When thinking of South Africa’s apartheid — a caste system that favored white Europeans over black South Africans — one name typically comes to mind: Nelson Mandela. Although Nelson devoted his life to ending the racial hierarchy, he was not alone in his fight. Many South Africans joined in the cause, and none more so than his wife, Winnie Mandela. In honor of Ms. Winnie’s legacy, I wanted to take a moment to highlight a few aspects of her life.
Winnie Mandela was born Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela on September 26, 1936 in a rural part of South Africa to two teachers. As a child, she was a large contributor to her family. She regularly helped out on her family’s farm while attending school, and after the loss of her older sister and mother, she stepped in as a caretaker for her newborn brother.
At nine years old, she recognized South Africa’s racial divide for the first time. World War II had just ended, and there was a celebration in town that Winnie and her siblings wanted to attend. Upon arriving, they were denied, as the celebration was for white citizens only. After this event, she continued seeing racial injustice throughout her town, and this is what sparked her desire to change South Africa’s apartheid system.
As a child, Winnie’s education was a priority in her home. She attended school before the segregated system was put in place, so she was able to receive the same level of education as her white counterparts. As an adult, she left home to study at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg. Although Winnie was primarily focused on her education and political activism, it was through connections at school that she came to know and love Nelson Mandela.
After marrying Nelson in June of 1958, Winnie learned firsthand how hard it was to be a notable activist. Police constantly raided the home, and Nelson was almost always away at political rallies or meetings. Perhaps because of the time away from Nelson, Winnie quickly grew her involvement with activism, participating in a mass protest in Johannesburg in October, 1958. Here, she was arrested, alongside roughly 1000 other women. The women, determined to continue protesting from inside the jail, refused to apply for bail and chose to stay in the terrible conditions for two weeks. This was the point where media really began noticing Winnie.
After Nelson’s imprisonment in 1961, Winnie hoped to continue on in the fight to end apartheid. However, she was served a ban from traveling to Johannesburg, attending meetings, or entering schools. Media were banned from printing direct quotes of hers. Her voice was becoming silenced.
Yet despite all of this, Winnie persisted. For their safety, she sent her children to boarding school in Swaziland. After a firebombing attack directed at her, she defied the government and moved to her old home of Soweto, where she continued her political activism for decades to come.
On April 2, 2018, Winnie Mandela passed away from complications involving a kidney infection. Although she is gone, she will live on as one of the most influential political activists of the 1900s. Furthermore, Winnie showed women (and especially women of color) that they have the ability to change the world.