Nomzamo: A Tribute to Winnie Nomzamo Madizikela Mandela

Winnie Madikizela Mandela, ex-wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela, gestures to supporters at the 54th National Conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa December 16, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
Photo: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The first time I saw Winnie Nomzamo Madizikela-Mandela in person was at the 1995 UN Women’s conference in Beijing, China. She attended the NGO Forum in Huairou, and even though there were scores of sessions running simultaneously with event organisers competing for the attention of thousands of delegates, it was no surprise that the sessions Winnie Mandela attended were packed to full capacity. I was with a group of friends when she walked past us, with many admirers in tow wanting her autograph or to take photographs with her. Selfies were not a part of our lives then but fans have always found ways to make their stars feel special. I stood spellbound by her amazing presence, her wondrous beauty and her sweet smile which never left her face. Hours later my friends and I were still talking about our encounter with our great Shero.  I did not get to shake her hand but being in her presence was enough for me.

The next time I saw Winnie Mandela was in January 2014 in Johannesburg, and this time I did get to talk to her and shake her hand. I had gone to South Africa with a group of African women leaders to pay a condolence visit to Ms Graca Machel, Nelson Mandela’s widow. Graca Machel is my mentor, big sister and friend and we have worked together on several African women’s leadership projects for many years. The night before the condolence visit was to take place, we had a briefing session at our hotel to prepare for the meeting with Madam Graca. It was at this event that we were informed that a condition had been attached to the visit, which was going to double as an interactive forum with the South African Women’s movement. There had been a request from women leaders in South Africa that Winnie Mandela had to be present at the event. Some of us squirmed in discomfort.  We had travelled all the way to pay our respects to our friend Graca Machel who we had all worked with. None of us had been close to Winnie Mandela, and even though we had a tremendous amount of respect for her, we would be lying if we said we had travelled all the way to see her. I felt like someone who was being forced to be nice to their mother’s rival without risking the wrath of mother!  We all had a heated debate about the what this meant for our visit. I was aware of certain situations during the funeral of Nelson Mandela that had made Graca Machel rather uncomfortable though of course all those instances were hidden behind smiles and hugs. I therefore did not want to be part of a plan that would cause Graca more anxiety. The delegation eventually agreed that we could not object to the presence of Winnie Mandela at the event, so we struck a compromise with our South African hosts. Winnie Mandela would be present but only briefly.

When Winnie Mandela swept into the room, I was awed once again by her immense presence. She spent roughly forty-five minutes and left us to get on with our meeting. I felt a huge sense of relief that we had avoided making Graca uncomfortable in her own home. I was also pleased that we had been able to see Winnie Mandela. She had of course aged quite a bit since the time I had seen her in Beijing but she was still extraordinarily beautiful.  At the airport on my way back home, I saw a book called Winnie Mandela: A Life, written by Anne Marie du Prez Bezdrob. The book was first published in 2004 but I had not read it. There has been a fair amount of literature written about Winnie Mandela, and she told part of her own story in her autobiography, ‘Part of my soul went with him’.  There was also the book ‘The Lady’ written by Emma Gilbey, which was a detailed but harsh account of Winnie Mandela’s many travails, choices and personal implosions. Even though Emma Gilbey’s book tried to be as sympathetic as possible to the plight of a young social and political activist who was left to bring up two young children and at the same time serve as the face of a liberation movement which was in dire need of direction when most of the leaders were either in prison or exile, the details of the years when Winnie Mandela ‘went rogue’ were hard to comprehend. Over a period of twenty-seven years, the charming young mother of two and wife of the liberation icon metamorphosed into a fierce warrior who endured imprisonment, solitary confinement, torture, bannings, banishment, deprivation, constant intimidation and long periods of separation from her young children. All this took its toll and what emerged at the end of the metamorphosis was not a pretty butterfly. The book Katiza’s Journey by Fred Bridgland is about the dark period in Winnie’s life when she seemed to be making questionable choices about her political affairs and the company she kept.  Katiza Cebekhulu who was one of Winnie’s young associates and he was almost killed by her supporters because he was about to testify against Winnie and the atrocities he had witnessed while he was in her household. Winnie took in young indigent boys from the neighbourhood and they became known as the Mandela United Football Club (MUFC). The young men served as her private security detail, but they also acquired a reputation for violence and intimidating people.  All pleas to Winnie, even from Nelson Mandela in prison, to disband them fell on deaf ears.  Eventually disaster struck and a 14-year-old boy called Stompei Sepei died after being kidnapped and beaten by members of the MUFC, allegedly under the supervision of Winne. A few years later, Winnie was not only found culpable for the murder of Stompei, she was also implicated in the disappearance and murder of some other young boys, as well as the murder of a former friend of hers, Dr Abu Bakr Asvat. After I read Anne Marie’s book about Winnie Mandela, the different pieces of the puzzle fell into place for me. Anne Marie du Prez Bezdrob’s book is the only book I have read about Winnie Madizikela-Mandela that provides a full context for the life of such a deeply complex woman who was forced into a set of circumstances no one should wish on their worst enemy.

Understanding Winnie Mandela’s story in full explains why she will forever be revered in South Africa and beyond, in spite of her many mistakes and miscalculations. I have many friends from South Africa who played key roles in the anti – apartheid movement and who over the years, have provided a more informed analysis than what can be found in books written by researchers or political operatives with an axe to grind.  The one recurrent theme I could discern from their insights was that if other political leaders could be forgiven for their mistakes or if they could forgive their former tormentors, why couldn’t Winnie be forgiven? There are no sins that are unforgiveable, but in a world that is still deeply patriarchal, Winnie probably committed way too many to be forgiven.

There are many lessons to be learnt from the life and times of Winnie Mandela. Women have often observed that if a woman spends twenty-seven years in jail, she will most certainly not find her husband waiting with open arms on her return. And she would not expect her husband’s bed to have been empty all those years. Winnie Mandela sacrificed the better part of her life for her country’s freedom at huge personal cost. Granted she made terrible mistakes that resulted in her political party the ANC throwing her under the bus because she had become ‘uncontrollable’ and her husband decided that he was better off without her and her many ‘troubles’. It was the kind of situation that made everyone look bad regardless of their motives. Twenty-seven years is a very long time. While Nelson Mandela was behind bars, it was Winnie who had been left behind to face crisis after crisis till eventually she became a crisis herself. We still do not have enough support mechanisms in our communities to deal with mental health issues, addiction and emotional instability. When we learn to have these in place, perhaps we will be better at providing people with the help they need at the right time instead of simply passing judgement on their poor choices.

Winnie Mandela might have become a cautionary tale at some point, but her name is assured in the annals of history. She does not need to be remembered as a saint who did no wrong. She will forever be remembered as one of the greatest African Sheroes who ever lived, the woman who kept the lights on when no one was home. Her sacrifices paved the way for a free South Africa, and she kept the name Mandela alive when the world beyond South Africa had either forgotten all about him and the anti-apartheid struggle or did not even know who he was. Her middle name Nomzamo means, ‘One who struggles,’ or ‘One who does the impossible’. Rest on Mama Winnie. You struggled and did the impossible.


Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of, an online community for women. She can be reached at


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14 Responses to Nomzamo: A Tribute to Winnie Nomzamo Madizikela Mandela

  1. Modupe Sharon April 17, 2018 at 7:00 am

    What a vivid way of explaining what has been complex to me all these years. We all struggle with the understanding we have and possess, and I think that was what happened to the late Winnie. She is a warrior and she can never be forgotten.

  2. veronica Imaseun April 17, 2018 at 7:03 am

    My problem is, a lot of people who were not even in support of her, those who saw her as a villain were all writing so many accolades about her. It is sad that Death had to be the only way for good things to be sincerely written about Winnie Mandela. This woman depicted a fearless side, strong to the core and stood for what she saw. I am glad that she made history and this will forever be in our hearts. Though, i still think, whatever mistake she made, she did it for the Love she had for Mandela.

  3. Shawn Daniels April 17, 2018 at 7:06 am

    What a woman. A woman who stood by her Truth. A woman who made History and a Woman who stood out. Even the men were intimidated by her because she didn’t succumb to their unreasonable decisions. RIP Winnie Mandela.

  4. Victor Udoh April 17, 2018 at 7:08 am

    All the pictures of her I saw, she was smiling and raising her hands for the struggle and victory ahead. She was indeed a woman of great guts and those are the kind of women we should have around us. Women who are unapologetically strong. I was sad at the turn of event for her but she stood strong and never gave up. RIP Mama.

  5. Lauretta Idemudia April 17, 2018 at 7:13 am

    She lived a victorious life. A woman who has many accounts written about her life is a Force! Whether they like it or not, she lived as a Force that they wanted to be tagged with and I am happy that a very valid version was written and that movie about her life that just depicted her a villian should be pulled down. RIP Winnie Mandela.

  6. Bamidele Joshua April 17, 2018 at 7:24 am

    Indeed 27 years is a very long time. I keep telling people that if the role were reversed, wouldn’t Mandela have moved on with his life? It would have been the very same reaction and for crying out loud, we are humans! Mistakes happen to make it crystal clear that we are just Flesh! She lived well. God bless her soul.

  7. Amaka Obiora April 17, 2018 at 7:28 am

    What a life. She did the impossible and struggled for the process. She is well respected and when I saw her 80th celebration, I knew this woman made a mark in South Africa which every young woman should embrace. Though she was personally taken off balance with the marriage and separation from her kids, she never stopped fighting. Her voice was heard and she kept winning. Though she wasn’t allowed to lead south Africa because of the stereotypes, she didn’t stop giving her voice and unfortunately the one they took in her stead landed them in hell. You fought well and triumphed. RIP Winnie Madikizela Mandela

  8. Femi Diipo April 17, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    There’s hardly any story told it written about her that’s not controversial. Ultimately, as you’ve rightly put ma’am, she was a great woman whom like everyone of us made some mistakes and that shouldn’t stop us from celebrating her life today and in years to come. May her soul rest in peace

  9. Laura Dameson April 18, 2018 at 9:29 am

    She came, she saw and she conquered. Rest in Power, Mama Winnie

  10. Ini Matilda April 18, 2018 at 9:32 am

    Really, history finds it very hard to forgive women. Mena are left to make amends, they are allowed to be viewed as humans but women aren’t given the opportunity to be viewed as humans. They are always subjected to destructive criticism and this is what I loved about Winnie Mandela, she stood up! she stood higher, she faced those her critics and she ended up a victorious woman. Rest In Power!

  11. Shina Dideolu April 18, 2018 at 9:36 am

    Malema said, ”Mama, those that sold you out are here, their wailings are the loudest” That statement cut through my bones. I felt the serious injustice that lied around this great woman and how she was betrayed and like you rightly wrote, she was placed under circumstances beyond her, left with no choice whatsoever. She is a conqueror. Really, I have always admired her strength and how she rose above all odds. You may hate her, you may like her but she was a FORCE! RIP Winnie Mandela.

  12. DSEED April 18, 2018 at 10:42 am

    Supportive, strong, tough and ambitious woman. She is better referred to as Giant of African. Rest on Winnie.

  13. Dom Dom April 18, 2018 at 11:13 pm

    What a life, What a woman. Her legacy Will live forever

  14. Olakunle Olajide April 19, 2018 at 10:56 am

    Rest on Mama Winnie. What a way to describe a woman of many shades.


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