Rebellious leaders: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

Paul Russell opens up his rebellious leader series with the recently departed Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

On 2 April 2018, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died aged 81. Wife to Nelson Mandela for 38 years, anti-apartheid activist and a woman accused of kidnap, murder, fraud and theft, Madikizela-Mandela is also known as the ‘mother of the nation’. We look at the extraordinary leadership journey of one of the most controversial, rebellious leaders of all time.

Born in Bizana South Africa in 1936, a place where Madikizela-Mandela recalls “a child was born not to parents, but into the community.” Of this community was Oliver Tambo who would later become the president of the ANC.

Madikizela-Mandela wrote in an article for the New African how Oliver Tambo coined the name Nomzamo meaning ‘mother of struggle’ from her real name Zanyiwe.

Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela trained as a social worker, becoming Johannesburg’s first black social worker. She met Nelson Mandela in 1957, who was already married with children. Mandela said: “…the moment I first glimpsed Winnie Nomzamo, I knew that I wanted to have her as my wife.”

Despite her upbringing in Bizana and her undoubted struggles in qualifying as a social worker, it is unlikely that Madikizela-Mandela had any true indication of just how much would be asked of her as a leadership figure when she married Mandela. After her marriage to Nelson Mandela in 1958, Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela became known as Winnie.

For all her flaws, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s name will be indelibly attached to the anti-apartheid movement, where she will remain as one of the most rebellious, controversial leaders the world has ever seen.

In 1964 Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island alongside other ANC leaders. It was at this point that Madikizela-Mandela was thrust into the leadership position, as the face of the ANC and everything it stood for.

Madikizela-Mandela wrote: “It is not actually the men and women who sat in prison as such, who made our country what it is today. It was the sustained campaign, and a deliberate decision was made, that Mandela would be used as a symbol of resistance, a symbol of the ANC internationally, so that people could focus on the ANC through this particular name.”

But as much as Mandela was a symbol of resistance, Madikizela-Mandela was too and in May 1969 she was asked to pay the ultimate price when she was detained under the suppression of terrorism act.

Madikizela-Mandela said of this time: “Detention means that midnight knock when all about you is quiet…ultimately it means your seizure at dawn, dragged away from little children screaming and clinging to your skirt, imploring the white man dragging mummy away to leave her alone…I was kept in Pretoria Central Prison.

“My cell had a grille inside, a door in the middle and another grille outside. From what I heard and had read, I realised that mine must be the death cell…I was so angry. I considered just about everything I could do to myself as a form of protest. If I didn’t have children, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I would be playing into the authorities’ hands, I might have taken my life.”

After 17 months of solitary confinement and torturous interrogation, Madikizela-Mandela was sent to Brandfort, many miles from her home.

In 1974 Madikizela-Mandela was convicted for fraud and served six months in Kroonstad Prison. In 1988 she was accused of the murder of 14-year-old Stompie Sepei due to the false assumption that he was an apartheid spy.

In 1991, Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of being an accessory to murder and given a six year sentence which became a fine on appeal, then in 2003 Madikizela-Mandela was convicted on 43 counts of fraud and 25 of theft.

In her book Part of My Soul, Madikizela-Mandela said: “I got more liberated in prison. The physical identification with your beliefs is far more satisfying than articulating them on a platform. My soul has been more purified by prison than anything else.

“I am not saying it is best to be in prison. But under the circumstances, where it is a question of which prison is better, the prison outside or inside – the whole country is a prison for the black man – and when you are inside, you know why you are there, and the people who put you there also know.”

Madikizela-Mandela’s marriage to Nelson Mandela didn’t last once he was liberated. Madikizela-Mandela said: “I had so little time to love him. And that love has survived all these years of separation… perhaps if I’d had time to know him better I might have found a lot of faults, but I only had time to love him and long for him all the time.”

The couple separated in 1991 and divorced in 1996 after Mandela had come to power as South Africa’s first black president, Madikizela-Mandela said: “It was a circus and impossible to have a normal life…we were both emotionally brutalised.” Madikizela-Mandela went on to lead the ANC Women’s League.

Madikizela-Mandela’s leadership story is indeed an extraordinary one. Born in a time of extreme hate, thrust into a position that took so much from her; her husband, her children and her freedom. Brutalised, Madikizela-Mandela’s anger fueled her own brutality.

Madikizela-Mandela has said: “I am a product of the masses of my country. I am the product of my enemy.” For all her flaws, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s name will be indelibly attached to the anti-apartheid movement, where she will remain as one of the most rebellious, controversial leaders the world has ever seen.


About the author

Paul Russell is co-founder and director of Luxury Academy London. Luxury Academy specialise in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for companies and private clients across a wide range of sectors.


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