-than-honorable moments in her life. The focus of this brief profile is to make note of how Winnie Madikizela-Mandela earned such widespread love from the South African people in her struggle against apartheid, and what made her a troublesome figure even to her political allies.
Respect and Honor Won
Before marrying Nelson Mandela and affixing his name to her own, Winnie Madikizela worked for a short period of time at a hospital in Soweto, a township within Johannesburg. Despite obstacles she faced as a black woman seeking an education in a system of apartheid, she managed to earn a degree in social work, as well as a later bachelor’s degree in international relations. She allegedly had an offer to study abroad in the United States, but preferred instead to remain in South Africa, reflecting a characteristic attachment to her homeland.
After meeting him at a bus stop in 1958, she married Nelson Mandela, a lawyer already on the government’s radar as a leading opposition leader. They had two daughters together before the South African authorities sentenced her husband to life in prison for conspiracy to overthrow the state. Madikizela-Mandela, left alone to single-handedly raise her children, inevitably became a symbol of resilience in the face of government oppression. During her husband’s imprisonment, she worked with the African National Congress (ANC) to organize opposition against the government, especially advocating on behalf of political prisoners. Because of her seemingly fearless opposition, she drew widespread international support for the anti-apartheid cause. But Madikizela-Mandela’s political activities during her husband’s imprisonment also attracted the apartheid government’s attention. She was arrested several times before ultimately being imprisoned in 1969 following a police raid on her house. In the end, the government never convicted her of any crime, but nonetheless she spent 17 months in solitary confinement in the far-off town of Brandfort, removed entirely from the community she was most familiar with.
The suffering she endured while in prison seemingly transformed her. In one respect, she appeared to grow closer to her husband despite being confined to a small prison cell. She later wrote to him in a letter: “Eating what you were eating and sleeping on what you sleep on gave me that psychological satisfaction of being with you.” But the trauma of her imprisonment obviously remained with her even years after being freed. As she writes in her memoir, she was “so brutalised by that experience that [she] then believed in the language of violence and the only way to deal with, to fight, apartheid was through the same violence” the government had used against the anti-apartheid activists. The marked shift in her rhetoric following her time in solitary confinement suggests that the experience hit her more deeply than some of her colleagues may have observed at the time. The figure that emerged from prison still fought for racial equality alongside other ANC leaders, but she also became associated with
Controversy and Criticism
In 1986, Madikizela-Mandela endorsed the practice of “necklacing” for any black civilians known to be informants to the apartheid government. The practice involved restraining the victim with a tire filled with ethanol, and lighting it aflame. “We shall liberate this country,” she said in a speech, “with our boxes of matches and our necklaces.” Her shift towards violence spurred a division within the anti-apartheid movement, and the controversies surrounding her were enough for the ANC to keep her at arm’s length, though she remained popular within the anti-apartheid movement.
In 1988, her bodyguards kidnapped four teenagers, including Stompie Seipei, a 14 year old they had accused of being a police informant. Under fire from the ANC for the kidnapping, Madikizela-Mandela claimed she was protecting them from molestation at the hands of their pastor. Her bodyguards tortured the minors to coerce confessions that they had been sexually assaulted by the pastor. One of her bodyguards, Jerry Richardson, captain of the so-called Mandela United Football Club, killed Seipei by slitting his throat. His body was found near Madikizela-Mandela’s house five days later. At a hearing for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1994 (appointed after the end of apartheid by then-President Nelson Mandela to investigate human rights abuses), Richardson confessed to the murder of Seipei, but he asserted that it was only on the orders of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Of course, she denied any involvement in the murder, and indeed she was acquitted on those charges. But the evidence made clear that she played a direct role at least in supervising the kidnapping. Initially sentenced to a six year sentence, she ultimately only paid a fine after an appeal. Along with other accusations that she ordered her security detail to assault and possibly murder other suspected black informants, the Seipei murder marked the most disgraceful stain on Madikizela-Mandela’s biography.
Following these controversies, however, Madikizela-Mandela emerged with her reputation largely intact. Her divorce from Mandela in 1996 and even charges of fraud and theft as a member of the South African parliament in 2003 failed to diminish her public image. She returned to politics in 2008, easily re-elected to parliament, where she served until her death.
Madikizela-Mandela’s role in South African history is unmatched by any other woman. The complexities of her life re-emerged even at her state-sanctioned funeral, put on by the political party she worked with for much of her life, and which had at several points pushed her away. Her daughter, speaking on behalf of her family, spoke for many South Africans at the ceremony when she asserted plainly: “To those of you who vilified my mother, don’t think for a minute that we’ve forgotten.” So Madikizela-Mandela’s defiant legacy lives on, her popularity illustrated by the crowds of South Africans adorned in yellow and green to honor the “Mother of the Nation.”