A well-known quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt says: ‘well behaved women seldom make history.’ It is a phrase that comes to mind when reflecting on the extraordinary life and extraordinary personality that was the stalwart of our Movement, Comrade Mama Winnie Madikizela- Mandela.
Inasmuch as she, like many activists of her generation, were made by the very circumstances that forged their activism – she stood out above the rest for her commitment to the liberation of the women of this country. With her passing, it has become incumbent upon us to firmly grasp the baton and take forward the race towards a truly non-racist, non-sexist, egalitarian, prosperous and free South Africa.
Much of the eulogizing of Comrade Madikizela-Mandela has focused on her political activism, and her firm and unwavering commitment to the cause of the downtrodden, the poor and the marginalized in society.
As we mourn her we will also never forget that we had an icon who taught us that South Africa could never be free until the women of South Africa were free. She was a tireless advocate for the women’s struggle in our country and on the continent and it can be said without doubt that the women of South Africa would not today enjoy the rights we do were it not for her and countless other activists like her. It is because of their sacrifices that we can today hold our heads up high.
When the ANC was banned in South Africa and the mere mention of the organization’s name could result in imprisonment – Mama Winnie and countless other dedicated activists kept the flames of resistance burning. Whether it was speaking out against apartheid, agitating for the release of female detainees or demonstrating against the pass laws, she stood at the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights in South Africa. All the women of South Africa owe her an immense debt.
She was a woman who faced the harshest of tribulations and had a life that would have broken the spirit of any human being. As we remember her we pore over the historical record as well as her life in her own words. She once wrote: “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 isn’t any pain I haven’t known.”
Despite all attempts to break her spirit she remained steadfast and refused to cease with her political activism on behalf of this country’s women.
Mama Winnie had a deep and passionate aversion to injustice, and qualified as the first black female social worker in Johannesburg in the late 1950’s. It was through her social work at the then Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto that she became moved by the plight and living conditions of the black majority; and was motivated to use her learning and skills to uplift them.
Many women activists of her generation, and those that came after, will remember how she would always emphasize the need for women to be educated. She gave us confidence, led us by example and encouraged us to learn. For her it was not simply about receiving political education only – but that we needed to go to school and receive a secular education. She would tell us: “It’s not me alone who should be in this position (of having received a formal education) but all of you as well, young and old.” Many of us have fond memories of being in her home gathered in her kitchen as she cooked – when she would tell us that as important as it was to be involved in the struggle and fight for our country, that we needed to prioritize formal education as well.
When she was elected a member of Parliament in the new South Africa she used her position to advocate for the political, social, and economic rights of women. She would remind us to never forget the reason we were there: to represent our communities; and that we should work tirelessly on their behalf.
Mama Winnie will be remembered for her legendary beauty, and it was she who gave us confidence as women that we could attain great heights as women, telling us “hold your head up high, you are you, and nobody can be you.”
She was an active member of the ANC Women’s League and was elected its President in 1993 a position she held for 10 years. She subsequently served on the National Executive Committee of the ANCWL for a number of years at a time when South Africa introduced some of the world’s most gender-friendly and progressive policies to advance women’s rights.
We can say therefore that Mama Winnie did not die – she multiplied! Today in South Africa, the representation of women in the governing party the ANC, in Parliament and across government is amongst the highest in the world: exceeding even a number of developed countries whose democracies are far older than ours.
Many of these women have been nurtured, supported and guided by Mama Winnie: the honour of being known as Mother of the Nation is befitting and well-deserved.
It is testament to her influence that today it is young women, many of whom were born after our liberation, who are taking forward the gender struggle in civics, political, student and other formations. It is these young activists of whom Mama Winnie would be especially proud.
These brave daughters of Africa have inherited the mantle of struggle: they have defined their own mission and like Mama Winnie, have the absolute courage of their convictions. It was this courage, that saw her boldly confront the might of the apartheid regime – even physically, that made her a role model for so many of her generation and those who have come afterwards.
Her life found resonance amongst many of us who have ever had to endure victimization, discrimination and persecution on account of being black women.
Mama Winnie remained an active member of the movement. She lived and ended her life as a cadre of the ANC. At the same time, and despite her immense stature as an icon – she did so with humility and in acknowledgement of the many challenges still facing the movement and the country.
Mama Winnie did not belong to the ANC alone – she belonged to us all, and to all those around the world who identified with what she stood for, and who claimed her as their own. More specifically, she belonged to all the women of this country. We are comforted by the knowledge that the name of this great daughter of the soil will be forever illuminated in history and generations of women from today will remember her name.
It was the British author Julie Burchill who wrote: “sometimes tears are an inappropriate response to death. When a life has been lived completely honestly, completely successfully, or just completely, the correct response to death’s perfect punctuation mark – is a smile. “
Rest in Peace Mama.