“It is only when all Black groups join hands and speak with one voice that we shall be a bargaining force which will decide its own destiny.”
Born September 26, 1936, her given name was Nomzamo, translated as “she who must endure trials,” and the world would come to know her as Winnie Mandela.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela would grow up and make history not merely because she was the wife of one of the world’s most celebrated freedom fighters, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, but because she was a freedom fighter, a voice of defiance in her own right.
During the peak of the struggle to end apartheid Winnie once said to a crowd of protesters, “We have no guns. We have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol. Together, hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces* we shall liberate this country.” They did.
I had just crossed the threshold into adulthood when Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was imprisoned for her activism in 1969.
Her courage in the face of injustice further inspired my passion for politics and opened my eyes wider to the understanding that there were Black women like Rosa Parks, Dorothy Height, Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hammer, Septima Clark who played leading roles in the Civil Rights movement, that were fighting for justice in other places in the world. Winnie Mandela’s struggle gave me an international perspective on the power of Black women.
During the Black South Africans’ bloody battle for freedom from oppression, to be counted and treated as citizens in their own country, Winnie Mandela filled the void and helped keep the anti-apartheid movement alive during the 27-years her husband remained incarcerated as a political prisoner.
When she passed away on April 2, it was natural for some to refocus attention on the times during the anti-apartheid movement when she was accused of losing her moral compass, though she always denied the allegations against her. The world was also reminded of the allegations of corruption leveled against her in later years that brought an inglorious end to her career in South African politics.
Despite these reminiscences, I was compelled to look beyond accusations of the times when she may have fallen short; and focused instead on her bold, courageous resistance and leadership during those years of struggle when Blacks were legally and indiscriminately slaughtered and treated with unmitigated and unimaginable twentieth-century brutality.
Someone once said, “No one can communicate to you the substance of sacrifice until you have lived with it intimately. Until you have peered deeply into the grief-stricken and mournful eyes of those affected or borne witness to the scars that seared their souls.”
She and Nelson had six short years together as husband and wife before he was shuttled off to Robben Island off the coast of South Africa where he spent the next 27 years of their marriage and even before that they spent long periods apart when he was forced into hiding because of his political activism.
When Nelson was imprisoned, Winnie worked tirelessly to keep her husband’s movement alive and, in his absence, became a powerful symbol of the struggle. The mother of three, she paid a profound price for her activism.
She was placed under constant surveillance, repeatedly arrested, tortured, spent a year in solitary confinement and was banished to a remote town far from her home province.
When asked years later about her time in solitary confinement she said it changed her. “What brutalized me so much was that I knew what it is to hate. The years of imprisonment hardened me,” she lamented.
Her memory was compelling, “Perhaps if you have been given a moment to hold back and wait for the next blow, your emotions wouldn’t be blunted as they have been in my case. When it happens every day of your life, when that pain becomes a way of life … there is no longer anything I can fear.”
She added defiantly, “There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn’t any pain I haven’t known.”
Much of Winnie Mandela’s life was lived in selfless service of an honorable cause and I was relieved to learn she transitioned from this life peacefully, surrounded by family and loved ones.
As I personally reflected on the life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela or “Mama Winnie, the Mother of the Nation” as many still identify her in South Africa, I was moved by the words of retired Archbishop and Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu because they so clearly expressed my own sentiments. He said, “Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me and to generations of activists.”
Thank you, Mama Winnie. May you rest in peace.*Necklaces were gasoline filled tires placed around the necks of traitors and set on fire.Stephanie Williams, Features WriterStephanie E. Williams is an award winning investigative reporter, editor and activist who has contributed to several Inland Empire publications. Williams spent more than thirty years as a middle-manager in the telecommunications industry before retiring to pursue her passion as a reporter and non-fiction writer. Beyond writing, Williams’ personal interests include stone-carving, drumming and sculpting.