The Life and Times of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the African Sheroe

Birth & Early years

Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela was born in the village of Mbongweni,Bizana, in the Transkei on 26 September 1936 as the 5th of nine children. Her birth name ‘Nomzamo’ meaning ‘One who undergoes trials’ predicted a life of struggles. During her childhood years her father was a local history teacher but he later became the minister of the Transkei Governments’ Forestry & Agriculture Department during the rule of Kaizer Matanzima. Nomathamsanqa Mzaidume -Gertrude- Nomzamo’s mother was a science teacher.

Her parents badly wished Nomzamo had been born a boy and growing up, Winnie took pains to fulfill the role of tomboy by playing with the other boys in her peer group, practicing stick fighting and setting traps for animals. Still at young age, Nomzamo lost her elder sister Vuyelwa to tuberculosis and soon after her mother succumbed to the same disease. Her mother left behind a baby-boy which Winnie took over responsibility of.

In 1953, Winnie left Transkei for her first time and was admitted to the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg, where Nelson Mandela was a patron. It was in Johannesburg that she saw the full effects of Apartheid on a daily basis, but also where she discovered her love of fashion, dancing and the city.

She completed her degree in social work at the top of her class in 1955, and was offered a scholarship for further study in the USA. However, soon after receiving the scholarship offer, she was offered the position of medical social worker at the Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg, making her the first qualified, Black member of staff to fill that post. Following her dilemma of whether to leave to USA to further her academic career, or to stay and pursue her dream of becoming a social worker in South Africa, Winnie opted to remain in South Africa.

Marriage to Nelson

After meeting lawyer and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela in 1957, the two got married a year later. Winnie was twenty two when she met Nelson and he was sixteen years older. Her marriage life with Mandela was short-lived‚ as he was arrested in 1963 and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason.

She was the 2nd wife of Nelson Mandela from whom she separated in 1992 after her questionable behavior and a lot of events that put tension in their relationship and marriage. They two got divorced in 1996.

Her Experiences with the Apartheid Rule 

On March 30 1961, nine days after a Pan African Congress (PAC) anti-pass demonstration massacre at Sharpville, Nelson Mandela was arrested during a police raid on his home. Winnie was left by herself, in what would become her very important experience of marriage. During Mandela’s time in prison‚ Winnie-Mandela was not spared the reach of the apartheid forces. She was placed under house arrest and also banished to Brandfort‚ a town in the Free State.

She spent 17 months in jail in 1969–70 and lived in internal exile from 1977 to 1985. During these years she did social & educational work which made her a heroine of the anti-apartheid movement. In 1988-89 Winnie was linked with the beating and being an accessory to kidnapping of four black youths, one of whom was murdered by her chief bodyguard, this badly shattered her reputation.

A year after Mandela was released from prison, Winnie-Mandela was sentenced to six years in prison upon her judgement for kidnapping, but the sentence was later reduced to a fine and a two-year suspended sentence on appeal.

Her Comeback

In 1993, she made a comeback in politics where she was elected the president of the African National Congress Women’s League. A year later, in South-Africa’s first multiracial government headed by Nelson Mandela, Winnie was elected to Parliament and appointed deputy minister of arts,culture, science, and technology. She continued to spark off controversy with her attacks on the government and her loud appeals to radical young black followers but Nelson Mandela couldn’t endure all this insubordination as he later expelled Winnie, his ex-wife, from his cabinet. Regardless of her being sacked from the cabinet, she still kept her position as member of Parliament and head of the powerful Women’s League.

In 1999, Winnie-Mandela was re-elected to parliament but she resigned in 2003 after a conviction on fraud and theft which originated from involvement with fraudulently obtained bank loans, many of which benefited economically disadvantaged persons. A year later, Winnie-Mandela was declared innocent.

CENTER-Nelson Mandela- LEFT- Graca Machel- RIGHT – Winnie Madikizela

MandelaWinnie Madikizela-Mandela also named by many black South-Africans as “Mother of the Nation” died on April 2, 2018, Johannesburg, South Africa. She will forever be remembered as a stalwart in the fight against apartheid.