Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
I WAS three days shy of turning six during the 1994 inauguration of President Nelson Mandela. I was excited because everyone around me, except my mother, was excited.

She sat transfixed on the sofa, coffee in hand and slightly rocking back and forth. She was anxious and kept saying “Uphi uWinnie?”(Where is Winnie?) and scanning the crowd at the Union Buildings from the TV.

Curious, I joined her on the sofa, asking why she was so keen to see Winnie, when we could see Mandela and that lady wearing a big black hat and red blazer and black mini skirt (I didn’t know it was Zenani).

Then a smile broke out and she started ululating. She had finally spotted Winnie in the crowd.

She was wearing a bottle-green two-piece ensemble with black lace and matching green geometric hat with black 3D-esque appliques.

“Waze wamuhle uWinnie we-Ma!” (Winnie looks amazing!) she said, excitedly. And she did.

I couldn’t take my eyes off her as she made her way through the crowd with Zindzi (in a white ensemble and hat), a big smile on her face, waving at people in the crowds. There was something about her that demanded attention.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela with Rev. Jesse Jackson and Hillary Clinton at the Inauguration of President Nelson Mandela in May 1994

She wore that outfit many times, including at the 2004 Mbeki inauguration, at her granddaughter Zoleka’s book launch and to one of her 80th birthday celebrations in 2016, and it still looked as stylish as it was all those years ago.

That was the moment I became enamoured of Winnie. I tried to get as much information as I could from my mother and grandmother about who she was, why she was important.

And so I got a lesson in the history of Winnie, who was a year older than my grandmother. And when I say history, I mean everything - from the atrocities meted out to her by the apartheid government, her achievements as a social worker, her activism and then, my mother said: “She always looks amazing.”

Like many born in the early 20th century, there was an unmistakable love for fashion and Winnie showed her finesse in the ensembles she wore. From her wedding gown and her 1960s flared dresses to her ensembles during the Rivonia Trial, she always looked impeccable.

I remember seeing pictures of her dressed in the camouflage of the ANC MK Veterans and thinking that only she could make camo look stylish.

And the Che Guevara-style berets she used to wear in the 1970s and 1980s? I recall her wearing a black beret with a red Chris Hani T-shirt a black blazer and trousers at an ANC rally in 2009. It was reminiscent of the outfits she wore during the height of the Struggle.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

I strongly believe that Winnie knew the importance that fashion played in the zeitgeist and was always well turned out.

Even at political marches, she would wear kaftans, beads and doeks embodying the role of “Mother of the Nation” while also, in a way, admitting that she was a beautiful woman who loved to look good and there was no crime in doing that.

She broke fashion rules. She did her own thing when it came to what she wore, even the traditional Xhosa doeks she wore, there was always something different to the way she wore it.

There’s a picture of Winnie with her fist raised high, wearing a colourful doek, beaded earrings and a pussy-bow blouse.

It’s a bold, timeless look that could still turn heads more than half a century later.

She never shied away from bold prints and the 1980s and 90s were the years where she showed her love for prints. She rocked turbans and extravagant beads, all modern incarnations of traditional Xhosa dress.

While everybody else was going for slimming silhouettes, she chose billowing gowns and kaftans, all in bold colours with elaborate embroidery, beaded neck pieces and turbans. It ended up being her signature look.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

I have rarely seen Winnie look less than elegant. Sure, there were some times that she had a wig that didn’t suit her, but unlike many, she could dress up to make us forget the one misplaced item in her armada of clothing.

She probably still remained one of the few who actually looked good in the ANC Women’s League uniform, which always manages to age its wearers. Unlike others, she knew the power of accessories and never shied away from wearing them, even with the uniform.

What my grandmother and Winnie shared was their love for elaborate fashion. Always flamboyant and dressed to the nines, and they both never met a neckpiece they didn’t love.

There’s this one black pearl choker that she wore to most important functions and magazine cover shoots that my grandmother coveted. There are few items of clothing from Winnie’s wardrobe that my grandmother didn’t dream of owning.

In recent years, Winnie wore more beaded neckpieces, a mixture of Ndebele- and Xhosa-inspired beadwork. Those neck pieces are now very popular.

One of my favourites is the one she wore to the ANC’s 54th national conference last year.

Almost 20 years after my interest in her began, I finally met her in 2013 at the Durban book launch of the harrowing 491 Days.

The writer, Buhle Mbonambi, meeting Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at the launch of her book, 491 Days in 2013

Dressed in a rust coloured crushed silk Xhosa umbhaco and an avalanche of beads, I couldn’t help once again being stunned at how beautiful and stylish she was and the presence she commanded.

I remember telling her how I’d been obsessed with her since 1994, how she was my grandmother’s style icon and that I was a big fan. She smiled and then said in that deep voice: “Thank your grandmother for raising a good boy like you.”

One of her most iconic outfits is probably the navy and white ensemble she wore when Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison on February 11, 1990. With her fist raised high and a triumphant smile, she was glowing and she looked amazing.

Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela walk hand in hand upon his release from Victor Verster Prison in Cape Town on Sunday, February 11, 1990, ending his 27 years in detention.
Pictures: African News Agency (ANA) Archives

She knew how to pick an outfit. She knew what was needed for her to make a statement. She knew and understood that these pictures would last a lifetime.

And I think she knew she was a style icon, even though nobody had ever given her an award for her dress sense. That’s because true style icons don’t need to be given awards. Their influence is seen on everyone. There has been no bigger style icon in South Africa than Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.