Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at her 80th birthday celebrations held at Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. Image: GovernmentZA/Flickr

Winnie Madikizela Mandela died died on April 2 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist and politician and the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela, served as a Member of Parliament from 1994 until her death, and a deputy minister from 1994 to 1996. Gerry Caplan wrote this article 29 years ago, in 1989, the year of the country’s last racially-based South African general election and just two years before the end of apartheid rule in South Africa. That year, Mandela became mired in political controversy over the involvement of the Mandela Football Club, as Mandela’s bodyguards called themselves, in the kidnapping and murder of Stompie Moeketsi. Caplan’s article reflects on the complexities of Mandela’s experiences of imprisonment and status as a public figure, her activist spirit, and the legacy of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. 

A look back at Winnie Mandela’s legacy

[Originally written 1989] Anti-apartheid activists everywhere have been shaken by the shocking stories swirling around Winnie Madikizela Mandela.

A perspective is essential here.

First, it must be acknowledged that Mandela has clearly been involved in at least some completely unacceptable and indefensible activities, for which she must be judged by the same high standards we use to judge any other person. This has been the approach of both the exiled African National Congress and leaders of the Black liberation movement inside South Africa, and their prompt public criticism of her has significantly enhanced their credibility worldwide.

But if Mandela must be judged as any other person, she can hardly be understood as such. For she is far from just any other person. Even in South Africa, where they totalitarian apartheid system distorts the personalities of persons of all races, her experiences have been singularly soul-destroying and dehumanizing. She has borne far, far more than any human being can be expected to and survive psychologically intact.

It began with her marriage to Nelson Mandela in 1959. From then until now, fully 30 years, she has lived a life characterized by cruel harassment, relentless intimidation, and unending persecution at the hands of a merciless white power structure.

The marriage was no marriage. Even before Nelson was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, he was barely home for his young bride.  Soon Winnie too became, willy nilly, a leader of her people. She gave birth twice, the first pregnancy coinciding with her first imprisonment. In 1962, she was banned — made a virtual non-person — for two years. In 1965, she got five more years. Between 1969 and 1970, she spent 491 days in prison, most of them in solitary confinement. In 1971, the banning order was renewed for another five years together with house arrest each night and on weekends. 

In 1974, she was imprisoned for six months for violating her banning order by lunching with her two children and another banned person. The government was relentlessly sadistic. In 1975, after 13 years of banning, there were 10 months of “freedom”, but then came five more months of prison. In 1977, she was banned again for give years, and in 1982 for another five years. In 1986, Winnie Mandela was released at last. For the first time in a quarter of a century, she was as free as a Black person ever gets in South Africa.

In her 1985 autobiography, Mandela makes the story more vivid. In prisons, she washed out of a toilet bucket. “During menstruation we only got toilet paper or the white guards would say: ‘Go use your big fat hands’.” As a banned person, she could not be with more than one person at a time. She often would know what had become of her children after the police summarily hauled her from their home, leaving them screaming in fear. Nelson, of course, she saw only intermittently on Robben Island, under the tightest scrutiny.

Intense, intimate surveillance was unending. So was loneliness. “The empty long days dragged on,” she wrote. “The solitude is deadly….That was hell. Solitude, loneliness, is worse than fear. “

“No human being,” she herself understood, “can go on taking those humiliations without reaction.”

So when she was finally able to return to her people to resume her burdens as the “mother of the nation” — Nelson’s surrogate, after all –who can wonder if she had cracked, if she refused to accept the authority and discipline of the movement’s leadership? And who can doubt that the white security apparatus didn’t infiltrate her controversial bodyguard, as many believe? Besides being terrorized by the white security apparatus, Africans were now being terrorized by Winnie and her thuggish Mandela Football Club, spurred on by the infiltrators.

Government scheming did its job. Winnie, her usefulness to the anti-apartheid cause perhaps ended, has probably been destroyed by the pernicious system she spent her life fighting. But in the overall struggle, those awful events are, in fact, a mere blip. The just struggle will continue until the day is won, and history will not record that, after she was “unbanned”, Winnie Mandela embarrassed the movement for three trying years, but that she was one of its martyrs for three heroic decades.

Image: GovernmentZA/Flickr​

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Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...