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An ode to Winnie Mandela: Mother of the South African Anti- apartheid Movement

Just a few hours ago news came out that Winnie Mandela passed away!

I was immediately overwhelmed with emotion!  Winnie Mandela is the  Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T) and a true revolutionary of the South Africa anti-apartheid movement. She is the epitome of how African women carry their societies on their backs and still stand firm in the face of trauma and being demonized! In my personal quest to become a force of nature for Africa and my generation, she is goals to me in so many ways! Here is is a rewrite of piece I wrote on her a while ago!


So, everybody knows South Africa, the biggest travel destination for foreigners in Africa. You all also know Nelson Mandela, who is the biggest civil rights anti-apartheid activist and the face of the movement to end the reign of the white racist government in South Africa. However, do you know who had his back through and through?

His wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela, an often-unsung hero of the anti-apartheid movement and controversial figure in South African history.

Winnie Mandela was married to Nelson Mandela for 38 years, 27 years of which he was in prison. She rose to prominence in the anti-apartheid resistance over the years he was away, becoming the face of the movement, keeping the legacy of her husband alive, and lobbying to have him released. Because of her activism, the apartheid government regularly harassed Winnie. They kept her under surveillance, arrested her, held her in solitary confinement for up to 18 months at one point and exiled her for a good part of her political life during apartheid. Winnie came out of this experience defiant as ever, organizing local clinics and campaigning actively for equal rights and was promoted by the ANC (the political party of Nelson Mandela)  as a symbol of its struggle against apartheid.

However, Winnie is also a controversial figure in the eyes of most South Africans and the world. Post-apartheid, the South African Truth and Reconciliation commission (created to bring to justice crimes committed by either side during apartheid), found her “morally accountable for some gross violations of human rights (murder and torture)” committed by her followers during the revolution that she apparently endorsed. That whole story is shady and reeks of the apartheid government controlling the narrative to fit their peace agenda and you can read more about it here. She was also allegedly involved in some fraud and stuff over the years but her biggest crime to some people is that she famously “cheated”  on Nelson Mandela while he was in prison. I mean it’s not like we do not hold women to impossibly high standards, even when their husbands are in jail for 27 years and they have no idea if he is going to come out or not!

Winnie however weathered all this pressure and remained a steady voice of reason and conscience of the people throughout her life. Winnie and Nelson separated and then divorced a few years after his release, but she remained in his life for his remaining years as his political ally, friend,and one of his fiercest critics. Winnie was at Nelson Mandela’s side, along with his then current wife, Graca Machel, when he died.

Winnie has been portrayed in many media productions, some about her and others about Nelson Mandela and honestly most of them has not done justice to her story, complex struggle and influence. Also all the Americans who play her, almost always have terrible accents! The closest is perhaps Naomi Harris in the 2013 film, A long Walk to Freedom that starred Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela. P.s. I might have a bias here on the Idris factor :)!  

wine and nelson

Winnie and Nelson on his release in 1990

I am so heartbroken by Winnie’s death! The South African anti apartheid movement would not have achieved as much as it did without her. I had the privilege of visiting the prison she was held in during her many imprisonments and it broke my heart!  She will remain in the memory of many a  true sHero, albeit a flawed one. Her story forces all of us to reckon with that our heroes are human and that’s why I love her so much. She showed us all what an ordinary human can achieve with passion and most of all she refused to be broken by her trauma!

When she was asked once if she was afraid throughout her revolutionary career. She said,

“ Yes, I was afraid in the beginning. But then there is only so much they can do to you. After that it is only death. They can only kill you, and as you see, I am still here.“


More to read on Winnie!

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