Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela represented some of the most courageous elements of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, but also its weaknesses. And she was a lot more than “Nelson Mandela’s wife”.
She was born in 1936 into a relatively well-off family—both her parents were teachers. But her mother died when she was nine, and life became much tougher.
Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela was a teenager when the vile system of systematic racial oppression—apartheid—became officially codified. The country’s black majority, who had no vote and no rights, were forced to live in separate areas from whites and use separate public facilities.
She qualified as a social worker and found a job at Soweto’s Baragwanath hospital. She met and married Nelson Mandela in 1958 and was involved in the women’s campaign against the pass laws.
These laws restricted where black people could travel and forced them to submit to humiliating document checks.
She also took a leading role in the ANC Women’s League.
This would have been cause enough for the state to attack her. But Mandela’s arrest and eventual imprisonment for life in 1964 meant that Madikizela-Mandela came under ferocious attention from the state.
She was repeatedly banned—not allowed to speak publicly, forced to report to a police station once a day, and to be at home between 6pm and 6.30am. At other times she was jailed, sentenced to solitary confinement and tortured.
It was a process which, she said, “taught me how to hate”.
But she kept fighting. She recruited to the ANC, helped produce leaflets and organised parents to support school students during the great Soweto revolt of 1976.
She offered solidarity to black revolutionaries—even if they were not from the ANC.
The ANC liked her image as Mandela’s suffering wife, but was less certain about her independence of thought.
In the 1980s mass strikes and township risings pushed apartheid to the brink of defeat. It also saw the creation of democratic organisations in the townships. But the repression of 1986 and the imposition of a state of emergency destroyed many of these bodies.
Small groups in the townships then took on a different character, growing apart from the movement that had produced them.
They became a local version of the worst aspect of the ANC’s nationalist politics. This saw leaders on high who could not be questioned supposedly delivering for the masses rather than the masses acting themselves.
The ANC—and Madikizela-Mandela—never believed in workers’ revolution organised from below. They pushed a top-down process that brought salvation from above.
Madikizela-Mandela returned to Soweto just as the townships were in turmoil. She formed the “Mandela United Football Club” which acted as a private police force. It handed out vicious punishments, often to completely innocent people.
Around this time Madikizela-Mandela made what became a famous speech saying, “We have no guns – we have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol. Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.” It was a reference to the practice of killing suspected informers by placing a petrol-soaked tyre round their necks and setting it alight.
The point of the speech was partly to contrast the cruel power of the apartheid regime with the puny nature of the resources available to the oppressed. But it was seen as an outrageous call for murder, and angered ANC leaders.
In 1989 14 year old Stompie Moeketsi was kidnapped, accused (wrongly) of being a police informer and murdered by Jerry Richardson, a member of the “Football Club”. Richardson said Madikizela-Mandela had ordered him to carry out the killing.
Two years later she was charged and convicted for the kidnapping. She escaped jail on appeal.
Socialist Worker opposed her actions but also wrote at the time, “The apartheid state, still dripping with the blood of black people, has no right to pass judgement on Winnie Mandela. The only people who can genuinely judge her are those in the mass movement daily risking their lives to free South Africa of apartheid.”
Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990 put Madikizela-Mandela firmly in the spotlight. She remained very popular with activists in her own right, winning big votes for the national executive and heading the ANC Women’s League.
She became a government minister, but never fitted into the compromises and deal-making expected of her.
And as the ANC’s “moderation” in office and failure to confront the centres of power led to mass anger, Madikizela-Mandela spoke out.
“Mandela let us down,” she said. “He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘white’. It has a few token blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded.”
More recently Madikizela-Mandela was warm towards the leaders of the Economic Freedom Fighters, whose criticism of the ANC from the left has struck home with sections of people.
Madikizela-Mandela fought apartheid heroically. But, as the last 25 years has shown, the politics she represented cannot deliver true liberation.