Winnie Mandela: Mother of the Nation?

A deeply divisive person in South African politics, Winnie Mandela was a complex person who characterized the complicated and often confusing dynamic of South African society.

Apr 24, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

winnie mandela mother nation


The world of South African politics has been a confusing place. From the years of struggle against apartheid to the post-apartheid era, questions over peace, reparations, redistribution, and attitudes toward one another often offer difficult paths fraught with paradoxes.


Winnie Mandela, the ex-wife of President Nelson Mandela, was a person who tread a confusing path. She was very active in the fight against racial oppression and did not shy away from using violent methods to achieve these ends. In this context, she won the hearts of an embittered people, while others decried her casual enthusiasm for the extreme.


Despite the charges of human rights abuses as a freedom fighter and accusations of fraud and theft as a government minister, Winnie Mandela is still seen in a favorable light by millions of South Africans who gave her the title of “Mother of the Nation.”


The Early Life of Winnie Mandela

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Bizana in the Eastern Cape is a rural area of rolling hills and sporadic settlements. Source: Google Earth


Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela was born on September 26, 1936 in the rural town of Bizana in the Transkei (now Eastern Cape). Her mother, Nomathamsanqa Mzaidume (Gertrude), and her father, Columbus Kokani Madikizela, were both teachers. In later years, Columbus also became the minister of Forestry and Agriculture in Transkei’s local government.

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Both parents were devout Methodists and had a total of nine children. Winnie was the fifth of these children. She had six sisters and two brothers. Gertrude, her mother, was of mixed ancestry. One of her parents was white, and Gertrude inherited red hair and blue eyes. As a result, she was teased as being mlungu (a white person).


Winnie was given the name Nomzamo, which translates as “she who must endure trials,” although, from her childhood actions, it seems it may have been her enemies who were just as suited to the name. Winnie was an aggressive child and was always ready to take action against those she disagreed with.


Not content with fighting with only hands and fists or even sticks, she once took a baking tin and fashioned a knuckle-duster by pushing a nail through it. She used it against her sister, aiming for her arm, but instead slashing her face so badly she needed stitches. Her mother gave her a severe beating. Despite the harsh treatment meted out, Winnie had a great affection for her mother.


Winnie Mandela in her younger days in the early years of her marriage to Nelson. Source: IMDb / Baha


Within a short space of time, tragedy struck twice. When Winnie was about eight or nine years old, her older sister died of tuberculosis. Her mother, who had prayed with fervor the whole time, contracted the disease and passed away soon after. Winnie was heartbroken, but before her mother had died, she gave birth to a boy. Winnie proved she had a gentle side and helped raise the child with tenderness and affection.


The loss of her mother brought Winnie closer to her father, who, until then, had been a somewhat aloof figure in Winnie’s life. In some respects, he took over the attention that her mother would have usually given. He encouraged her education, and Winnie fell in love with the literary world and could often be seen with her head buried in a book.


Her first introduction to racial inequality came in 1945 during the celebrations that took place at the end of the Second World War. Winnie begged her father to take her to the town center of Bizana to join in, but when they arrived, they discovered the event was for “whites only.” Thereafter, Winnie grew more sensitive to racial injustice in the world around her.


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Johannesburg in 1953. Source: SAR Publicity and Travel Department / Digital Rail Images of South Africa (DRISA)


Winnie excelled at school, matriculating from Shawbury in the nearby town of Qumbu. She was taught by several teachers who had graduated from Fort Hare, a university that had fostered the education of many of the anti-apartheid icon struggles, including Winnie’s future husband, Nelson Mandela. Through this schooling, she became more politically minded.


After achieving a first-class pass from Shawbury, Winnie returned home to Bizana, where she discovered her father had remarried. Hilda Nophikela received a warm welcome into the family from all the children, including Winnie.


In 1953, Winnie moved to Johannesburg, where she took up studies at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work. In this urban environment, she saw the effects of apartheid on a daily basis, but she nevertheless loved the city. It was also in Johannesburg that she discovered a passion for dancing and fashion, and where she discovered the sprawling township of Soweto, where Black people lived in poverty.


Winnie and Nelson

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Nelson and Winnie on their wedding day, June 14, 1958. Source: public domain via Black Past


After graduating from the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work, she attained a position as a medical social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. Despite apartheid, Winnie Madikizela was the first Black woman to hold the post of medical social worker at this hospital.


While working at Baragwanath, Winnie met the future wife of Oliver Tambo, the man who would later become the president of the African National Congress (ANC). Through Adelaide Tsukhudu, she would also be introduced to Tambo’s lawyer, Nelson Mandela.


At the age of 22, she met Mandela, already a stalwart of the resistance movement against apartheid, and they became romantically involved. Nelson asked Winnie for her hand in marriage on March 10, 1957, and the following year, they were married.


With Nelson being involved in his trial for treason and both becoming ardent activists, their lives were busy, but despite the difficulties, their marriage was strong. Their home was also constantly monitored and raided by police.


In October 1958, Winnie Mandela took part in a mass protest of South Africa’s pass laws in an event that would result in over 1,000 women being arrested. Along with hundreds of other women, Winnie decided not to immediately apply for bail. This was a sign of further protest, and it was also her first glimpse into the horrendous conditions in South Africa’s prisons. She lost her job at Baragwanath as a result, but she also gained fame as an anti-apartheid activist in her own right. Winnie certainly did not live in the shadow of her husband.


Conflict With the Law

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Winnie Mandela gives a salute through a window. Source: NBC News


In 1961, Nelson Mandela was arrested for high treason. He would eventually be sentenced to life in prison, leaving Winnie to carry on the fight without him. Sensing her ability to be an influential figure in the anti-apartheid movement, the government restricted Winnie’s movements and forbade her from addressing more than two people. Under constant surveillance, her life became filled with police informants posing as friends and acquaintances, and she developed a high level of distrust for anyone she met.


She had had two daughters with Nelson, who were also targeted by police surveillance. Zenani and Zindziswa were subject to being randomly expelled from schools, and they suffered immensely with their mother. They were eventually sent to a school in neighboring Swaziland. On May 12, 1969, Winnie’s home was raided. Her daughters were home from the holidays, and they had to watch as their mother was arrested and thrown in the back of a police van. She was charged with violating the Terrorism Act, No 83, which allowed for the arrest of anybody suspected of disrupting law and order.


Cover of Drum Magazine, photograph by Bob Gosani, August 1957 issue. The figure on the left is Nelson Mandela. Source: Mutual Art


Winnie Mandela spent 17 months in prison, with 13 of them being in solitary confinement. The only contact she had was with her interrogators, who tortured her to gain information on the activities of the ANC. Her trial began on December 1, 1969, and after lengthy proceedings, she was finally cleared of the charges.


Upon her release, she was subjected to another banning order, restricting her movements and the people she could contact. In 1973, she ran afoul of one of these successive orders and was arrested for meeting with Peter Magubane, the editor of Drum magazine, a publication whose target audience was Black people. She was sentenced to 12 months in prison, of which she served only six.


In the 1970s, Winnie had become a mother figure to the anti-apartheid movement. With the influence of Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement, the struggle had been taken up by a new generation of young activists who fought against the injustices of apartheid.


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Winnie Mandela stood beside her husband upon his release from prison in February 1990. Source: Creative Commons / South Africa Gateway


Winnie was heavily involved in the South African Student’s Organisation, which organized the march in 1976, which led to the Soweto Uprising, a huge protest against the Bantu Education Act. The protests became violent, and hundreds of protestors were shot and killed by the South African Police. Looking for a scapegoat in what was a widespread uprising, Winnie Mandela was arrested again. She served five months without being charged and, upon her release, was handed another banning order.


On May 15, 1977, the police picked Winnie up again. This time, they were taking her to a dusty little town called Brandfort in the middle of the Orange Free State. The government hoped that by exiling her to this town, her political activities and her influence would be curbed.


It did not stop her at all. She created social work initiatives to help the people there. When her banishment ended in 1986, she returned home to Johannesburg to find that her influence had not waned at all. She was considered one of the most powerful figures in the anti-apartheid movement.


Her activities, however, would take a dark turn. Affected by decades of being hounded by police and spied on, Winnie had become incredibly paranoid. Her personal bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club, gained a reputation for brutality. Suspected of being an informant, they abducted 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi and three of his friends. In December 1989, Stompie was tortured and killed.


Very soon after, her husband Nelson Mandela was released from prison due to complex political maneuverings and international pressure. Winnie was there in solidarity with her husband, but as the months passed, it became clear that their lives had created irreconcilable differences between the two.


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Winnie Mandela on her 80th birthday. Source: GCIS via South African Government on Flickr


She was later convicted of abducting and being an accessory to the assault of Stompie Moeketsi and was sentenced to six years in prison, but a successful appeal saw this sentence being reduced to a fine.


Among Winnie’s legal battles, the couple announced they were separating in 1992.


Despite her now checkered reputation, Winnie Mandela was elected head of the ANC Women’s League, and after the ANC won the 1994 election (South Africa’s first democratic election after apartheid), she became a minister in the government. One year later, Nelson Mandela fired her for allegations of corruption.


Nelson and Winnie finalized their divorce in 1996.


At this time, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) began touring South Africa, listening to people under amnesty tell their stories of what happened to them during apartheid. This was an opportunity for both victims and perpetrators to tell their stories. Winnie appeared before the TRC and was found to have committed “gross violations of human rights.”


In 1999, she was re-elected to parliament but was again accused of fraud, and she resigned from her post.


Later Years & Death

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The funeral of Winnie Mandela. Source: Lucky Nxumalo / City Press


In her later years, Winnie was still vocal. She made controversial statements, criticizing Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Her international reputation had also been tainted, and she would often be referred to as “Nelson Mandela’s crazy ex-wife.”


On April 2, 2018, following a severe kidney infection, Winnie Mandela died at the age of 81. She was given a state funeral, an event that drew tens of thousands of mourners. The controversial “Mother of the Nation” had passed away.


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Winnie Mandela. Source: Felix Meyburgh / IMDb


Hailed as a hero of the struggle, Winnie Mandela faced many difficulties in her life, constantly fighting against authorities. This dynamic turned her into a suspicious and complex character. She drew the love of millions and the ire of many other millions. In a country as fractured as South Africa, admired and hated, Winnie Mandela is a contentious figure who still manages to generate great debate over her role in the history of the country.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.