Winnie Mandela (born 1936), South Africa's first black professional social welfare worker, chose service to needy people and devotion of her energy and skill to the struggle for equality and justice for all people in South Africa. After her marriage to Nelson Mandela in 1958 she suffered harassment, imprisonment, and periodic banishment for her continuing involvement in that struggle. In 1992, the marriage ended, but problems for Mandela continued.
The person the world knows as Winnie Mandela began life as Nomzamo ("she who strives," "she who has to undergo trials") Winifred (Winnie) Madikizela, daughter of Columbus and Gertrude Madikizela. Members of the Madikizela extended family were Xhosa-speaking people of the Pondo nation situated in what is today the so-called homeland nation of the Transkei. Both of her parents were mission-educated, English-speaking teachers: her father taught at the local eM-bongweni Primary School and represented Eastern Pondoland in the territorial council which arbitrated Pondo law and custom; her mother, while still single, taught domestic science. She died when Mandela was nine. Their children's education was always a central concern. Through a combination of curiosity, intelligence, determination, and the financial support she received from family members and sponsors, Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela completed primary school and Shawbury High School, where she distinguished herself as a person of exceptional personal and leadership qualities.
In 1953 she was admitted to the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work and left the Transkei to reside at the American Board Mission's Helping Hand Hostel for women in central Johannesburg. When she completed her degree in 1955 she was the first black professional social worker in South Africa. She turned down a scholarship for further study in the United States in order to take up a challenging career in medical social welfare at the Baragwaneth Hospital in Johannesburg, where one of her boarding house roommates, Adelaide Tsukudu, worked as a staff nurse.
It was through her friendship with Adelaide Tsukudu that she met Adelaide's fiancéOliver Tambo, and they introduced her to a prominent lawyer and member of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, Nelson Mandela. Mandela was then on trial along with 156 other people in the now infamous "treason trial" lasting from August 1958 to March 29, 1961. It is from this period that Winnie Madikizela's devotion to the welfare of ordinary people matured from efforts to help people cope with the extreme hardship of their lives to efforts to challenge and transform the governmental structures and social relations which created and reproduced hardship for the majority population.
The Mandelas were married in a Methodist service in the Transkei on June 19, 1958, returning after the celebrations to live in Mandela's home in the Soweto township outside Johannesburg in compliance with legal constraints imposed in connection with the "treason trial" litigation. The Mandelas, both well educated and of prominent social backgrounds, shared respect for popular society, tolerance of a broad range of religious and political views, and a firm commitment to turn their relative privilege and experience to the service of the majority population. Nelson Mandela had long devoted himself to the goal of dismantling the oppressive state structures which contributed to the dehumanization and impoverishment of South African peoples through his political involvement in the African National Congress Youth League. His family shared his commitment, and, like thousands of other South Africans, suffered pain, separation, incarceration, poverty, and daily indignities for that commitment.
Winnie Mandela's first encounters with South Africa's security police also began in 1958. The government extended "pass" legislation to African women. African men had long been required to carry a pass (an identification and employment history document) which constrained their ability to sell their labor and skills to best advantage. This forced them to labor and live on terms most favorable to the dominant white population. When pass legislation was extended to African women, who already labored in the least attractive and lowest paid jobs, the women took to the streets by the thousands to protest this additional burden. The Women's League of the African National Congress naturally embraced the issue. In October 1958 Winnie Mandela was among the more than one thousand women arrested in anti-pass demonstrations. The two weeks she spent in prison for her participation proved a mere hint of the draconian treatment the South African Nationalist government had in store for her and her comrades over the next decades. She lost her job and income as a social worker, subsequent to her arrest. In 1960, after South African Police fired on a group of people who were protesting the pass laws nationwide and international protests against apartheid prompted the government to declare a state of emergency. Thousands were arrested and detained.
After the treason trial where Nelson Mandela and his co-defendants were found not guilty ended, the Mandelas and their two young daughters were able to have a semblance of family life spent between March and December. In 1962 Nelson Mandela went into hiding to continue his leadership within the then banned ANC. He was subsequently apprehended, tried, and in 1964 sentenced to life imprisonment for his political activities. Winnie Mandela waged a determined fight to raise and educate their daughters, Zenani (Zeni) born in 1959 and Zindziswa (Zinzi) born in 1960, and to earn the family's living on her own. From day to day Winnie Mandela never knew when police would tear her away from her terrified children and jail her on some triviality. She finally made the painful decision to send her children to boarding school in Swaziland so that they could live and learn unharrassed by the South African government. Although she had visitation rights she was unable to have physical contact with her husband for the next 22 years. Her indomitable spirit kept his name in the public eye and never allowed anyone to forget the injustice being done to Nelson Mandela.
After 1962 Winnie Mandela was subjected to a virtually uninterrupted series of legal orders (so-called banning orders) which prevented her from living, working, and socializing like any other ordinary person. She was prohibited from publishing or addressing more than one person at a time, subjected to house arrest, incarcerated in solitary confinement, terrorized by police harassment and arbitrary arrest, and on May 17, 1977, she was seized from her home in the Orlando section of Soweto and forced to reside in the black township outside the rural town of Brandfort in the distant Orange Free State.
The so-called banishment order separated her from friends, family, and her livelihood. Despite her isolation in Brandfort, Mandela soon bridged the social and physical barriers meant to contain her creative energy. With the monetary and emotional support she received from international sympathizers and the trust she soon built among the Brandfort community, she initiated social welfare programs and continued to politicize the township population. She consistently exploited the limited financial support and physical protection she received as an internationally known political figure to continue to advance the political goals of South Africa's majority population. The continuous and escalating level of persecution suffered by Winnie Mandela was one side of the coin. Her unwavering commitment to justice, effectiveness as a leader in the struggle for social justice, and refusal to be bullied into submission was the flip side.
In August 1985 Winnie Mandela's "prison cell" in Brandfort was firebombed. No one was charged with the crime, but the shocking attack convinced Mandela to defy the government and return to her home in Soweto. After her return Mandela's defiance continued unabated—she ignored her banning order and spoke at public gatherings and to the international media. The government chose not to meet her defiance with the fullness of police action possible under law.
In 1988, her controversial Mandela United Football Club, a group of young men who lived in her newly built house in Soweto and acted as her bodyguards, caused many other antiapartheid groups to distance themselves from her. These young men were implicated in robberies, assaults and murders in the Soweto area, and Mandela's neighbors accused them of intimidation and extortion. Matters came to a head when two club members were charged by the police with the kidnapping and beating of three African youths, as well as the kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi. Moeketsi was a young leader whose 1500-member "children's army" opposed Mandela's club and its tactics. Mandela claimed that the boy died of beatings and sexual abuse incurred at the Methodist church where he had been previously hiding out. Even so, Mandela's bodyguards came under suspicion in two other murders and South Africa's largest organizations. The Congress of South African Trade Unions and the United Democratic Front both issued statements in 1989 disassociating themselves from Mandela and her entourage. Mandela finally disbanded her bodyguards and had the club dismantled after pressure from the ANC and her husband. Mandela's once unblemished image was tarnished in the eyes of her people and it wasn't until Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990 that she was somewhat rehabilitated.
Nelson Mandela stood by his wife when she was appointed head of the ANC's social welfare department and eventually given a cabinet post in his new government. Her legal troubles continued however. She was ordered to stand trial for the death of Moeketsi when the three surviving youths of the Soweto kidnapping testified in the trial of Jerry Richardson—who was convicted of murdering Moeketsi—that Mandela took part in the beatings. The judge assigned to Mandela's case described her testimony as "vague, evasive, equivocal, inconsistent, unconvincing and brazenly untruthful". She was convicted on the charge of accessory after-the-fact in the assaults and sentenced to six months in prison. Freed on bail, Mandela was permitted to appeal her conviction, a process that would take years.
In April 1992, Nelson and Winnie Mandela agreed to separate after 33 years of marriage. During the separation, Mandela continued to be plagued with scandal and in April 1995 resigned her cabinet post. In 1996, a judge granted Nelson Mandela a divorce, feeling that the couple would never be reconciled.
After the divorce, Mandela created a museum out of the Orlando West Soweto home where she and President Mandela lived. In 1997 she was re-elected as president of the African National Congress Women's League, much to the dismay of the ANC leadership. Mandela remained popular among the poorest of the and maintained her home in Soweto, just a few moments away from the Orlando Museum House.
Further Reading on Winnie Mandela
Two current biographies of Nomzamo Winnie Mandela provide complementary coverage of her personal and political life. Winnie Mandela, Mother of a Nation by Nancy Harrison (London, 1985) is a narrative biography; Part of My Soul Went with Him is a compilation of interviews with Winnie Mandela and persons close to her, edited by Anne Benjamin and Mary Benson (1985); Current issues appear in The Economist May 10, 1997; For background on the political struggle within South Africa readers may also wish to consult the following: Mary Benson, Nelson Mandela, Panaf Great Lives (London, 1980); and Tom Lodge, Black Politics in South Africa Since 1945 (1983).