Editor’s Note: Zimbabwean-born Farai Gundan is a speaker and commentator on the role of women in Africa. She’s a graduate of the master in public administration program at Harvard Kennedy School and an Edward S. Mason Fellow. She serves on the board of advisers for the Harvard Africa Policy Journal. Farai is a Young Global Leader and a Dangote Fellow. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
The struggle for racial equality in South Africa was not necessarily fought on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and other prominent political activists spent the better part of 27 years.
Apartheid was battled predominantly on the streets of South Africa, and the fight was led by the fearless Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, then the young wife of freedom fighter Nelson Mandela.
It was Madikizela-Mandela who reminded the nation and the world of the urgency to resist racial injustice toward Africans. She remained on the front lines to demand freedom, not just for the political prisoners, but also for the 40 million black and brown people that made up the nation of South Africa.
While the people sang songs about Nelson Mandela, it was Madikizela-Mandela, unbowed, courageous and unyielding, who kept the untethered hope of the people focused and alive during the horrors perpetrated by the apartheid regime.
“They think because they have put my husband on an island that he will be forgotten. They are wrong. The harder they try to silence him, the louder I will become,” she said at the time.
And louder she became, giving a face to the struggle against racial apartheid and an impassioned voice for the countless number of people killed during the apartheid era.
Through this, she earned the title, “Mother of the Nation.” It is telling that she chose to live among the people in Soweto until her passing.
However, she paid a huge price for freedom; the “order” to silence and punish her as it were, continued well past the country’s 1994 transition from apartheid to majority rule.
While we cannot really know what transpired in the Mandela marriage, it appears her own husband could not forgive her misdeeds, yet he was able to forgive the apartheid system and government. The couple divorced in 1996, two years after Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the country’s first black president.
For most people, this was hard to reconcile; the irony of the perceived mistreatment of the woman who helped to usher in freedom and birth a free nation, now sidelined and punished publicly and ferociously, through a media onslaught.
It appeared her failings were far greater than her contributions during the fight for freedom; a double standard women continue to face even today.
Although she played a pivotal role in the country’s quest for independence, her political journey and fight for freedom was complicated and best understood within the context of the South African patriarchal system.
The beasts of patriarchy and misogyny were deeply entrenched cultural practices and norms within all the races in South Africa; Black, white, Indian, and colored (mixed race). Women were and are often seen and treated as second-class citizens in a country dominated by men.
She had to navigate these complex systems and cultural practices as best as she knew how, (in May 1977 for example, she was banished from Soweto, in Johannesburg, to another African township outside the Afrikaaner dominated town of Brandfort, in Orange Free State).
The African feminist icon had been thrust into the epicenter of the struggle in 1964 when her husband was sentenced to life in prison on charges of treason.
Madikizela-Mandela herself was jailed, thrown in solitary confinement (where she was denied sanitary towels so that the blood dried and caked on her body), hounded like an animal, tortured, beaten up and harassed by the apartheid police who stripped her of her humanity and womanhood.
Although she was granted visitation rights, Mandela had no physical contact with her husband for nearly 22 years. Left without options, she embodied the indomitable spirit of many African women who simply would not back down against the threat of annihilation through death, imprisonment, sexual or physical violence, isolation, or torture.
“We are the mothers whose babies were shot on our backs and sometimes we fell with those babies. The atrocities that have been committed by [the apartheid regime] arise in every mother such bitterness which you cannot put into words,” Madikizela-Mandela said in an interview.
Madikizela-Mandela was no perfect heroine – there were various reports of alleged heavy drinking, extramarital affairs, allegations of assault and kidnapping related to her political activism in the early 1990s and theft and fraud in the early 2000s, but these have to be seen against the realities of the atrocities and relentless brutality she faced at the hands of the apartheid regime.
The most serious of these include the allegations of the 1991 kidnapping and assault of 14-year-old ANC youth activist, Seipei “Stompie” Moeketsi who was suspected of being an informer to the apartheid regime.
The teen activist’s body was found in a field near Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto home with his throat cut and was allegedly killed by Jerry Richardson, coach of the Mandela United Football Club and her chief bodyguard.
The life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
Richardson was rumored to be a police informant (which he later admitted was true) and rumored to have killed Moeketsi to cover his own tracks because Moeketsi may have known about this and it is alleged he killed the boy so Madikizela-Mandela would not find out.
Richardson is currently serving life in prison for the 1989 murder of Moeketsi.
Madikizela-Mandela had always vehemently denied the charges against her and requested the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings to clear her name.
In her own words, Madikizela-Mandela said that she became a “product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy.”
Analyzing Madikizela-Mandela’s political contributions and personal failures through a one-dimensional lens, as is often done, reinforces the very cultural practices and belief systems against women she also fought against.
In a memoir, “Part of My Soil Went With Him,” published in 1984, Madikizela-Mandela wrote about the severity of her banishment to Brandfort.
“I am a living symbol of whatever is happening in the country, ” she wrote. “I am a living symbol of the white man’s fear. I never realized how deeply embedded this fear is until I came to Brandfort.”
The banishment was intended to isolate her and demoralize her from political activism.
The Special Branch terrorized her. She lived under 24-hour scrutiny and surveillance, but continued to defy restrictions imposed on her daily movements by using white-only public amenities and buildings, educating people, both black and white, about the struggle.
In her book “100 Years of Struggle: Mandela’s ANC,” Heidi Holland, a South African journalist and author, suggested that Madikizela-Mandela was perhaps driven half mad by security police harassment; they frequently invaded her home with impunity.
Without a doubt, Mandela’s unwavering resolve against a system that was established to decimate the majority black population, often stood in conflict with cultural norms and expectations for a woman; she was known to publicly challenge white police officers (male and female), “What are you doing here, killing our people? What are you arresting our people for?” she would say in her frequent confrontations with the authorities.
We must not make the mistake of using her moments of weakness to define her legacy.
The narrative on Madikizela-Mandela has been defined by white South African male anger in suppressing the African female expression.
In some respect, her life has been a sustained assault on what the African female voice should be.
Like her Xhosa name, Nomzamo, which means “she who endures trials,” she endured the struggle against apartheid until the end.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said of her, “She was stubborn on behalf of our people because she knew that out of her stubborn disposition, she would be able to inspire millions of South Africans.
“Winnie Mandela leaves a huge legacy. As we say in African culture, “a giant tree has fallen.”