Winnie Mandela (1936 – 2018) was a South African anti-apartheid activist and politician. She was the most prominent voice of dissent in the struggle against Apartheid after the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) were jailed or forced to flee the country.
For the women of South Africa, she was a guiding light who taught them to be defiant, fearless, and powerful. She led by example, embodying strength, fortitude, and conviction. Her struggle and endless campaigns against apartheid, gender inequality, and abuse against Black women in South Africa earned her the title “Mother of the Nation.”
Winnie (Born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela) first became socially conscious at age 9, she wanted to be part of the celebrations at the end of World War II. However, it was for ‘Whites Only’, this incident formed the social consciousness that became useful to her years later. Despite the restrictions on education for Black people, she completed a degree in social work and became the first black medical social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. She spent time researching infant mortality in the townships where African citizens were experiencing extreme poverty and discrimination due to the injustice of the apartheid system. This experience led to her political awakening.
Winnie met attorney Nelson Mandela, a leader of the African National Congress, and married in 1958. Nelson was routinely arrested for his activities and was relentlessly targeted by the government during the early years of the marriage. In 1964 they finally imprisoned him and others from the ANC. With the leaders locked up, it was up too Winnie to continue the crusade against the apartheid government and keep the movement going.
“It is only when all black groups, join hands and speak with one voice that we shall be a bargaining force which will decide its own destiny.”
– Winnie Mandela
Using a feminist lens, Winnie deployed gender as a political resource, she pushed passed the boundaries set for women in South African liberation politics to become a populist leader. She was detained by apartheid state security services on various occasions, she was tortured, was placed under banning orders, and banished to a rural town where the government ordered people not to talk to her. In 1969 the government placed Winnie Mandela in solitary confinement 491 days for speaking out against injustice.
Women are rarely seen as pivotal figures in the struggle for equality, but in many cases, they are a driving force in organizations and should be honored as such. Winnie Mandela was the face of freedom in the anti-apartheid movement during the 27 years of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration. She kept hope alive for South Africans. Today, for Black History Month, we honor the “Mother of the Nation”.