The sudden passing of Mama Winnie has resulted in worldwide grief, an outpouring of never told before anecdotes and a daily obsession with re telling and reviewing her history of struggle and life. Winnie Mandela is much more than an ordinary life, she is an extraordinary woman, a woman of substance who made an indellible contribution to our history, our struggle and our freedom.
Mama Winnie came from rural Eastern Cape (Mbongweni, Bizana)a royal daughter seeking a future in Johannesburg. Her progress while at home and in the city of Johannesburg holds out several important lessons for our continuing struggle for gender equity and for our determined intention to ensure girls succeed in education. Her father, a traditional leader in rural eastern cape ensured his daughter was not a prisoner of her gender by sending her to school just as millions of girls go to school today because she fought for that. She did not opt for early marriage or youthful intimate relationships with boys.
Her peers report that she was an A class student, and was not afraid to challenge any boy who thought she was at school to waste time. The young Winnie successfully completed her secondary schooling and proceeded to college to study social work and took up employment as the first black medical social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg.
Her political awareness began while she was young shaped by incidents of racism she observed as a child, the humiliation of black adults she witnessed regularly and the direct observation that things were not right in South Africa and black people lived with indignity and humiliation on a daily basis. Mama Winnie made these observations and is reported as shocked at the ill treatment disrespect and poverty she witnessed. These early experiences shaped her love for justice and her readiness to defend all those who could not defend them selves.
It is important to note that her political education was primarily practical exposure to racism exclusion and poverty. She was born in 1936 a year in which fascism was on the ascendancy in Europe , she grew up in the War years of the Second Great War. Even though apartheid was not yet formal policy racism and colonial attitudes were very present in South Africa. Cde Winnie was educated in a mission school taught by the early graduates of Fort Hare University, all keen to give the best education to young black students. In 1953 this was taken away, Bantu education was introduced by the apartheid government and good mission schools were closed down if they refused to offer Bantu Education.
Winnie moved to Johannesburg completed her studies and saw the full effects of apartheid in the urban setting of joburg. It was in joburg that she met and shared a hostel room with mama Adelaide Tambo. Mama Tambo spoke of her fiancé Oliver Tambo and a bright upcoming lawyer and political leader Nelson Mandela. However, Mama became politicized long before she met Nelson Mandela. As a social worker she began to do research on Alexander Township due to concerns about infant mortality in that area. She had noted a significant number of infant deaths from mothers in that area. On visiting Soweto and Alexander she was appalled at the poverty squalor and indignity of the living conditions. She took an active interest in changing these conditions. All of you here know how fiercely protective she was how she hated unfairness and oppression.
Winnie Mandela distinguished herself in her partnership with Nelson Mandela. She was very young when they met and fell very much in love. We all know she was fearless in support of her husband and family. There are instances of apartheid police brutality in her life and in some you could see the police were more afraid of her because she was so brave and unafraid.
Nevertheless she suffered terribly as a result of police brutality of which she said:
“What disturbed me so much was that I knew what it is to hate. The imprisonment hardened me …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 everyday of your life, when that pain becomes a way of life … there is no longer anything I can fear.
She studied social work. Her involvement in the liberation struggle began in the 1950s. Her first detention was in 1958 during the mass arrest of women involved in the anti-pass campaign.
Nelson Mandela and Mam Winnie were married in Johannesburg on 25 May 1958 and were separated for most of their married life, he on Robben Island and she in various other places. During her husband’s 27-year incarceration, she campaigned tirelessly for his release.
She established a massive personal following.
In the year of the Soweto Uprisings in 1976, the government banished her to a small town of Brandfort, about 400 kilometres south-west of Johannesburg, where she spent eight years. During that time she was arrested several times for violating her banishment orders.
Mam Winnie and Nelson Mandela divorced in 1996. She remained respected within the African National Congress and was a member of parliament until her death.
She is one of the few remaining anti-apartheid activists.
In her last interview, given last month and rebroadcast on Easter Monday afternoon by state broadcasters, she spoke of how she had always put the collective good of the ANC before her individual well being.
She worried about unemployment that remains at an historic high across the general population and as high as 2 out 3 among young people. She worried about corruption that has not only undermined public finances but also public confidence in the state.
“I would be extremely naive if I suggested to you that South Africa today is what we dreamt of when we gave up our lives …. We came from a very brutal period of our history, a country that was segregated, [and] to transition from that era to where we are today has been a really painful journey, ” she said in the interview.
Mam Winnie helped to lay the foundation for a democratic South Africa.
We are still building the nation she wanted, but building on the foundation that she helped to lay for us.
Inspired by her, free South Africa had made great progress towards building a truly non-racial, non-sexist, and democratic South Africa.
Together we have built a country that is dedicated to patriotism, nation building and reconciliation.
We have built stable democratic institutions based on our country’s progressive Constitution.
She stood on the shoulders of other women in the struggle, like the women who fired the first salvo of protest against pass laws in Bloemfontein in July 1913.
Like the women in rural communities who fought for land.
Like the women in urban communities who fought for work, dignity and freedom.
It is through the blood of the people of Sharpeville, Soweto, Langa, kwaMashu, kwa Zakhele, Mdantsane, and many other areas, that we gained our freedom.
The Freedom Charter was adopted in 1955 in Kliptown. There delegates proclaimed that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people’’.
In turn the Freedom Charter inspired the democratic constitution that we have today which in its preamble also declares that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”
It is those ideals which were embedded in a Constitution that entrenches democracy, equality and freedom.
We are a unique people and unique nation.
In 1961 Chief Albert Luthuli said, “It may well be that South Africa’s social system is a monument to racialism and race oppression, but its people are the living testimony to the unconquerable spirit of mankind.’’
He was right; through our struggle we won political freedom for all, black and white.
We have won our struggle for freedom but our struggle for justice and equality is only beginning. It’s is a struggle that mam Winnie taught us how to wage and to win.
She sacrificed her life and her freedom for us.
She will remain in our hearts forever.
By Naledi Pandor