Written by Helen Scanlon

On 2 April 2018 Winnie Madikizela-Mandela passed away, a woman who  personifies so much about the challenges posed by women who enter the public realm of nationalist politics. Her status as the ‘widow’ of Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment situated her in the public realm and she thus received a status not normally awarded to women in her position. Her high profile has led to much literary and media attention that has ranged from accounts detailing her victimization by the apartheid state to those analyses seeking to find the source of her later ‘brutality’.[1] Events between Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment in 1963 and his release in 1990 would transform references to her from the ‘mother of a nation’ to the ‘black mamba of the ANC’.[2]  It is only through a recent documentary “Winnie” that a more nuanced analysis of her life has begun to be told.

During South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission 1997 hearings into the Mandela United Football Club, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was implicated in 18 cases of gross human rights violations in the late 1980s including abduction, assault and eight murders.[3] While she pleaded innocence and stressed she was the victim of a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign by the apartheid government she did concede ‘something had gone terribly wrong’.[4] That something had gone wrong was clear, echoing perceptions of Winnie’s life; the woman popularly known as the “mother of the nation” by the anti-apartheid movement appeared to have transformed into a woman who performed ‘unwomanly’ acts. As Emma Gilbey stated: ‘This was the mother of the nation.  That she could be associated with harming a child was untenable’.[5] Indeed by the 1990s there were attempts to reclaim the title of mother of the nation from her and bestow it on a more suitable candidate: Albertina Sisulu, a woman described by Charles Villa-Viccencio as a ‘sustaining wife’ and a ‘sacrificing mother’.[6] According to the Mail and Guardian in 1997 ‘Sisulu is, in the eyes of many, the woman who really deserved the title “The Mother of the Nation” which was for so long enjoyed by Madikizela Mandela.’[7].

According to Mamphele Ramphele a ‘political widow’ is a valuable resource for nationalist organizations.[8] They are not only the embodiment of the memory of the prisoner, but also embody the brutality of a state that leaves women vulnerable. After her husband’s imprisonment in 1963 Winnie Madikizela Mandela was thrust into a public role as his political widow and her personality enabled her to transform herself from victim to a symbol of resistance and defiance. However, as Ramphele argues over the next twenty-seven years she transcended her role as political widow and became a political agent in her own right. This blog does not seek to assess Madikizela Mandela’s guilt or innocence in her many trials but will attempt to analyse how and why she moved beyond her role as ‘political widow’.

According to media reports the first indication of Winnie’s “fall” from her status as the mother of nation was the speech she made in April 1986 when she called for the liberation of South Africa ‘with our boxes and matches and our necklaces’. Detractors have often tried to link her demise further back to her banishment to Brandfort for eight years in 1977. It was suggested, lacking the moral fibre of Nelson Mandela, her continued victimisation by the apartheid state, her separation from her family and her loneliness were to culminate in her later ‘brutality’. The fact that analysts often draw a direct line between her banishment and her subsequent fall from grace may conceal as much as it reveals. If we look at her life in more detail her relationship with the nationalist movement can be seen as equally relevant.

The personal biography of Nomzama Winnie Madikizela is relatively well known and has been explored in a number of biographies and autobiographies.[9] Born one of nine children at Bizana in the Eastern Cape in 1934 her life is best known subsequent to her marriage to Nelson Mandela in 1958. Already a trained social worker the twenty-three year old bride attracted much attention not only for her famous husband but also for her ‘poise’, ‘beauty’ and ‘glamour’.[10] As we have seen, however, events over the next thirty years would transform references to her from ‘mother of a nation’ to the ‘black mamba of the ANC’.[11

To identify Winnie Mandela’s role in the public realm the source of her political consciousness must be recognised. In Nelson Mandela’s reflections he claims that in the year before their marriage he ‘was both courting her and politicising her’.[12] She however claims the roots of her politicisation came far earlier through the teachings of her father Colombus Madikizela, a headmaster in the Eastern Cape. ‘When my father taught me history I began to understand …so I became aware from an early age that whites felt superior to us. And I could see how shabby my father looked in comparison to the white teachers’.[13] While she had attended meetings of the Unity Movement in Johannesburg it was only after her marriage to Nelson Mandela that she was drawn fully into the public world of Congress-aligned nationalist politics. Her first act was involvement in a woman’s anti-pass protest in 1958, after she was encouraged to participate in the women’s league by her husband, ‘the appropriate place for wives’.[14]

According to Adelaide Tambo, prior to meeting Nelson Mandela Winnie Madikizela was often featured in local newspapers.  As the first African woman to qualify as a social worker and one who championed the poor she had already attracted the headlines.[15] Further, Winnie’s gift to invite populist support was evident from a very early stage. In 1958 at the request of two of Nelson Mandela’s close friends, Hilda Bernstein and Helen Joseph, she began to attend classes ran by the Federation of South African Women to train women in speech making.[16] According to Adelaide Joseph, a member of the Women’s Federation:

‘I remember going with Winnie to classes where women learnt to make public speeches. Winnie and I didn’t know how to speak so we used to write out speeches and would speak to a group of women and then they would criticise us. This is how we started learning. And when she made her first public speech – it was after she joined the Women’s Federation – right on the spot, while she was speaking, the women composed a song for Winnie Mandela. And they started to sing right in the hall’[17]

It is well documented that Winnie’s early married life was fraught with intrusion by the political context in which they lived; the long periods when Nelson was either in hiding or in prison awaiting trial culminated in him being jailed for life in 1964. From then, Winnie, mother of his two children, in some way assumed the mantle of Nelson Mandela’s political heir. According to biographer Emma Gilbey:

With Mandela and other leaders in prison and [Oliver] Tambo in exile a question arose over who was to keep the ANC alive within the country. Winnie assumed that the leadership role was automatically hers. ‘I was ready to deputise for Nelson,’ she wrote. As Mandela’s wife she was his heir.[18

However, her role was not that of a political actor in her own right as she noted: ‘Suddenly I wasn’t speaking for myself anymore. If I uttered a word it was Mandela’s wife said’.[19] From an early stage, voices of dissent abounded about her capability to assume this responsibility. Even before the Rivonia Trialists had been sent to Robben Island Winnie was embroiled in controversy over her friendship with an ANC member Brian Somana.[20] As a result Winnie’s first visit to Robben Island in August 1964 caused a split within the remnants of the Federation of South African Women.[21] Some women from the Transvaal felt this indiscretion should not be overlooked and Winnie should not be given the hospitality awarded to other Rivonia ‘widows’. Members of Cape Town’s FSAW decided to defy these instructions and held a welcoming committee for her.[22]

Until the excesses of the Mandela United Football Club were revealed in 1989 accounts of Winnie Madikizela Mandela’s history tended to focus on her victimisation and torture by the apartheid state as she was relentlessly persecuted for minor transgressions against apartheid laws. Her daughters, as they describe it, never had a home to go to. Banned from 1962 and unable to work she was arrested in 1969 under the Suppression of Terrorism Act and imprisoned for 17 months.[23] This was followed by further periods of banning and house arrest, and short spells in jail on minor charges.  The 1976 Soweto Uprising, which security police attempted to claim she led, resulted in her further detention for five months followed by her banishment to Brandfort.[24] It is often argued that while the apartheid government sought to remove Winnie from the public context they inadvertently created her as a figurehead of the international anti-apartheid movement.

Her ability to survive and fight back became legendary. In 1967 Winnie was charged with assault in the first of many occasions, in this instance for breaking the neck of a policeman. The occasion was used to highlight the invasive presence of the security police in her private life. According to her own account:

Sergeant Fourie came to my house… I was in my bedroom – I had my skirt half way up – and he walked in like that … and then he puts his hand on my shoulder! I don’t know how he landed on his neck. All I remember is grabbing him and throwing him on the floor, which is what he deserved. I remember seeing his legs up in the air and him screaming and the whole dressing stand falling on him. That is how he broke his neck (he did recover).[25]

At her trial her lawyer George Bizos warned her to behave ‘like a lady, not like an Amazon’ and she was acquitted.[26] The Collins dictionary definition of an Amazon is ‘a masculine woman’.

Despite these often public transgressions of her role as political widow throughout she provided unwavering assistance towards the poor. Her generosity and dedication meant she was often portrayed as ‘the champion of the underdog’. From the 1950s she was helping families of ANC women who had been jailed to get financial support from Defence and Aid, as well as assisting at the Margaret Ballinger home for blind and deaf children. She became particularly active in advocating self-help in the African areas and community upliftment. During her banishment in Brandfort she established a crèche as well as a number of cooperative schemes for women. A fellow social worker Ellen Khuzwayo wrote gushingly about Winnie’s projects:

Her small home, I learn, radiates hope for the deprived of Brandfort. It is used as a relief half-way house for the hungry and destitute: A soothing and healing place for the sick: and a place of light and learning for the ignorant. Her vegetable gardens are said to be a model for the whole township of Brandfort, in her effort to arrest the high rate of malnutrition.[27]

Politically, Winnie remained involved in the underground structure of the ANC and actively helped people to leave the country to exile.[28] In 1967 Winnie Mandela is alleged to have dissolved the NEC of the Federation of South African Women and reformed it underground with herself as president.[29] A brief respite from her banning order allowed her involvement in a black consciousness led Federation of Black Women in 1975. As she would show on numerous occasions she again proved that she was in touch with the political mood on the ground at the time.

In 1977 the government appointed a Commission of Enquiry under Justice Cillie to investigate the causes of the Soweto uprising. In what she claimed was a bid to discredit her, many witnesses sought to cite her as playing a pivotal role in fomenting unrest. While those who gave evidence were widely discredited as apartheid agents, some of the allegations against Winnie Madikizela echo those that emerged in the 1980s. Describing a political meeting in August 1976 Dr Matlhare claimed that Winnie was encouraging students to damage property, had praised then for burning down the houses of two security policemen by saying ‘You have fixed the bloody bastards’ and was also facilitating the escape of youth from the country. He further claimed that she had tried to have him assassinated on a number of occasions.[30]

In March 1980 the Release Mandela Campaign was officially launched by the ANC in exile supported by the United Nations. As Emma Gilbey maintains:

The movement needed a figure within the country that could act cohesively as a symbol to draw the elements of the campaign together. Winnie came to be chosen because in the abstract she was the ideal choice. Here was someone in a tragic situation who was sympathetic and charismatic, who was courageous, outspoken and to top it all was the beautiful wife of their leader.[31]

As the decade progressed her visibility became more pronounced. Shireen Hassim has noted prior to 1985, the International Year of the Woman, the ANC in exile had made a decision to call on women to mobilize for national liberation.[32] As part of their strategy Winnie Mandela was launched further into the limelight. In 1984 the emotively titled ‘Part of my Soul’ detailed in her own words her banishment to Brandfort and her separation from her husband.[33] The following year Nancy Harrison wrote an equally symbolically titled biography of Madikizela Mandela entitled ‘The Mother of the Nation’.[34]

Yet, as Sheila Meintjes has noted, the tension between Winnie Madikizela Mandela’s moral position as Mandela’s wife and her militant independence was at its height in the 1980s.[35] While the pillars of her political autonomy, the championing of the poor and her combative outbursts, can be traced to an earlier stage they now began to challenge the dictates of the hierarchy of the ANC. As she herself stated in 1984 she didn’t necessarily share the more conciliatory approach her husband and others urged her to take.

“Nelson always said to me – one of the things George [Bizos] and Nelson agree on – ‘Zami, you are completely and utterly undisciplined! You need a great deal of taming! I don’t think I’m undisciplined. But you have to use the language they understand: To have peace, you must be violent.”[36]

It is not within the scope of this article to further explore the events since the 1980s and Winnie Madikizela Mandela’s subsequent trials. Nevertheless this has been an attempt to explain how she was caught in a political movement which both valorised and utilised her status as a political widow, as well as simultaneously negating it. For some her image as the symbolic mother of the nation endures despite her divorce from her husband in 1996.[37] In an interview Nozizwe Madlala, Chairperson of the Natal Organisation of Women claimed, ‘They want [Winnie] to act like a traditional Xhosa woman … They think she should cook a big pot of samp [maize] and beans, and sit at home and wait for visitors’.[38] As Ramphele argues, the process whereby Winnie Mandela:

“could be made to retreat back into the private space reserved for women was not thought through.  There was no properly elaborated ritual for her return to the private sphere as there had been for her emergence into the public sphere 27 years before.  The public space became contested territory between the hero and his erstwhile stand-in.”[39]

Perhaps Nelson Mandela himself best expressed the view of the nationalist movement during his divorce action in 1996. He conceded that Madikizela Mandela had suffered ‘gross persecution’ and ‘brutal treatment’ at the hands of the police. However, he reminded the court, ‘there were many women in this country who suffered far more than she did’. He cited Albertina Sisulu as an example. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had thus clearly failed to perform the self-sacrificing and invisible role required of the “mother of the nation”




[1] See, for example, N. Harrison: Winnie Mandela: Mother of a Nation (London, 1985), E. Gilbey, The Lady: The Life and Times of Winnie Mandela (Vintage: London, 1994), F. Bridgeland, Katiza’s Journey: Beneath the Surface of South Africa’s Shame (Macmillan: London, 1997).

[2] See for example N. Harrison: Winnie Mandela: Mother of a Nation (Grafton: London, 1985) and introduction to F. Bridgeland, Katiza’s Journey: Beneath the Surface of South Africa’s Shame (Macmillan: London, 1997).

[3]‘More Corpses in Winnie’s Cupboard’, Weekly Mail and Guardian, 21 Nov. 1997.

[4] Testimony of Winnie Madikizela Mandela, TRC hearings into the Mandela United Football Club, 4 Dec.1997, http//www.doj.gov.za/trc/special/Mandela/mufc9.htm

[5] Emma Gilbey, New York Times, 14 April 1992 cited in D. Mindry, ‘”Good Women”: Philanthropy, Power and the Politics of Femininity in Contemporary South Africa’ (Ph.D. Thesis, University of California, 1998).

[6]Interview with Albertina Sisulu in C. Villa-Viccencio, The Spirit of Hope: Conversations on Politics, Religion and Values (Johannesburg, 1994).

[7] ‘More Corpses in Winnie’s Cupboard’, Weekly Mail and Guardian, 21 Nov. 1997

[8] M. Ramphele, ‘Political Widowhood in South Africa: The Embodiment of Ambiguity’, Daedelus, (1996), pp.99-117.

[9] N. Harrison: Winnie Mandela: Mother of a Nation (Grafton: London, 1985),

[10] See for example A. Sampson, Mandela: The Authorised Biography (HarperCollins: London, 1999).

[11] See for example N. Harrison: Winnie Mandela: Mother of a Nation (Grafton: London, 1985) and introduction to F. Bridgeland, Katiza’s Journey: Beneath the Surface of South Africa’s Shame (Macmillan: London, 1997).

[12] A. Sampson, Mandela: The Authorised Biography (HarperCollins: London, 1999), p. 112.

[13] E. Gilbey, The Lady: The Life and Times of Winnie Mandela (Vintage: London, 1994), pp. 44.

[14] S. Meintjes, ‘Winnie Madikezela Mandela: Tragic Figure, Populist Tribune? Township Tough?’ Southern Africa Report, August 1998, p.15.

[15] PBS, ‘Frontline: The long walk of Nelson Mandela: Husband and Lover: Interview with Adelaide Tambo’ 1997

http: //www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/Mandela/husband/tambo.html

[16] The Federation of South African Women, formed in 1954, set out to organize women against the introduction of passes for African women. Hilda Bernstein a member of the Communist Party was one of its founders and from 1956 Helen Joseph was its general secretary. For more information see C. Walker, Women and Resistance in South Africa (Johannesburg, 1991).

[17] W. Mandela, Part of My Soul (Penguin: London, 1984), p.61.

[18] E. Gilbey, The Lady: The Life and Times of Winnie Mandela (Vintage: London, 1994).

[19] Winnie Mandela cited in Gibley, The Lady p.53.

[20] Winnie was cited in the divorce case of Brain Somana v Miriam Somana 1964. Winnie in an affidavit denied a romantic involvement and said the case was set up to discredit her and Nelson. She told the court that Nelson had asked Somana to assist her while he was in prison. Somana was later implicated as a police informer.

[21] After the banning of the ANC’s Women’s League in 1960, FSAW organised women into clubs in order to continue operations. By 1962, nineteen such clubs existed in the Western Cape, and it was these clubs that organised a reception committee for Winnie Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and Epainette Mbeki when their husbands were sent to the island.

[22] Ray Alexander interview by Hilda Bernstein, Oral History of Exiles, Mayibuye Centre, UWC, MCA7, Transcripts Vol. 15. p.50.

[23] A banned person was confined for two to five years to a specific magisterial district. Under a banning order among other things it was forbidden to attend political gatherings or to attend a social gathering which consisted of more than two people.

[24] Section 5(1)(b) of the Native Administration Act of 1927 empowered the state to banish a person to any stated place for an indefinite period. The criterion was simply ‘whether their presence in their home area gave good rise to dissension and, was, consequently detrimental to good government’.

[25] W. Mandela, Part of My Soul (Penguin: London, 1984), p.88.

[26] ibid.

[27] E. Khuzwayo, Call Me Woman  (Ravan Press: Johannesburg, 1985). See also E. Gilbey, The Lady: The Life and Times of Winnie Mandela (Vintage: London, 1994).

[28] Personal Interview with Horst Kleinshmidt, Cape Town, 12 Mar. 2003.

[29] Letter from Mrs Maleka to Ray Alexander, 18 Oct. 1977, Simons’ papers, UCT Manuscripts and Archives, BC.1081.

[30] W. Mandela and Dr Motlana v Dr Matlhare, Mandela Courtcases, International Defence and Aid Fund Archive, L3F23C4, Box 5026, Mayibuye Centre, UWC.

[31] E. Gilbey, The Lady: The Life and Times of Winnie Mandela (Vintage: London, 1994), p.132.

[32] S. Hassim, ‘Nationalism, Feminism and Autonomy: The ANC in Exile and the Question of Women’ (unpublished paper, Department of Political Studies, University of Witwatersrand, 2002), p. 10.

[33] W. Mandela, Part of My Soul (Penguin: London, 1984), pp.88-89.

[34] N. Harrison: Winnie Mandela: Mother of a Nation (London, 1985).

[35] S. Meintjes, ‘Winnie Madikezela Mandela: Tragic Figure, Populist Tribune? Township Tough?’ Southern Africa Report, August 1998, p.14.

[36] W. Mandela, Part of My Soul (Penguin: London, 1984), pp.88-89.

[37] D. Mindry, ‘Mothers and Medusas: Female Virtue and Gender Politics in South Africa’ (unpublished paper, Occidental College, Atadena, 2002), p.14. See also N. Solani, ‘ The Mandela Myth’ (unpublished paper, South African Historical Society Conference, University of the Western Cape, 11-14 July 1999) in which he criticizes Mandela’s decision to divorce Winnie.

[38] Kraft, LA Times Magazine, 25 Oct 1992 cited in Deborah Mindry, ‘Mothers and Medusas: Female Virtue and Gender Politics in South Africa’ (unpublished paper, Occidental College, Atadena, 2002), p12.

[39] M. Ramphele, ‘Political Widowhood in South Africa: The Embodiment of Ambiguity’, Daedelus, (1996), p114. See also D. Mindry, ‘Mothers and Medusas: Female Virtue and Gender Politics in South Africa’ (unpublished paper, 2002).