Winnie Nomzamo: The Hero Within
In 1958, 22 year-old social worker Winfred Nomzamo Madikizela married the future president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. From then on, she began a journey to international recognition and in her later years, unpopularity.
Nomzamo found herself suddenly thrust in the limelight when her husband was imprisoned for life in 1964 and she gained the general sympathy and admiration of her people for her strength, courage and doggedness in the war against apartheid. As time went on, this admiration morphed, for some, into criticism and outright disapproval of her methods in dealing with her perceived political enemies (especially in the case of the murder of 14 year-old Stompie Moeketsi Seipei), the allegations of corruption when she held government office between 1994-1996, and her alleged affairs while still married to a then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela.
Winnie’s marriage to Mandela at the tender age of 22 meant that she had to quickly assume the role of the wife of a national leader even though her experience in politics was limited. She did have a bit of exposure as a social worker, but it was nothing in the scope of what she would have to adjust to. She joined the ANC Women’s League with the encouragement of her husband, and as early as 1958, she was detained for her involvement in the women’s anti-pass campaign.
Following the life imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, Winnie took upon the role of the spokesperson of her husband and it was during this time that her strong activism characteristics were revealed. She publicly declared her Africanist position and spoke out against oppression and the apartheid state. She was determined to rise above the persecution of the authorities and she urged others to follow in her husband’s footsteps in the struggle against apartheid. It was no surprise when she got banned. In the apartheid South Africa, being banned meant that the banned person couldn’t speak to more than one person at a time unless they were at home and even then, papers were not allowed to quote whatever they said. Winnie had to report to the police station at least once day and she was placed on a curfew of 6pm to 6am.
In 1969, she was arrested and detained in solitary confinement for eighteen months. This, according to her, was what hardened her. The torture and psychological degradation she experienced in the hands of her detainers are perhaps what tipped her over to the extreme intolerance of all things connected to apartheid. She was recorded to have said of her detention, “It is, in fact, what changed me. What brutalized me so much that I knew what it is to hate.” The physical and mental abuse she suffered was another sacrifice she had to make in the struggle for the liberation of her people.
In 1977, she was banished to Brandfort by the apartheid government, an area with no running water and no electricity. The town was hostile, no one spoke her language and whenever people tried to visit her, they were harassed by the authorities. During this period, she was well and truly isolated. She found this period agonizing and heart-wrenching, but she remained undeterred. As time went on, she established a relationship with the locals and set up a crèche, a clinic and feeding schemes for the local Brandfort children. She returned to Johannesburg in 1985 when her home in Brandfort was burned down to the ground.
It was at her property in Johannesburg that she surrounded herself with the group of bodyguards popularly known as the Mandela United Football Club. It was during this period, 1985 to 1989 that Winnie’s popularity began to dwindle. The antics of the MUFC, their brutal treatment of perceived government informers and especially the murder of Stompie Seipei reflected badly on her, as their behavior was believed to be condoned and even ordered by her.
It is highly possible that Winnie started the MUFC with good intentions. She possibly intended to train them, give the youths a sound political education and make them socially aware, but in the words of Desmond Tutu and echoed by Winnie herself during the TRC hearings of 1997, “Things went horribly wrong.” Perhaps, her deep hatred for her persecutors that had grown over the years with each fresh violation of her human rights clouded her judgment and negatively influenced her decisions.
Even amidst all this controversy, she remained revered by the masses. This was largely due to her very public personal struggle against oppression and her victimization by the apartheid government. She often spoke out for the rights of the grassroots and the poor, and these factors made the people consider her as one of them. Her political critics called her a populist, saying that her popularity stemmed from her “reflection of popular sentiments in political rhetoric.”
That Winnie Mandela is a controversial figure goes without saying. People generally have strong and polarized opinions of her, regardless of what side they chose to take. Those who despise her regard her as a corrupt and morally bankrupt politician, as well as a ‘political liability’. Those who adore her have dubbed her the ‘Mother of the Nation’, and hold steadfast to her brave and self-sacrificing battle against the apartheid state of her time as well as her public advocacy for the rights of the poor. Despite the later lows of her political career, her heroism in the South African struggle against apartheid cannot be ignored.
Her exemplary courage, resilience and strength in her darkest days show her to be a survivor and a fighter. Whatever lapses in judgment and character she may have exhibited, Winnie Mandela remains an icon for black, strong women who climb the steep hill of persecution and retain the courage and determination to triumph in the end. It is not for nothing that she has remained a strong force in South African politics, and her significance in the fight against apartheid cannot be dispensed with. She is a hero whose role in the abolishment of apartheid will never be forgotten.