Remembering Winnie Madikizela Mandela: A tribute by Zenani Dlamini

Winnie Madikizela Mandela with her daughters Zindzi and Zenani. Image: Supplied

Winnie Madikizela Mandela with her daughters Zindzi and Zenani. Image: Supplied

Published Sep 27, 2022


September 26 would have been Winnie Madikizela Mandela’s 86th birthday. To remember and honour this South African icon, IOL is republishing a series of special tribute articles written by those closest to her.

These articles were first published on September 26 in a commemorative edition supplement in The Star and Pretoria News, as well as in the commemorative edition digital magazine.


By Zenani N Dlamini

I shared my mother with the world.

Our mummy, who showered us with love and affection, insisting on kissing us on arrival and departure, was also a courageous warrior who stood up daily against the apartheid regime.

I was happy to share her with every South African struggling to survive the brutality of a racist system which had thrown my father into jail for the rest of his life. I didn’t mind her giving so much time and energy to people who didn’t have the strength to stand up themselves; I was proud of her whenever she reminded the world that one day we would be free. I was happy to share her because I was raised in the atmosphere of her deep and unconditional love.

My mother was pregnant with me when she was detained for the first time in 1958 for joining a protest against the regime’s plan to force African women to carry passes, just like African men had suffered under for so long.

From my father’s arrest in 1962 she was hounded out of jobs and banned, house arrested, imprisoned, or banished for most of his 27 years in prison. My sister, Zindzi and I were shunted from school to school after the police found out where we had been enrolled, then pressurised them to make us leave.

With the love of her life locked up and silenced for more than a quarter of a century, my mother vowed never to give up fighting for freedom, not matter what sacrifices she had to make. I often wonder how she survived those dark decades, always with her head held high.

One of my most painful memories is how, as a child, I clung desperately to her as burly apartheid police kicked open our front door and ripped her away in the early hours of the morning. This happened, not once, but countless times through the decades. We didn’t know what would happen to her, where they were taking her or if she would ever come back to us.

On that occasion in 1969, my mother who had a heart condition was forbidden from taking her medication with her into what turned into 16 months of detention. I was 10 years old. While in solitary confinement, which saw her being interrogated for five days and six nights, she wrote: “The tender faces of small children, distorted by fear and drowsiness, seeing their dear mother escorted away in the dead of night, and unable to understand the issues involved is a memory that could haunt the most fearless mother”.

The late Professor Fatima Meer, a close friend of both my parents, described the origins of the regime’s harassment of my mother as: “The state wanted to rid itself of all Mandelas, so it followed the incarceration of Nelson with the banning of Winnie and thereby gave the world a second Mandela.

“In the beginning she was the victim of the state’s unquenchable vendetta against Nelson, but as she stood up to that vendetta and turned each attack to her advantage and their shame, she began to be persecuted for herself.”

Aunt Fatima said my mother “threw herself into political activity” but that “even if Winnie had chosen to stay clear of politics, the state would not have left her alone”. She described the regime’s “second-level attack” on my mother as “a sinister plan to destroy the Mandela’s by destroying Winnie’s reputation”.

We must never forget that the struggle was a war against an evil system armed with deep coffers, superior military might, and the will and the means to destroy its opponents. And it used them all. The fight for democracy and equal rights was not a polite picnic; people who committed to it got their hands dirty. If they had not done so we would not have won, we would not have had democracy and Nelson Mandela would not have been president. The vast majority of South Africa’s people would have forever remained as subjects and servants to a system that believed they did not have the right to be equal human beings.

Despite their own transgressions, so many people, particularly some of my mother’s male colleagues, have been lauded for their total contribution to the freedom struggle. She was not.

It sickens me that she is not acknowledged in the land of her birth, the land she helped to free from racist oppression; that she is revered throughout the world, but at home, some have chosen to write her out of our history.

Vilified and ostracised, she struggled financially towards the end of her life. She survived through the kind support of a few family friends, whom I will not name, and who don’t expect to be named. At the same time, she would not allow her own family members to be without and would always find ways to help those in need.

In her last years, Mummy embarked on another struggle: to have the first home I ever knew, 8115 in Orlando West, Soweto, returned to the family. I am continuing that fight.

I have also made it my mission to continue to remind the world about her role and to educate younger generations about how, while bringing up two children, and despite the cost to herself, she kept the name of my father and his comrades in the hearts and minds of people around the world; to ensure they would not be forgotten.

As we mark the eighty-sixth year of my mother’s birth, I remember her for all that she went through to help bring freedom to South Africa. Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela did not often express her pain, but I would like to leave you with these words from my beloved Mummy:

“Throughout the years of oppression, I think my feelings got blunted because you were so tortured that the pain reached a threshold where you could not feel pain anymore. If you keep pounding and pounding on the same spot the feeling dies, the nerves die.”

Read the Winnie Madikizela Mandela Commemorative Edition digimag below