The Unbreakable Spirit

It was April 2nd, 2018, a Monday, when the news came that Winnie Madikizela Mandela was no longer. She was 81 years old and had been ill for some time, we learnt.

She was one of those rare people in a lifetime for which the whole world, I mean every corner of this planet of ours, comes to a stand-still to honour an exceptional person. Wherever we were or whatever we were doing, whatever our ethnicity, the colour of our skin or country of birth, South Africans and friends alike, we stopped breathing for a moment, almost as though we feared that breathing would let her spirit escape us, and that, with it, would be lost the memories of this beautiful and fearless woman, a true modern age warrior.

We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that it was her, more than anyone else, who managed to keep our consciousness awake through the years. Blessed were the ones who met her up close or who were in her immediate vicinity in all the places where she lived in South Africa. I was amongst the other crowd, the millions of people scattered around the world who were united by an insatiable yearning for a world free of prejudice and whom she touched through the magic of broadcast news and print media.

No matter where we were, she all taught us through her fights and struggles that one must be ready and willing to sacrifice all when fighting an Evil system.

Winnie was part of our lives even before we became aware of her presence. Everything she gave, everything she sacrificed and the inhumane treatments she endured would have broken more than one, but not her! Immortal she seemed, and immortal she has become.

Yet, I would have loved to read headlines that reminded us that she was a loving mother as well as a fighter, a carrying sister, a devout daughter, an attentive neighbour, a career woman, but few of those words were captured in the almost identical headlines that telegraphed to the world the news of her death: Hero of the anti-apartheid struggle, ex-wife of Nelson Mandela, Controversial figure.

Sadly, the announcement of her death read like the story of her life as we knew it through the waves: in snapshots of parts of her life, a dotted line of the media coverage that seldom spoke of who she was outside of the selective scrutiny of the media.

Learning of her passing left me feeling sad, sad of her loss but also sad that I, like many others in the world, never really got to know her, the real her. We loved her and admired her, but did we ever seek to know her, to really ‘see’ her?

Sad that we knew deep inside that the thousands of snapshots and puzzle pieces we saw through the years did never amount to a complete picture, but still, we let it be.

I will be forever grateful tomy friend Debra James who suggested that I write this story. Thanks to her, I gave myself that second chance to learn about the person behind the Legend. A journey in time that allowed me to find some of the missing pieces and bring them back to you. Hoping that you wanted to complete your own puzzle of her and that, today, you will be inspired by the Winnie you never knew. I know I am.

Today, I am inspired by Nomzano Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela, born In September 1936, in the town of Bizana – or more precisely in the village of Mbongweni , ancestral home of the Madikizelas – in The Transkei, a region we now know as the Province of the Eastern Cape in South Africa. Her parents, Columbus Kokani Madikizela and Nomathamsanqa Gertrude Mzaidume, were both educators, she a science teacher and him, a history teacher and headmaster of the local school.

She was the couple’s fifth child. If we are of rational minds, we will agree that there was no way Columbus, or his wife Gertrude would have suspected that this little baby girl was going to become one of the boldest freedom fighters the African continent and the World was to ever know. But if you believe that names are ‘a thing of the spirit’ as writer Wole Soyinka famously said, you will see an undeniable omen to the name they gave her “Nomzamo”, which means “she who must endure trials” in Xhosa. You be the judge.

Since the moment she could stand on her two feet, Nomzano Winifred, known as Winnie, spent more time playing games traditionally reserved to boys such as stick fighting and setting traps for wild animals than learning how to behave like a lady. Did she know then that her parents, Columbus Kokani Madikizela and Nomathamsanqa Gertrude Mzaidume, had prayed before her birth to finally have a boy? Or was she unconsciously preparing for the struggles to come in her uncommon life journey?

Winnie was not even ten when she first became conscious that her country was divided along colour lines. In 1945, her family went to town to attend celebrations of the end of the Second World War, but they were refused entry as the celebrations were “for whites only”! Imagine being forced to stay outside with your sibling and father while the whites are inside celebrating what was supposed to be the liberation of the world!

It wasn’t long after that another incident was going to bring her face to face with the ugly racial realities of her country once again. In those days, all stores were owned by Whites. One day, she was shopping when she noticed a young black couple sitting on the bench in front of the store. The woman had a baby in her arms, and her husband was breaking bread and feeding the child. In any other place, this could have been a picture perfect and charming moment, a tender family bonding that would make passersby smile as they go on with their journey. In the 1940’s South Africa, this was no tender moment, at least not in the eyes of the racist beholder. When the son of the store owner saw the young family, he stormed out of the store and chase them away, accusing them of littering the place with their bread crumbs!

The young girl was shocked beyond belief, so abruptly thrown in a reality she had never really been aware of as she was growing up in her safe family farm. She could not understand any of it, and in those days, she did not understand why her father, who was with her both times, didn’t do anything to protest these blatant injustices. It is later in life that she came to better understand that this Evil was much bigger than she knew then and often death was the only reward of those who dared to denounce the system.

On the family front, the Madikizela welcomed their ninth child to the world in 1944. The birth of Msuthu should have been a joyous moment, especially for the parents, who had longed for a boy for years, but tragedy came knocking at their door and shuttered her family universe in the cruellest way. And no, it had nothing to do with the racial divide of her native land. It was about illness and death. Her older sister Vuyelwa, who had contracted tuberculosis, passed away, shortly followed by their mother!

All their meagre savings were spent on doctors’ fees and there was nothing left after the funeral. However, Columbus Madikizela refused to take the advice of sending the seven surviving girls and their new-born brother to live with relatives. He was adamant to raise his kids himself. His choice, however, imposed a heavy toll on his kids, especially Winnie. The young teenager had to stay home to take care of her brother as he was only 3 months old when his mother died.
“I cried as I was forced to leave school, put my baby brother on my back and go to look after cattle. Father could not afford even to hire a herd boy which was common practice those days” she shared in her memoirs.

Distraught with grief and deeply hurt by the hardship her family was going through, young Winnie found solace in books. Her ordeal lasted about a year before she was finally able to go back to school.

Though she loved studying, school was a place where she had to face the mockeries of her schoolmate about her family’s poverty.

“My family was poor although my father was the school principal. I recall how I had to wash his khaki shirt and iron it overnight, his baggy trousers often full of holes and I ironed them so badly because I was too young. The secret childhood tears I shed when the school children teased me about my shabbily dressed father. Mother’s illness had drained his pockets and we were nine children.”

From her writings, we see that the adult Winnie was much alike the young version of herself in that respect, as she cried secretly many times in her life, especially when she was separated from her kids, but she never allowed her bullies see her shed a tear. But I am getting far ahead of myself. I will get back to those separations later.

For now, she was a teenage girl, whom, with the encouragements of her father, rose to become the head girl at her high school in her native Bizana. She passed her junior certificate with distinction and went on to study at the Shawsbury Institution, some 50 km from the then capital of her region.

Winnie Madikizela stayed there for three years, a time during which she distinguished herself in practically everything, from isiXhosa to history and geography.

Though the education she received put her on a fast track to a better future than most of the girls of her village, she was unfortunately at risk of not being able to graduate: her father, who had remarried in the meantime, could no longer pay for her education.

Her saving grace came from the most selfless gestures anyone has ever done for her: her sister Nancy, to whom Winnie was close, decided to drop out of school and look for work so she could pay for her sister’s education.

She completed her education in 1952 and moved to Johannesburg to study paediatric social work at the Jan Hofmeyr School. It was her first time leaving her homeland and the first time she set foot in a big city. The Apartheid system was in full force then, and she could see the effects of it all around her.

Ever the driven student, the young women did not allow the fast-paced city to distract her from her studies. Her hard work was going to pay off big time: she graduated on top of her class and … was offered a full scholarship to go and study in Boston, in the USA!

Would you have thought about it twice if it was you? A young woman coming to age in a segregated country where the only sure thing awaiting her outside the school’s doors was a lifetime of discrimination, injustices and humiliations just for being black, being a woman, being a black woman?

Well Winnie was no ordinary person: she made the decision to turn away the scholarship and stay in her birth country to pursue her dream of becoming a social worker in South Africa! While many would have embraced that opportunity to fly away to brighter pastures, she decided to stay and join Johannesburg’s Baragwanath Hospital! Wow!

Though she didn’t fully realise it, that simple choice was a historical one: Winnie was the first black social worker to ever work in Baragwanath!

As we’ve witness through the years, it was not the last time she entered her country’s history, on the contrary, and it was certainly not the last time the young lady was going to choose to walk the path least travelled.

Did I mentioned that she had just turned 20 when she made that decision of a lifetime?

Baragwanath Hospital – which has since been renamed after Chris Hani, the anti-apartheid activist brutally murdered in 1993 – is said to be the largest hospital in the southern hemisphere and the third largest hospital in the world. The medical facility is in the township of Soweto, and in those apartheid years, the black patients who used to be cared for in the metropolitan hospitals were all redirected there.

Soweto was to become Winnie’s home for practically the rest of her life. A town within Johannesburg, Soweto was the home of blacks forcefully removed from legally-designated white areas. There wasn’t an ethnic group that wasn’t represented: the Xhosa, the Zulus, the Sothos, the Tsonga, the Tswana, etc.

The research she conducted in the community on the high infant mortality rates in the townships and the story of this driven young girl who came from rural Transkei to pursue a successful career in the city circulated in this eclectic community and made her a bit of a local celebrity. To the point that her achievements earned her to be featured in local newspapers, a big acknowledgement in those days!

Winnie was living in a hostel near the hospital. Coincidentally, she was rooming with a young lady named Adelaide Tsukudu, the future wife of Oliver Reginald Tambo. For those of you who don’t know who O.R. Tambo was – I trust there aren’t too many of you – he was an associate and close friend of none other than Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and the future president of the African National Congress (ANC).

You can easily imagine that a driven and opiniated young lady like Winnie would be drown to politics, and that was the case. But don’t jump to conclusion, she did not meet her famous husband to be in the political arena or through her room-mate.
She met Nelson in the most unlikely places: a bus stop in Soweto!

Correction, they did not really ‘meet’; I should say that Mandela spotted her that day, she probably did not notice him.

“One afternoon, I drove a friend of mine from Orlando to the medical school at the University of the Witwatersrand and went past Baragwanath Hospital” Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’.

“As I passed a nearby bus stop, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a lovely young woman waiting for the bus. I was struck by her beauty, and I turned my head to get a better look at her, but my car had gone by too fast. This woman’s face stayed with me — I even considered turning around to drive by her in the other direction — but I went on.”

Their second encounter happened a few weeks later by a pure coincidence. Nelson Mandela had come to see Oliver Tambo in the lawyer’s office they used to share. In those days, his legal problems prevented him to practice the law. There she was, the same young woman from the stop, sitting in his friend’s office with her brother.

“I was taken aback but did my best not to show my surprise — or my delight — at this striking coincidence. Oliver introduced me to them and explained that they were visiting him on a legal matter.”

A few days later, Nelson called her and invited her for a date, and she accepted. He was still married with his first wife and told her about her. He confided that he and Evelyn Mase, the mother of his four children, had fallen apart and were in the process of getting a divorce. He also told her about the ongoing Treason Trial, which he hoped would end well but that could have less desirable outcome.

Despite their age difference – she was 22 he was 39 – the young woman fell in love with Nelson, whom she admired for is political engagement and how he actively fought the system. Winnie and Madiba tied the knot in June 1958. Mandela was not allowed to leave town because of the trial but he applied for a relaxation of his banning orders and was given a six days’ leave of absence from Johannesburg. The wedding took place at a local church in her native village and they returned to Joburg soon after the wedding.

Winnie had always wanted to be actively involved in the fight against apartheid, but when she was in school, she did not want to expose her family to reprisals. She was mindful of all they had sacrificed to get her an education and did not want to expose her to the authorities’ wrath.

Now that she was away in Johannesburg and married to a politician, she decided it was time for her to officially join the struggle. Her first act was to become a member of the ANC’s Women’s League.

One day, while she was pregnant with their first child, Winnie matter-of-factly informed her husband that she was joining a group of women who would be protesting the government law forcing blacks to carry passes. Mandela tried to dissuade her arguing she risked imprisonment and subsequently losing her employment, not to mention she was pregnant. His objections only strengthened her resolve.

The next morning, he drove her to the train and watched her as she boarded the train to downtown Johannesburg where women from all the corners of the land were converging to march in front of Government buildings.

What her husband had feared happened: within minutes of the protest’s start, dozens of armed policemen surrounded the women arrested them all and took them to police station. It is reported that more than one thousand women were arrested that day and another 2000 the next day! Some of them were pregnant others carried babies on their backs!

It took about two weeks to raise the bail money and get the women out. Winnie seemed unaffected by her first sojourn in prison. On the contrary, she grew more political after that.
The couple’s first daughter, Zenani was born a few months later. The couple’s second child, Zindziswe, a baby girl born a couple days before Christmas 1960. Another important event followed soon after: the long awaited verdict in the Treason Trial was rendered in March 1961. Hurrah: all the accused were found not ‘not guilty’!

A great few months of perfect family bliss. And as all the happy moment of their lives, it was cut short by the demands of the struggle. In the early days of 1962, Winnies was informed that the ANC executive required her husband to go into hiding. It came as a shock, as Mandela had never discussed it with her. Moreover, she had thought he was going to be freer as he had been released from all the charges against him.

But she did not oppose it. When she married Mandela, Winnie knew that her family life would never be “normal” as long as her country was under the yoke of this odious system.

Winnie’s life became that of a single mother, with no free time for herself, juggling maternity, wife’s obligations and community activism. At the same time, she continued to work as a social worker. Although the civil servant salary is very thin, they could not afford to lose it. Since their marriage, she was the only person who had an income in the family. Indeed, Mandela’s legal problems prevented him from practicing law until his departure on the run.

In 1963, a few months after their fifth wedding anniversary, Nelson Mandela, the most wanted man in South-Africa, was caught in an ambush and arrested with other anti-apartheid activists. The infamous Rivonia Trial, where Mandela and others were tried for sabotage, was concluded in a most dramatic fashion. Nelson Mandela and his co-accused were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, a sentence that would be carried in Robben Island.

Twenty-seven years would go by before her husband walked free again. Twenty-seven years during which she was harassed and humiliated by the authorities and often cut off from her own children. In spite of these inhuman treatments, Nomzano, “the one who would face trials”, remained invincible, determined and frank, contrasting their brutality with her innate royal grace coupled with the ferocity of a lioness.

She was 27 when her husband was sentenced to life in prison. Though the whole world rose to condemn this sentence and call for the release of the prisoners, she was conscious that she might never see him again outside of the walls of a prison. She didn’t waste time crying helplessly: she folded her sleeves and became a full-time freedom fighter, for her people, for her country and for her girls.

Her courage earned her this young woman who had never left the frontiers of her country, to become – unwittingly – one of the most recognisable faces in the world, rising to become the Mother of a Nation in need. The South African authorities had thought they could silence the movement by imprisoning its leaders but that was counting without Winnie.

Furious at her growing popularity, the police concentrated all their effort to destroying her, with such rage ad viciousness, you wouldn’t believe it. The worst treatment she ever received was in 1969, five years within her husband imprisonment.

The worst treatment she ever suffered was in 1969, five years after Nelson Mandela was sent to prison. On May 12th 1969, Winnie Mandela was arrested alongside other anti-apartheid activists and sent to prison. She was to stay there for 16 months, 491 days to be exact from. 491 days where she almost lost her mind.

During those lonely days, she started writing a journal, which was later published in form of a memoirs.

“The first two weeks were the most gruesome period I’ve ever gone through. I had horrible nightmares and woke up screaming in the night. I discovered I spoke aloud when I thought of my children and literally held conversations with them. I cried almost hysterically when I recalled their screams on the night of my arrest. I just cannot get this out of my mind up to date. I spent the whole day walking up and down my cell hoping to exhaust myself so that I could sleep at night.”

She came out of prison on September 14th 1970, shaken but stronger than ever before and ready for anything else they were planning to do to her. The South African police under the apartheid rule had mastered the art of psychological torture and they eager to use all their tricks on Winnie. They would show up in the middle of the night, unannounced and tear her away from her terrified children to put her in jail. No reasons nor any trials were necessary. They could do as they wished, when they wished.

One of their favourite tools was to subject her to banning orders, which meant she was not authorised to work or socialize like other people. The banning orders also prohibited her from publishing anything. If it was found that she did not respect the terms of the ban, she was placed in house arrest, incarcerated in solitary confinement.

As nothing they did was killing her spirit, they decided to take it one notch further. In May 1977, she was seized from her home in Soweto and took in Brandfort, a black township in the distant Orange Free State where she knew no one.

That did not stop her either. Winnie managed to make friends in Brandfort and raise awareness abroad, not on her own condition but on the conditions of that poor community that has now become hers. Funds were raised above and sent to her to run social welfare programs in Brandfort. And of course, Winnie being a freedom fighter first, she effectively worked on politicizing the township population.

In August 1985, after her house in Brandfort was firebombed and no one was apprehended nor charged for the crime, she decided to defy the banning order and returned to her home in Soweto.

One of the most painful decision she had to make in those lonely years was to send her children to boarding school in neighbouring Swaziland so that they could live a normal life. But Zenani and Zindzi were true children of the struggle, they were born it and they were as determined as their parents to play their part in the fight against a system that had stolen their freedom even before they were born, a system that forced them to live on their own as though they were fatherless and motherless.

Their youngest daughter, Zindzi, was to come in the spotlight 22 years after her father was sent to prison. In 1985, then President Peter W Botha offered Nelson Mandela his freedom with unacceptable strings attached. Twenty-five years old Zindzi read out her father’s letter rejecting that offer to a mass gathering in Soweto. It was one of the highlights of those years.

Winnie’s reputation suffered a big blow in 1988 when her bodyguards were alleged to have kidnapped and killed young men whom they accused of being police informers. Winnie vehemently denied those accusations and refused to apologize for what had taken place. In 1998. however, the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, examined all the facts and found that she was accountable, politically and morally, for the gross violations of human rights committed by her bodyguards. Winnie acknowledged that things went wrong but still refused to apologize for these tragic events. As a result, she was never able to free herself from that stain till the end of her life.

On February 11th, 1990, Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison. It was a beautiful sight, Nelson and Winnie Mandela, the two halves of the Mandela Legend, walking side by side and raising their fists in harmony, the ultimate symbol of a couple that sacrificed their own lives to bring down the most heinous system in the world.

Even Legends have flaws and go through what other ‘normal’ people go through. It rapidly became of public knowledge that the twenty-years apart had proved to be too much for the couple. They tried but could not pick-up where they had left almost three decades earlier. They had grown apart. She was 27 years when he went to prison, she was double that age when he returned. She was a young woman who just started discovering the realities of a political life, she had grown into an independent, self-reliant leader in her own right. She had carved her own name in stone, with her blood and her secret tears and had become more then Mandela’s wide, she had become Winnie, the Mother of the Nation.

After 38 years of marriage, Nelson and Winnie Mandela were granted a divorce, citing irreconcilable differences.

Winnie continued to live in Soweto and stayed in public life till her death. In 1993, Winnie was elected president of the ANC Women’s League, almost four decades after joining the body when she was a young bride. She held the position for 10 years. She was an active Member of Parliament for a total of 20 years between 1994 and 2018.

She continued to stand up for her beliefs. A cause dear to her heart was the plight of people living with HIV AIDS. Always known for her fashion statements, Winnie famously wore a t-shirt with the words ‘HIV positive’ and joined the voices demanding free anti-retroviral drugs for HIV AIDS patients.
She never bit her tongue when it came to criticize South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, especially when it came to their failures to deal with the economic disparities that still trap millions of black South Africans in poverty to this date.

In May 2005, a 70 years old Winnie went back to school to complete her bachelor’s degree in international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand. She had originally started the studies in 1967 but the constant banning and ensuing moved restrictions prevented her to ever complete the BA. She had to wait a whole 38 years to fulfil that dream and she ultimately did it.

“I needed to inspire my grandchildren. I wanted to show my children and grandchildren that I would also have loved to study too.”

Winnie continued to be a presence in Nelson Mandela’s life despite his remarriage to Graça Machel in 1998. She wasn’t bitter about their parting and never said a misplaced word about the father of her children.

“I had so little time to love him. And that love has survived all these years of separation. Perhaps if I’d had time to know him better, I might have found a lot of faults, but I only had time to love him and long for him all the time.”

She was even close to Mandela’s widow and was seen several times in public laughing and joking with her.
Winnie was bigger than life. Rightly referred to as an ‘Icon’, ‘a giant of South African history’, she was a Living Legend long before many of us were born.

“I learned to deal with the police, to be tough, to survive”, she said in a public speaking event in the US.

“I want you to know where I come from so you can tell where I am headed. I’m like thousands of women in South Africa who lost their men to cities and prisons. I stand defiant, tall and strong.”

Winnie Madikizela Mandela is not gone. Isn’t that her laughter that we hear in the wind?


Um’Khonde Habamenshi