Winnie: Custodian of our heritage

Nelson Mandela with Winnie Mandela as he is released from the Victor Vester PrisonPHOTO: Graeme Williams / South Photographs
Nelson Mandela with Winnie Mandela as he is released from the Victor Vester PrisonPHOTO: Graeme Williams / South Photographs

Much has been written about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the selfless struggle icon who, during apartheid, remained resolute and steadfast in the face of adversity. However, most writers have not paid attention to the fact that she was a custodian of our history, culture and heritage.

Madikizela-Mandela was deeply inspired by the Pondoland revolt, which unfolded in the Transkei from 1950 to 1961, in which peasants rose against the ever-increasing control of government and its collaborators. This revolt in her home area added to her vehement rejection of apartheid.

During my visits to Madikizela-Mandela in Soweto, as chief executive of the National Heritage Council, she spoke with pride of the gallantry of the Pondoland peasants in their pursuit of freedom and justice. She often drew parallels between the Pondoland revolt and the 2012 Marikana tragedy, in which police shot protesting platinum miners near Rustenburg.

Lessons, she strongly believed, could be drawn from both incidents.

The preservation of records, such as letters, was important to the Mandelas. Such letters, they knew, carried both historical and sentimental value. Today historians, researchers and others are immersing themselves in these letters, hoping to produce groundbreaking work on the Mandelas.

Writing to his wife on June 23 1960 Nelson Mandela glowingly informed her how attached he was to the first letter she wrote to him while incarcerated.

“My Darling,” his letter opens, “one of my precious possessions here is the first letter you wrote me on Dec 20 1962, shortly after my first conviction. During the last six-and-a-half years I have read it over and over again and the sentiments it expresses are as golden and fresh now as they were the day I received them.”

The feeling was mutual: “My Darling,” Madikizela-Mandela wrote to her husband on November 12 1969, “My glorious surprise was the lovely anniversary card which was given to me on the 26 of October, quite appropriately two days before I was to be charged.”

She said: “Words are too shabby to describe the sentiments it evoked in me. I have been rereading it since in the solitude of my cell and each time I get a new meaning of life. The battered and torn envelope in a way told many tales and is the very symbol of the harsh reality of the past 11 years, with no regrets.”

In their effort to preserve their history, the Mandelas welcomed photographers such as Alf Khumalo to photograph their family. These photographers became one with the Mandelas. Today the Mandela family photos are a challenge to all of us to archive family as a part of one’s heritage.

Often photographers, such as Khumalo, would unexpectedly drop in at the Mandelas in Soweto to take photos. They were welcomed and served by their hostess with a good meal, the symbol of fellowship. These epoch-making photographs of the Mandela family demonstrate how deeply committed to their craft these photographers were.

Such photographs include those depicting Madikizela-Mandela being arrested by apartheid police. Another shows her at a funeral during apartheid times, fist clenched and the coffin of a deceased cadre resting on her shoulder. Another portrays her and Nelson Mandela at a rally, both with fists clenched.

Photographs by Khumalo include that of a distressed but defiant Madikizela-Mandela at her home in Soweto during her house arrest, gazing through the steel bars of the gate. Another depicts her and Nelson Mandela outside their home in Soweto, talking to school principal H Dlamlenze and the Mothopeng family. There is also a photo of a relaxed Madikizela-Mandela next to her dog at home after her release from her detention in Kroonstad prison in 1974.

A meaningful life

Reflecting in 2012 on her detention, Madikizela-Mandela asserted: “Being held in incommunicado was the most cruel thing the Nationalists ever did. I would communicate with the ants; anything that has life.

“If I had lice ... I would have even nursed them. That’s what this solitary confinement [does to you]; there is no worse punishment than that.”

For Madikizela-Mandela, the spiritual cleansing of notorious sites such as apartheid prisons, including John Vorster Square, Pretoria Central prison, Robben Island and places like Vlakplaas and others associated with apartheid brutality, where lives were often lost, was important for renewal and regeneration. This then is the Madikizela-Mandela that I knew and interacted with, the custodian of our heritage.

Anywhere in the world attire is a symbol of identity and belonging. This showed in Madikizela-Mandela’s proudly African style. Throughout Africa, colonisation stretched from land dispossession and economic oppression to seemingly secondary issues, including how Africans should behave and what they should wear. As a result, some in our fold continue to look down on African-oriented clothing, associating it with “backwardness” – ubuqaba.

Missionary institutions such as Shawbury, where Madikizela-Mandela studied, played a significant role in the education of blacks. However, they were not without controversies. For example, missionaries often frowned upon African culture and customs, particularly clothes, the obvious and distinctive marker of African identity.

Through her colourful African style of dressing, Madikizela-Mandela undid the stitches of colonialism, decolonising our minds and demystifying the view that European culture was supreme. Whether she chose to don umbhaco, traditional attire for Xhosa women, or the embroidered African dresses worn in many parts of Africa, coupled with necklaces of beads, Madikizela-Mandela’s presence was proudly and vividly proclaimed.

The doek, a symbol of womanhood, maturity and respect in African society, formed part of her traditional attire, becomingly wrapped around her head, enabling her natural beauty to blossom and her disarming smile to fill a room with warmth.

Madikizela-Mandela was attached to her doeks. In her letter to prison authorities dated August 31 1970, after being released, she wrote: “I request that these clothes [which went missing while in prison] be given to me at your earliest convenience together with the two doeks removed from my bed during a search in my cell.”

Madikizela-Mandela was an excellent singer, leading the singing of struggle songs with dedication and conviction, inspiring those present to join her. Singing is the cornerstone of African society, through which our history and deeds can be traced, including the history of the struggle against apartheid.

I will leave it to the reader to imagine Madikizela-Mandela leading a struggle song, spectacularly dressed in her African attire. These songs will continue to remind us of the role played by people such as Madikizela-Mandela, Oliver Tambo and others in their pursuit of freedom and justice. They are a central part of our heritage.

It is because of her courage, selflessness and, above all, how she embodied our history, culture and heritage that, as the NHC, we honoured Madikizela-Mandela with the Ubuntu Award in 2011. This highest honour from the NHC was the first of its kind to be awarded to a woman.

Though Madikizela-Mandela was in her twilight years, her wisdom was still sought after.

Her untimely death has left a deep void. But she lived a meaningful life, dedicated to the struggle against apartheid, and her spirit was never broken by the apartheid masters.


Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

Night has gathered for you

Only your ever radiant smile

continues to light our lives

Your smile that defied racist onslaughts

detentions banishments

And a million humiliations

That attended your life

You stood firm

Unafraid undaunted ever defiant!

A woman among women a granite

rock in the face of adversity!

At one with the people

Always an inspiration!

… Go well Mother of the Nation!

Hamba Kahle!

Ngutyana Msuthu Msengeshe

Nqwanda ka Phapha!

- Mancotywa is chief executive officer of the NHC


What effect did Winnie have on your feelings of culture during apartheid?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword WINNIE and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

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