If some obit writers have damned her with faint praise, by remembering her as only Nelson Mandela’s wife, history will be fairer to Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela. To the black nation that emerged from South Africa’s apartheid, Winnie Mandela was the “mother”. Like many mothers, she was a warrior despite the wounds she carried — and inflicted.
In the 27 years Nelson Mandela spent in prison, Winnie led the African National Congress with the physical and indomitable courage of a streetfighter. For her politics, she was imprisoned and tortured, consigned to solitary confinement and put under harsh surveillance in a shack in Brandfort. Always more of a hardliner than the party she belonged to, she became, at the end of her punishment, a woman with “her soul scarred”. In 1957, when she met Mandela, she was a social worker in Johannesburg, researching the link between racism, poverty and high infant mortality rate. She stood by him in the years of imprisonment, as much as he did as she grew increasingly suspicious of “traitors”, even seeming to endorse brutal lynchings and refuse “non-violence”. She was at the heart of the fierce, militant resistance to apartheid in Soweto in the late 1980s, when she allegedly barricaded herself behind her trusted bodyguards. A 14-year-old black boy, suspected to be an informer, was allegedly murdered by her bodyguards, for which she faced trial in 1991.
Till the end, however, she remained committed to her followers — largely black women and the underprivileged, as well as poor immigrants. She never ceased to remind South Africa it was not just heroes like her husband who had wrested freedom from them but the sacrifices of the black people, who stood up to a violent, racist state.