Winnie Mandela in People’s History

By Zanib Abbasi

I, as a Black woman, am an eternal minor. [But, we are] one of the greatest resisters and, I believe, when we shall bring about the liberation of this land, the women will be in the forefront, emerging not only as martyrs… but as one of the greatest weapons, the greatest instruments, of liberation. (Winnie Mandela, quoted in Bernstein, p112)

This examination of the role of Winnie Mandela in the revolution to overthrow the apartheid system in South Africa will be conducted under the principles of People’s History (Dunbar-Ortiz; Neale; Zinn). One of the tenets of People’s History has it that it is not great heroes, not individuals who stand above the crowd, and not people with economic and political power as personages who are the motive force in the making of world history. Instead, it is the people in their millions who, by their collective actions determine the ebb and flow of events and historical processes, and determine all progress of humanity (Mao, 1945, p. 257).

A second principle of People’s History has it that any examination of the role of an individual is done so because the impact of the leadership of such an individual is a most accurate reflection of the tenor of the people, a reflection in this person of the movement of the people (Free My People, 1990, p1). Winnie Mandela’s contribution to the liberation of the South African people from the evil system of apartheid was such a reflection. It is the thesis of this essay that Winnie Mandela was the penultimate leader of the revolution against apartheid; and that, further, without her leadership the apartheid regime would not have fallen when it did.

Apartheid Apartheid was a political system which was born of and was typical of the era of Western colonialism and imperialism perpetrated principally by the countries of Europe and the United States against the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America from the 1700’s until the mid to late 20th century (Pomeroy, pp11–29). The White minority government — the Apartheid government in South Africa — was originally formed by European invaders from the Netherlands and Great Britain. (The “Great” in the name Great Britain refers to the political institution of colonizing other nations and peoples — thus making the British “great.”)

The regime of Apartheid became the political institution of governance in South Africa in 1948, shortly after the settler state of Israel was founded in Occupied Palestine. It remained as one of six settler states on planet Earth — along with Israel, the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (Horne, 2018) — until the revolution led by the African National Congress, and its penultimate leaders, Nelson and Winnie Mandela, brought it down in 1992.

Apartheid and Jim Crow As a progeny of European/US colonialism in general, the apartheid regime took its major inspiration from the Jim Crow form of slavery in the South of the United States which lasted from the end of chattel slavery after the Civil War (1865) until its demise at the hands of the Civil Rights Movement/Black Liberation Movement in the mid 1960’s (Zinkel).

African National Congress Immediately as the apartheid regime was formed the indigenous Africans of South Africa began organizing for their freedom. While the European invasion of and subjugation of the indigenous population began in the 1700’s, the forming of the apartheid regime in 1948 made the oppression of the people into an established political institution. In response the African National Congress (ANC, founded 30 years earlier) began in 1955 to lead workers strikes, boycotts of apartheid institutions and eventually the Defiance Campaign which marked the birth of the revolutionary movement to bring the system down (Rebirth Africa).

Nelson and Winnie Mandela Nelson Mandela was a founding member of the ANC, and as such was the principal architect of the national liberation movement. He met his soon to be wife, Winnie Mandela in 1957. In addition to marrying Nelson, Winnie immediately became active in the ANC.

The Soweto Uprising and the End of Apartheid Decades of political and military conflict resulted in the death of hundreds-of-thousands of Black South Africans as the apartheid regime grew into one of the world’s most infamous monstrosities — what with mass murders of the uprising people becoming a daily staple, and a word-wide horror. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, and his leadership of the guerrilla war to bring down apartheid was stunted. He soon became heralded internationally as one of the most important political prisoners in the world.

The mass youth/student led movement called The Soweto Uprising broke out in 1976, specifically in response to the law that required the occupier’s language, “Afrikaans,” to be the only language spoken by Black students in school. The regime’s mass slaughter of the students on June 16 1976, in which 575 students were murdered by the apartheid military, became a permanent form of life for Black youth of South Africa (Gaffey, 2016).

Winnie Mandela was leadership in the Black Women’s Federation, and this organization immediately came to the support of their children in the Soweto Uprising:

“Even initially, during the peaceful demonstrations, parents supported the pupils. But what really thrust the parents into action was the brutal killings… Nobody expected the cold-blooded murder of young children. So besides their solidarity with young people they were angered — and their hatred and rejection of the whole system came to the surface. They were completely with the students in their militancy” (Nkosazza Dlamini, quoted in Bernstein, 1985, p103).

The Soweto Uprising — a mass people’s revolutionary movement was characterized by the uninterrupted resistance of the people in their millions in the streets of South Africa. This, the major form of resistance, remained the principal form of resistance until the demise of apartheid in 1992.

It was in this historical moment that the astuteness of Winnie Mandela’s political leadership became known to the people of the world. Immediately as the youth uprising formed, Winnie Mandela saw it as the hope for the people of her country. She heralded the movement and its participants as the most brave, determined and righteous advocates for the freedom of the country (Mandela, 1985, pp112–118). She studied with, and mentored the youth leadership, and formed them into a fighting force which would gravely challenge the apartheid rulers.

The uninterrupted uprising led to the destabilization of the basic tenets of the economy and governance of the country by the apartheid regime. Things got so dire for the apartheid rulers that they began negotiating with the ANC. Winnie Mandela enjoined the students to continue their uprising without halt, even as she endorsed the negotiations. The unflinching and uncompromising character of the youth movement led to some differences among the leadership of the ANC (Lynn).

Some of the leaders, including Nelson Mandela himself, at one point in the late 1980’s began calling for a return to “normalcy,” so that negotiations could be conducted in a more peaceful atmosphere. It was clear to Winnie Mandela and the rest of the leadership of the uprising that such a “return to normalcy” benefited the apartheid rulers — they were trying to buy time while they searched for a way to maintain their rule in front of the protest and disapproval of the world’s people (Munusamy). The Soweto Uprising earned the Black youth of South Africa the approbation of the people of the world. It had become so heralded internationally that even settler states like the Untied States of America began to claim to be on the side of the Black South Africans and their fight for freedom from apartheid slavery (Jackson).

Ultimately, Nelson Mandela called on his wife to calm down the protests, to allow the negotiation process “to unfold.” Winnie Mandela refused this request from her husband (Munusamy). She was now the ultimate leader of the national revolutionary movement, and she disagreed with the sentiment of compromise. It was in these circumstances, such which brought the apartheid regime to its knees, that the regime stepped down and allowed Nelson Mandela to be released from 25 years of imprisonment. He emerged from his prison cell to then immediately (within two years) become the President of a new South Africa with the African National Congress as the governing political party.

Conclusion Winnie Mandela’s place in People’s History must be that of the ultimate liberator of her country. Nelson Mandela was let out of prison because she refused to stop the uprising. The apartheid rulers stepped down only because the people’s demands in the form of a total destabilization of the country would not bend.

Indeed, Winnie Mandela’s leadership places her in the center of People’s History as the African National Congress government goes through many trials and tribulations today. The White apartheid rulers are gone from government, but social class divisions remain. Winnie Mandela fought side by side with the most oppressed of her people, and until her death her allegiance was with this section of the population — the large majority on the bottom. It is this character of her leadership which signs her place in People’s History.


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