By Nomali Cele
Today Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is 80 years old. The struggle stalwart has long been referred to as the mother of the nation. And it is not difficult to understand why. With her former husband, the late Nelson Mandela’s contribution to the struggle and democracy, the Mandelas really were parents of the nation for a long time. Their union and defiance inspired many. But as Mam’ Madikizela-Mandela enters her 80s, her life is in stark contrast to those days of being harassed by the secret police and raising two daughters who couldn’t see their father.
She was born Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela in Pondoland in 1936. She studied and earned her degree in social work and went on to work as a public social worker in both Transkei and Soweto. The rest seems like a plot from a Hollywood love story: she met a revolutionary who shared her political views, they fell in love, got married, started a family and in short space of time were ripped apart. This is a real, historic story that has played out in many a biopic.
While still considered by many as intsika of black South Africa, she is only now beginning to be able to dedicate her attention to her family and give them the nurturing that, for many years, mostly went to the struggle. For prominent and successful women, the question at interviews has always been, “But how do you do it all? How do you maintain a balance?”
The fair thing to say about Madikizela-Mandela – especially in the context of an imprisoned husband and harassment and violence from the apartheid state – is that she did her best in her personal life. Through legal and financial battles, controversies that had her appearing before the TRC and public family battles, Madikizela-Mandela’s contribution to the struggle and today’s democracy is undeniable.
And at the ripe age of 80, it seems the struggle-veteran finally has it all. Women having it all often inspires an accusatory tone: “Why do you refuse to play into the dichotomies set out for you: Either be a working woman who is miserable or a home-maker who is miserable?”
Grandmother duty in the public arena
Recently, Madikizela-Mandela’s section of the Mandela family tree was in the news has been because of the youngest generation and the news has not been good. This year marks six years since her great-granddaughter, Zenani Mandela, died in a car accident after attending the FIFA 2010 World Cup opening ceremony in Orlando, very close to the Mandela home, which is now a heritage site.
Zoleka Mandela – Zindziswa Mandela’s daughter – is Zenani’s mother and has been publicly vocal about how the girl’s tragic death affected her. Her autobiography, When Hope Whispers, also details battles with addiction, being sexually abused and surviving breast cancer.
Far from slowing down
Madikizela-Mandela is, at 80, as politically outspoken as ever. She is a force and has always brought a degree of self-reflection and a critical approach to her party’s inner workings and attempts at building a society that works. This approach to post-apartheid politics seems only natural as much of her life was dedicated to achieving this freedom. Her family’s happiness was for many years put on hold in pursuit of this collective dream. She continues to weigh in on issues of the day, including commenting last week that the party realised as early as 1994 that, “the free education we promised [in the Freedom Charter] wasn’t going to be easy”.
At a public celebration of her 80 birthday with a guest list that included Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had social media abuzz with how young and beautiful she looked. She has always been a beautiful woman, and at 80, it seems she is truly getting into her groove.