I decided to pay a little more attention today to one particular phenomenal African woman, Winnie Madikizela Mandela.I’m not from her generation nor her country, but through the stories I have heard and read about the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, I know for sure that she played a huge role in it and suffered greatly, as a result of her political involvement and activities at that time.
She was not an entirely perfect woman. As a matter of fact, some of her flaws and legal battles long after the dark period of apartheid have been documented and talked about. However, I would like to look at her from the angle of Winnie being the mother of two daughters and a wife of a man who had initially been jailed for life.
Born in 1936 to educated parents, Winnie eventually ended up being the first black professional social welfare worker. She turned down a scholarship to further her studies after attaining a degree in Social work in the US, so that she could serve the needy people. In the process, she devoted her energy and skill to the struggle for equality and justice for all the people in South Africa. Indeed, a feminist in the making amidst turbulent times.
After marrying Nelson Mandela in 1958, Winnie suffered harassment, imprisonment and periodic banishment for her continuing involvement in that struggle. In 1964 when her daughters were about 5 and 4 respectively, her husband, Nelson Mandela was tried and imprisoned for life. Of course leaving Winnie behind to fend for her children single handedly. However, the harassment by the South African government of the time ceased not and Winnie, was eventually forced to send her two daughters to boarding school in Swaziland in order to protect them.
It is indeed a rough, murky world for women who have had to endure their husbands being detained or jailed for political reasons. Many have equally had to suffer castigation from society and abandonment from people they once considered friends. The harsh reality soon dawns on them that together with their husbands, they are now considered enemies of the state. And to avoid a similar occurrence happening to them, other people will refrain from being too friendly or helpful of such women. This was no different for Winnie Mandela.
Here you are, a young wife and mother of two small children, who suddenly has to contend with being considered an enemy of the state, just because you and your husband are involved in the struggle against obvious injustices to human kind. Whose only desire is for equality for all and to feel like you actually belong in this land that you were born in. I can only imagine how turbulent those times were for Winnie. Yet her courage is immeasurable.
For 17 months at some point, Winnie was put in solitary confinement as a harsh punishment for her activities. Yet her spirit was not broken. She just had to send her children away. A huge sacrifice for a mother to make for the sake of her children no matter how painful. Many times, Winnie had often wondered if she would ever see her children again, whenever she was forcefully torn away from them. It was even worse that she was denied physical contact with her incarcerated husband.
When I look at Winnie, I see determination and a will power to overcome like no other. The kind of emotional turmoil she went through when her husband was jailed for life and subsequently when she kept on being picked up by the police. Many in her position at the time, would have given up the political activities that kept them constantly in trouble with the authorities. Most women in such a situation would have chosen to raise their children quietly, as they wondered what life held for them, now that they had been rendered single mothers by the unfair arm of the law.
Yet Winnie decided to make sacrifices that were too difficult for any woman with children to make. She carried on with her quest for equality and justice. She ensured that the name Nelson Mandela was never forgotten. My own parents once commented that they always knew someone called Nelson Mandela existed but they did not know how he looked like in person. So it was quite exciting for them to watch him on TV for the first time, walk out of the prison gates, hand in hand with his wife.
Mind you, both of my parents are Kenyans. So you can imagine how much zeal Winnie had in ensuring that her husband’s cause and name were not forgotten, despite not knowing if he will ever walk out of the jail gates a free man or not. Indeed her strengths as a woman surpass her known weaknesses greatly. It would be unfair to judge her by her weaknesses while keeping in mind what she had endured during the struggle against apartheid including a finalized divorce in 1996.
As women, we can learn a lot from Winnie. It doesn’t have to necessarily mean being involved in political activities that put our lives and those of our children at risk. It simply means that there is much more to life as a woman than our looks and charm. It means that with determination and immeasurable courage despite what we might be facing in our personal lives, we can overcome many obstacles. It means that with zeal and a belief for better days, we can eventually achieve our dreams and goals. It means that if we are in a position to fight for justice and equality, then we should stand courageously and do so no matter what people will say.
And so on this day, all the way from Kenya, I salute you, Winnie Madikizela Mandela! You taught us women how to be real women.