JOHANNESBURG, South Africa ― The news that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had died on Monday at 81 years old brought South Africa to a standstill almost as dramatic as that which greeted the death of her husband, Nelson Mandela, five years ago. In an outpouring of memory and grief, she was hailed as a co-liberator of South Africa and the mother of the nation, as he was the father of the nation.
At her home in Soweto, crowds gathered as quickly and spontaneously as they had gathered outside Nelson Mandela’s Johannesburg home when he died.
As with Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s death was announced with gravitas by the presidency. This time, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa hailed her role as a heroine of the struggle and said she had lived a rich and remarkable life.
Madikizela-Mandela died a political figure as resonant in South Africa today as Nelson Mandela is. Indeed, his politics of peace, reconciliation and non-racialism are regarded with skepticism by a new generation, whereas her radical focus on African nationalism, land reform and militance make her legacy a less contested one these days.
This is because South Africa’s movement toward greater equality, more muscular land transfers and harmonious race relations has often been a tortured journey. And so with her death, Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy is quickly being reassessed. Her path, many believe, may have delivered the fruits of freedom more quickly than Mandela’s path, which favored peace and reconciliation over the more militant road that Madikizela-Mandela often said the African National Congress should not have forsaken.
She was the archetypal good bad woman. Her ungovernable, take-no-prisoners style is well-loved in South Africa where heroines are often crafted from the tough streets of political and social struggle. The website South African History Online tells the first page of her story like this:
Once, while quarreling with her younger sister, Princess, Winnie fashioned a knuckleduster out of a nail and a baking powder tin and accidentally struck her sister across the face while aiming for her arm. It was one of many instances for which her mother administered a hefty beating.
She was politicized while very young. One tale is that she begged her father to attend a welcome home ceremony for soldiers after the Second World War, but at the city hall, they were not allowed in because it was “for whites only.”
It was one of the many instances of oppression and segregation that created the freedom fighter who would someday be chronicled in books and films. Madikizela-Mandela chose social work as her field because it allowed her to both care for her community and organize politically.
She was drawn into the circles of ANC politics when she shared digs with Adelaide Tsukudu, who was then courting the ANC Youth League leader Oliver Tambo, who was then a partner at law with Nelson Mandela. Their introduction led to a marriage that lasted some four decades and a love that, arguably, did not end until he died. Madikizela-Mandela was at his bedside when Mandela died and, along with his widow Graça Machel, mourned him as a husband in the long days of official memorials and funerals that followed.
The two Mandelas were absolute equals. “It is worth reiterating that Winnie was already politically interested and involved in activism long before she met her future husband. She was particularly affected by the research she had carried out in Alexandra Township as a social worker to establish the rate of infantile mortality, which stood at 10 deaths for every 1,000 births,” notes SA History Online.
In the 1980s, released from government banishment, Madikizela-Mandela took to heart Tambo’s injunction to make apartheid South Africa ungovernable. Ungovernability, arguably, became an indelible and attractive part of her persona, both personal and political. As SA History Online explains:
Whilst Nelson and his Robben Island coterie had become more academic and statesman-like during their years cut off from grassroots politics, Winnie, on the other hand, was forced to become a soldier on the ground. During her decades of police intimidation and harassment; her emotional brutalization (having had her family torn apart and her closest friends betray her); and her physical imprisonment and banishment, Winnie had developed combative defenses against a world that was unfailingly hostile. Since the latter stages of her exile, rumors had begun to circulate about Winnie’s increasingly erratic behavior; her recourse to drink and her occasional bouts of violent behavior. Once established in Soweto, these rumors refused to dissipate and her frequent public appearances in khaki uniform did little to quell speculation that her approach to liberation was becoming increasingly military driven and violent.
Having been targeted by repeated banning orders and left alone as a very young woman to care for her children while Nelson Mandela was on trial and then imprisoned, Madikizela-Mandela went through a winter of discontent in the ’80s, when a soccer club that she helped launch to get young people off the streets turned into a vicious vigilante group.
The Mandela United Football Club used its political protection to undertake a reign of terror in Soweto, and the lid was blown wide open when 14-year-old Stompie Seipei died after falling out with the rest of the crew. It was believed that Seipei had been kidnapped and tortured by the club, along with three other young people. At trial, Madikizela-Mandela herself was sentenced to five years imprisonment related to those events, a punishment that was later commuted to a lesser sentence.
It was the worst of times for Madikizela-Mandela, and yet it intersected with a moment of rare elation when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 after nearly three decades in prison. One of the world’s most iconic images remains that of Mandela leaving prison firmly holding his wife’s hand, both of them with raised fists. That unity was not to last, as the couple divorced when Mandela was stung by his wife’s affair with Dali Mpofu, then her deputy in the ANC’s social welfare department.
Though divorced, however, the two were never alienated from each other. Madikizela-Mandela remained a constant in the statesman’s life, through his subsequent marriage to Graça Machel and through his long illness.
As a deputy minister and as an ANC member of parliament, Madikizela-Mandela was a total rebel against the strictures and protocol of formal political life. She was a serial truant in parliament and, truth be told, a very poor deputy minister. Far more powerful for her was the battlefield of street struggle and other arenas where she could sit on a people’s pulpit and criticize what she believed was the “compradorist” politics of the ANC.
Enormously popular in the ANC (she always ended up at the top of the party’s leaderboards for national executive positions), she remained a vote-puller to the very end, although many felt that her politics had increasingly become more suited to those of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (she is a heroic figure to that young party). The EFF is a splinter party from the governing ANC. It practices a brand of politics that is a copycat of the Latin American revolutionary parties of Cuba and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. It won 6.5 percent of the vote in the last election, but its circle of influence is much wider.
Winnie Madikizela was a complicated figure. But as she breathed her last after a battle with complications arising from diabetes, her spot in the heroes’ acre was secured, and her legacy is not nearly as contested now as it had been in the days she entered the heart of darkness.