Zindzi Mandela has died at the age of 59. Picture: Phil McCarten/Reuters
Zindzi Mandela has died at the age of 59. Picture: Phil McCarten/Reuters

The Zindzi I knew

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jul 14, 2020

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Zindzi Mandela was larger than life, someone I deeply admired and loved for her immense bravery and passion for justice. She was absolutely her mother’s daughter, and that is how she would want to be remembered.

Having spent the past two years since her mother’s passing in deep anguish and pain, mother and daughter are finally reunited, and Zindzi will now have found peace.

Zindzi was the real McCoy - a true revolutionary. She epitomised what it meant to be wedded to the struggles of the working class and the masses, after all she was her mother’s protege.

From the time she was an infant Zindzi was there in the trenches with her mother Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, she went through it all. She took on all her mother’s pain in a transgenerational transfer of trauma, but she herself was traumatised over decades.

Zindzi would refer to me as “Baby sis” and confided in me for hours at her mother’s home in Orlando West about the horrors of her life in Brandfort and later in Soweto as a target of the Security Branch’s diabolical Stratcom campaign. It was always hard to imagine how a young person who had been through so much could emerge as a productive and compassionate member of society.

Zindzi was only 18 months old when her father was sent to prison on Robben Island. When Zindzi was just nine, her mother was wrenched from her, detained for 491 days at Pretoria Central Prison.

When she returned to her daughters in Soweto, she had been tortured, beaten and kept in solitary confinement, and was never the same again. But the brutality meted out to her had made her a determined fighter in her own right, and that fighting spirit was passed on to her daughters.

Zindzi’s young life was a constant struggle with her mother living under perpetual banning orders. When Nelson Mandela first saw his daughter behind the glass barricade on the island at the age of 16, he described her as shy and hesitant.

“Somewhere deep inside she must have harboured resentment and anger that her father had been absent in her childhood and adolescence. She was a strong, fiery woman like her mother. She was stunningly attractive with a powerful, gravelly voice, large fiery eyes and photos of her were treasured on Robben Island,” Madiba said of her first visit.

It was at the age of 16 that Zindzi, her mother and sister Zenani were carted off from their home in Soweto to the desolate town of Brandfort in the Free State. One morning in May 1977, white security policemen forcibly removed them from their home, loading furniture and clothing on to the back of a truck, and carted them off 349km to the dusty Afrikaner town of Brandfort, miles from anywhere. The location was chosen specifically as a means to break them.

“They dumped us in Brandfort and we didn’t know where we were; we didn’t know the language or know anyone,” Zindzi recalled. The three-roomed structure was a sad, lonely abode, and they were prohibited from meeting more than two people at a time. They were constantly under surveillance and lived a life of virtual house arrest. It was in these lonely times that Zindzi wrote poetry, producing a compilation called Black as I Am in 1978.

This was the wretched place Zindzi would call home for eight years of her life. Her saving grace was the opportunity to complete her education at Waterford in Swaziland, where many of the children of ANC exiles were being schooled. She would then visit her mother in the holidays, each time leaving with a broken heart when she had to say goodbye and leave her mother in desolation.

Picture: Themba Hadebe/AP

But Winnie taught Zindzi what it meant to develop inner strength and resilience in the face of adversity.

“You should never feel sorry for yourself,” Mama Winnie would tell her, “you have this name.”

Winnie made use of every day of her banishment to further the cause of the ANC and recruit cadres into the movement and into exile. Winnie’s determination became that of her daughters, and even as a middle-aged woman, a quarter of a century into democracy, Zindzi would say “everything comes second to the movement”.

From Waterford Zindzi had gone on to do a law degree at UCT at the height of the apartheid government’s repression, but that was not the only source of trauma she faced as a young student.

Even from that time the security police had their plans for her, just as they had for her mother. It was during her time at UCT that Zindzi was raped, and she always suspected it had been the work of an agent sent by the ­Special Branch to break her.

In 1985, the year of her graduation from law school, Zindzi made international headlines as she delivered her father’s response to PW Botha’s conditional offer of release from prison if he were to renounce the armed struggle.

On February 10 Zindzi addressed thousands at an ANC rally in what was to become her defining moment.

Reading her father’s note, she said: “My father says: I am surprised by the conditions that the apartheid government wants to impose on me, I am not a violent man What freedom am I being offered when the organisation of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate, prisoners cannot enter into contracts. I cannot, and will not, give any undertaking at a time when I and you - the people - are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.” Images of Zindzi with her fist held high in defiance in her yellow ANC T-shirt were broadcast around the world.

For the next five years both Zindzi and her mother were the targets of torment by the Special Branch; they became a special project. One of the few Security Police members to have voluntarily come clean about his dirty tricks campaign, Paul Erasmus, described how his entire job in the Special Branch became an all-out attempt to discredit Winnie in the eyes of the ANC, the country and the world.

It was not only Winnie who was traumatised by this overarching campaign of terror, but Zindzi too, who was always by her side.

Petrol bombs were thrown into their windows, machine guns were fired at the walls of their home, and Erasmus says virtually all of the Mandela Football club were their agents. They even had their agents in the football club move into Winnie’s property, ply her with alcohol, and mother and daughter were under surveillance 24/7.

Whatever horrors the football club engaged in, from rape to killings in the townships at the behest of their handlers in the Security Branch, the Mandela home became a vortex of controversy and condemnation.

Erasmus has detailed how he would pen fictitious articles for the local and international press about Winnie and Zindzi having been involved in drug smuggling and sexual orgies. He now admits all of it was false and created to paint them in the worst possible light.

Zindzi took on the best of Winnie’s characteristics, and sadly she was tormented by racists even in her final days. It was only after white men had continued to torment her on social media last year, insulting her mother and family pictures, sending her ­monkey emojis, and saying how spoiled and entitled she was, that she finally let them have it.

Zindzi will always be remembered as a great African woman of tremendous courage and conviction. Amandla, and Rest in Peace, Big Sis.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's foreign editor

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