Winnie Mandela was born Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela on September 26, 1936, in Bizana. She eventually left Bizana–a small, rural village in the Transkei district of South Africa–and moved to Johannesburg. In 1953, she began studying at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work.
After Madikizela graduated from college, she became the first Black medical social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. Through her fieldwork, she was able to see the effects of apartheid (a system where people of African descent faced discrimination and racism from Europeans) first hand as many of her patients lived in deplorable conditions.
In the 1950s, Madikizela met Nelson Mandela who was leading the African National Congress (ANC). Despite her father’s fears of Winnie and Nelson’s age difference and of Nelson’s political involvement, the couple married in June of 1958. She then assumed the name, Winnie Mandela.
The couple had two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, shortly after they married. Winnie was left to raise both of their daughters by herself after Nelson was sentenced to life imprisonment. Winnie continued, however, to fight for the end of apartheid. She sent her daughters off to a boarding school in Swaziland while she worked with the ANC.
In her struggle against apartheid, Mandela was monitored by the government. She was arrested under the Suppression of Terrorism Act and was placed in solitary confinement for a year. During that year she was brutally tortured. Once released, however, she continued to fight the oppressive South African government and was imprisoned several more times.
Soon after the Soweto Uprising of 1976, Mandela was forced to relocate to the border town of Brandfort. There, she was placed under house arrest. Confined and alienated, she still continued to speak out against the oppression that her people suffered. In an interview with the BBC, she stated that Black South African economics had the ability to overturn apartheid.
Mother of the Nation
After Mandela’s house was firebombed in 1985, she returned to Soweto. There, she continued to speak out against apartheid and ultimately earned the title ‘Mother of the Nation.’ She was placed under fire, however, for using brutal and sometimes murderous tactics against Black citizens who sympathized with the apartheid regime.
Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 after serving 27 years. His incarceration put a strain on the Mandela marriage, leading to their divorce in 1992. Winnie was then convicted of kidnapping and assaulting 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi who was killed by the Mandela United Football Club–her personal group of bodyguards. Her sentence was later reduced to a fine.
Mandela was then elected the president of the ANC’s Women’s League. She was later charged with “gross violations of human rights” due to the tortures and killings that her bodyguards committed while working for her. Winnie Mandela was later struck with a kidney infection and died on April 2, 2018, in Johannesburg. She was 81 years old.
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