Given her status in 20th century South African history, historians have surprisingly said little about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, before or since her April 2018 passing.
It may come as a surprise that despite her outsized influence on twentieth century South African politics and within the African diaspora, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has not received much attention from historians. She has rather been the subject of biographies by journalists and political friends (Nancy Harrison in 1985; Emma Gilbey in 1993; Anné Marié du Preez Bezdrob in 2003; critiqued here and here), fiction (Njabulo Ndebele, 2003), documentary and dramatic film (Peter Davis, 1986; Darrell Roodt, 2011; and, most recently, Pascale Lamche, 2017), and even a 2011 opera. These must be considered in the historical-political context in which they were created, and the sources upon which they rely must be carefully interpreted. Especially as Madikizela-Mandela was the subject of intense scrutiny and misinformation in the years of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment and beyond.
Many of her chroniclers failed to consult Madikizela-Mandela, or to foreground her own words—a disrespect that she protested. The apartheid state, political activists, and commentators all projected upon her images ranging from Mother of the Nation or Penelope, to fallen woman or Lady Macbeth.
Why have depictions of Madikizela-Mandela been so limited? It is true that in the face of interrogation, state-sponsored media that sought to vilify her, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Madikizela-Mandela chose what historian Ntombizikhona Valela describes as a “deliberate silence,” as a weapon of resistance.
Charting her political life has been challenging, because of the contingent nature of Madikizela-Mandela’s archive. She has no collection of personal papers that historians can access. In this respect, she is similar to other activist women: almost no black women activists have prominent collections of papers in South African archives (Phyllis Naidoo, an underground anti-apartheid activist, lawyer, and teacher from Kwazulu-Natal, is an important exception). The dangers of keeping personal papers in a time of incredible surveillance contributes to this, certainly, but the collections of Nelson Mandela, O.R. Tambo, Yusuf Dadoo, Ronnie Kasrils, Ruth First, Helen Joseph, and Hilda Bernstein are just a few that historians can access to examine the lives of activists and the larger anti-apartheid struggle. Even in the post-apartheid context when we might expect Madikizela-Mandela to elaborate upon her life, she deflected to others as she did when she recalled her underground work helping cadres infiltrate South Africa: “These are people who are generals in the South African army today who hold the highest offices in government but they must tell that story themselves” (Madikizela-Mandela, 2013). To a far greater extent than most activist women, however, Madikizela-Mandela has also left a rich public record of speaking for herself—in spite of surveillance and successive banning orders.
Still, talking about herself often meant talking about her husband—in part because of her conscious decision to ensure Mandela remained in the public eye. Her 1985 memoirs, aimed at an international solidarity movement, were called Part of My Soul Went with Him; when her prison diaries from 1969-1970 were published as 491 Days (Madikizela-Mandela, 2013), they were compiled with much correspondence from and to Nelson Mandela. And of course, as Madikizela-Mandela became the face of township political violence, Mandela became the face of reconciliation.
Interpretations of her life have thus inevitably become statements about the contributions and limitations of her (ex-)husband. For instance, Njabulo Ndebele’s fictional conversation between four women-in-waiting and Madikizela-Mandela, The Cry of Winnie Mandela, sensitively characterizes her as the subject of constant public attention, but also makes her an icon of waiting for a heroic man. In contrast, Pascale Lamche’s documentary, which includes extensive interviews with Madikizela-Mandela, “places the foibles and insecurities of men firmly at its center.” Madikizela-Mandela represents the possibilities for radical transformation that were lost during the male-dominated negotiated transition.
Feminist scholars have begun to explore Madikizela-Mandela’s challenging public archive, to highlight her as an activist and intellectual in her own right. In articles and MA theses, historians—most notably, Ntombizikhona Valela, Emily Bridger, and Helena Pohlandt-McCormick—have examined how Madikizela-Mandela adroitly crafted her public image to push the anti-apartheid movement toward greater militancy. Similarly, in the wake of her passing, political scientist Shireen Hassim, historian Vashna Jagarnath, and journalist Sisonke Msimang have all highlighted the complexity of Madikizela-Mandela’s politics, and their roots in her personal history. We can’t wait for Msimang’s new book, The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela, forthcoming in October 2018.
Since both Winnie and Nelson have passed, they have both been too easily caricatured—respectively emblematizing violence vs. peace, or the revolutionary spirit of the masses vs. the compromises of their leaders. Historians have already presented ample corrections to this simplistic narrative of Nelson Mandela: historiographic debates thrive, as new revelations of his complexities continue to unfold. Historians mostly need to work on extending these debates more fully into public discourse.
Yet Madikizela-Mandela’s life remains sketchily treated in standard histories of South Africa. Robert Ross’ A Concise History of South Africa (2003) mentions her on only one page: discussing the late 1980s, when “her personal rule in part of Soweto had turned murderous” (175). Other familiar classroom textbooks give her slightly more space, but only depict her from the 1970s on, as Mandela’s wife-turned-militant (Beinart, 2001; Ross, Mager, and Nasson, eds., 2011; MacKinnon, 2012; Dubow, 2014).
Here, we aim to present a more complex narrative of the whole arc of Madikizela-Mandela’s activist life, drawing on recent historical scholarship. This narrative is intended for a broad public audience, which feminist histories reach too rarely, both in South Africa and in the United States, where we teach. She knew this failure well, lamenting that Fatima Meer had not received the recognition she deserved because “ours is still a patriarchal society, in which men are more recognized than women. I hope that we will correct that situation with all our might as women.” She was certainly talking about more than just Meer’s history and legacy.
The archive Madikizela-Mandela has left behind has been defined by her role in two families: first, in the proud anti-colonial family into which she was born, and then in the First Family of the anti-apartheid movement. In these families, she had a sharp sense that she was a historical subject, in both senses of the word. From childhood, she saw herself as inheriting a political mission, subject to the unfinished historical struggles of her ancestors; in adulthood, she saw herself as a protagonist, bringing a new South Africa into being. Her life was violent because her formation as an historical subject was violent. Through Madikizela-Mandela’s life, we therefore see the complex ways that structural and political violence were deeply personal, and gendered.
Madikizela-Mandela as a Political Daughter, Wife, Sister, and Mother
Feminist scholars’ recent work on Madikizela-Mandela has importantly highlighted that she was a political thinker long before meeting Nelson Mandela. They have shown that she was politicized first by her family, Mpondo royalty. Her family had struggled against colonial land expropriation, and her paternal grandparents held onto some land on which they farmed and ran a trading post. Her parents were both teachers: her mother was the first domestic science teacher in Bizana, and her father ran the community school, where he taught the region’s history far beyond the narratives in government textbooks. Her paternal grandmother—her Makhulu, named Seyina—was reluctant to convert to Christianity and critical of her daughter-in-law’s devout Methodism. Valela suggests that in the struggles between Madikizela-Mandela’s mother and grandmother over the Madikizela children’s upbringing, “we can see Makhulu’s continued resistance against colonial assimilation, the home being the final frontier of that battle.” Significantly, Madikizela-Mandela referred to herself as Makhulu during her interview with Valela, “styling herself as an institution of historical and political knowledge.”
“Taught by her grandmother that the source of black suffering was white power, her framing of politics was defined completely by the ways in which her family understood the relations of colonialism,” Hassim maintains. The context in which Madikizela-Mandela learned these family lessons—the Transkei of the 1940s and 1950s—was embroiled in political debates, leading to the Mpondo revolts. The Trotskyist Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) was influential in the region.
When Madikizela-Mandela left home at 17 to study at Johannesburg’s Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work, she was therefore far from politically naïve. Yet 1953 Johannesburg was a new political landscape, where the Defiance Campaign had just made the African National Congress a mass organization. Though historians know too little about student politics at the Hofmeyr School, the first institution specifically for the training of black social workers in the country, it must have been a complex space of debate. Founded by the paternalistic liberal and American Congregationalist minister Ray Phillips in 1941, the Hofmeyr School soon became an incubator of activist social workers, who grew deeply aware of inequality through rural and urban fieldwork. Students would become leaders in liberation movements across the region: for instance, Joshua Nkomo of Zimbabwe and Eduardo Mondlane of Mozambique preceded Madikizela-Mandela, and the South African activist Ellen Kuzwayo was her classmate. Nelson Mandela was the school’s patron.
In 1956, Madikizela-Mandela landed a coveted position, as the first black social worker at Soweto’s Baragwanath Hospital. As historian Simonne Horwitz has shown, the hospital was then undergoing considerable growth, underpinned by the work of a growing force of black woman nurses. Among these nurses was Madikizela-Mandela’s roommate Adelaide Tshukudu. As members of a profession that was both prestigious and politicizing, black women health workers were often sought-after by politically-prominent men. Tshukudu, for instance, would soon marry Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela’s partner in South Africa’s first black-run law firm.
Madikizela-Mandela and Mandela began dating in 1957, after he was smitten upon seeing her at a bus stop. Nearly forty years old, he was going through a divorce and beginning his multi-year stand on the Treason Trial. She was in her early twenties, appearing often in the local press, a noted beauty with a promising career. They married soon after his divorce was finalized, in 1958; their bridal car was adorned in ANC regalia. Their time together was always limited, but they had two daughters and built a home by the time he was arrested in 1962 and went on trial for his life.
Mandela’s account of their romance, in Long Walk to Freedom (1994), suggests that he was moved by her freshness: “her spirit, her passion, her youth, her courage, her willfulness—I felt all of these things the moment I saw her” (p. 215). He recalled:
[S]he came to meetings and political discussions; I was both courting her and politicizing her. As a student, Winnie had been attracted to the Non-European Unity Movement, for she had a brother who was involved with that party. In later years, I would tease her about this early allegiance, telling her that had she not met me, she would have married a leader of the NEUM (p. 215).
Madikizela-Mandela in fact quickly became a serious ANC activist, losing her job at Baragwanath after her arrest for anti-pass activism with the ANC Women’s League in 1958. Mandela worried about her readiness to face imprisonment—a position that was perhaps understandable, as she was then pregnant. Less understandable was the attitude shown in Mandela’s response to his wife’s visit after his 1962 arrest, as Madikizela-Mandela chided him in a 1970 letter:
Do you remember what you said at the Fort when I visited you for the first time after your arrest? You thundered at me, ‘This is not the woman I married, you have become so ugly,’ and then you sent me a magazine on the ‘Reigning Beauties of the World-the Women and the Power behind politically successful men.’ Most of them were the wives of the independent heads of Black States. I was furious—I had taken such a lot of trouble to look nice that day! (26 October 1970 letter, 491 Days, p. 215).
In contrast to Mandela’s recollection of his political tutelage of his wife, Madikizela-Mandela later recalled her marriage as a challenge to the proud political identity with which she had been raised. In the epilogue to 491 Days, written in 2012, she described her shock at how suddenly:
[E]verything I did was as ‘Mandela’s wife.’ I lost my individuality: ‘Mandela’s wife said this,’ ‘Mandela’s wife was arrested.’ It did not matter who the hell I was; it did not matter that I was a Madikizela; it did not matter that I was a human being. And it was understandable to the oppressor that whatever they did to Mandela’s wife, she deserved it. So I thought, ‘My goodness I’ve grown up a princess in my own home; I come from the Royal House of Pondoland; and suddenly I’ve lost my identity because of this struggle. I am going to fix them. I will fight them and I will establish my own identity’ (p. 237).
In this spirit, Madikizela-Mandela arrived at the Rivonia Trial in Mpondo finery, against official orders. After Mandela was sent to Robben Island, his image and words banned, she became an increasingly prominent activist, visibly supporting the banned ANC and covertly working for its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe in Soweto. Reclaiming a political identity of her own meant deepening her leadership of collective struggles for black liberation.
When apartheid officials detained her from 1969-1970 on charges of sabotage and terrorism, she suffered solitary confinement and torture. Her prison diaries, published in 491 Days, reveal that this experience heightened her militancy and sent her family into crisis, as she struggled to learn what had happened to her daughters after her arrest. Her letters in 491 Days also reveal how her activism changed her marriage. As she was pending trial for sabotage, Mandela switched his salutation from “My Darling” to “Dade Wethu” [my sister]. He explained:
In the past I have addressed you in affectionate terms for then I was speaking to Nobandla, wife of Ama-Dlomo [their clan names]. But on this occasion, I can claim no such prerogatives because in this freedom struggle we are all equals and your responsibility is as great as mine. We stand in the relationship, not of husband and wife, but of sister and brother (16 November 1969 letter, p. 141).
They continued to address each other as sibling-comrades through her long detention, a salutation that suited Madikizela-Mandela’s demands for equal recognition and respect.
After her release, Madikizela-Mandela would increasingly engage in politics as “Mama Winnie.” Historians of South Africa have neglected the potent role of public motherhood throughout the long liberation struggle. Her life has much to teach us about the power over collective action that women claimed by appealing to literal and symbolic forms of maternal authority. She was a founder, with Fatima Meer, of the Black Women’s Federation, the constitution of which stressed “the need to present a united front and to re-direct the status of motherhood towards the fulfillment of the Black people’s social, cultural, economic, and political aspirations” (1975, in the Helen Joseph Papers, University of the Witwatersrand). She admitted, in the foreword to Meer’s autobiography, that they struggled to be valued as intellectuals and activists. She was a public ally to the budding Black Consciousness movement, keeping Mandela appraised of developments at universities and high schools. After the 1976 Soweto students’ uprising, she was a leader of the Black Parents’ Association, bridging younger and older generations of activists.
Madikizela-Mandela’s home in Soweto was central to this activism. Mama Winnie’s role in the community at the heart of the anti-apartheid struggle drove apartheid officials to cruelly banish her to the remote Free State town of Brandfort in 1977. By this point, she was being persecuted not only as “Mandela’s wife,” but as a representative of a broad culture of grassroots anti-apartheid activism. She took on this role with pride. In Part of My Soul Went with Him, she emphasized:
When they send me into exile, it’s not me as an individual they are sending. They think that with me they can also ban the political ideas… What I stand for is what they want to banish. I couldn’t think of a greater honour (p. 26).
While she mourned her loss of individuality as a wife, she celebrated her social influence as a mother in the community, a distinction that endured throughout her life. She applied her social work training in the impoverished town, launching community gardens, a soup kitchen, a day care center, and a health clinic. “I was never as active as I was in Brandfort,” she maintained. “I recruited [for Umkhonto we Sizwe] from the Free State like you have never known” (2012 epilogue, 491 Days, p. 238). Despite her banning order, she also attracted continuing national attention, through bold photographs and statements. Security police retaliated brutally, burning her Brandfort house down in August 1985.
It was then that she returned permanently to Soweto, in defiance of her banning order. As her daughter Zindzi recently told documentary filmmaker Pascale Lamche, this was not her first trip back. When Zindzi read Mandela’s affirmation of his commitment to the liberation struggle to a cheering crowd at a United Democratic Front rally in February 1985, Madikizela-Mandela had been there: among her people, disguised as a domestic worker, she passed as an ordinary working-class mother.
Gendered Violence during Apartheid
Madikizela-Mandela returned to a Soweto at war, against apartheid and with itself, and in the midst of a State of Emergency. She had been banished to Brandfort as P.W. Botha’s 1977 Defence white paper outlined a total strategy to combat a perceived “total onslaught” of international communism. The white paper went beyond the military, including control of information and strategic industries. Hennie van Vuuren called this white paper the beginnings of South Africa’s military-industrial complex.
A secretive Special Defence Account funded not only arms, but also covert activities and propaganda. Vic McPherson, former head of Stratcom (the propaganda arm of the security police) and operative Paul Erasmus testified to the TRC regarding Stratcom’s disinformation campaigns to discredit Madikizela-Mandela (Operation Romulus), the ANC, and other anti-apartheid individuals such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Alex Boraine. The state had already targeted her reputation in its investigation of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Casspir military vehicles in the streets, the disappearance and murders of activists, propaganda campaigns, and the infiltration of iimpimpi and askaris fueled these internal conflicts and legitimate paranoia. Conservative estimates suggest that nearly 20,000 people died between 1985 and 1996 in South Africa.
It is in this context of state violence and personal betrayals that Madikizela-Mandela embraced violence. Commentators and biographers often present Madikizela-Mandela as naïve and trusting, never quite cognizant of the informers surrounding her. This is naïve itself. The defense of violence and targeting of perceived iimpimpi within the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the 1980s suggests many were aware. Madikizela-Mandela should not be excluded from this recognition, especially in the wake of her detention and torture in 1969-1970, when she realized how some of her seeming comrades had informed on her and how police turned other prisoners into informers. Her prison diaries speak with admiration of comrades who refused to give evidence under interrogation: “Only a person who has been through solitary confinement would realise the amount of sacrifice” required to remain silent (491 Days, pp. 13-14).
Recognizing Madikizela-Mandela as a political thinker in her own right, with firsthand experience of the brutality of the state, requires us to strike a balance between her agency, intellectual thought, and mental and emotional impacts of the structural and personal violence she endured. Valela points out Madikizela-Mandela’s intellectual justification for violence against an oppressor that only knows the language of violence: “It was as if she was in dialogue with the decolonial philosopher Frantz Fanon.”
Often when citing Madikizela-Mandela’s now infamous April 13, 1986 speech about liberating the country with “boxes of matches and petrol”—a reference to the practice of “necklacing,” or killing suspected police informers by lighting tires around their necks—commentators leave out what preceded those words—“We shall use the same language the Boers are using against us.” She explained her own shift in her interview with journalist Anne Benjamin in 1985:
Before I went into solitary confinement, I must tell you the truth, I made pronouncements on platforms and said things I hadn’t tested myself on. I was a social worker, I was a mother; I knew that even though I was in a violent situation, if I was myself given a gun and told to go into a battlefield and shoot, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it. Deep down in my heart, I was a social worker and that instinct to preserve human life was there, not only from a professional point of view—it was the centre of my person.
What happened during my detention was quite extraordinary. Now if the man I’m dealing with appeared carrying a gun—in defence of my principles I know I would fire. That is what they have taught me. I could never have achieved that alone.
She clearly articulated her belief that apartheid officials would only respond to violent action: “That is the bitterness they create in us. You want to put a stop to it. And if need be, you will use their own methods, because that is the language they understand” (p. 127).
Violence in the name of nations is gendered; cultural notions regarding warfare maintain a gendered construct in which men go to war to uphold a social order symbolized by what political scientist Cynthia Enloe has described as “womenandchildren.” Madikizela-Mandela’s relationship to violence thus disgusted many as she burst out of this position. Valela’s work unpacks the double standard of this “fallen woman,” the “mother of the nation” who failed her children by associating herself with violence.
Madikizela-Mandela and women more generally are not as easily absolved of atrocities committed in the name of revolution. Historian Riedwaan Moosage points out that many ANC and UDF leaders condemn such atrocities with much more vehemence in retrospect than they did at the time. Moosage characterizes the ANC and UDF stance historically as a “prose of ambivalence” when it came to necklacing and the murders of suspected collaborators—a move not just tactical but also embedded in a liberation binary of resistance and oppression.
Here it important to consider violence perpetrated or justified by others within the ambit of the liberation movements more broadly to place Madikizela-Mandela in her historical moment—particularly because the relationship between resistance and oppression is much more complex than the liberation binary. The African National Congress’ submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—widely criticized for not going far enough—detailed torture and death in the exile camps and the necklacing of suspected informants in South Africa but made clear those behaviors were not ANC policy. In other words—the words Archbishop Tutu and Madikizela-Mandela would use to describe the atrocities of the Mandela United Football Club—”things went horribly wrong.” Well before the submission, Thabo Mbeki and others sought to have ANC leaders get their statements approved by the ANC before approaching the TRC. In the section of the ANC submission on human rights violations in the mass democratic movement of the 1980s, the ANC asked that the TRC understand the context:
The ANC has never sought to condone all cases of violence of this nature, nor to disregard the suffering of those targeted for such retribution. Yet we call on the Commission to consider the cases of those accused of criminal activities such as ‘necklacing’, informers, criminals or ‘vigilantes’ with a full understanding of the highly abnormal circumstances in which such acts took place, the level of state-sponsored violence afflicting communities during this period, and of the consequences flowing from the refusal by agencies of law and order to act impartially.
The TRC would ultimately grant amnesty to 37 ANC members as a form of “collective responsibility” for actions undertaken by ANC members more generally. Those 37 are a who’s who of the liberation movement, granted amnesty for their moral and political accountability for human rights violations. Chris Hani remains untainted in memory, despite having himself understood necklacing as “a weapon devised by the oppressed themselves to remove this cancer from our society, the cancer of collaboration of the puppets.”
It is Madikizela-Mandela’s alleged connections with particular violence—the deaths, in late 1988 and early 1989, of 14-year old activist Stompie Seipei, the young Umkhonto we Sizwe member Lolo Sono, and Dr. Abu Baker Asvat—that most tinge her legacy. By the late 1980s, political violence unfolded alongside and intertwined with more personal and criminal forms of violence. Madikizela-Mandela surrounded herself with young men of the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC). The MUFC played little football, styled themselves as her bodyguards, and committed acts of violence beyond the political. As an example, in 1988 students from Daliwonga High School burnt down Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto home in the midst of an escalating dispute between students and the MUFC.
In late December 1988, the MUFC abducted and assaulted four young people who were staying with Methodist minister Paul Verryn in the wake of detention. The MUFC’s coach was Jerry Richardson—who was paid to root out suspected informers under Madikizela-Mandela’s instruction, but who ultimately claimed he killed Seipei to stop Seipei from revealing Richardson’s own identity as a police informer. That Richardson had been a paid informer during his leadership of Madikizela-Mandela’s club was revealed in TRC hearings. Security Branch policeman Paul Erasmus claims Richardson was not the only spy, recently suggesting that the MUFC was filled with police informers. Erasmus also named Xoliswa Fati, a former Madikizela-Mandela friend, and Katiza Cebukhulu, whose inconsistency-laden TRC testimony fueled doubts about his trustworthiness and whose book was allegedly inspired by Stratcom.
Community members and liberation figures acted to end the abductions, stem the MUFC, and distance themselves from Madikizela-Mandela. Nelson Mandela requested the establishment of a crisis committed to investigate the abduction. Comprised of community, church, and union leaders, the committee forced Madikizela-Mandela to release the three held hostages, and the body of Seipei was found in January 1989. The UDF publicly denounced Madikizela-Mandela’s actions and the MUFC. Asvat, the Azanian People’s Organization leader and “people’s doctor” who had examined one of the four youth, was gunned down later that month, in an assassination made to look like a robbery.
As “Mother of the Nation,” Mama Winnie was expected to uphold particular motherly norms of peace and support. But as the feminist scholars cited here have explored, Madikizela-Mandela thought in terms of a militant motherhood and family:
I cannot pretend that today I wouldn’t gladly go and water that tree of liberation with my own blood, if it means that the children I am bringing up under these conditions will not lead my kind of life. I do not want anyone else to lead it. I would love to think that I belong to the last generation that will experience what we have gone through (Part of My Soul, p. 126).
Winnie was not alone in her intellectual defense of militant motherhood. But many in her community condemned her association with the Mandela United Football Club as maternal violence misdirected and taken too far. She infamously claimed that the MUFC had abducted the young activists in late 1988 to protect them from molestation by the anti-apartheid minister and community activist Paul Verryn, who is gay and white. This claim of maternal protection evinced another kind of violence, generating a homophobic public discourse that racialized sexual orientation and conflated homosexuality with child sexual abuse.
In 1991, she was found guilty on charges of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault. In 1997, the TRC found her politically and morally accountable, responsible by omission for violations of human rights. The commission could not find anything more conclusive.
Historians cannot make a conclusive statement about Madikizela-Mandela’s life and legacy—and indeed, we should not race to conclusions, as too many “Euro-American pundits or obituary writers” have sought to do since her passing. We should rather dwell on what Madikizela-Mandela’s complex position tells us about the complex world in which she lived: a world where family life was political, and violence was gendered. We must recognize her agency, her intellectual justifications for violence, and the constraints of the trauma and violence she experienced personally and witnessed daily. She was not a myth, but a human seeking to change an inhumane world, a South Africa built on structural violence.