Winnie and Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela in Montreal, Canada, in 1990.

(WOMENSENEWS)–The one who was to stand behind the future emancipator of her country knew oppression from the start. Winifred "Winnie" Madikizela was born Sept. 26, 1936, in the village of Bizana. Perhaps her fate was ordained when she was given the first name Nomzamo, meaning "she who will go through trials and tribulations." She started life with a rusty spoon, rather than silver: her parents were devastated with her birth, a sixth daughter when they desperately had hoped for a son. Not only did she face sexism, she also had to endure the South African government-sanctioned racism.

Against formidable odds, she became the first black female social worker in Soweto, a black township bordering Johannesburg. It was there the girl from an impoverished village met the man who was to make her life assume the dimensions of a Shakespearean drama. She was 22 and standing at a bus stop when Nelson Mandela, an attorney in his late 30s, drove by. He was thunderstruck at her regal beauty but resisted the urge to stop his car.

In a nod to serendipity, a short time later they were introduced by a mutual friend. Winnie was taken aback at the attention from the successful attorney who was a rising hero among black South Africans. He invited her to an Indian restaurant where she experienced curry for the first time–and a passionate kiss. Winnie was understandably flattered by the man renowned as the Black Pimpernel, so named as a daring freedom fighter committed to rescuing his people. In later years, he stated he had no idea whether such a thing as love at first sight existed, but he admitted after their first date he wanted her as his wife. At the time, he was in a decade-long marriage to Evelyn, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, mother of his three children. His first wife did not stand a chance.

In Winnie’s memoir "Part of My Soul Went with Him," she recounted Nelson Mandela‘s own brand of proposal. "One day Nelson just pulled up on the side of the road and said, ‘You know, there is a woman who is a dressmaker. You must go and see her. She is going to make your wedding gown. How many bridesmaids would you like to have?’" She replied, "What time?" Winnie was ecstatic; Evelyn less so, who had learned of her divorce through a newspaper. On the day of their June 14, 1958, wedding, the bride’s father cautioned his daughter, whom he had tried to dissuade from the marriage: "If your man is a wizard, then you must become a witch."

Great Sacrifices

Rather than live a comfortable life as an attorney, Nelson Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC), an organization devoted to replacing the racist regime of South Africa with a multiracial democracy. He was gone so often, often taking refuge in hidden houses, his wife stated, "Life with him was life without him." He understood her great sacrifices and wrote, "The wife of a freedom fighter is often like a widow. Winnie gave me cause for hope. My love for her gave me added strength for the struggle that lay ahead."

When passive resistance failed to bring about reform, in a nod to desperate times call for desperate measures, the ANC embarked on extremist acts. Shortly after their marriage, Nelson Mandela was forced underground after he had launched a series of bombings on power plants and rail lines. He was captured and stood trial in a Pretoria courtroom. He received a life sentence of imprisonment in Robben Island, a craggy windblown Alcatraz. His wife mourned that part of her soul went with him.

On average, usually every two years, Winnie could visit her husband for 30 minutes. They were not allowed to touch, merely stand with palms pressed against a glass partition.

Winnie quickly discovered the truth, that it is not easy being the wife of a martyr. A wife–turned-semi-widow, Winnie was left to raise two infant daughters, Zenani and Zindzi, hampered by the infamy of the name Mandela. His imprisonment had made him a martyr to his black South Africans, a dangerous demagogue to its whites. Had she chosen to retreat into obscurity, she may have been able to survive with a modicum of peace, but then again she would not have been true to her name of Nomzamo.

A Call to Arms

Instead, Nelson Mandela‘s imprisonment was his wife’s call to arms, and she became the face of the ANC, proudly clad in its colors of black, green and yellow. She also became the target of the government that she was dedicated to annihilate. Retaliation was swift, but her defiance of arrests, banning orders (government-enforced restrictions against potential enemies of state that, among others things, prevented their traveling without state approval) and daily police harassment served to keep the Mandela name in the international press at a time when her husband had been effectively silenced. If it had not been for her intrepid acts, the world would not have seen the modern-day Gandhi that Nelson Mandela was to become.

Intent on destroying the galvanizing force, in 1969 Winnie was apprehended under the Suppression of Terrorism Act and dragged from her house to the accompaniment of her children’s screams. She endured 17 months in solitary confinement as Prisoner 1323/69, during which time she was subjugated to torture. Upon release, she remained unbroken and resurrected her struggle to liberate her beloved country. In appreciation, her grateful people and husband praised her as "Mama Wethu," "Mother of the Nation." But behind the public façade was a lonely woman, and the first lady of South Africa’s liberation movement took a young lover.

The South African president’s next tactic was banishment. Winnie was removed to the fly-blown Afrikaans town of Brandfort, deep in sheep country where the black population lived impoverished in dilapidated homes of corrugated tin. It was an exile designed to silence her voice; she did not speak the local African dialect, and the white townspeople were ultra-conservative Afrikaners. Once again, their tactics backfired.

A Time of Anarchy

By the mid-80s, the South African government realized their tactics against Winnie were only making her a martyr, and in deference to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela‘s wish, they allowed Winnie to return from exile. It turned out to be a fateful request.

This was a time of anarchy in the townships and in the ensuing lawlessness, Winnie, the archetypal victim, became victimizer. She assembled a thuggish neighborhood mafia, the Mandela United Football Club, whose agenda was far from any innocuous sport. It became the instrument of her brand of neighborhood justice. She made incendiary remarks: "We have no guns–we have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol. Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country." Necklacing meant an agonizing death by placing an oil-soaked burning tire around a perceived traitor’s neck. Of her metamorphosis, Winnie stated, "I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy."

In 1990, in a photograph that left an indelible mark on the world, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, a man freed by his very captors, the apartheid government. Winnie was there at the prison door for this long-awaited moment. The Mandelas, who had not touched in 27 years, made their walk to freedom holding each other’s hand, their fists raised in solidarity. If the script of their lives were in the hands of Disney, they would have spent their remaining years basking in their long-denied love, in a country that no longer wept. Unfortunately the ensuing scenario was more akin to pages from the Grimm brothers.

Winnie remains a sphinx, shrouded in secrecy: Did she really try to be an avenging angel for her people or did she become intoxicated with personal power? Perhaps the best insight into her soul came when she was once asked if she would do it all again. She nodded and said, "One hundred times more."

For More Information:

Buy the Book, “Behind Every Great Man: Forgotten Women Behind the World’s Famous and Infamous“:

Would you like to Send Along a Link of This Story?