Winnie Madikizela-Mandela passed away at the Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg on Monday, 2 April.
I met her for the first time, in late 2014, for a cover interview for FORBES WOMAN AFRICA, in her house on the hill in Soweto, an urban township in Johannesburg.
This was exactly a year after the passing of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president.
Soweto was where Winnie Madikizela-Mandela started her life with Mandela, who she was married to for 38 years. Their first home, No. 8115 on Vilakazi Street, also in Soweto, is today a museum that’s a big drawcard for tourists from the world over.
Winnie moved to her current home on the hill in 1990, after Mandela’s release following 27 harrowing years in prison.
A brick-red structure with imposing walls and brawny security guards at the gate, my first impressions were of a living room littered with Mandela memorabilia – his photos, portraits and paintings were everywhere, and gifts presented to him by world presidents and diplomats.
I met ‘Mama Winnie’, as she is fondly called, in the “Angola room” of the two-storied house. This room was filled with rugs and gifts to Mandela from the Angolan president after his release from prison.
“It’s like a museum,” Winnie said as she gracefully walked in, wearing a traditional Xhosa dress and colorful African beaded jewelry – ceremonial mourning attire stipulated by custom and the family’s elders to honor the year of Mandela’s passing.
As I looked at her, I marvelled at the woman who led an extraordinary life, a controversial life, as a revolutionary in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle leading up to Mandela’s release and South Africa’s first democratically-elected government in 1994.
She stood up against oppression and was one of the most recognizable faces of the liberation struggle. The apartheid regime tried to break her spirit, instead, it made her stronger, and she kept Mandela relevant for the 27 years that he was incarcerated by South Africa’s white government.
Today, Mama Winnie, one of the country’s most iconic struggle heroes, has passed on.
The Mandela family’s statement, released this afternoon, says she died peacefully, surrounded by family, at Johannesburg’s Netcare Milpark Hospital, after a long illness.
I can’t help but recall her words to me when I met her, recounting her last moments with Mandela in hospital.
“Death is such a personal thing, so private…,’’ she had said.
“The doctors let me sit next [to him]. He was breathing with difficulty. But his face looked very calm. I sat there for three-and-a-half hours. I was just going downstairs at one point, and the doctors called me back and said ‘Mama, you can stand close to him’. I knew what they meant. He was breathing hard and pulled three deep breaths. The last one was very long, he had this smile on his face and he still moved his lips. And he was gone!”
And when that happened, the words “till death do us part” came to Winnie’s mind, she said, as she harked back to that day in June 1958 when she married Mandela.
“And that’s exactly what happened. I just felt this excruciating pain. I didn’t know how they [her daughters] were going to be told… I never dreamed I would witness [his final moment]. But for some reason, God decided I should be there… It brought back all the memories of our struggle and what one had gone through politically, and a certain chapter was just closed,” she said.
Soon after his release from prison, on 11 February 1990 – when Winnie famously walked with him, hand in hand, clenched fist in the air – Mandela had returned to 8115, the house on Vilakazi Street. In his book, Long Walk To Freedom, he retells that moment: “For me, No. 8115 was the centrepoint of my world, the place marked with an X in my mental geography.”
Freedom fighters don’t have personal lives. The years Mandela was imprisoned were the most difficult as Winnie continued the defiance struggle. In 1969, she was jailed for almost 18 months.
She was imprisoned and banished to Brandfort, in South Africa’s Free State. In her book, 491 Days, published by Pan Mac8millan, she shares her depths of despair and resilience.
Did she still feel anger?
“I don’t think I would be here if I had that continued feeling. As angry as I was during the 491 days, you sort of learn to live with that kind of political background, if you are ultimately rewarded by the liberation of your country,” she told me.
As I neared the end of my interview with her, and the cameras were being put away and the mood lightened, she turned to me and asked: “What is the Mandela legacy actually?”
“It’s a political legacy,” she answered her own question.
“We need to remind future generations that the Mandela legacy is not what you can make out of his name. It’s not about creating entities that are going to give capital. Our legacy is political… which is why I am here in Soweto. My days will come to an end here with the people I threw stones with.”
Mama Winnie, your legacy will live on.