This paper was originally written in 1999.

Nomzamo, “Trial,” the Xhosa name of the woman now known worldwide as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is as appropriate a name as has ever been given.  For the woman has suffered many a trial and tribulation from her many trials in South African courts, to her many trials as a mother and to her trials as the comrade and now estranged wife of South Africa’s most famous freedom fighter.  However, her greatest trial has been her ongoing fight for the total liberation of her people.  It is the latter that has made her both famous and infamous and has simultaneously set her at odds with those in struggle and with those who seek to oppress.  The presence and challenge of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in contemporary post-apartheid South Africa is one of staunch commitment to the ideals set forth by the anti-apartheid, anti-colonial struggle which truly began in 1652.

A people without a positive history is like a vehicle without an engine.
-Steve Biko1

From the time European colonizers made clear their intention to control the land and the people of South Africa there has been resistance.  The earliest and most well known of African resistance were the Xhosa whose conflict with Europeans began towards the end of the 18th century.2 When the British forced the Xhosa off their land in 1811-12, “the first great ‘removal’ in South African history,”3 that began a long tradition of Africans fighting to reclaim stolen land.  This sense of history and purpose exists to this day in the person of Winnie Mandela.

She credits her own acknowledgment of this purpose to her father who was a teacher of history.  She would learn from him at an early age about the true relationship between their people and their European colonizers.  These lessons were invaluable to her as she began to develop a consciousness that would determine her actions for the remainder of her life.  Winnie later in life would recognize the importance of consciousness as she used the term “conscientize”4 to describe the process of making one political, or making one become an active participant in struggle, or to create a consciousness in someone that demands certain action.  The historical awareness she got from her father is in this way demonstrated, Amos Wilson writes that “consciousness as shaped by political history an mythology, as personal experience and beliefs, is embodied, turned into disposition, a durable way of standing, speaking, walking and thereby of feeling and thinking.”5

This unrelenting passion for completeness in freedom continues to make Winnie Mandela a controversial figure in the ongoing struggle for true independence in South Africa.  “True independence” refers here to a move beyond political inclusiveness but to ownership and control of land, wealth and resources.  For as Winnie herself said “if they failed in those nine Xhosa wars, I am one of them and I will start from where those Xhosas left off and get my land back.”6  Once a consciousness is set, as Wilson explained, it determines one’s action and this has certainly been the case for Winnie Mandela.

How can love of humanity appeal as a motive to nations whose love of luxury is built on the inhuman exploitation of human beings, and who, especially in recent years, have been taught to regard these human beings as inhuman?
-W.E.B. DuBois7

The relationship Winnie Mandela now has with the African National Congress (ANC), contemporary holders of political power in South Africa, and the European/White community, former heads of government and current holders of economic (media, law enforcement, etc.) power, is based on the historical relationship Winnie has had in terms of struggle.  From the beginning Winnie proved herself to be an unrelenting force in the struggle for total liberation.  She was a thorn in the side of the apartheid government just as she is today a thorn in the side of the African led government who cannot move fast enough for her.

Winnie has never had love for those, regardless of complexion, who refuse to bring her people what she feels they need; land, jobs, political power, etc.  Since time and space here are short one example of her stance in relation to friends or foes and liberation will be offered. When discussing European/White Afrikaners with whom she was friendly Winnie explains well her overall position towards them and her freedom.  She writes:
‘They bear me no grudge.’ I have wronged them. What a statement to make! It summarized the whole Afrikaner outlook.  And, honestly, that is the problem of the white man in this country.  It was a very serious statement. We are virtually at war.  I should feel guilty because, by virtue of my blackness- not even my political views- I have wronged them… Here is a settler, telling me in my country, when I’m trying to get it back, that he bears me no grudge.  I was stunned.8

Like a phoenix, she perpetually rises, speaking her mind, taking no tea for the fever.   -Audrey Edwards9

A survey of articles written about Winnie Mandela over the last 7-10 years has shown that this historical relationship between she and the holders of power (however real or not this power may be) has been in one way or another the focal point of discussion.  Whether she has been described as a “Mother of the Nation” or a “criminal” she maintains a clear position in opposing oppression.  As Nokwanda Sithole writes:
She’s been called a shrew. A Vixen. A Black Evita. Joan of Arc.  She is said to be insolent and compassionate, naïve and psychotic, conscientious, ungovernable, placid, committed, cocky, humble, caring, incorruptible, unprincipled, resolute and congenial.  She is perhaps in many ways the sum of her own contradictions.10

Though not as politically active prior to her marriage to Nelson Mandela in 1958 Winnie Mandela was always a powerful, strong and trend-setting woman.  She acknowledges that she underwent a political awakening after marrying Nelson but as Dan Rather has written she most likely was always “supremely aware of almost everything.”11  After all, it is doubtful that a weak, following, sycophant would become the first African with a degree in social work.

However, her strength and definition as a woman in struggle would not be cemented until after Nelson’s imprisonment that would last for 27 years.  It was during this time that Winnie would come into her role as, in the words of Bishop Manas Buthelezi “The Mother of Black People.”12  Her lack of love for those that would oppress her and her people had its seed planted by her father’s historical teachings, but this was solidified during her years as the figurehead of the struggle.  She has said that it was the Afrikaner nationalists and their government that created the political mind we know today.  Winnie says “they so brutalized and harassed me that they made me the politician I {might} never have been.”13  She adds that it was during her 18 month imprisonment in 1969 that “in fact changed me; what brutalized me so much that I knew what it is to hate.”14  Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that as discussed by Bernard M. Magubane, Jean Paul Sartre has noticed that “black consciousness {is} the result of white racism,”15 much in the same way as Winnie’s politics are a result of European colonialism and dominance.

It is also interesting to note that her current problems with ANC leadership, Afrikaner nationalists, English speaking white South Africans and their sympathizers are all due to her position that the land must be African controlled and that there must not be an emphasis on reconciliation with European/White settlers.  In the past it had been her mass appeal and constant opposition to alien domination over her land and people that had resulted in maltreatment and harassment at the hands of the apartheid government.  Today her troubles with the ANC are as much a result of her unwillingness to move from those beliefs as they are a result of her seemingly countless alleged criminal charges.

The struggle was all about the land; the struggle is related to the acquisition of land. -Winnie Mandela 16

As mentioned earlier, Winnie has always drawn a great deal of her strength from the masses of African people.  One of the several examples of this is found in her work within the ghetto at Brandfort.  While banned to Brandfort Winnie began working with the people there and became a living embodiment of the struggle for freedom.  There she began a soup kitchen, taught people to plant and grow their own food rather than buy from local farmers, made her own house into a basic medical care station and helped get people rides to the hospital when the local Boers doctors would not see them.17  So when political power began to change hands Winnie felt that change was due her people.  She continued to hold firmly to the belief that the new ANC led government must fulfill the needs of the people, that they had made promises to bring substantive change and must adhere to those promises.

Her stubbornness on this issue has made things difficult for her in relation to not only the white elite but also the ANC.  Bruce W. Nelan writes, “Winnie Mandela has long been a problem for {Nelson Mandela} and his colleagues in the African National Congress.  During his 27 years in prison she was first a heroine of the anti-apartheid movement and then an imperious rival to its leadership.”18  An example of this came in February of 1995 when a Black African police officer named Jabulani Xaba attempted to stage a protest against racism within the police force.  He was murdered.  Winnie, at the man’s funeral, spoke out claiming that the new African-led government had not done enough to deal with the legacy of apartheid.  She also verbalized a concern that this new government way giving more attention to ease the anxiety whites were feeling with the transition than with the material condition of the overwhelming African majority.19  She asked, “are we in power, or just in government?”20

However, Winnie Mandela’s problems with the ANC continue to be exacerbated by allegations of wrong-doing.  Over the last 10-15 years Winnie has been accused of everything from being a heavy drinker, to being a rogue leader within the ANC, to kidnapping to being involved with upwards of 18 murders.21 The largest and most spoken about charge is related to what is now an infamous Mandela United Football Club and the kidnapping/murder of 14 year old Stompie Moeketsi Seipei.  The Football Club had been started in the 1980s and has been described as either a haven for troubled youth or a covert organization meant to give structure to youthful offenders against the state, depending of course on point of view.  But ever since Winnie made her “infamous necklace speech” in which she said, “with out necklaces and matchsticks, we will liberate South Africa,”22 her role with the Football Club has become highly questioned.  The comment refers to the tactic of placing a burning tire around the neck of an accused traitor and watching her/him burn to death.

The Stompie case has been with Winnie since the young boy was found beaten and murdered in 1989.  Winnie has denied involvement in the murder but has apologized to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for not doing enough to protect him.  Her accusers say the boy was killed as part of a wide campaign Winnie has led to rid the movement of informants of which some feel Stompie was one.  When ANC leaders told her to not deal with these young troubled boys Winnie refused to abandon them saying, “the government never believed that the Mandela Football Club was an ordinary team. So already these boys were natural targets for the police to detain and torture and turn into spies.”23

Furthering her troubles with the current African-led government are the continuing allegations that Winnie is an undemocratic leader, that she cheated on Nelson with old friend and lawyer Dali Mpofu, embezzled ANC funds and has been an overall “albatross”24 around the neck of Nelson and the ANC for years.  However, none of these accusations has been enough to lessen her popularity among the masses of African people.  She was re-elected to the ANC Women’s League after Nelson had previously removed her, she has run successfully for her position in parliament and she remains among the most popular leaders in the country despite what she feels are deliberate attempts by ANC leadership to reduce her political power.  Her feelings towards this remain the same, “{ANC leaders} have tried so hard for decades and failed. This time they will fail for ever.”25

The problems facing Winnie Mandela in relation to the ANC seem to be a common problem in struggles for liberation.  As a prominent professor of Southern African politics and history at Cornell University likes to point out, those outside the political leadership of a movement have more flexibility to be radical and progressive than those who are inside.  That is that running a state tends to weaken one’s militancy.  So despite her inroads into politics Winnie Mandela’s position outside the highest ranks of government perhaps make it easier for her to maintain her more hard-line stances against reconciliation with whites or for land and economic redistribution.  In fact, as late as 1997 she has said, “nothing has changed… in fact our struggle seems much worse than before, when the fight was against the Boers.”26
Her connections with the people has made it seemingly impossible for her to ignore the promises she has spoken of and despite her tendency for nice clothes and fine living she seems to have not lost her credibility with her mass constituents.  At the same time this popularity among the people allows her to side-step accusations, including making deals with Egyptian film star Omar Sharif or using ANC funds to support her daughter’s entertainment company.27

However, because of the tradition of apartheid and distrust in South Africa all accusations, accusers and defendants are suspect.  There is little trust in politics and between those aspiring to lead.  Those who are brought as witnesses are as lacking incredibility as those they are brought to accuse making who one believes as much an ideological issue as an issue of truth or evidence.  What remain are gross inequities in economic wealth, rising crime and rising poverty.  Of the more popular leaders in South Africa Winnie Mandela stands in among a few who speak out regularly to these issues.  Her presence is necessary because it continues to represent the views of the poor and pushes those in power to consider a more radical element.

Perhaps the most subtle yet explicit comment Winnie Mandela has made that speaks to her true power and position within South Africa came as a response to a comment made by Desmond Tutu.  In 1995 while discussing the budding relationship between Nelson and his future wife Graca Machel Tutu said, “{Nelson} needs someone to give him his slippers and someone on whose shoulder he can cry.”  Winnie’s response, “women and wives are not slipper carriers.”28


1.Steve Biko, I Write What I Like, ed. Aelred Stubbs C.R. London: Bowerdean Publishers, 1996, 29.

2 Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, 73.

3 Bernard M. Magubane, The Making of a Racist State: British Imperialism and the Union of South Africa 1875-1910.  Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc., 1996, 46.

4 Winnie Mandela, Part of my Soul Went With Him.  New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1984, 28.

5 Amos Wilson, Blueprint for Black Power. New York: Afrikan World Infosystems, 1998, 87.

6 Mandela, 48.

7 W.E.B. DuBois, “The African Roots of War,” W.E.B. DuBois A Reader. Ed. David Levering Lewis. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1995, 648.

8 Winnie Mandela, 42.

9 Audrey Edwards, “The Leaders of the Movement,” Essence, vol. 28, issue, 6. New York: October, 1997, 2.

10 Nokwanda Sithole, “Winnie Mandela: Her Story,” Essence, vol. 24, issue 1. New York: April, 1994.

11 Dan Rather, “National Affairs: Devil or Angel?,” Rolling Stone, issue 693. New York: October 20th, 1994, 2.

12 Winnie Mandela, 19.

13 Dan Rather, 4.

14 Martin Meredith, “The Trouble With Winnie,” New Statesman, vol. 10, issue 472. London: September 26, 1997, 4.

15 Magubane, 5.

16 Dan Rather, 5.

17 Mandela, 32.

18 Bruce W. Nelan, “The Sleaze Factor,” Time, volume 145, issue 8.  Chicago: February 27, 1995, 2.

19 Anonymous, “Turbulent Lady,” The Economist, volume 334, issue 7902.  London: February 18, 1995, 2.

20 Nelan, 2.

21 Meredith, 2.

22 Sithole, 4.

23 Sithole, 5.

24 Gail Robinson, “Mandela’s Match,” World Press Review, vol. 42, issue 12. New York: December, 1995, 2.

25 Meredith, 3.

26 Meredith, 5.

27 Anonymous, “Turbulent Lady,” The Economist, volume 334, issue 7902.  London: February 18, 1995, 2.

28 Edwards, 2.


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