Nomzamo Nobandla Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, 1936–2018, was born in the former Transkei, South Africa. Because of her anti-apartheid activism, she was regularly detained by the South African government. She endured house arrest, torture and imprisonment in solitary confinement, and was banished to the town of Brandfort in 1977. Madikizela-Mandela was married to Nelson Mandela for thirty-eight years, twenty-seven of which he was imprisoned. In 1985, she won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for her role in South Africa’s liberation struggle. Madikizela-Mandela was a member of the South African Parliament and a member of the African National Congress’ national executive committee.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was interviewed about her life, career and hope for the future for 200 WOMEN, a book and exhibition project founded on the principle of gender equality comprising original interviews and accompanying photographic portraits. This landmark project is the realisation of an epic global journey to find two hundred women with diverse backgrounds, and to ask them what really matters to them.
Q. What really matters to you?
So many things matter so much to me, in my strange type of life, that I wonder how to actually answer that question. All my life, I’ve been a politician, made so by the circumstances of my country. I never planned to be a politician, but the policies of South Africa’s previous government and its brutality compelled almost each and every black person to become one – every black home was really a political institution. I got caught up in the quagmire, and I then became one of the freedom fighters on the front line of the struggle for our people.
The African National Congress is my family. I have known nothing other than the African National Congress, for whom I am a member of Parliament. If I woke up tomorrow and I was no longer a member of the African National Congress – although I was originally a social worker – I don’t know what I would be; it never even occurred to me that I would be anything else other than a fighter for the liberation of my people and my country.
Q. What brings you happiness?
I have the greatest wealth; I may not have dollars, but my grandchildren and my great‑grandchildren are the best thing God has ever given me – I live for them today. And at the very mature age of eighty, they are a complete joy. I don’t know how I would get along each day without them, because they bring me so much happiness. They’ve compensated for all the years of struggle and they’ve healed a lot of my wounds. Because of them, I have learned to forgive the painful past and remember that we all belong to the family of humankind. Otherwise, I would have been so scarred; I don’t think I would be alive if I didn’t have this wealth of my grandchildren and great‑grandchildren. And I’m hoping to become a great-great-grandmother very soon!
Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
The patriarchy of society; in South Africa, women are not only culturally oppressed, but are oppressed by their past. During the apartheid era, women were of the lowest rung in society. And they were the least educated. The traditional belief was that you only educate a boy, because a girl is going to get married and take her brains away from the family – we have the extraordinary situation of the lobola bride-price custom, whereby families exchange wealth in the form of cattle. In apartheid South Africa, there was no point in educating women; the laws of the country at the time made it impossible for women to be women – we were regarded as children and, literally, nobodies at all. As women, we were regarded as cannon fodder, because our husbands, brothers and uncles perished in the apartheid prisons. South Africa was a police state – like Nazi Germany.
I remember an extraordinarily painful part of my life, when I was banished. I was living with my youngest daughter, Zindzi, in Johannesburg, though she was at boarding school in Swaziland. The apartheid government made it their business to arrest me whenever my children returned from school – this particular time when Zindzi came back, I was removed from Johannesburg and banished to this remote little village of Brandfort. The laws at the time were that if you were banished or banned by the apartheid regime, you were not to communicate with more than one person at a given time. The interpretation by the police of the law of the time was that, given that I was banished, my Zindzi could not have visitors, who would have been little children; she was barely 12 years old. I had to make an application to the regime to allow Zindzi to have children to come and play with her in the premises to which I was banished. To my horror, I was told by my lawyers that I couldn’t make that application because by law a mother had no such rights – I was not her guardian. Only her father was her guardian and he was in prison on Robben Island at the time. The lawyers had to fly to Cape Town and apply for a visit to see Zindzi’s father on Robben Island simply so he could sign documents to allow me to apply for Zindzi to have other children enter the premises to play with her. Those were the laws of the country at the time.
It’s still a struggle to uplift the lives of women. As a result, our generation and the generation that followed us are still not as educated as our men; we’re still fighting for total equality.
Q. What would you change if you could?
I would like a global situation in which women were equal to men, in all aspects. A situation in which it isn’t strange that in an old democracy like America, someone like Hillary Clinton would want to be president. The fact that she is a woman is somehow remarkable, even in the twenty-first century – she has to prove to certain people that she, as a woman, can do the job, and this is the case globally. I think that patriarchy really is an international cancer.
Even the African National Congress only began to accept women in 1943. It is still very difficult for South Africa. We’re battling, right now, to understand the concept of power, and that it does not reside with men only. Were we to put up a woman candidate for the presidency when the current term expires, it would be a fierce battle, as there are still quarters within male circles that believe that a woman cannot lead a country.
It is a serious problem that women must prove that they are equal. How odd is that? Men would not be in this world without women. We are their biological passage. They cannot avoid being mothered by us, and we are very proud of the fact that we are that biological passage for humankind.
Q. Which single word do you most identify with?