08 August 2018

Remembering the Life of Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela Mandela

A woman of great stature and incredible tenacity, whom we continue to mourn and celebrate.

In celebration of Women's month, we reflect on the life of South Africa's unforgettable heroines, the late Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela Mandela. Mama Winnie was a formidable voice who fought against oppression and discrimination. Her role and contribution to the apartheid struggle earned her various tags: a liberator, a heroine and a freedom fighter. As Nelson Mandela's wife, Winnie successfully carved a niche for herself and found her own voice in a land where the apartheid rule had eaten deep. She dared to go beyond where women were prohibited and entered the realms of men. Her incredible beauty was only surpassed by her fierce passion for her people. For a large number of people who had faced subjugation and discrimination during the apartheid rule, a voice like Winnie's provided a glimmer of hope.

As can be better imagined than experienced, Winnie's activism was met with several arrests, imprisonment, house arrest, torture, banning orders and unending interrogations. Through it all, Winnie remained relentless. In her writing on the prison conditions she faced during solitary confinement, she wrote; "You are imprisoned in this little cell. When you stretch your hands, you touch the walls. You are reduced to a nobody, a non-value. It is like killing you alive... You are deprived of everything - your dignity, your everything." Mam' Winnie displayed enormous strength through it all, refusing to give in or give up.

Although her death was met with mixed reactions and varying emotions, there are several analyses and stories surrounding her histories. We are caught between her heroic struggles and her flaws as a human. Critics have particularly exposed certain aspects of Winnie's life which they felt remain questionable to this day. In the wake of her death there has been a need to re-examine history, its telling and its recording. In South Africa, one can begin to see a clear generational divide when the question of Mam' Winnie is raised. For too long she was vilified and turned into a monster. But now a new narrative is being written in which she is a hero, a saint and a true icon. Perhaps it is our human need to live in a world that is painted in clear good or bad, you are either the hero or the villain. What the life of Mam' Winnie teaches us, is that lives are never that simple, we are complex creatures and in the end, ultimately it is the sum of our entire lives that tells the story of who we are. In this woman's month it would be amiss to fail to pause and consider how some of the controversies that surround her are a clear indication of the patriarchal world we live in. Society has shown double standards and judged Mama Winnie harshly, in comparison to her fellow male comrades.

Through the struggles and controversies, one thing is clear; Winnie was a woman who dared to survive. She remains a huge inspiration and pillar of strength to women all over the world. She was a comrade, a revolutionary and a freedom fighter. At Winnie's burial, various tributes were offered and President Cyril Ramaphosa had said ‘Winnie's life was about service, service to her people. It was a life of compassion'.

After her passing there were stories recounted by people of her incredible fierceness and rebellion against oppression. There are accounts of how she faced the barrel of apartheid soldiers guns to rescue school children who has been shot, or how she fed families from her own kitchen when they were hungry, tales of her opening her home and pockets to care for refugees and asylum seekers in the wake of xenophobic attacks. This is how the people remember her, the people on the ground in the townships, the people she never outgrew.

uMama Winnie inspired a generation of young women to rise up and know that they can make changes in their communities. As they say, she did not die, she multiplied. May this new generation of women critically learn from her experiences and do better for the next. May her life continue to be the sign we seek not to give up in the struggle for justice for all.