Universities mourn ‘Mother of the nation’ Winnie Mandela

The country’s universities last week mourned the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, anti-apartheid icon and former wife of democratic South Africa’s first president Nelson Mandela, who passed away in Johannesburg on 2 April at the age of 81 after a long illness.

The flag above the Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) in Johannesburg, where Madikizela-Mandela obtained a bachelor of arts degree, was flown at half-mast in honour of her memory. The University of the Free State also announced it would fly its flags at half-mast as a symbol of respect.

In a tweet, Minister of Higher Education Naledi Pandor said: “As a freedom fighter, your body had served its purpose. Your soul had done what it came to do, learned what it came to learn, and then was free to leave. We are because of you! Rest in Power Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.”

In a statement, Wits University, where Madikizela-Mandela obtained a degree in political science in the 1980s, described Madikizela-Mandela as an activist and leader at the forefront of the struggle for freedom.

“Mama Madikizela-Mandela did not hesitate to speak her mind, and to sacrifice her personal freedoms and her family, in the quest for the freedom and liberation of South Africans from apartheid,” said Buhle Zuma, Wits senior communications officer.

A political stalwart in her own right, Mama Madikizela-Mandela gave of herself in the fight for gender equity and social justice, Zuma said. She always made time to listen to young students and spent many hours offering them inspiration and hope over the years, he added.

After the publication of the Dutch translation of Part of My Soul Went with Him, a book Winnie Mandela wrote in 1985, she received an honorary doctorate from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. In January, she was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree from Uganda’s Makerere University for her contribution to the freedom struggle.

“The passing on of the Mother of the Nation, Winnie Mandela is a huge loss for Africa. Winnie Mandela made a remarkable contribution to Africa’s emancipation from colonial rule and apartheid, two evil systems of oppression that marginalised and dehumanised black African people,” Professor Barnabas Nawangwe, vice-chancellor of Makerere University told University World News.

“Winnie will forever remain in our hearts,” he said.

The University of Johannesburg also expressed its “profound sadness” on her death. Spokesperson Herman Esterhuizen described her as a lifelong servant of the people whose contribution to South African political and cultural life had captured the imagination of the world.

Dr Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said Madikizela-Mandela, affectionately known as the ‘Mother of the Nation’, was an example of outstanding courageous defiance, and a revolutionary who dedicated herself to the people.

“She endured extraordinary circumstances during the imprisonment of her then husband, the late former president Nelson Mandela, on Robben Island. She distinguished herself as a fearless freedom fighter, in the face of perpetual harassment of her family by security forces, detentions, bannings, and banishments,” he said in a statement.

“With all her complexities, the struggle icon will be remembered for her exceptional fighting spirit, activism and for being a symbol of promise for a liberatory future,” he said.

Born on 26 September 1936 as the fifth of nine children in the village of Mbongweni in Bizana in the Transkei, now the Eastern Cape, Madikizela-Mandela received her primary education in Bizana and later completed her matric at Shawbury High School.

In 1956 Madikizela-Mandela completed a diploma at the Jan H Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg. Her involvement in the liberation struggle dates back to the 1950s. Her first detention was in 1958 during the mass arrest of women involved in the anti-pass campaign.

Nelson Mandela and Madikizela-Mandela celebrated their engagement in Johannesburg on 25 May 1958. She became an enigmatic figure in South African society as she stood by her husband who was incarcerated at Robben Island for 27 years.

In the year of the Soweto Uprisings in 1976, the government banished her to a small town of Brandfort, about 400 kilometres south-west of Johannesburg, where she spent eight years. During that time she was arrested several times for violating her banishment orders.

A controversial figure in her later years, Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of kidnapping in 1991 and fraud in 2003. Her sentence for the former was reduced to a fine on appeal and the latter was suspended. Winnie and Nelson Mandela divorced in 1996. She remained respected within the African National Congress and was a member of parliament until her death.