Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela was born, the fifth of nine children, in the village of Mbongweni, Bizana, in the Transkei on 26 September 1936. During her infant years her father, Columbus, was a local history teacher. In later years he was the minister of the Transkei Governments’ Forestry and Agriculture Department during Kaizer Matanzima’s rule. Her mother, Nomathamsanqa Mzaidume (Gertrude), was a science teacher.
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, 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.
As part of a radical block within the ruling party, she was forced to work as a foot soldier in Soweto during Mandela’s incarceration, which began in 1964. Because of her unparalleled popularity with the public, she was banished from her marital home and pushed to the sidelines by the apartheid government. She rose through the ranks of the African National Congress’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe in the 70s as she supported young people who were called upon by 1985 to “render the country ungovernable” by their leader, Oliver Reginald Tambo. She eventually grew to be one of the most senior and respected operatives in the party with unrivalled public support.
During this time, Madikizela-Mandela was accused of many serious misdemeanors. One of the most notable controversies surrounding her was 14-year-old Stompie Seipei’s murder. She was found guilty of his kidnapping, and on appeal paid a fine with a suspended two-year-sentence for the crime. A member of her Mandela Football Club served time for his death.
Even with her conviction, Winnie Mandela was 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. However, due to affiliations and rhetoric seen as highly radical, she was ousted from her cabinet post by her husband in 1995. The couple divorced in 1996, having spent few years together out of almost four decades of marriage.
Despite the conflicts, 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. Winnie has been portrayed by many different actresses and in a number of screen productions. She was played by actress Alfre Woodard in the 1987 television movie Mandela; by Sophie Okonedo in the TV movie Mrs Mandela (2010); and by Jennifer Hudson in the 2011 film Winnie, which was produced by Bishop T.D. Jakes.