Arguably, Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was the greatest 20th Century African heroine of the combined struggle for the emancipation of humanity from white supremacism and the liberation of woman from patriarchal oppression. Accordingly, it is difficult to imagine a greater outpouring of tributes to any other contemporary female freedom fighter.
Nevertheless, although singularly deserving, Winnie was truly the iconic representative of South African (SA) women in these two theatres of liberation.
Indeed, although elder daughter Zenani singled out her father, Nelson Mandela, and Winnie as the two titans of “African nationalism,” she explicitly recognised her mother as just “one of the many women who rose against patriarchy, prejudice and the minds of a nuclear armed state to bring about the peace and the democracy we enjoy today”
Despite the prevailing patriarchy of the ANC, its President, Chief Luthuli, also unambiguously admitted the indispensable contribution of women to the success of the liberation struggle. In the throes of the ANC’s women’s widespread protests against pass books in 1957, Luthuli affirmed in Nelson Mandela’s 1994 Long Walk to Freedom, that “When the women begin to take an active part in the struggle, no power on earth can stop us from achieving freedom in our lifetime.”
Winnie’s militant defiance and self-confidence were traits from her illustrious ancestry that has been traced as far back as King Shaka, founder of the Zulu nation.
In Long Walk to Freedom, we learn that Winnie was a great-granddaughter of Madikizela, “a powerful warrior chieftain,” from the Mpondo clan of the amaNgutyana in south-eastern SA. This great-grandfather was a contemporary of Shaka. He was an expansionist like Shaka but had no desire to test his military science against the greatest warrior of southern Africa and relocated to Pondoland.
On the maternal side of Winnie’s ancestry was the legendary Yese of the Tembu nation, whose “power and special status were unique in Xhosa history.” Appointed Regent after the death in battle of the Rarabe Chief and her husband, the heir to the Chieftaincy, Yese functioned unchallenged as leader of the Rarabe tribe.
By the time of Winnie’s birth in 1936, the system that would begin to be formally called Apartheid 12 years later was already several decades old, and well into the phase described by Steve Biko as “the framework of institutionalised separate development.” According to Biko, up to 1948, black people in SA “were oppressed but they were still men.” After 1948, however, the Apartheid regime rapidly degraded their humanity—for Biko, he “lost his manhood.”
By the time she met Nelson, Winnie was already tutored in anti-Apartheid activism. Her father, a history teacher, schooled her in anti-colonial struggles and the proud history of her people.
She was only 14 when her teachers at Shawbury Methodist Mission School in Qumbu (Eastern Cape) introduced her to the politics of liberation. Her teachers had all graduated from Fort Hare College, the alma mater of many anti-apartheid leaders, including Oliver Tambo, Mandela and Robert Sobukhwe. Coincidentally, her teachers were also all members of the Non-European Union Movement (NEUM).
The NEUM had morphed from the Trotskyist Workers Party of South Africa (WPSA) to become a separate organisation in 1943. The WPSA had considered White expropriation of 87% of all SA’s land as “the alpha and omega, the axis around which the revolution in South Africa would revolve.” Although the NEUM was less radical than the WPSA, it still recognised the significance of the land question in its ten-point programme. Upon moving to Johannesburg to attend nursing school, Winnie frequently attended meetings of NEUM to further her political education.
By that time, the Freedom Charter had already been adopted as the official manifesto of the revolution and a free SA.
Shortly after her marriage to Nelson in 1957, Winnie joined the Orlando West branch of the ANC’s Women’s League at the height of the women’s nation-wide resistance to pass books. In defiance of her husband’s veiled objection, while pregnant with Zenani, she attended her first public protest, picketing the pass office unfazed by the certainty of being arrested, if only because the ANCWL was legally banned. Ultimately some 2,000 women protesters, including Winnie, were arrested and spent at least two weeks in jail before accepting bail.
Winnie would face arrest, imprisonment and banning many times over before Apartheid collapsed. By far her worst experience was her arrest in May 1969 in the presence of her two young daughters, then aged nine and ten, and the inhuman detention that followed. Her 2013 autobiography, 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 provides vivid details of her solitary confinement during which she suffered multiple forms of humiliation, physical torture, psychological distress, poor food, insomnia, menstrual haemorrhage, bladder problems, retinal deterioration and low BP.
The State attempted to break her spirit but she emerged stronger and more determined to destroy Apartheid.
Those who committed these institutional crimes have never been brought to justice.
An indelible lesson learned from one of her teachers at Shawbury was that true freedom and equality in SA would not be achieved by negotiation with the oppressors, but by “blood and iron,” a famous phrase of Germany’s first Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.
To put Apartheid South Africa into a Marxist historical frame, the anti-colonial struggle was a war that could end, as Karl Marx put it in The Communist Manifesto, 1848, “either in revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”
Apartheid formally ended in 1994 without a “revolutionary reconstitution” of land and the economy. Nelson Mandela apparently sought to avoid the alternative—“the common ruin of the contending classes”—through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that literally absolved the oppressors of the innumerable racist crimes and secured for them the stolen economic throve of the nation.
By that time, Winnie was President of the ANCWL (1993-2003). She was adamant that the transfer of political power was not the end of Apartheid. Major demands of the Freedom Charter were not even considered, particularly those relating to land redistribution, and the nationalisation of mineral reserves, the banks and monopoly industry.
To her, “Truth and Reconciliation” was a capitulation to European-Afrikaner supremacism; it was a betrayal of the mission of WPSA and NEUM and the Freedom Charter’s promises of justice and prosperity. The threat, if not the deployment, of “blood and iron” seemed the only way forward.
Indeed, as advocated by the Economic Freedom Fighters Party (EFF), it was the threat of blood and iron that compelled the Parliament to legislate “expropriation of land without compensation,” a victory that Winnie was fortunate to taste in the last weeks of her life.
Winnie drew upon her warrior heritage to lead the women’s war. She and her younger daughter, Zindzi, were the last of a long line of African female warriors. It is, therefore, fitting to conclude this tribute by historicising their engagement in the military wing of the ANC within a wider spectrum of African female militarism.
The portrait of women as flag bearers of national resistance is a common motif in African history. Frequently, they assumed this role when the established patriarchal leaders were encumbered by equivocation, incarceration or collaboration with the forces that threatened the dignity and sovereignty of their people.
By age 20, Zindzi was already a full-fledged soldier of Umkhonto we Sizwe (military wing of the ANC), well trained in guerrilla warfare and able to handle an AK-47 as if it were a mere pistol. Winnie also led the war of the women by example. In Zoleka Mandela’s 2013 book, When Hope Whispers, we learn how, in1989, the then 9-year old Zindzi saved her mother from a charge of treason by ingeniously hiding her hand grenade in her schoolbag just as their car approached a police check point .
The long line of African Warrior Queens and military generals add historical reality to the fictional warriors, Okoye, Ayo and Nakia of Wakanda in The Black Panther. The mention of a few should suffice to underscore the point that Winnie was not merely a product of the anti-Apartheid struggle but also of a unique aspect of African cosmology that facilitates the rise and acceptance of African female leadership of political movements and military resistance.
The Queens of Meroë (modern-day Sudan), all known as Candace, “were among the greatest African builders” of the ancient world. The most famous of them was Queen Amanirenas. According to Ivan van Sertima, in his 1988 Black Women in Antiquity, in response to the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE, she “led the Kushite army across the Egyptian border, attacked the Roman-occupied towns and routed the garrisons, destroying the statues of [Augustus] Caesar.”
And the 2011 text titled Women in the Middle East and North Africa: Agents of Change tells us that,in the mid-8th Century, the Muslim Arab invaders of North Africa suffered their first defeat and major setback at the hands of the Berber warrior princess of Algeria, Dihya al-Kahina.
Towards the end of the 10th Century CE, we learn in Richard Pankhurst’s 2001 The Ethiopians: A History, Queen Yodit (Gudit/Judit) of Ethiopia destroyed the ancient city of Axum and deposed the Christian dynasty to restore the pre-Christian culture system.
The prowess of the Dahomeyan (Beninese) all-female standing army was legendary. Aspects of their military training, such as charging into acacia trees, made them immune to pain. According to Mike Dash in “Dahomey’s Women Warriors,” these female troops were frontline fighters against French invaders in the 1890s.
Two of the greatest female warriors to confront modern European imperialists before Winnie were Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba (now in Angola) and Yaa Asantewaa, Queen Mother of Ejisu, a province of Ashanti (Ghana).
For the 40 years between 1624 and 1663, Nzinga fought the Portuguese and Dutch to protect her domains from despoliation by European slave raiders and colonisers, as we are told in John Thornton’s “Legitimacy and Political Power: Queen Nzinga, 1624-1663.”
At the close of the 19th Century, Yaa Asantewaa made the last stand against the British invaders of the Ashanti Empire, after she single-handedly raised an army of 20,000 men to protect the Golden Stool, “a ‘peerless item of regalia’ which connects all Asantes spiritually and provides bonds of nationhood.”
In 1929, the “Oloko Trio” mobilised over 10,000 women against the corruption of “Warrant Chiefs’ installed by the British in south-eastern Nigeria This episode, recounted in Judith Van Allen’s 1971 “Aba Riots of Women’s War,” goes by the name of the “Women’s War”—it was the first major deployment of civil disobedience and was totally uninfluenced by the Gandhian model.
Africans in the diaspora also produced their fair share of revolutionary female leadership in the struggle for freedom, equality and justice. At the head of the honour role is the well-known Queen Nanny of Jamaica, who fought the British in the First Maroon War. Among the lesser known are Carlotta, the leader of the 1843 emancipation war in Cuba and Mary Thomas, “Captain” of the St Croix “Firebum” labour uprising in 1878.
Many anonymous heroines have been immortalised in monuments to emancipation, such as the Curacao monument commemorating the Tula-led war of 1795, the monument to Louis Delgrès’ last stand against Napoleon’s slavery-restoration army in Guadeloupe and the Samuel Sharpe memorial to the 1831 “Baptist War” of liberation in Jamaica.
The political environment of imperialism, colonialism and enslavement that gave rise to these wars of liberation and defence of sovereignty had many parallels with apartheid, which has been described by William Pomeroy in Apartheid, Imperialism and Freedom as “an internal colonial system of the most ruthless kind.”
Even if Winnie had not known all aspects of this glorious history of female soldiery and militancy, intuitively she felt its power: in 1966, shortly after the imprisonment of her husband and most of the prominent male leaders of the struggle, she declared, “To those who oppose us, we say, ‘Strike the woman and you strike the rock’.” Against the backdrop of the Rivonia Trial that sentenced her husband to life imprisonment, this was a clear commitment to militarism.
Only time will tell whether history will accord Winnie her rightful status in the pantheon of female trailblazers of civilization.