Winnie Mandela kept the radical black tradition alive

Mandela was an extraordinary but flawed woman whose politics remained with the people until her death.

Winnie Mandela kept the radical black tradition alive

Mandela was an extraordinary but flawed woman whose politics remained with the people until her death.

For nearly four decades, Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela, who died on Monday at age 81, was feared by the South African state because she embodied the kind of bravery, courage, love, care, and discipline embodied in the term “comrade.” Not only did she become a symbol for the cruelty of the white South African republic, but she represented the women of the liberation struggle whose own sacrifices to upend the system were eclipsed by those of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and peers. Unlike the later generation of the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s League who eventually defended the problems perpetuated by the men of the organization, Madikizela-Mandela was critical of sexism and misogyny in whatever shade it arrived, once remarking that “the overwhelming majority of women accept the patriarchy and protect it” because “men dominate women through the agency of women themselves.”

It’s this distinctive zeal that defined the woman who bore the brunt of the struggle for black liberation. Madikizela-Mandela’s death is especially painful for generations of black women who see much of our pain, anger, and neglect reflected in her. Though she was hospitalized in January for a kidney infection, her passing has been treated as a shock, an unexpected event for which nobody was prepared. Despite Madikizela-Mandela having written about the ways solitary confinement, detention, exile affected her health in her memoir, losing the Mother of the Nation is jarring for a country which seems to have taken her resilience for granted. Many of us had assumed she’d remain with us until we realized the dreams she had for our country. We thought that because she’d survived and done the unthinkable for her entire life.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela came into my life through the stories my grandmother would share about living under apartheid. As a teacher and trade union member living in Soweto, she was a part of the whisper networks which kept the name and legacy of the Mandelas alive. Before the ANC was unbanned in February 1990, it was illegal to mention the group’s name, carry their flag, or discuss their leaders in public. Along with other comrades, my grandmother recalled being overcome with emotion and gratitude when she watched Madikizela-Mandela march alongside a free Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison in 1990. Among tales of dodging bullets to work or living through random midnight police raids at her home, her admiration of Madikizela-Mandela’s strength, grace, and militancy made an impression on me. She believed that without her, we’d still be living under apartheid.

A distinctive zeal defined the woman who bore the brunt of the struggle for black liberation.

Madikizela-Mandela lived a life besieged by oppression. In December 1962, she was handed her first banning order from the government, which prevented her from traveling outside of Johannesburg and speaking to more than two people at a time. Her name did not appear on the document. Instead, she was curtly referred to as “Mandela’s wife” — a sexist designation that would follow her throughout life and death. From the time she met her future husband in 1957, he’d already established himself as a key figure within the African National Congress through his involvement in the nonviolent campaigns of that decade. In 1956, Mandela was among the 156 members of the Congress Alliance arrested for attempting to destabilize the state in what was known as the Treason Trial. Madikizela-Mandela’s connection to the man once called “The Black Pimpernel” was believed to be so dangerous, that the apartheid government did everything in their power to exterminate her.

But during her husband’s second arrest for leaving the country illegally and instigating a workers’ strike in August 1962, Madikizela-Mandela was troubled by how her identity was abbreviated to that of spouse. While she was compelled to participate in the liberation struggle because of her husband, her politics were borne out of her own thinking and her own experiences at the hands of state violence. In light of her divorce from Mandela in March 1996, she told reporters in New Delhi that she was not “Mandela's product,” but “the product of the masses of [her] country and the product of [her] enemy." In her 2013 memoir, 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, Madikizela-Mandela wrote that she reacted strongly to having her individuality and work subsumed by her husband, stating that she took the loss of her own personhood as “a direct attack on [the] women” of the liberation struggle.

Following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 peaceful protestors were killed by the police for challenging laws which required black South Africans to carry an identity booklet at all times, the apartheid government began to intensify its attacks on black liberation and communist groups. That year, the ANC, the South African Communist Party, and the Pan-Africanist Congress were banned. Key members of the movement were jailed, detained, beaten, killed, exiled, or subject to consistent raids. These factors forced Madikizela-Mandela to assert herself as a revolutionary in her own right, and to take the struggle against apartheid underground. She organized assistance for political prisoners and spoke out against the government at the risk of being detained and tortured. She understood the importance of creating a politic that was pronounced in its desire to liberate all oppressed people.

Even Mandela, who assumed his young bride would be responsible for taking care of domestic affairs while he was imprisoned on Robben Island, was surprised by his wife’s initial ban and her descent into radical politics. Despite being a young mother of two, Madikizela-Mandela felt it was necessary to shoulder the responsibility of the struggle on her own terms. “I was not going to bask in his shadow,” she wrote in 491 Days. “They were going to know me as Zanyiwe Madikizela. I fought for that. I said, ‘I will not even bask in his politics. I am going to form my own identity because I never did bask in his ideas.’ I had my own mind.”

Even Mandela was surprised by his wife’s descent into radical politics.

The presumptions of Madikizela-Mandela’s undying strength and resolve is why many radical black women find themselves alone and neglected despite their immense contributions to the struggles they fought. Madikizela-Mandela refused to cave into the divine optimism for which Mandela was praised throughout the world. Before the cracks began to appear within the so-called Rainbow Nation, she wore her skepticism openly and accused the ANC of betraying their promise to provide economic liberation and land distribution to black South Africans. More than two decades into democracy, 95 percent of the country’s wealth remains in the hands of white South Africans, who make up 10 percent of the population.

Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy is not without considerable controversy. The Mandela United Football Club (MUFC) became a home for young black men who were looking for political guidance. While the group was employed as her personal bodyguards, they came to be involved in sussing out informants who reported activists to the police. This combination of suspicion, danger, and violence led to the murder of Stompie Seipei, a 14-year-old member of the MUFC, in 1989. Four of Madikizela-Mandela’s bodyguards were accused of murdering him while she was later charged with his assault and kidnapping in 1991. She denied the allegations and received a fine of $1,690.

When news of an alleged affair she had with her former defense lawyer Dali Mpofu surfaced in a letter she wrote him in 1992, her name became more tainted, with many viewing her betrayal towards Mandela as a betrayal of the movement. She was pressured to step down as chairperson of the ANC’s Women’s League and give up her post on the group’s national executive committee. In her later years, Madikizela-Mandela was slowly forgiven by prominent members of the ANC who trotted her out at conferences and meetings to affirm their faint revolutionary chops. Her close relationship with hopscotch socialist and leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters Julius Malema, was touted as evidence that she hadn’t lost touch with the radicalism by which she lived.

Those who fight for the rights and freedoms of marginalized people are rarely given the opportunity to be complicated human beings. They’re treated as nothing more than hapless caricatures who cannot accept difference or complexity. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was an extraordinary but flawed woman whose politics remained with the people until her death. That she was scapegoated for mistakes committed by many figures within the liberation struggle emphasizes how much sexism and misogyny are still powerful arbiters of guilt and shame, even within leftist circles. But despite being disrespected by her comrades, the Mother of the Nation remained loyal to the millions and millions of black South Africans who loved her, and the last vanguard of the radical black tradition which seems to have died along with her.

Khanya Khondlo Mtshali is a writer from Johannesburg. She lives in Brooklyn.