At a time when the odds in the fight against apartheid seemed insurmountable, it was struggle stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela who strengthened the resolve of many ordinary South Africans.
Through her courageous defiance, she galvanised communities burdened under the weight of oppression, in particular the young people, to remain resolute in the struggle for freedom.
Speaking at a rally in Soweto at the height of repression in the mid-1980s and while serving a banning order by the Apartheid state, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela inspired hope to the thousands of disenfranchised black South Africans in attendance.
She declared: “We are going to dismantle apartheid. We are not prepared for any so called reforms to Apartheid… Apartheid is a criminal act against mankind. We are no longer prepared to tolerate that criminal act by a minority.”
It was this bold resistance to the apartheid regime and on the ground activism to free the country from racial oppression that kept the flame of freedom burning when many of our liberation leaders, including former President Nelson Mandela were imprisoned.
She understood and experienced the indignity and denigration that millions of black South Africans faced in their daily existence. She was affectionately referred to as the “Mother of the Nation” as she reached out and comforted those brutalised by the system. Our nation owes Mam’Winnie a great debt of gratitude for the role she played in our liberation and for the many sacrifices she made so that we can have the valuable freedoms we all enjoy today.
Mam’Winnie carved her own image as a leader in the fight against apartheid and emerged to take the struggle forward during our darkest hours. The prevailing conditions and the atrocities perpetuated at the time, without a doubt, severely traumatised her and all our people.
As her actions in the struggle intensified she drew intense scrutiny and torment from the apartheid security branch, which landed her in jail on numerous occasions. She was subjected to frequent early morning raids at her home in Soweto, often when her children were home for the school holidays.
In 1969, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela became one of the first detainees under Section 6, of the notorious, Terrorism Act of 1967. She was imprisoned for 18 months in solitary confinement at the Pretoria Central Prison, before being charged under the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950.
Her valiant role in fighting the apartheid security apparatus came at an immense personal sacrifice and cost to her and her family. Even though she was married and had a family, she never really knew what it was like to have a nuclear family of her own, having been separated from her “dear Nelson”, just months after their marriage. Even though she had her own children, she chose the nation when it mattered the most. When we call out ‘mother of nation’ let us not forget the great burden, sacrifice and commitment this required of her in the fight to liberate us.
Despite the constant detention, banning and even banishment to the Afrikaner stronghold town of Brandfort she refused to bow to pressure of the regime. She never relented in her fight and demonstrated her steely resolve when she declared: “There is no longer anything I can fear. There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn’t any pain I haven’t known.”
We shared Mam’Winnie with the world as her resilience and courage inspired many not only in South Africa and the continent but across the world. She became an inspiration to millions who were fighting for the freedom and dignity of their people.
She particularly inspired more women to move to the frontlines of struggles for justice and freedom across the world; and will forever be lauded and acknowledged across the globe for her contribution to the struggles of the oppressed.
It was therefore fitting that African Union should honour her with the lifetime achievement award, in 2017. This was an outcome to which the Pan African Women’s Organisation is immensely proud to have made a contribution. Here at home, she was bestowed the Order of Luthuli in Silver, in 2016, for her role in the struggle against apartheid.
The sacrifices made by Mam’Winnie and countless others birthed a non-racial and non-sexist society built on the values of human rights, dignity and democracy. In honour of her memory it is now our shared responsibility to continue to shape a national identity that is built on mutual respect, tolerance and acceptance.
Let us reach out to those in need as she would have done and take them along on our journey as we build a new legacy based on the principles of equality, democracy and human rights that Mam’Winnie fought so hard for.
Ms Pinky Kekana is ta member of the ANC National Executive Committee and the Secretary General of the Pan African Women’s Organisation (PAWO).