‘The Lady: The life and times of Winnie Mandela’

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Gracious Madondo

Winnie Mandela remains an iconic figure not only in the history of South Africa but also the rest of Africa for her contribution in the fight against apartheid and the liberation of South Africa.   

Winnie has left a legacy to be celebrated today and by generations to come. Her undying spirit directly influenced the liberation of South Africa. The freedom, equality and freedom celebrated by both the young and the old in South Africa today reflect the measure of the legacy that she has left behind.

As a woman, Winnie rose above the expectations and limitations of a society that looked down upon women by leading the anti-apartheid struggle that led to the liberation of South Africa as well as keeping the spirit of Nelson Mandela alive while he was in prison.

For Winnie, the struggle was double-edged as she fought the battle from both a national and personal level.

It is the violence and unjust treatment of black South African by the apartheid regime that stripped her of all fear to fight for equality and freedom, as testified by her famous speech in which she confesses her determination to set South Africa free.

“When it happened every day of your life, when that pain becomes a way of life, I no longer have the emotion of fear – there is no longer anything I can fear. There is nothing the government has not done to me. There is not any pain I have not known,” Winnie says.

In The Lady: The Life and the Times of Winnie Mandela (1994), Emma Gilbey relives the life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in a biography that is both thrilling, captivating and inspiring.

Gilbey is a London-based writer and editor. She is also the author of “The Comeback: Seven Stories of Women Who Switched from Career to Family and Back Again” published in 1993.

A teacher in her early years, Gilbey switched to journalism later in life. In the early 1990s, the teacher-cum-journalist moved to Johannesburg, South Africa where she wrote features for The Weekly Mail.

Assigned to cover Winnie Mandela’s trial on assault and kidnapping for the newspaper, she was eventually commissioned to write the biography ‘The Lady: The Life and the Times of Winnie Mandela’.

The biography partly derives some of its material from Winnie Mandela’s autobiography, ‘Part of my soul went with him’ (1985), and collections from newspaper articles, interviews and speeches that captured her life and works.

Nomzamo Winfred Zanyiwe Madikizela was born on September 26, 1934, as the fifth daughter of Columbus and Gertrude Madikizela in the Bizana district of Transkei, South Africa.   

Upon birth, Winnie came into an all-girls family where a female child was the least her parents expected. For her, it was a struggle from the beginning, as she had to prove her worth to both her family and society, as documented by Gilbey: “In her autobiography, ‘Part of my soul went with him’, Winnie says that her mother ‘must have been crazy for a boy’. I remember her asking God for a son. This also developed in me the feeling that I will prove to her that a girl is of value to a parent as much as a son.”

Gilbey focuses on Winnie’s struggle as a woman, a wife, a leader and a black South African.

After her husband, the late South African anti-apartheid revolutionary icon Nelson Mandela, was sent to prison under the charge of conspiracy, the focus shifted from Nelson to Winnie and all police hostility was directed at her.

“As the years of banishment passed, the impression left on Winnie become indelible…fighting apartheid was always more of a battle than a struggle, and the battle was always extremely personal and highly emotional.”

Winnie became a police target because she had become a representative of Nelson Mandela.

She was beaten up, imprisoned and banished to Brandfort were her family regularly visited her.

As Gilbey puts it, she had become “a state-owned Winnie” and the police could do whatever they pleased with her in their attempts to kill the fighting spirit of the nation.”

Gilbey narrates that, “The battle between Winnie and the state had always been over who would have control of her. A state-controlled Winnie would have been effective and a prized trophy”.

At the end of 1976, Winnie’s banning order and house arrest expired. Imbued with a brief period of freedom Winnie immediately gave three interviews to South African papers and made a major speech raising black consciousness to all South Africans, especially the youths.

“Black people are now getting impatient. It’s becoming harder for them to understand why whites allow this situation to continue. Nobody really wants violence. No mother wants to see her children die,” Winnie said then.

Winnie’s words went a long way as they fuelled the fight for civil rights in the 1970s. The students were further agitated when schools were told that they should learn only Afrikaans and English as the official languages.

This led to protests after protests at schools and the continued protests grew violent resulting in an outbreak of devastating riots. Both students and parents joined in the protests and, by 1975, students in Soweto were organising protests with a new focus on black pride in the country taking a cue from the United States were Black Consciousness groups were the order of the day.

“Winnie had embraced Black Consciousness wholeheartedly. Black pride was the cause she could sincerely identify with. The trial she had attended following her unbanning was that of 12 student leaders who she described as ‘a source of real inspiration and the leaders of tomorrow’.”

Winnie‘s life story has become legendary because of her determination and will to fight the unjust and racist treatment of ordinary South Africans endured during the apartheid era.

Despite being a political leader, Winnie is portrayed to have played a role in the anti-apartheid struggle that led to the liberation of the country.

On April 27, 1994, South Africa achieved freedom. In independent, South Africa Winnie was elected ANC president for the Women’s League and she was also put on the ANC list of nominees to stand for parliament.   

The story and life of Winnie Madikizela Mandela, as depicted in Gilbey’s ‘The Lady, The Life and Times of Winnie Mandela’ is a story of a tragic heroine who is criticised for going rouge later in life but is immensely celebrated for her role in South Africa’s civil rights movement.

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