My involvement with the Free Mandela Movement and the Movement to end Apartheid in the 70s and 80s was widely known to my family and the Mandela family. So, when my daughter Edith, many years later met with Zizi, Mandela’s daughter and later still, Ndaba, a grandson, the family friendship was rekindled. Long before this, my first meeting with Winnie Mandela was in Angola, during one of her visits to mobilise support for the ANC and the Freedom Movements, which had become her struggles.
I had always watched in awe, this gazelle of an African woman who in the day carried herself with grace amid withering hostility, intimidation, and firepower unleashed by the apartheid regimes of the time but returned home at night to her brood thinking of the husband locked up in a lonely cell in Robin Island. I had my chance of engaging her in discussion during one memorable visit to South Africa when she hosted the late Babacar Ndiaye, former president of African Development Bank and myself to dinner in her home. We talked far into the night and I experienced first-hand, the power, the inspiration, and the tenacity embodied in this fearless warrior who despite being harassed and pilloried by the Apartheid Security Apparatus remained obsessively focused in her mission. But even as she talked about such brutalities, she did so with grace and this constant smile on her face. Such poise.
At the presentation of my second book; “Me, My Desert and I” in Jo’burg in the year 2000, Winnie was the special guest of honour, along with the then Vice-President, Jacob Zuma. Many years later I offered to build a recreational resort in Nigeria, in honour of the late Icon, Madiba as a celebration of his person as a unique African that spent his life in full service to his country. This period was on the heels of the declaration of July 18, Mandela’s birthday, as World Mandela Day by the United Nations. Again, I received the unequivocal support of the larger Mandela family buoyed by our friendship. The centre, Mandela Gardens, tries to live up to the ideals of declaration aimed at inspiring the younger generation to move from poverty to wealth, from illiteracy to fountains of knowledge, and selfless service.
In all his 27 years of incarceration, Winnie was a very strong pillar to her husband and the movement to free him. But she equally was committed to the overall movement to end Apartheid. Because of her emotional attachment to freeing her husband, it was not unnatural for her to consider the ANC’s absolute commitment to the crusade in the two struggles as one interwoven and indivisible pursuit of freedom, a slow step towards her own goal of uniting with her husband. On the part of the ANC, she was considered too independent and a non-conformist to the universal struggle under one umbrella. With such an atmosphere it was only a matter of time for her to go it alone, establishing a far-left youth wing in the process. This development was much maligned by the apartheid regime and a source of friction and embarrassment to ANC. But a natural consequence of her freedom movement was the inspirational side of her wars which empowered the youth a lot. And the effects are still visible in the continent to this day.
The towering figure of Winnie was only second to her husband’s. I had always looked at her as a mother. Given the travails that she had passed through, with the weight of a whole international movement on her feminine shoulders, I was truly shocked when she told me she was only a year older than me. And it did not matter one bit. To me, she was the Mother of Africa. She was the matriarch of a family that midwifed the birth of the new South Africa, ending the last vestiges of colonization and subjugation.
With Winnie gone, the African Continent has lost a powerful voice, a representative of the silent minority, a prominent advocate, and a transparent freedom fighter. Like her husband, Madiba, a replacement may be difficult to find. But home, she has gone. Rest in peace, Madikizela.
…And here comes a piece from my daughter
Mama Winnie. That’s how I knew her, how countless women and girls around the world knew her and were inspired by her role as a mother to a nation and to countless people around the world. This mother to all with her infectious passion for an emancipated South Africa was an inspiration to me. I grew up hearing countless stories about the Mandela’s in our family home and it was not unusual for us to debate the latest success or challenges marked by the fight against apartheid. I came of age when Mandela was being freed and recalling that amazing day, Madiba and Mama Winnie, walking hand in hand out to that crowd with the power salute, still moves me to tears today.
It was no surprise to my family that I was inspired to dedicate myself to the field of international development and the fight against the injustice of poverty. When I finally got the opportunity to meet Winnie’s daughter, Zindzi Mandela and her grandson, Ndaba Mandela, I felt like I had reconnected with long lost family. So finally meeting the icon and my inspiration, Mama Winnie, felt like destiny. The woman who inspired millions and led one of the most important movements in our lifetime – and not without its controversies – hugged me like a long lost daughter and wanted to gist about Nigeria! In the few opportunities I had to speak with her, I was overwhelmed by her wit and grace and my only regret was not finding more time and opportunities to just be in her presence. But in the little time I had with her, she imparted great wisdom that continues to drive me. Mama Winnie inspired me to have a mission, to give voice to those who cannot speak for themselves, never do anything half-heartedly, give as much as you can, and never let anyone take away your dignity.
Mama Winnie was a Queen to the end and I pray that she continues to rest in power forever.