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​​Winnie: Soweto's most famous lady
The famous photograph of Mandela and Winnie on his release from prison on 11 February 1990, on display at the Mandela House Museum in SowetoThe famous photograph of Mandela and Winnie on his release from prison on 11 February 1990, on display at the Mandela House Museum in Soweto

​The "mother of the nation" still lives in Soweto, and is greeted with love and affection wherever she goes.

WINNIE MADIKIZELA-MANDELA has lived in Johannesburg since 1952, when she moved to the city from her birthplace in the Transkei - except for the nine years banished to Brandfort.

She still lives in the suburb she moved into with her ex-husband, Nelson Mandela, in 1958 - Orlando West. That house, 8115 Vilakazi Street, was converted into the Mandela Museum in 1996, when they divorced. The house is now undergoing restoration, to be opened in early 2009, and is likely to draw even more visitors than it has over the past decade or more.

From the moment of her marriage to Mandela, Madikizela-Mandela was doomed to decades of harassment, imprisonment and torture at the hands of the apartheid security police. It started in 1958, when she was detained for her participation in the women's anti-pass campaign.

Once she was on her own, after Mandela was imprisoned for life in the 1964 Rivonia Trial, she was thrown in at the deep end.

"She was left to cope with extremely difficult circumstances on her own and she began to work clandestinely for the ANC. She participated in underground meetings and organised the printing and circulation of Roneoed pamphlets," says Sheila Meintjies in a 1998 report.

Transkei birth
She was born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela in 1934 in the Bizana district of the former Transkei, the fifth of eight children. Her parents, Columbus and Gertrude Madikizela, were both teachers. Her mother died when she was 10, and she soon took over the domestic duties - caring for her younger siblings and doing her father's laundry.

Madikizela-Mandela attended school where her father was a history teacher. She learned Latin and English, science and maths, and she became his favourite child. Her father believed that as she had cared for her siblings so well, she should study to be a social worker.

In 1952, the she arrived in Johannesburg to study to be a social worker, doing her training at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

"Winnie was a remarkably effective and dedicated social worker," says Emma Gilbey in The Lady, the Life and Times of Winnie Mandela. "The patience and resourcefulness she had demonstrated with her younger brothers and sisters were now put to daily, professional use."

It was in Johannesburg that Madikizela-Mandela met Mandela in 1957. Soon after meeting her, Mandela asked her out, taking her to his favourite restaurant - Kapitan's in downtown Joburg.

It was also in Joburg that she first met Helen Joseph, who became like a mother to the young 23-year-old. It was Joseph who began her political education, encouraged by Mandela.

Falling in love
In the meantime, Madikizela and Mandela, both tall and statuesque, were falling in love.

Mandela writes in Long Walk to Freedom of their first date: "I told her of my hope and of the difficulties of the Treason Trial. I knew at once that I wanted to marry her - and I told her so. Her spirit, her passion, her youth, her courage, her wilfulness - I felt all of these things the moment I first saw her."

Gilbey explains: "Electrified by each other's presence, they glowed together. Individually they were each highly charismatic, as a couple they were overpowering."

The two of them married in the Transkei on 14 June 1958 - she was 23, he was 40, and newly divorced, and returned to Orlando West, where they began a family. His marriage proposal to her was unusual.

"One day, Nelson just pulled up on the side of the road and said: ‘You know, there is a woman, a dressmaker, you must and go and see her, she is going to make your wedding-gown. How many bridesmaids would you like to have?' That's how I was told I was getting married to him!" Madikizela-Mandela says in Part of my Soul.

In 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, and sent to Robben Island, to be released in 1990. Life for his young wife, with two young children, was hard.

"The first few weeks and months after Nelson was gone, that was utter hell. Solitude, loneliness, is worse than fear - the most wretchedly painful illness the body and mind could be subjected to," she recounts in Part of my Soul.

In 1969, she was arrested and tried under the 1967 Terrorism Act. It was her first taste of jail and solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and torture. Her life became one banning order after another, with security policemen always in the background.

In 1977, she was banished to Brandfort in the Free State. She lived in a small box house, with "no running water, no electricity, and the house had no floors or ceilings. The town was hostile, and the people spoke mainly Sotho, Tswana or Afrikaans, and hardly any Xhosa, which was Winnie's home language", says Meintjies.

She opened a clinic, a crèche and initiated feeding schemes for the young children of Brandfort.

Return to Joburg
But she defiantly returned to Soweto in 1986, where she formed the Mandela United Football Club - they were in effect her personal bodyguards. In 1991 she was charged and convicted with the kidnapping and murder of Stompie Seipei. She received a six-year sentence but this was reduced to a fine of R15 000.

After Mandela was released from jail in 1990 they resumed married life briefly in their small Vilakazi Street home, but it didn't last - they separated in 1992, and divorced in 1996.

In 1993, Madikizela-Mandela was elected president of the ANC Women's League, a position she held until 2003. She was elected to the ANC National Executive Committee at the 2007 ANC conference in Polokwane.

At 75, she has retained her beauty, and is always immaculately dressed. She still lives in Soweto, and her public appearances are always accompanied by excited crowds, greeting the "mother of the nation" with affection.
​​Winnie: Soweto's most famous lady