A symbol, a hero, a stalwart, an inspiration are among the many words that are used to describe Winnie Madikizela-Mandela but are too small to contain who she was and what she meant to South Africa and to global struggles against injustice.
Mama Winnie symbolised many aspects of those struggles. She said of herself: “I am a living symbol of whatever is happening in the country,” and “I am a living symbol of the white man’s fear” (from her 1984 memoir, Part of My Soul Went With Him).
As a symbol of relentless, fearless resistance to apartheid in South Africa, Mama Winnie brought hope, courage and comfort to people across the country. As a symbol of the ‘white man’s fear’, she attracted the force and fury of the state, its merciless security forces and its pernicious spies.
The sacrifices Mama Winnie made and the burdens she bore on behalf of those who were silenced and broken are too many to fit into the longest of tributes. Even as a young graduate she chose to put her people and her country ahead of personal ambitions. She was the first qualified Black person to be appointed medical social worker at [Chris Hani] Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. She turned down the chance of an academic career in the USA to remain in this post. However, shortly after taking part in a mass mobilisation of women against the pass laws in 1958, she was sacked.
The apartheid regime recognised her leadership as a threat to its power. Having imprisoned her husband, former President Nelson Mandela, in 1962, the state moved swiftly to isolate Mama Winnie, first banning and then banishing her. She was held in solitary confinement for 491 days. She proved uncrushable.
We salute Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as a leader who blazed a trail for South Africans and especially for women. She was more than the best that most of us have done.