Earlier this month, the world lost Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a South African anti-apartheid activist, and the former wife of Nelson Mandela. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is the lesser known of the Mandelas, of course. But some would argue that she was the more powerful, though not without controversy.
She was born in what is now the Eastern Cape province, to two teachers. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international relations, and married Nelson Mandela when she was in her early twenties. Five years after their marriage, he was arrested and jailed, where he remained for the next two and a half decades.
It was during this time that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela became a leading activist in the fight against apartheid and to free her husband. She was often detained, subjected to house arrest, harassed, and held in solitary confinement. She was held in exile, and allowed to leave only to visit her husband on Robben Island. She was tortured on various occasions. But it was her voice that consistently reminded the world that her husband remained behind bars, and that apartheid was still the rule of law in South Africa.
“They think because they have put my husband on an island that he will be forgotten. They are wrong. The harder they try to silence him, the louder I will become!" – 1962
When Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, they had spent close to a quarter of a century married but apart. Two years later they separated, and they divorced in 1996. Winnie Mandela’s involvement in 1980s human rights violations were revealed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established as part of Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid government. She was dismissed from her post with the ANC amid allegations of corruption, and she was later convicted of theft and fraud. She attempted a return to politics, but continued to be a divisive figure in South Africa.
Winnie Mandela is a reminder always to me – of the humanness of our leaders. Without her, Nelson Mandela surely would not have become the face of the apartheid movement. It was “Madikizela-Mandela, unbowed, courageous and unyielding, who kept the untethered hope of the people focused and alive during the horrors perpetrated by the apartheid regime.” And while it might be easy to try and elevate her to some sort of superhuman status because of all that she endured, all that she suffered, and all that she accomplished – it would be unfair. She was, after all, only human, and thus susceptible to moral errors that haunt us all.
“The years of imprisonment hardened me.... Perhaps if you have been given a moment to hold back and wait for the next blow, your emotions wouldn't be blunted as they have been in my case. When it happens every day of your life, when that pain becomes a way of life, I no longer have the emotion of fear. There is no longer anything I can fear. There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn't any pain I haven't known."