Up a dusty Soweto road, behind a high stone and razor-wire wall, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela lives in a wide brick house bordered by plants and trees, all of which, she will tell me later, she planted herself. On this hot, clear day I am ushered into the house by three young men who smoke cigarettes, whisper into their cell phones, and refer to Winnie as Mama. For a brief two years after Nelson Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990, he and Winnie lived here together as husband and wife. And for a moment I am overwhelmed by emotion, remembering the voice and raised fist of the woman who, for all 27 years of her husband’s imprisonment, kept his name and their struggle alive in the minds of people the world over.
But nothing that I have read or heard about this woman, her struggles and triumphs, prepares me for meeting her. Flanked by her daughter Zindzi, Winnie’s unlined brown face belies her 69 years, and the fast sparkle of her eyes does not betray the pain she endured under apartheid-or afterward. In the ten years since democracy came to South Africa, Winnie has endured accusations that she participated in the murder of a teenager, conviction last year on fraud and theft charges, and a devastating divorce from Nelson Mandela.
And it was in that way, with that strength and that refusal to be broken, that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (she has used her maiden name since her divorce from Nelson) became a hero to her nation and the world. And despite her personal and legal troubles, she remains a hero to many. For years Winnie has refused to sit for an interview, but here she talks to ESSENCE about what life has been like for her since apartheid ended and about why South Africa still isn’t free.
asha bandele: We’ve heard so much about you in recent years, but we haven’t heard from you. For instance, you were convicted of fraud charges last year. Tell us in your own words what happened.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: It was almost an apartheid-era situation where one gets framed. My secretary at the ANC (African National Congress) Women’s League, like so many women in my country, had very serious money problems. Her home and car were about to be repossessed, she couldn’t afford her children’s schooling, and she had no financial support from her husband. Without any collateral, she could not secure a bank loan to help her out of her financial situation. She was so desperate that she was going to go to a loan shark in Pretoria who would make her pay 100 percent interest.
When I found out about this, I told her not to do it. I knew someone who worked in a bank and had access to microloans; I asked him to help her, and he agreed. He loaned her R20,000 (approximately $3,000). A woman had never gotten a loan without collateral before, so the word spread in my office. There are hundreds of women who were in exactly the same situation as my secretary. Soon my friend at the bank was having many women come to him and ask for help, even women who don’t work for the ANC.
a.b.: Did he help them?
W.M.M.: He wanted to, but he needed someone to vouch for them, to say they were employed-just employed, not necessarily by the ANC. The directors of the bank said they would make the loans if I wrote a letter vouching for their employment. I agreed to it.
a.b.: And to say that the women would refund the money?
W.M.M.: Yes. But initially the only role the letter was going to play was to confirm that the women were employed somewhere.
a.b.: Did the women pay back the loans?
W.M.M.: That’s where the problem started. Our people have huge debts and make very little money; these women were unable to pay the bank within the specified time. Women did not pay back the bank because they could not afford to. And because I’d written letters vouching for them, I was held responsible. Under cross-examination I lost my temper because there was actually a law that said even though I never saw a cent of the money-not a dime-I was still to be held responsible for something I never benefited from.
a.b.: What scars from the apartheid era do you still see manifested today in South Africa?
W.M.M.: The physical conditions created for our people by the apartheid system have not changed. For instance, the wealth of this country is still in the hands of the minority, the masters of yesteryear. And the grinding poverty created by apartheid continues to fuel crime. Another example: Prior to 1994, Blacks owned only 13 percent of the land. There’s very little difference between then and now.
a.b.: The image to the world is that South Africa is a democracy that functions well. In what ways is this not the case?
W.M.M.: Superficially it would seem to be a real, functioning democracy. But political liberation has to go side by side with economic freedom. We need policies that will level the playing field. The wealth and power in this country is in the hands of the few. Economically we are still as enslaved as we were during apartheid.
Democracy has not been translated economically, so we haven’t gotten what we dreamed of and fought for. The government cannot undo in ten years what colonialism, racism and oppression did for over 342 years, but what has happened thus far is just not enough. It’s not as if there has been no change at all but, for example, the pace of land distribution should be happening faster.
a.b.: This year is the tenth anniversary of free elections in South Africa. How did you feel when you voted for the first time in 1994?
W.M.M.: It was joyous and hurtful at the same time. I had so many emotions. I asked myself why I had to lose so much. Why did so much blood have to flow before I could do this? In my mind, I saw the graves of our children. Why did I have to collect the corpses of our children with my own hands just to be able to vote? We were tortured. I urinated blood in prison because of my beliefs. And what had I done to anybody other than believe in the liberation of my country? Yet you fight because the only other option is to sell out. So yes, I voted and felt it was a victory, but I also thought it came too late, and we had lost too much to appreciate it fully.
a.b.: Over the years you were banned and banished, sent away from all the people you knew, separated from your children and family, imprisoned and beaten. How did decades of this treatment affect you and your family?
W.M.M.: Perhaps the biggest hurt to me is that for all those years I promised my children there would be a better life tomorrow. I promised them a family nucleus-because even under apartheid there were children who had their mothers and fathers with them. And when my daughters were young, they would ask me, “Mommy, why is our father not coming home?” Or “Mommy, why are you always in and out of prison?” And when your children ask you that, you make promises. You say, “One day we’ll also have a normal family.” But that was never to be.
They can never look back to a period when Mom and Dad were sitting with them around a table. I chose the nation over my children, and I thank God they appreciate the role I played in the struggle. They don’t think I was a lesser mother. But they never enjoyed some of the basic things that other children did, and that is something I will regret for the rest of my life.
a.b.: Do you ever feel at peace?
W.M.M.: Yes. When I can be alone, walking in my garden, but most of all when my family and I have Sunday dinners together. Every Sunday my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren gather here and I cook for them.
To read the entire article, “The Trials of Winnie Mandela,” pick up the May issue of ESSENCE.