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Winnie Mandela led South Africa out of apartheid and she’s yet to receive proper credit

Despite her efforts to liberate her people, during which she was subjected to character assassination and unspeakable brutality, Winnie Mandela was never able to free herself from the persecution and public scrutiny that her unwavering activism attracted. We honor her this Black History Month.

Winnie Mandela AFP/Getty Images

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, affectionately known by her supporters as “the Mother of a Nation,” was a devoted advocate of those who’d been crushed under the heel of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Despite her efforts to liberate her people, during which she was subjected to character assassination and unspeakable brutality, she was never able to free herself from the persecution and public scrutiny that her unwavering activism attracted.

Although there’d been segregationist policies in South Africa long before apartheid, the rise of the white-minority government, the National Party, in 1948 turned segregation into the law of the land. For the next half-century, Afrikaners cruelly enforced discriminatory laws in South Africa that, among other things, disenfranchised Black and other non-white South Africans and kept them impoverished.

It was under these conditions that Winnie grew up, witnessing the degradation of Black people. After college, she moved to Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa, and became the city’s first Black female social worker. Despite a whitewashed history which often paints her flatly as just the wife of Nelson Mandela, Winnie was drawn to politics and activism while becoming a pioneer in the field of infant mortality research before the couple met. Working at Baragwanath Hospital, she connected with hundreds of patients whose experiences highlighted for her just how grisly the effects of poverty, caused by racist policies, were to the quality of life of those in her community.

After her 1958 marriage to Nelson Mandela, who’d by that time had established himself as a prominent anti-apartheid leader, she would only get to be with him for six short years before his nearly three-decade imprisonment left her to carry on the struggle in his name, as single mother of two daughters. At the time of his imprisonment, Nelson was 44 years old — Winnie was just 26.

During her time leading the resistance, Winnie quickly became the movement’s figurehead, which was especially threatening to the South African government in large part because she was beloved by her followers and she, unlike her husband, rebuffed pressure to emphasize peace and reconciliation.

In 1969, she was locked in solitary confinement for 491 days, during which she was denied sanitary napkins and forced to listen to screams of women being tormented in an adjacent torture chamber. She was brutalized and banished, sent into exile to a remote rural area where her neighbors were forbidden from interacting with her. Her house was often raided and at one point, according to the BBC, even burned down.

“The years of imprisonment hardened me,” she famously said. “There is no longer anything I can fear. There isn’t any pain I haven’t known.”

She was also the target of strategic smear campaign, accused in a highly publicized manner of murder, brutality, and fraud. These allegations were exacerbated after she appeared to endorse “necklacing”—putting a tire around suspected collaborators and informants, dousing them with petrol and burning them alive — at a rally in Johannesburg.

The event that most notably sullied her legacy, however, was the ruthless 1989 murder of teenaged activist Stompie Moeketsi by Winnie’s former bodyguard. While it is not known what, if any, role Winnie played in the 14-year-old’s death, what is known is the government encouraged unprecedented media coverage of Moeketsi’s funeral to further their campaign against Winnie.

It is also known that, in 1989, South African Security Branch operative Vic McPherson, who at the time was running the apartheid government’s covert strategic communications operation, has gleefully admitted to having dozens of journalists working for him in his propaganda efforts against her. The stories they planted often made the front page of the country’s newspapers, and were used to sour international opinion of the firebrand activist and sow division amongst her Black supporters.

It isn’t necessary to grant a blanket condonation of every event that occurred during her fight against the apartheid state to acknowledge that she was systematically discredited by a racist regime and its media. McPherson smiles in the 2017 documentary “Winnie” as he recalls having made his own doc about the activist, which led to her being declared an international terrorist in the United States.

Only through a white supremacist lens could criticism of “excessive militance,” which was often lodged against her, be considered valid while Black people were at war against a savage oppressor who had forcefully claimed their homeland and dehumanized them. Winnie, for decades, was the victim of the violent state apparatus which sought to punish those vocally seeking liberation for Black South Africans.

Although she spent the 27 years he was away fighting for Nelson’s release and keeping his name at the forefront of the liberation movement, she was not a placeholder for him. She was the leader, in her own right, of the movement for her people. She led the frontlines and she retained support of many Black nationalists until the very end.

It is impossible to know what the fight for liberation in South Africa would have looked like without Winnie’s ferocity — a ferocity which would be used to crucify her publicly, even by those who benefitted greatly from it. Winnie’s tireless efforts were instrumental in bringing about the social conditions that ultimately led to her husband’s release, bringing about the negotiations to end apartheid, and contributing to the first truly democratic elections in South Africa, during which Nelson became president of the nation.

Nelson, who inherited the fruits of his wife’s untiring labor, was viewed across the globe as an unimpeachable man of greatness. He was considered a leader whose name was synonymous with peace — while Winnie was and continues to be maligned and remembered primarily for her faults.

Even in her obituaries, after her death in 2018, were disparaging. The Guardian wrote, at the time of her passing, “...rarely can there have been someone who was called to greatness and yet failed that calling as decisively as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.”

Reuter’s saw fit to memorialize her with an article titled “Winnie Mandela, ‘mother,’ then ‘mugger,’ of new South Africa.” Many publications, such as USA Today, dismissively remember her as simply “Winnie Mandela, controversial ex-wife of Nelson Mandela.” Prominent American leaders did not offer public tribute to honor her life’s work.

Winnie, “the Mother of the Nation,” whose birth name “Nomzamo” can be roughly translated to “the one who keeps trying,” lived a life marred by racism, sexism, banishment, betrayal, arrests, and smear tactics. In the end, she did not bow to pressure to preach unity with her oppressors — not even when called to do so by Desmond Tutu or her estranged husband, who she claimed returned home from prison a watered-down version of the fiery revolutionary he’d gone in as.

Often, the story seems to suggest that after 27 years, Nelson emerged from prison to free the South African people from apartheid. But, the people, with Winnie at the helm, were never waiting to be freed — they, in fact, liberated him.

This is not to say that Winnie is faultless but rather that there is no fault of hers that outweighs her contributions and accomplishments. And her dedication to women’s rights, the empowerment of young people, and the reclamation of her country — especially as a Black woman doubly burdened by discrimination — have yet to receive proper acknowledgment.

In a more just world, Winnie Mandela wouldn’t have had to sacrifice her life fighting to free her people from the bondage of apartheid, but the result of her fight was indeed a more just world. She refused to offer forgiveness for centuries of inhumanity, brought about by racism and greed, and she rejected the idea that she should be apologetic for her struggle against white rule.

I am not sorry. I will never be sorry,” she said in a 2010 interview. “I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything.”

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