As Black female leaders celebrate the life and legacy of South African leader Madiba Nelson Mandela, they say it is imperative to also lift up Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his former wife who helped hold the anti-apartheid movement together during his unjust imprisonment for 27 years. They refuse to let mainstream media write Winnie Mandela out of history.
When her husband’s image and voice were banned, she represented him to the world– and she suffered for her bold action.
“A pivotal question people have to answer is would there have been this iconic Nelson Mandela without the resistance work of Winnie Mandela?” asked attorney Ezili Dantò of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network.
Winnie Mandela was arrested, tortured and imprisoned for daring to wage war for her people against the oppressive South African apartheid regime. She was arrested in 1969 under the Suppression of Terrorism Act, put in solitary confinement for 17 months and after that placed on house arrest.
“Everybody wants to be happy but at the end of the day, what is the message that we’re getting? Just like they reduced Martin Luther King to ‘I Have a Dream,’ they want to reduce to the moment he was released so that glorifies them because obviously they’re human because they released him,” she told The Final Call.
But what about the massacres, trauma, and the current situation of Africa, she continued, saying, “They will run over the dead bodies of all of the dead children at Soweto. I mean I haven’t heard the word Soweto once during this stuff!” Atty. Danto is referring to the Soweto Uprising June 16, 1976, a series of protests led by high school students in Soweto, where Blacks were confi ned near the major city of Johannesburg, South Africa. Some 20,000 student demonstrators were protesting the White-minority regime’s order that they learn Afrikaans, the language of their oppressors. Police opened fi re on the students, killing more than 360 young people.
Atty. Ava Muhammad, national spokesperson for the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and Nation of Islam student minister, met Winnie Mandela at the National House, the Minister’s home, at an event sponsored by Nation of Islam First Lady Khadijah Farrakhan. Dr. Muhammad has always been impressed with not only Winnie Mandela’s physical beauty but also her powerful spirit.
“It is difficult for me to believe that our brother Nelson Mandela would have been able to withstand the 27-plus years of incarceration had it not been for the loyalty and love of Winnie Mandela,” she said.
Remember, Dr. Muhammad continued, he was only allowed a visitor for about 30 minutes, once every six months and they could only discuss personal matters when she visited. Talk of the anti-apartheid movement or the struggle was strictly forbidden. Had it not been for Winnie’s efforts, Mr. Mandela could have slipped from the consciousness of the people rather than have his image grow stronger, she said. “I believe had there been no Winnie, there would have been no Nelson,” Dr. Muhammad said.
Despite their divorce in 1996, which came under the weight and pressure of the South African government’s very negative views of her, harsh criticism, media assaults and pressure for a marriage to survive nearly three decades of incarceration, Winnie Mandela deserves a place in history, Dr. Muhammad said.
In 1990, Winnie Mandela walked hand in hand with her husband upon his release. In 1993, she became president of the African National Congress Women’s League. In 1994 she was elected to parliament, re-elected in 1999, and then resigned four years later because of a financial controversy. She denied any wrongdoing. But Winnie Mandela was the target not only of the government but of politics and the press, speaking her mind and speaking strongly. Detractors and enemies tried to label her a firebrand and a political liability.
“She deserves her place in history and I believe she will have it with her name right alongside his,” said Dr. Muhammad.
Winnie Mandela was the living face of the anti-apartheid movement while Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, said Dr. Julianne Malveaux, activist, economist and former president of Bennett College for Women. “By the living face I mean the person who we went to. We had no access to Nelson Mandela to receive statements, to receive marching orders, to hear,” she said.
Winnie Mandela has never been seen in her full humanity so many are talking after the- fact, Dr. Malveaux said. But the second wife of Nelson Mandela was separated from her husband for 27 years, and though a trained social worker, she became a leader of a movement. What can people really say about such a woman? Dr. Malveaux asked rhetorically.
“People give great props to widows. They deify widows and we’ve had our share of them here in the United States: Coretta King, Betty Shabazz, Jackie Kennedy. We basically lift these widows up and in the case of Winnie Mandela, I’m not sure that she was ever fully lifted as we might have liked to see her lifted,” Dr. Malveaux continued.
Dr. Malveaux participated in the Free South Africa Movement in 1984. She led an initiative in San Francisco to divest the city’s pension fund from companies doing business with South Africa. There was a lot of contact with the African National Congress and Winnie Mandela was always lifted up because she was the face, the voice of marching orders, Dr. Malveaux recalled.
“Certainly their lives have evolved since Nelson Mandela was released, since there have been a number of challenges. As he went on to marry Graça Machel and all of that, their lives have certainly diverged but it would be irresponsible, irresponsible to ignore the role that Winnie Mandela played in all of this,” Dr. Malveaux told The Final Call. “She is and remains a heroine, that she held the banner up where her husband was unable to, and that any frailties that anyone would compute to her, no matter how challenging, have to also be looked at contextually.”
Reverend Marcia Dyson, founder and CEO of the Women’s Global Initiative, a for-profit women’s advocacy organization, agreed. Winnie Mandela endured things while her husband was imprisoned to allow the African National Congress to go forward, she said.
Rev. Dyson noted that Winnie Mandela was the first lady of her people before Nelson Mandela became president—but has never been awarded the leisure, the pleasure, the respect for her sacrifices and giving her life as a woman, mother and wife for the liberation of her people.
“She was a general. She was a warrior. She was a mother,” said Rev. Dyson. It would be a travesty to undermine her importance even at the sunset of Nelson Mandela’s death, she added.