Winnie Madikizela-Mandela must never be forgotten


WINNIE Madikizela-Mandela had every right to be suspicious of, and later, antagonistic towards the new political order that began to take root in South Africa during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

She had been at the coalface of the struggle. She had been targeted and terrorised by the functionaries of apartheid – by those who took orders from higher up. She had been detained. She had been tortured by white South Africa’s security police. She had been banned. She had been banished to a matchbox house in the township of Majwemasweu, near the town of Brandfort in the then Orange Free. Here, she had been “observed” 24-hours a day from a hill near the house by a relay of security police spies.

This was the price she had to pay for dedicating her life to the fight for freedom of millions of her compatriots. She knew who the enemies of this fight for liberation were. She knew how they functioned. She knew what they were capable of. And most of all, she knew they could not be trusted.

She knew, from experience, how the Struggle had evolved. She had been there. She knew what had been required to get it to the point where apartheid tottered on the brink of defeat. In this respect, she had far more experience than the political prisoners on Robben Island – of whom some, like her then husband, Nelson Mandela – had been incarcerated for almost three decades.

The Robben Islanders, it could be argued, were in a time warp, shaped by the nature of activist politics before they had been jailed. Nelson Mandela believed that the human race – even sworn enemies – were capable of common decency. This shone through during his interaction with representatives of the apartheid state in pre-negotiations with them, most notably at Victor Verster prison, near the Boland town of Paarl.

Madikizela-Mandela did not share her husband’s views on his jailers and the representatives of the government who spent countless hours with him – for good reason. They could not be trusted.

The South African government had come well-prepared for its “talks before talks” with Mandela: it had set him up in a house, complete with telephone, in the prison grounds – in which every room, as well as the telephone, were bugged.

Even a tree in the garden had been fitted with a recording device.

Broaching this subject in his book, “Secret Revolution – Memoirs of a Spy Boss, Niël Barnard, the then head of the National Intelligence Service, argued that Mandela, as one of the founders of Umkhonto weSizwe (M) would not have been so naïve as to believe that his conversations with a “spy boss” would not be monitored.

“The use of bugging devices was an open secret,” Barnard said. “We never discussed it. Some of the prison guards at Victor Verster knew about it and presumably told Mandela, but at no stage did he broach the subject or voice disapproval.”

Recognising the influence Madikizela-Mandela wielded in the townships, Barnard and others did everything they could to denigrate her (and organisations such as the UDF) in their talks with Mandela.

And although Mandela, by all accounts, did not commit himself one way or the other, the barrage of anti-Madikizela-Mandela reports must have had some effect on their relationship.

Moreover, the carefully leaked “Mandela, the saint versus Madikizela-Mandela, the devil” stories, was designed to ensure that she’d be sidelined. But Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela just wouldn’t go away.

And the reason for this was because she had always been a fighter – an enormously powerful woman with the mental strength to keep her family together against massive odds while her husband was in prison….

Her love affair with the icon of South Africa’s Struggle began at a bus stop in Soweto. The young Winifred Madikizela was just 22 years old when Mandela saw her and charmed her, getting her to agree to a lunch date with him the following week.

There was just one snag though. Mandela was married with three children. He was also devoted to the Struggle against apartheid.

 “The next day I got a phone call,” Madikizela-Mandela, South Africa’s first black social worker, recalled in an interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “I would be picked up after work. Nelson, a fitness fanatic, was there in the car in gym attire. I was taken to the gym, to watch him sweat!

“That became the pattern of my life. One moment, I was watching him. Then he would dash off to meetings, with just time to drop me off at the hostel. Even at that stage, life with him was a life without him.”

After his divorce, the couple married on 14 June 1958. In 1962, he was sentenced to five years imprisonment for inciting a workers’ strike. In 1963, he became one of the Rivonia trialists, charged with plotting to “overthrow” the state – and in 1964 he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

They had been together as a married couple for just four years. Madikizela-Mandela incurred the attention – and the wrath – of the apartheid authorities almost immediately.

She was banned in 1962 and subjected to frequent raids on her house by the security police, and attacks of what can only be described only as extremely malicious. The most notable of these was when she enrolled her children, Zenani and Zindzi in schools, only for the security police to find out and to put pressure on the schools to expel them.

In an interview with the New York Times, she described a typical security police raid on her home: “…that midnight knock when all about you is quiet. It means those blinding torches shone simultaneously through every window of your house before the door is kicked open.” “It means the exclusive right the security branch have to read each and every letter in the house.”

“It means paging through each and every book on your shelves, lifting carpets, looking under beds, lifting sleeping children from mattresses and looking under the sheets. It means tasting your sugar, your mealie meal and every spice on your kitchen shelf. Unpacking all your clothing and going through each pocket.” “Ultimately it means your seizure at dawn, dragged away from little children screaming and clinging to your skirt, imploring the white man dragging Mummy away to leave her alone.”

Her banishment to the black township on the outskirts of Brandfort in the Free State, to a house without floors or ceilings, and without running water or electricity was another low point.

Again, she refused to be cowered. But worst of all was her 491 days in detention and in courts, in which she was also tortured by her captors. Again, she refused to give in.

Of course, she had her weaknesses, and many people held her responsible for the death of Stompie Seipei, beaten to death by the “soccer” team that, it was claimed, acted in her name. She was also held responsible for the break-up of her marriage to Nelson Mandela.

But let the life of those times not be forgotten. She had to weigh up situations quickly – and to act decisively in the interests of her family and for those on whose behalf she fought for with such courage.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela must never be forgotten.

Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising here and in the UK in sportswriting, politics and features. He is also the Opinion Editor for the Independent Media Group