There is a saying that “behind every great man, is a woman”, yet that woman rarely every gets the credit she deserves. Nowhere is that more true than in the story of Winnie Mandela. You might think that you already know why but trust me, you don’t know have the full details. Don’t feel bad though. I didn’t have the complete story until I did the research myself in order to compete for $1,000 by delivering a speech on the aforementioned topic. I’ll give you a spoiler and let you know that I won. Whether I deserved to win or not can be decided by you. Here’s the speech for you….enjoy (and give me some feedback, please).
-originally presented on March 2014
>>>Good evening Ladies & Gentleman. I hope you got your thinking caps on because I have couple questions for you. With a show of hands, how many of you know who Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela is? Now how many of you know who Winnie Mandela is? I am sorry to have engaged in trickery to prove a point but Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela and Winnie Mandela are the same person. Now why is it that we fail to recognize her maiden name? Perhaps it is best explained by the belief that “behind every great man is a woman”. The key word in that oh so cliché quote is “behind”. That word “behind” belittles the efforts of great women in history who become overshadowed by their male partners. This is best exemplified in the story of Winnie Mandela whose struggles & contributions towards the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa marked her as a leader in her own right.
Even before she married Nelson Mandela, Winnie’s name was associated with greatness. In 1955, while South Africa was under apartheid, she rejected a scholarship offer to continue her studies in the United States and instead she became the first qualified black social worker at the Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. Winnie made this remarkable decision due to her dedication to her people and her desire to improve the conditions in South Africa. Winnie also realized that politics was a tool that could be used to enact change and therefore she became involved in the African National Congress or the ANC. At the time Nelson Mandela was heavily involved with the ANC as the president of the Youth League and naturally, Winnie and Nelson became partners, politically and of course romantically. However, their newly wedded marriage was interrupted in 1964 when Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. Despite having to raise two young daughters on her own, Winnie was devoted to the anti-apartheid movement and continued working with the ANC. As such, the white-supremacist apartheid government considered Winnie a threat to the status quo. In the government’s efforts to restrain her, Winnie was arrested in 1969 under the Suppression of Terrorism Act. After her arrest she was tortured in solitary confinement for 17 months but even that did not break Winnie. She continued her efforts to end apartheid and was arrested several more times. As such, she became known as a leader and the title “Mother of the Nation” was bestowed upon her.
In 1976 when hundreds of students were killed in uprisings in Soweto, Winnie was placed in house arrest in a remote town due to the government’s fear of retaliation when she formed the Black Women’s Federation and the Black Parents’ Association that sought to empower Black South Africans. While under house arrest in the remote township of Brandfort, she founded a birthing center and a clinic with a local doctor in order to help improve the health conditions in the area since Blacks did not have equal access to health care in apartheid South Africa. Despite house arrest, Winnie also persisted in speaking out against apartheid and in 1981 she made a statement to BBC about the economic power of black South Africans and their ability to crush the system.
During this difficult time of isolation and oppression, she kept the ANC alive and more importantly, she kept Mandela’s memory alive. Winnie did not forget Mandela and she did not let South Africa forget either. When she was released from house arrest and returned to the black township of Soweto, she made sure that Mandela’s name was still relevant in the struggle of freedom and that the people of South Africa still looked to him as a leader. As such, the so-called roles of leadership had been reversed; now Winnie was seen as the great woman and Nelson as the man behind her. She was the “Mother of the Nation”.
Twenty -seven years after his detainment, in 1991 Nelson Mandela walked out of prison with Winnie by his side. Even with his release, Winnie never went back to being the woman behind the great man. She supported him to help him gain favor of the people, as she was now a leader in her own right. In 1993 she was elected president of the ANC Women’s League and the following year, during the 1994 elections, when Nelson was elected president of the free republic of South Africa, she was appointed deputy minister of Arts, Culture, and Science and Technology. This appointment recognized her not only as a leader but also as a freedom fighter securing the liberation of South Africa.
I’m sure you are all aware that Winnie’s reputation is not without controversy. But despite these controversies, we must remember that no leader is perfect, they are human just like us, they have flaws just like us & they make mistakes just like us. Therefore, in light of the accusations against her, we must not forget Winnie’s great contributions to the nation of South Africa & to the world. We must remember her as the woman that is not left behind, we must remember her as the “Mother of the Nation”.<<<