The Life of Winnie Mandela

The following text was reprinted from Black Women in South Africa and the Case of Winnie Mandela, by the Winnie Mandela Solidarity Coalition, c/o BCLSA, box 8791, Boston, MA. 02114.
The Winnie Mandela Solidarity Coalition (WMSC) was formed in Boston, Massachusetts in response to the interest generated by a forum on repression in South Africa held by the Third World Women’s Organization. The goals of the WMSC were to build a campaign to free Winnie Mandela and other women political prisoners in South Africa and to educate, organize, and involve individual women and women’s organizations in support of South African liberation. The WMSC supported United States corporate withdrawal from South Africa. Activities of the coalition included educational programs and production and dissemination of leaflets and a poster. On International Women’s Day, March 8, 1978, the WMSC held a press conference at the First National Bank of Boston to protest the bank’s involvement in South Africa and in solidarity with Winnie Mandela who was in jail in South Africa at the time. (Source: Caroline Hunter and Black Women in South Africa and the Case of Winnie Mandela, Winnie Mandela Solidarity Coalition, 1978)
Printing of the original pamphlet was made possible by a grant from the Haymarket People’s Fund

Winnie Mandela is a leading light among South African women activists. Her life stands as an example both of the ruthless persecution that the South African regime brings down on people who refuse to bow to its tyranny and of the undaunted spirit that continues to oppose that regime. Winnie Mandela has been imprisoned and her movements have been restricted time and again, although she has never been convicted of any crime except for technical violations of her banning orders. Her moments of liberty have been very brief, but they have shown her to be steadfast in her conviction.

Nomzamo Winnie Mandela was born in 1934 and grew up in a rural area. Moving to Johannesburg, she earned a diploma in social science and became a social worker. 

In 1958 she married Nelson Mandela, a leader of the ANC. Later that year she participated along with hundreds of other African women in a demonstration against passbooks. Although pregnant at the time, Mrs. Mandela was arrested and had to spend two weeks in jail.

In 1960 the ANC was banned and Nelson Mandela went underground, he was arrested a year later and has remained in prison ever since. He is serving a life sentence at the infamous Robben Island prison.


On January 28, 1963, Winnie Mandela was served with a two- year banning order. This meant that she could not leave the Johannesburg area, attend meetings, or communicate with other banned persons. Special permission was required for her to visit her husband.

Two years later, a stricter five-year banning order was issued. Now Winnie Mandela could not leave the Orlando area of Soweto. She was not allowed to enter any school or publishing house. She lost her job as a social worker. 

In 1966 Mrs. Mandela was granted permission to visit her husband on Robben Island with the condition that she travel by train to Cape Town. Finding the train full, she took a plane instead so that she could reach her husband before the permit expired. As a result, she was charged with violating her banning order and sentenced to 14 months imprisonment, all but 4 days suspended. This is just one example of the arbitrary and inhuman rules imposed by the apartheid regime.

Political Prisoners Tortured

In May 1969, Winnie Mandela was arrested along with 40 others under the Internal Security Act. She spent the next 491 days in detention, most of it in solitary confinement, although she was not charged with any crime. Two of the detainees, a moslem leader and a trade union leader, died during interrogation in prison.

In October 1969, Winnie Mandela and 21 other African detainees were charged with furthering the activities of the ANC. Mrs. Mandela stated that she had been cruelly interrogated for five days and five nights despite a heart condition. Other detainees testified that they had been tortured.

The court acquitted all the accused in February 1930. However, they were immediately re-detained under the Terrorism Act, which empowers the police to hold people indefinitely. Nationwide protests greeted this act. In June of that year, Winnie Mandela and 19 others were charged under the terrorism act. They were acquitted once again in September.

Only two weeks later, Mrs. Mandela was again banned for 5 years and placed under house arrest from 6 PM To 6 AM on weekdays, and from 2 PM to 6 AM. on weekends and holidays. She was arrested three times in the next few years and convicted of violating her banning orders with charges such as receiving visits from one of her sisters who came to help her when she was sick.

Family and friends of Winnie Mandela have been harassed in connection with visits made to her or for refusing to speak against her. Her sister, Nomyamise Madikizela, was held in solitary confinement and threatened with 10 years in prison if she refused to testify against her. 

Black Pride and Unity

Winnie Mandela was free from September 1975 to August 1976— her one period of liberty since 1962. She spoke out courageously for South African liberation at that time. After the Soweto Revolt of June 1976, she was active in founding and leading the Black Parents Association (BPA). In a speech at the founding of the BPA Winnie Mandela called for black pride and black unity against the oppressors:

“It is only when all black groups join hands and speak with one voice that we shall be a bargaining force which will decide its own destiny. This is the only way in which we shall maintain our oneness. We know what we want, our aspirations are dear to us, we are not asking for majority rule; it is our right, we shall have it at any cost. We are aware that the road before us is uphill, but we shall fight to the

bitter end for justice…

Let us leave this meeting with the spirit of rebirth, of purification from the humiliation of domination. If you are to free yourselves, you must break the chains of oppression yourselves. Only then can we express our dignity; only when we have liberated ourselves can we cooperate with other groups. Any acceptance of humiliation, indignity, or insult is acceptance of inferiority. We have to think of ourselves as men and women. As one quotation goes, ‘once the mind is free, the body will soon be free.’”

Banished to Brandfort

Winnie Mandela was arrested again in August 1936 under the preventive detention clause of the Internal Security Act, used by the government to stifle unrest by removing the leadership. She remained in prison for four months but was never charged. After her release in December, she was served with a five-year banning order,

Justice Minister Kruger then decided that ‘it was better to have her out of Soweto at the present time.’ She believes she was chosen as a scapegoat for the uprising. In May 1977, she was arrested and driven 200 miles to the small town of Brandfort. She lives there with her teenage daughter, Zindzi, the youngest of her 4 children, far from friends and relatives, restricted to meeting with no more than one person. The people of the town are afraid to talk to her. She is unable to find work and has to live on a pension. She is constantly watched by the police.

While in Brandfort in 1977, Winnie Mandela was charged with the ‘crime’ of having taken part in a conversation about chicken in the presence of two other people, and unlawfully receiving visitors— who came to see her daughter. The courtroom overflowed with supporters at her trial. She received international attention and support as well. She was given a six month’s suspended sentence. Police had to disperse a spontaneous demonstration of support on the day the sentence was pronounced.

Stay and Fight

The South African government has stated that it would not stop Winnie Mandela from leaving for exile. However, she is dedicated to remaining in her country and fighting for change. As she said, ‘if anyone should leave, it is not me, it’s the settler government.’

Apartheid and The United States

What does Winnie Mandela have to do with us?

We in the United States are connected in very real ways to the lives and struggles of Winnie Mandela and other women in South Africa. Corporations benefit from racism in the United States and South Africa alike. Employers encourage and use racism and sexism to divide workers and keep wages low. Blacks and women in the United States are denied equal access to education and jobs. South Africa mirrors a more extreme version of many of the same injustices found in our own country.

Capitalist Nations Prop Up South Africa

We live in a country which (along with other nations such as Great Britain, France, West Germany, Israel, Canada, and Japan) makes it possible for the South African white regime to survive. These nations provide South Africa with support that is essential for the maintenance of apartheid. They provide markets for South African mineral wealth gold, diamonds, and uranium. They supply technological know-how, military aid, and nuclear technology. For example, computers provided by IBM and photographic equipment from Polaroid enable the South African government to implement its system of pass laws. Military vehicles manufactured by general motors are used to put down black resistance within South Africa. Banks give direct loans to the South African government and to companies operating in South Africa. The United States, United Kingdom, France and other powerful western nations allow South Africa to survive politically and economically by routinely vetoing United Nations resolutions calling for an economic boycott of South Africa.

United States Investment in Apartheid

The United States has had investments in South Africa since long before World War 2. Now the United States has $1.8 billion worth of direct investment in South Africa. While over 400 United States firms have interests in South Africa, the 13 largest account for over three quarters of total United states direct investment there. The 13 play an important role in the United States economy, as they do in South Africa. They are Caterpillar, Chrysler, Firestone, Ford, General Electric, General Motors, Goodyear, IBM, ITT, 3M, Mobile, Texaco and Standard Oil of California and Union Carbide. United States companies also have an unknown amount of indirect investment in South Africa through European firms.

United States banks have approved at least $3 billion in loans to South Africa in the last 6 years. At the same time, they refuse loans to city and state governments, forcing them to cut back on social services. For example, the First National Bank of Boston has admitted to $28 million in loans to South Africa, including at least $14 million directly to the South African government. It has also given loans to the Foxboro Corporation of Massachusetts, enabling it to supply South Africa with nuclear technology. The same banks are being reviewed by the United States Department of Labor for discrimination against women and minorities. It also provides loans to Massachusetts businesses which decide to relocate overseas where labor is cheaper and there are no unions. It denies mortgages in low income areas of Boston and Massachusetts. This is only one of many United States banks with such practices.

Foreign companies enforce apartheid in their daily operations and benefit from the cheap labor apartheid provides. Multinational corporations have been making enormous profits from their investments in South Africa — higher than anywhere else in the world. Many corporations claim that they can change the system of apartheid from within by introducing reforms inside their plants. None of these attempts have had any impact, and black leaders have stated that the only way for corporations to weaken the system is to withdraw completely. 

United States intervention in South Africa a Danger

United States interests in South Africa provide the material basis for United States policy toward southern Africa. Again. And again, in southeast Asia, Chile, Angola, and elsewhere in the world, we have seen that the United States will act militarily either openly or secretly to protect its business interests. United States investment in South Africa brings us dangerously close to becoming in-volved once again on the wrong side of a people’s fight for freedom. 

Importance of International Support

Just as international capitalist support is crucial in maintaining the racist South African regime, international support for the liberation struggle in South Africa can make an important difference. In the words of Winnie Mandela:

“I can tell you from my own personal experience over the past 15 years, when I was confined and restricted, that I got my inspiration from the very knowledge that one is not alone. The knowledge that the struggle is an international struggle for the dignity of man and that you are part of this family of man–  this alone sustains you. In our particular struggle these outside groups have a tremendous psychological effect on the masses, on us as individuals — just that knowledge alone that we belong to a family of man in a society where we have been completely rejected by a minority.”

Already our campaigns in the United States and the progress of the liberation struggles are having an impact on United States investment in South Africa. United States banks and corporations, fearful of losing credibility here and of the consequences of a mass uprising in South Africa, are beginning to ease themselves out of South Africa. More and more universities and organizations, like unions, are divesting from corporations involved in South Africa. But we have to keep the pressure up, for the corporations decisions are not based on morality, but on their profits.

Read more about the current politics of South Africa here on the blog.

More from this Writer

“To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.”
― Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth