No other woman – in life and after – occupies the place that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela does in South African politics. A stalwart of the African National Congress (ANC), she nevertheless stands above, and at times outside, the party. Her iconic status transcends political parties and geographical boundaries, generations and genders. Poets have honoured her, writers have immortalised her and photographers have adored her.
Her life has been overburdened by tragedies and dramas, and by the expectations of a world hungry for godlike heroes on whom to pin all its dreams, and one-dimensional villains on whom to pour its rage. Yet perhaps it is in the smaller and more intimate stories of our stumbling to make a better world that we are best able to recognise and appreciate the meaning of the life of Madikizela-Mandela.
In her particular life, we may see more clearly the violence wrought by colonialism and apartheid, the profound consequences of fraternal political movements to whom women were primarily ornamental and, yes, the tragic mistakes made in the crucible of civil war.
Her political power stemmed from the visceral connection that she was able to make between the everyday lives of black people in a racist state, and her own individual life. State power, in all its vicious dimensions, was exaggerated in its response to her indomitable will – and in its stark visibility, personified.
Fearless in the face of torture, imprisonment, banishment and betrayal, she stood firm in her conviction that apartheid could be brought down. She said what she liked, and bore the consequences. Her very life was a form of bearing witness to the brutality of the system.
A life of misrecognition
Many obituaries will outline the broad sweep of her life; few will mark the extent to which her revolutionary ideas were shaped before she even met Nelson Mandela. To most of her social circle in the 1950s, for a long time into the 1980s, and certainly for Nelson Mandela’s biographers, Madikizela-Mandela was a young rural naif who charmed the most eligible (married) man in town.
This way of seeing her as primarily beautiful, and not as an emerging political figure, has coloured both contemporaneous accounts of Madikizela-Mandela (for she was surely too young and beautiful to have a serious political idea) as well as scholarly accounts of the period (which focused on the thoughts and actions of men).
This misrecognition resonated in the ANC, which had no way of accommodating Madikizela-Mandela’s political qualities other than by casting her in the familiar tropes of wife and mother. Astutely, she embraced the role of mother and wife of a political leader and fashioned it into a platform for her own variant of radicalism, drawing on recent memories of the forcible dispossession of land and its impact on the Eastern Cape peasantry, and black consciousness.
She kept those traditions alive in the ANC, especially in the everyday politics of the townships, when the leadership of the party was crafting new forms of non-racialism and at times vilifying black consciousness. Even though she was not part of the inner circle of the black consciousness movement, being older than the students leading it at its height, she was an ally in words and spirit.
In the tumult after the 1976 uprising, she built a bridge between different political factions. In the early 1990s, when Nelson Mandela was urging armed youths to give up violent strategies, it was Madikizela-Mandela they called on (along with the then leader of the South African Communist Party Chris Hani) to defend their change in tactics.
She played a similar role in brokering between moderates and radicals in the ANC and its breakaways up until her death. This was a form of gendered politics made possible by her status as mother of the nation, uniting warring sons and holding together her political family, even if peace was maintained only in her presence.
White power and black suffering
Winnie Madikizela was born in a rural Eastern Cape village called Bizana in September 1936. Her parents, Columbus and Gertrude, were teachers and her childhood was marked by the stern Methodism of her mother and the radical Africanist orientation of her father.
Rural life, with its entrenched gender roles, shaped her childhood. Not only was she aware of her mother’s desire to bear another son, but she and her sisters were expected to care for their male siblings. She was barely eight when her mother died months after giving birth to Winnie’s brother. Her childhood was cut short, and she had to leave school for six months to work in the fields and to carry out, with her sisters, all the daily chores of the household, from preparing food to cleaning. In her large and rambunctious family in which her parents upheld discipline with physical punishment, she learned to defend herself with her fists, if necessary.
Her rural background made her aware of land dispossession as a central question of freedom. By her own account, she learnt about the racialised system of power early in her life. From her father, she learnt about the Xhosa wars against the colonisers, and later would imagine herself as picking up where her ancestors had failed:
If they failed in those nine Xhosa wars, I am one of them of them and I will start from where those Xhosas left off and get my land back.
She was to retain the theme of land dispossession by colonialism throughout her political career. Associated with this was the idea that race was central to colonialism. Taught by her grandmother that the source of black suffering was white power, her framing of politics was defined completely by the ways in which her family understood the relations of colonialism, and by their personal experiences of humiliation.
As with many other ANC members with Eastern Cape roots, she did not think of urban struggles as the only space of resistance, or workers as the only agents of change. She warned, in 1985, that
The white makes a mistake, thinking the tribal black is subservient and docile.
Militant to the core
After six short years together, Madikizela-Mandela’s husband, Nelson, was sentenced to life imprisonment. By this stage, she too was inextricably involved in the national liberation movement, politics with single parenting. She was attuned to the mood of people, and was more of an empathic leader than a theorist or tactician.
She was an effective speaker, and had a gift for winning over an audience. Adelaide Joseph, a friend and fellow ANC activist, recalls that
when she made her first public speech…right on the spot, while she was speaking, the women composed a song for Winnie Mandela. And they started to sing right in the hall.
She joined the ANC Women’s League and the Federation of South African Women, and participated in several campaigns. She was militant to the core. On one occasion, when a policeman arrived at her house with a summons and dared to pull her arm, she assaulted him and had to defend herself in court for the action.
She was far from being a bystander, or a passive wife patiently waiting for her husband’s release from prison. In her autobiography, Madikizela-Mandela credits several other women for influencing her politically. Among these were Lilian Ngoyi, Florence Matomela, Frances Baard and Kate Molale, all leaders of the Federation.
For her, they were the “top of the ANC hierarchy” although at the time no women were in fact in any formal leadership positions in the ANC. The ANC only allowed women to become full members in 1943, and during the 1950s, women were locked in an intense battle for recognition within the movement.
In the ANC Women’s League and in the Federation, she held positions as chairperson of her branch in Orlando, and was a member of their provincial and national executives. In the 1970s, with her close friend Fatima Meer, she formed the Black Women’s Federation. It was a short lived organisation with few campaigns, but signalled an adherence to the new township based politics that was sweeping the country.
Her mode of work in any case was not that of painstaking organisation-building; she was more capable as a public speaker and as someone who could connect with people in the harsh conditions of life in apartheid’s townships. She attended funerals and counselled families, acts of public courage that sustained activists. She offered a form of intimate political leadership, instinctively aligning herself with people in distress.
Gender was her political resource, enabling her to draw on effective qualities to form political communities and providing a mode in which she could enter into the lives of people in the townships. She embraced the role of mother and wife of a political leader and fashioned it into a platform from which she challenged the apartheid state.
Banishment and brutality
If the apartheid state had hoped to break her, they failed. She was fearless in the face of the state’s attempts to silence her. Her home was repeatedly invaded and searched, and she was arrested, assaulted and imprisoned several times. Then, in 1977, in an act of extreme cruelty, she was served with a banishment order to a place in the Free State called Brandfort – a place she had never heard of nor had she ever visited.
It was a horrendous uprooting from her family and community in Soweto, a form of exile that she described as “my little Siberia.” Madikizela-Mandela grasped very clearly the power that could derive from associating actions against her with actions against the nation. As she put it,
When they send me into exile, it’s not me as an individual they are sending. They think that with me they can also ban the political ideas. But that is a historic impossibility… I am of no importance to them as an individual. What I stand for is what they want to banish.
But although the state did not break Winnie, by her own account it did brutalise her. Talking about her long period of solitary confinement and torture in 1969, she told a journalist that
that imprisonment of eighteen months in solitary confinement did actually change me … We were so brutalised by that experience that I then believed in the language of violence and the only to deal with, to fight, apartheid was through the same violence they were unleashing against us and that is how one gets affected by that type of brutality.
The consequences were awful, not just for her but also for Paul Verryn, and especially for the families of Stompie Seipei and Abu Asvat. This period in her life, and in South African politics generally, is one that will not only occupy our moral energies, but also shape the ways in which narratives of violence in the 1980s are written. These were dark times in a country weighed down by states of emergency and militarised control. The exaggerated quality of Madikizela-Mandela’s life had to bear, too, the nightmares of our nation’s struggles to free itself.
The ANC could barely contain the nature of leadership that Winnie represented. Like many women in the movement, she was marginalised from its powerful decision making structures. Unlike male leaders, her personal life was constantly under the spotlight (no doubt aided by a zealous security machinery that kept her under constant surveillance), and she was judged harshly and unfairly for her private choices. Although she was a masterful player of the familial categories of wife and mother, she felt reduced by them too.
Commentators like to use words such as maverick and wayward to describe her, but these tendencies developed because the regular structures of the ANC could not easily accommodate a powerful woman with a radical voice. Stepping outside the agreed parameters of the official party line, as she frequently did, was a form of asserting her independence, a form of refusal of the terms of political cadreship that were available to women in the ANC and in society more generally. It also allowed her to build alliances with the new voices emerging after 1994, from standing with the Treatment Action Campaign against Thabo Mbeki’s policies on HIV/AIDS, to supporting the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters. It accounts for the tremendous affection for her among young activists who are equally wary of the sedimented power structures in politics.
The endless stream of photographs that picture her in romantic embrace with Nelson Mandela, even now in her death, and despite their divorce, miss this fundamental point: the marriage was only a small part of her life, not its definitive point. To present her simply as wife, mostly as mother, is to erase the many struggles she waged to be defined in her own terms.
This article first appeared in The Conversation.