The rock that was Mama Winnie

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Very few people in South Africa can claim to be unfamiliar with the statement:  ‘When you strike a woman, you strike a rock’.

This statement, which grew popular in the 1950s, became a rallying international slogan to demonstrate the strength of women in their fight against the Apartheid government’s atrocities.

No one can claim to have popularised this slogan better than Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The African National Congress (ANC) activist and former wife of South Africa’s first democratically elected President Nelson Mandela died in Johannesburg last week, aged 81.

Since the news of her death broke, everyone has had an opinion about Madikizela-Mandela’s life. In life, she has been adored, feared, and some would say misunderstood. After her death, it is not surprising therefore to read all the varying opinions about her.

Despite her bearing one of the world’s most famous names, very few people actually knew much about Madikizela-Mandela’s life beyond the headlines, controversies and sound-bites.

Following her passing, SAnews sought to learn more about this icon and there was no better place to start looking than in the places Mama lived in, worked and where she interacted with ordinary people.

One of the places one needs to visit in order to learn more about the woman that was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is without a doubt, the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, Johannesburg. This is the hospital where Madikizela-Mandela made history by becoming the first qualified black medical social worker at the hospital.

When she completed her degree in social work in 1955, finishing at the top of her class, she was offered a scholarship to further her studies in the United States.

After a distressing dilemma on whether to leave South Africa to further her studies in the US, or stay and pursue her dream of becoming a social worker in South Africa, Madikizela-Mandela decided on the latter, a decision that would change her life forever.

“When Winnie came along, she was the first black candidate, knew the community, knew the language and knew the circumstances, so it was easy for government to employ her. This opened doors for others who were most commonly confined to jobs as teachers and nurses.

“Basically, she was the first non-nursing, qualified person coming into a field which was dominated by whites,” says Dr Chris van der Heever who was an intern at Chris Hani Baragwanath during Madikizela-Mandela’s time there.

It was at Chris Hani Baragwanath, one of the world's largest hospitals, that the dedicated Madikizela-Mandela would learn, through her field work, of the deplorable state that many of her patients lived in.

It was at this point that she became acutely aware of the huge gap between the privileged white minority groups and the high levels of poverty that black people were subjected to.

This is because the hospital reflected the broad social, economic and political challenges of the system, Van der Heever says.

Madikizela-Mandela was also particularly affected by the research she had carried out in her work, which showed that ten out of 1000 black babies died during birth. Deaths that need not have happened.

Although Van der Heever only returned to be a superintendent, an equivalent to the CEO of the hospital after Mama Winnie had left, his predecessors had informed him that as a social worker, the struggle stalwart proved to be very dedicated, hardworking and resourceful, despite having experienced first-hand the after effects of the apartheid police brutality on a day-to-day basis from her patients.

Whilst working at the hospital, Madikizela-Mandela’s interest in national politics continued to grow as she moved into one of the hotels connected to the hospital which she shared a dormitory with Adelaide Tsukudu, who was to be the wife of ANC president Oliver Tambo. It was at this point that she was introduced to Mandela, a man she would marry at the young age of 23.

This is the time when Madikizela-Mandela’s reputation also began to grow, with stories about her and her photographs appearing in newspapers, much to the surprise of the staff at the hospital.

Van der Heever recalls Madikizela-Mandela’s fierce determination and resolute courage as he had several encounters with her, even when she left the hospital for politics.

“The first time I had a real and personal encounter with her was when we had a number of hunger-striking prisoners from the Diepkloof prison that were transferred to the hospital.

“A request came through that Mrs Mandela would like to come through and talk to the prisoners. When she came, she was accompanied by Gill Marcus and they had a word with them.”

Van der Heever remembers how Madikizela Mandela boldly took on authorities whenever there was a need and consistently maintained her reputation as a courageous person.

“My other encounter with her was after the murder of Chris Hani. I got a request that she would like to come and visit the hospital and speak to the hospital staff and patients. I met her in my office and she was accompanied by Sam Shilowa. 

“She was a very charismatic lady who was in control and she defiantly made an impression. She was very bold. She looked me in the eye and gave me a firm handshake and told me she would like to speak.”

It was at that address to the hospital community that Mama Winnie initiated the process to rename the hospital to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital which we know of today, Van der Heever says.

“She had an impact on the health sector even though it was a short stint.  She also had an enormous impact on the struggle. She was not exiled across the border. She lived in South Africa and fought within the country for change towards the democratic South Africa we see today.”

Today, the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, does not only serve the people of Gauteng, but serves as a referral hospital for the continent.

The social service unit, which Mama Winne used to work in, has grown to have a staff complement of 26 people, who see an average of 900 patients a month.

Last week, current acting CEO, Dr Sifiso Maseko, and staff also paid their tributes to Madikizela-Mandela’s contribution to the hospital.

“She made a conscious choice to be with the people. As such, it would be an honour to name some part of the hospital after her.”

It would appear that Mama Winnie’s social worker skills were felt even in her later life. Neighbours from Orlando, where she had lived until her death, spoke fondly of her describing her generosity and ability to engage with people from all walks of life.

“We have lost a brave leader who cared for her community, said a neighbour and fellow congregant Babsy Mangqalaza who could not contain her tears when reliving the neighbourly relations she shared with Mama Winnie.

Mangqalaza said like any neighbour, Madikizela-Mandela would invite those around her house when she had social events like birthdays or weddings.

“She would call us, and when there were funerals, she’d always come and support.

“We will remember her humanity and for the simple things, she did…she loved gardening and would interact with us when she was busy in her garden. Whenever the community had a service delivery issue – we knew Mama would talk to the right people and have it resolved. As the community of Orlando, we have lost our rock and we will remember her work.”

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