Creatives Garage | The Strength of a woman: Biography of Winnie Mandela
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The Strength of a woman: Biography of Winnie Mandela

The strength of a woman is depicted through her compassion, resilience, bravery and kindness among many more positive attributes that she holds. Winnie Mandela; aka ‘Mother of the Nation,’ is a woman who embodied most of these characteristics. She was a powerful woman with a mission to end the apartheid rule at whatever cost.


Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikazela was born in Bizana, Pondoland, South Africa on 26th September 1936. She eventually moved to Johannesburg in 1953 to study at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work. During those days, South Africa was under the system known as apartheid, where citizens of indigenous African descent were subjected to a harsh caste system, while European descendants enjoyed much higher levels of wealth, health and social freedom. Winnie completed her studies and, though receiving a scholarship to study in America, decided instead to work as the first black medical social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. A dedicated professional, she came to learn via her field work of the deplorable state that many of her patients lived in.

In the mid-1950s, Winnie met attorney Nelson Mandela, who, at the time, was leader of the African National Congress (ANC), an organization with the goal of ending South Africa’s apartheid system of racial segregation. The two married in June 1958, despite concerns from Winnie’s father over the couple’s age difference and Mandela’s steadfast political involvements. After the wedding, Winnie moved into Mandela’s home in Soweto. She became legally known thereafter as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.


Despite raising her two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi mostly on her own as Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964; Winnie Mandela embarked on a career of social work that led to her involvement in activism. She was involved surreptitiously with the ANC and sent her children to boarding school in Swaziland to offer them a more peaceful upbringing.

Winnie Mandela was arrested under the Suppression of Terrorism Act and spent more than a year in solitary confinement, where she was tortured. Upon her release, she continued her activism and was jailed several more times; indeed a woman of bravery, resilience and commitment to ending the apartheid rule. In 1985, after her home was firebombed, Winnie returned to Soweto and continued to criticize the regime, cementing her title of ‘Mother of the Nation.’ However, she also became known for endorsing deadly retaliation against black citizens who collaborated with the apartheid regime; a necessary evil to continue her struggle for freedom.

Winnie Mandela was later elected president of the ANC’s Women’s League. Then, in 1994, Nelson Mandela won the presidential election, becoming South Africa’s first black president; Winnie was subsequently named deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology. Winnie Mandela appeared before the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, and was found responsible for “gross violations of human rights” in connection to the killings and tortures implemented by her bodyguards. While ANC leaders kept their political distance, Winnie still retained a grassroots following. She was reelected to Parliament in 1999, only to be convicted of economic fraud in 2003. She quickly resigned from her post, though her conviction was later overturned.



Following extended hospital visits to treat a kidney infection, Winnie Mandela passed away on April 2, 2018, in Johannesburg. Despite the shortcomings in her great achievements, Winnie Mandela is still widely revered for her role in ending South Africa’s oppressive policies. Her story has been the subject of an opera, books and films, her character interpreted by many different actresses across numerous productions.

She remains to be a powerful woman of strength who through her noble acts will be remembered for her remarkable character. She won two awards; The ‘United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights (1988) and The ‘Freedom of the City of Aberdeen.’

In celebration of a life well lived, we pray that her soul Rests in Peace.

Piece by: Louisa Gitau

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