She led a complicated life, but it was incredible.
On April 2, 2018, the world lost one of the most influential anti-apartheid activists in history.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of South African president and hero Nelson Mandela, died at the age of 81.
Photo by Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images.
Apartheid, a South African racial segregation policy that existed between 1948 and 1994, was an inhumane, racist societal structure that destroyed the lives of South African black people for decades. Madikizela-Mandela became the face and mother of the anti-apartheid movement during the 27 years of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, and she became a figure that many came to respect and admire in her own right.
Madikizela-Mandela led an incredibly courageous — and complex — life. As with most activists, she wasn’t perfect. She confessed to her role in brutal crimes, and her very public and complicated life took a toll on her personal life. But Madikizela-Mandela acknowledged and apologized for many of her mistakes toward the end of her life.
Regardless of how people think of her, it’s impossible to not recognize the importance of her life.
Here are three things to remember about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
1. She believed in ending apartheid and helping others long before meeting and marrying Nelson Mandela.
Madikizela-Mandela was a top student throughout school. A trained social worker, she also obtained a degree in international relations and began anti-apartheid activism as in her 20s.
Her first job was working as a social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. In a time when activists were attacked, tortured, and killed, her public anti-apartheid views and works were unusual and invaluable. She was fearless, courageous, and unapologetic in her journey to helping others.
2. She was the considered the “mother” of the anti-apartheid movement and post-apartheid South Africa.
When Nelson Mandela was arrested and imprisoned in 1964, Winnie continued to carry on her husband’s legacy and mission.
This work came at a great cost: She was frequently detained by the South African government, making her subject to house arrest, reported torture, and extended periods of solitary confinement. During the later years of her husband’s imprisonment, she was exiled to the town of Brandfort in the Orange Free State and confined to the area, aside from rare times that she was allowed to visit her husband at the prison on Robben Island.
Unbeknownst to many, Madikizela-Mandela also did time in prison for her radical views. In 1969 and 1970, she spent 17 months in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison.
Eventually, she was recognized for her human rights work. In 1985, she was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
In April 2016, Madikizela-Mandela received one of South Africa’s highest honors: the Order of Luthuli, given, in part, for contributions to the struggle for democracy.
Photo by Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images.
3. In a very feminist act, she refused to be defined by her husband.
While Winnie repeatedly supported and expressed her love for her husband, she refused to be defined by him.
Known as a charming politician and activist, Madikizela-Mandela had a devoted following of her own among the most poor and disenfranchised communities in South Africa.
Photo by Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images.
Proudly known as being much more radical than her inclusive husband, Madikizela-Mandela led her own charge for democracy. The two divorced in 1996, and afterward, she was often asked about any chances at reconciliation. She replied, “I am not fighting to be the country’s first lady. In fact, I am not the sort of person to carry beautiful flowers and be an ornament to everyone.”
Madikizela-Mandela led a life most can only imagine. Fraught with hardship, imprisonment, and personal challenges, she had her share of issues and failings. But without her dedication and hard work, South Africa likely wouldn’t be the apartheid-free nation it is today.
Her power and strength was undeniable, and we can take the best of her life’s work and apply it to continuous fights against injustice and inequality in our world today.