Johannesburg, Monday 09 April 2018 – Following her passing at age 81 in a Johannesburg hospital on Easter Sunday, Brand South Africa highlights the important role that heroine of freedom, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, played in helping South Africa transition peacefully from apartheid to a stable democracy in 1994.
Madikizela-Mandela’s courage to speak her truth and dedicate her life towards fulfilling a vision of an equitable, prosperous, better future for South Africa is what made her a truly powerful icon of freedom.
A true patriot, Madikizela-Mandela faced untold hardships during the apartheid years, yet she confronted each with an inner strength and fortitude. It is her courage and bravery as well as fearless commitment to fulfilling the dream of economic and political freedom which will remain her ultimate legacy.
Her dedication to the resistance movement meant she had to push many of her personal goals aside. The first black professional social worker in South Africa, Madikizela-Mandela had been married to Mandela for just a few years, when he was sentenced to life in prison in 1962. Like many black women of her generation, she was forced to become a single mother to her two small daughters and was thrust into the limelight as a ‘political widow’.
“We were hardly a year together when history deprived me of you,” she wrote in a letter to Mandela while he was in prison in 1970, published in her autobiography 491 Days, Prisoner Number 1323/69.
Madikizela-Mandela took up the challenge of continuing to resist the racism and sexism that defined her generation with a maturity beyond her years. It was thanks largely to her, that international attention remained focused on the story of Nelson Mandela and the fight against Apartheid while he served out his prison sentence.
“Your formidable shadow which eclipsed me left me naked and exposed to the bitter world of a young ‘political widow’. I knew this was a crown of thorns for me but I also knew I said, ‘I Do’ for better or worse. In marrying you I was marrying the struggle of my people,” she wrote to Mandela in 1977, in a letter also published in her autobiography.
It was when she was arrested by the apartheid police and taken away from her two daughters, then aged just nine and ten years old, that she was forced to bear the true weight of personal sacrifice for her people. She spent 491 days in detention, much of this in solitary confinement under unimaginably brutal conditions. Two trials later, she was finally released.
“She refused to be bowed by the imprisonment of her husband, the perpetual harassment of her family by security forces, detentions, bannings and banishment. Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists,” noted Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel laureate after her passing.
Former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, once part of the legal team who defended Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, said she had an “incredible ability to be able to take on injustice and soak up pain in a way that is not immediately describable.”
Madikizela-Mandela traded what could have been a simple life of motherhood and marriage for an active political life. Instead, she became fondly known as the “Mother of the Nation”, serving as a mentor and mother to many of South Africa’s young activists, including Fikile Mbalula, current chair of the ANC’s subcommittee on elections and Malusi Gigaba, now Minister of Home Affairs, both of whom who lived with Madikizela-Mandela as young members of the party’s Youth League.
“Mam’ Winnie lost her innocence because of a struggle she actually didn’t choose, the struggle entrusted upon her by the husband she chose and the people she identified with – the vulnerable people who were discriminated because of apartheid,” said Sello Hatang, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation in tribute to her.
Actress Terry Pheto who played Madikizela-Mandela in the BET drama Madiba, said she grew up looking up to Winnie, because her mother did as well. “I was very aware of her journey, her struggles and her fights. Because of that, it was important for me to see this role as I’ve always seen her; an important and necessary figure in our time,” Pheto said in an interview in 2017 with HuffPost.
“Let us draw inspiration from the struggles that she fought and the dream of a better society to which she dedicated her life,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in tribute to Madikizela-Mandela.
As South Africa mourns the loss of a brave, courageous leader. We also celebrate her sacrifices and achievements over a lifetime of dedicated service to and making the dream of a free and prosperous South Africa a reality.
Hamba Kahle Mama.