SEATTLE — On April 2, the heartbreaking news came out of South Africa that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of Nelson Mandela and anti-apartheid campaigner, had passed away at 81 years old.
The family of Madikizela announced that she had passed away at the Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa after battling a long illness. Madikizela-Mandela had been in and out of the hospital since the beginning of the year.
Madikizela-Mandela, best known as the “Mother of the Nation,” was known for her work against white minority rule and the fight against apartheid. Apartheid was a system of institutionalized racial segregation laws in South Africa from 1948 until 1994. The laws forced all non-white citizens to live in separate areas from whites and use separate public facilities. Even though the laws were abolished in 1994, the generational effects of apartheid and oppression still continue.
In remembrance of Madikizela-Mandela and her influence, here are five facts about her and the ever-important work she did for this world.
She was married to Nelson Mandela for 38 years, including the 27 years he was imprisoned
Madikizela-Mandela has been recognized for continuing her husband’s fight against apartheid while he was jailed. She quickly became an international symbol of resistance against the laws.
“She kept the memory of her imprisoned husband alive during his years on Robben Island and helped give the struggle for justice in South Africa one of its most recognizable faces,” one statement said.
Even though the couple divorced in 1996, the work Madikizela did in collaboration with her husband and her international campaign for his release had an enormous impact. These events helped bring the world’s attention to the fight for racial equality in her country.
Madikizela-Mandela had been jailed while pregnant
The Madikizela-Mandela household was no stranger to police raids and chaos. Before Mandela was arrested, Madikizela noted that the frequent raids and her husband’s busy schedule with legal cases and trials made for a lonely married life. Even so, Madikizela found herself pregnant with her first child in July 1958.
Even while pregnant, Madikizela did not take a break from her work. In October of that same year, Madikizela took part of a mass action that mobilized women to protest against the government. During the protest, a thousand women, including Madikizela, were arrested.
The arrested women decided not to apply for immediate bail, but rather to stay imprisoned for two weeks to continue their protest. During those two weeks, a four months pregnant Madikizela saw firsthand the trauma and terrible conditions forced onto South African prisoners.
She became a link to the outside world for Mandela
Not only did Madikizela become the spokesperson for the movement while her husband was in jail, she became his public voice. While imprisoned, Madikizela would update Mandela about the changes taking place in their country and news about the movement, since Mandela was banned from reading newspapers.
Because of this, and because she became such a strong voice for her ex-husband, Madikizela was best known outside South Africa because of Mandela. However, in South Africa, she was the mouthpiece and face for the whole movement.
“She refused to be bowed by the imprisonment of her husband,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists”.
She was kept in solitary confinement and tortured
In 1969, Madikizela was arrested under the Terrorism Act, which allowed the arrest of anyone perceived as dangerous without a warrant. She was detained for an indefinite period of time, interrogated and kept in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer or a relative.
Madikizela was kept in solitary confinement for 13 months. For the first 200 days, she had no contact with another human besides her interrogator. She was forced to stay awake for five days and five nights in an attempt to break her will. In an attempt to get information out of her, the interrogators brought in another prisoner, whom they tortured until Madikizela finally relented and told them whatever they wanted to hear.
Madikizela spent a total of 17 months in prison. Even after being released, and being sent back to prison for another five years almost immediately, Madikizela’s spirit never broke. She told the authorities “you can not intimidate people like me anymore”. Her conviction and determination only grew under the police’s ruthless torture.
She remained a member of South Africa’s parliament up until her death
After her ex-husband was elected president, Madikizela worked closely with him and stayed within South Africa’s parliament.
Even though multiple controversies followed Madikizela, leading her to resign from politics for a few years at a time, she stayed in Parliament for the better part of her life. Even while going in and out of the hospital this year, Madikizela worked diligently in office.
Madikizela’s work transcended from South Africa and reached world news, leading her to become a very influential and important person in history. From gaining world attention when her then-husband was imprisoned to her own imprisonment, Madikizela never strayed from her fight against apartheid.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa praised Madikizela’s work, saying she was “a voice for the voiceless”. Madikizela was a loud, outspoken, and strong voice. Her influence is clear, her dedication inspirational and her fight everlasting.
– Marissa Wandzel