Tribute to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, mother of the nation

Posted on April 06, 2018

The University of Pretoria is deeply saddened by the death of Ma Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who during her lifetime became a powerful symbol of defiance against apartheid.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was born in a small village in the then Transkei in 1936. Her father, Columbus, would later become the Minister of Forestry and Agriculture under the Transkei government. She lost both her older sister and her mother to tuberculosis while she was still young, and early experiences of discriminatory treatment towards black people left a deep impression. Nevertheless, she excelled at school and became the first qualified black medical social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, while also becoming more politically engaged. She became friends with Adelaide Tsukudu (later Tambo) who introduced her to Nelson Mandela, already becoming known as a firebrand lawyer in the African National Congress.

Her marriage to Nelson Mandela ensured that she was never far from the media spotlight, but she quickly made a name for herself as a tireless activist in her own right, raising two daughters while her husband was in prison.

In 1963, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was arrested in a pre-dawn raid under the Terrorism Act, detained indefinitely, interrogated, and kept in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer or relative. She spent 17 months in prison, and upon her release, she was served with stringent banning orders which affected her ability to work. She endured constant police harassment and was banished to Brandfort, an isolated township in the Free State, for eight years. Yet the intimidation only served to heighten Winnie’s reputation as a political leader, recognised for her solidarity with ordinary people in the community.

In 1986, she was allowed to return home to Soweto from Brandfort, and in 1990, when Nelson Mandela was freed at last, the couple were reunited. But the reunion was short-lived and they separated in 1992. During this period, Winnie was appointed as the ANC’s Head of Social Welfare, and even after the end of apartheid, she continued to campaign for the causes she believed in, including free anti-retroviral treatment for HIV-positive patients.

Ma Winnie Madikizela-Mandela remains a complex and enigmatic figure, who today is remembered as the spiritual mother of our nation. There is no doubt that she suffered tremendously during her life, but she always maintained a special relationship with South Africa – and especially with the youth, who looked upon her as an icon who never abandoned her commitment to justice.

The University of Pretoria extends its sincere condolences to her family and friends.

Winnie died peacefully on 2 April, 2018, at the age of 81.

Information taken from South African History Online


- Author Department of University Relations

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