On Monday, April 2, the world lost a fierce freedom fighter, one who held her head, and her fists, high, in the face of oppression – for decades. Her name was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
She was born in Bizana, South Africa, on September 26, 1936 and named Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela. Her first name, which means “one who strives,” was most fitting. After moving to Johannesburg in 1953 to study social work, she found her calling as an activist and joined the fight against apartheid. By 1958, she’d met and married Nelson Mandela, who led the African National Congress and was arrested, often. Then, in 1964, he was sentenced to life in prison and she was left to raise their two daughters, Zenani and Zindziswa. And she kept on fighting.
For the 27 years that her husband was imprisoned, Madikizela-Mandela made it her mission to keep his voice and message alive. She was frequently a target, too, and often arrested herself. And still, she stayed the course and continued to fight for his release…and for her country. Eventually, she got her way.
On February 11, 1990, Winnie was by Nelson’s side as he left Victor Verster prison behind. They walked, hand-in-hand, with their heads lifted toward the sky and their fists, up, bold and triumphant. They’d fought together and by 1991, the decades-long struggle to untangle South Africa from the grips of apartheid was over.
In the years that followed, and after the couple’s 1996 divorce, there were headlines and controversies, but Madikizela-Mandela, who died at 81, remained a prominent figure in the African National Congress. In 2016, she received the Silver Order of Luthuli Award for her contributions to the struggle for democracy.
Of her legacy, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu noted, “Winnie Madikezela-Mandela was, for many years, a defining symbol of the struggle against apartheid. She refused to be bowed by the imprisonment of her husband, the perpetual harassment of her family by security force, detentions, bannings, and banishment.”
Affectionately-known as the “Mother of the Nation,” Winnie Madikezela-Mandela was proud and strong, outspoken and resilient. She was a force, always a fighter, and we will forever honor her for her relentless commitment to helping South Africa get free!