Tribute to a life well-lived

Sunday, April 8, 2018

It was in 1988 when the now National Council of Provinces (NCOP) chairperson, Thandi Modise, first met Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. 

When she met Madikizela-Mandela, Modise, a former uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) commander, had just been released from prison for her role in organising the townships to fight against the apartheid regime. 

With the apartheid state security following their every move, their meeting was short and done “over the fence” of Madikizela-Mandela’s home in Orlando, Soweto. 

“It had to be a planned meeting. Peter Mokaba took me there, as I was in Soweto and meeting the leadership of the people. I did not go into Mam’ Winnie’s home. We did everything over the fence. The state security was still following me and Mam’ Winnie was being looked at herself,” says Modise. 

The NCOP chairperson spoke to SAnews in an exclusive interview this week, as tributes continue to pour in for Madikizela-Mandela, who died early last week. She was 81. 

This week, top dignitaries and politicians, including President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Deputy David Mabuza, visited Madikizela-Mandela’s Orlando home in Soweto. She will receive a Special Official Funeral scheduled for this coming weekend in Johannesburg. 

Modise recalls how overwhelmed and honoured she was to meet the great Winnie, a woman who became known for her defiant stance against apartheid and its security apparatus. 

“Our first meeting was not a ‘sit down and drink tea’ kind of meeting. It was like, ‘Mam’ Winnie, I am out’ and she responded with, “mntanam (my child) I have heard about you,” says Modise. 

Like all other young women at that time, Modise says she was overwhelmed and at the same time, honoured to have met Madikizela-Mandela. 

“I was meeting a person I had read and heard about, a person utterly disliked by the apartheid regime. Someone who had gone through great difficulties.” 

It was this encounter that led to the mother and daughter relationship being forged between the two women brought together by the struggle for liberation. 

Modise would later work under Madikizela-Mandela during the latter’s tenure as President of the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL) between 1994 and 1997. 

As Deputy President of the ANCWL, Modise says her working relationship with Madikizela-Mandela blossomed outside the confines of the office and beyond politics. During this period, she learned many lessons from Madikizela-Mandela on issues of character, leadership and feminism. 

“There really is no one word to sum Comrade Winnie. She was direct, courageous and she confronted issues. She did not hesitate when she thought a wrong was being done. 

“She spoke up. But she was also a loving person. Those arms would just open up and envelope people. She had quick tears. She opened up with everyone, the poor and the destitute,” says Modise. 

Mama Winnie made many sacrifices 

Madikizela-Mandela’s commitment to the liberation of South Africa came with many sacrifices. Incarcerated from time to time and for months on end, she surrendered her family time and struggled to fulfil her role as a mother to her two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi. 

During her imprisonment, her children would use different identities at boarding schools to disguise and protect them. 

“She married Nelson Mandela and she would often crack a joke about how Madiba said to her, ‘You have now married the struggle’. 

“She had to adapt. She had to always remember that in the struggle, you were humiliated, you were down but she remembered the reasons she joined the struggle and the cause of the many people, including her husband, who were fighting for liberation. 

“Whatever action she took, she would say it was for a liberated South Africa, where my children will not have to go through what I went through,” says Modise.   

Modise acknowledges that while Madikizela-Mandela’s training as a social worker may have played a role in cultivating her interest in the plight of the people and ultimately moulding her as an activist, she believes it is a number of factors that gave birth to Winnie the activist and politician. 

“I think it may have been her training as a social worker or her background from home. It may also have been that, from a very young age, she was mothering her own siblings following the passing of her mother. 

“It may have come from understanding the pain of being a young parent, a young bride without a partner, having to raise a family alone. It may have come from being a woman who is a newly-wed to an older man with an established circle of friends, who suddenly finds herself with two children and without her husband.  She was also deeply religious so it may have been the Christian aspect,” says Modise. 

Always led from the front 

On lessons she learned from Madikizela-Mandela as a leader, Modise says she was inspired by the fact that Madikizela-Mandela did not hold back her views and always led from the front. 

“She did things practically. When things were tough, she did not send us and stay in a safe office. She went before us or went with us.  One was always sure to be well fed around her because she loved feeding people. 

“I learned a lot from her, I learned to speak my mind without fear and I learned to repeat myself because I believed in what I said in the first place. I also learned that when you are on the right side of the people, nobody could ultimately win against you.” 

Reflecting on some of the conversations that have erupted since the passing of the struggle stalwart on the afternoon of 2 April, Modise says one of the things people need to understand about Madikizela-Mandela is that she was never a shadow of her late husband and global icon, Nelson Mandela. 

“Winnie would never be in anybody’s shadow. She chartered her own path and sometimes when you chart a path, you trample on toes. You are on virgin ground and you will make mistakes. The thing about Comrade Winnie was her ability to find her footing again whenever she erred.” 


Madikizela-Mandela was born in the Mbongweni village of Bizana in the Eastern Cape, the same town that gave birth to struggle icon Oliver Reginald Tambo.  She married Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg in 1958 and the two remained married for 38 years and had two children together. 

She served as a Member of Parliament from 1994 to 2003 and from 2009 until her death, and was a Deputy Minister from 1994 to 1996.

Modise believes that women will pay homage to heroines of the struggle such as Mama Winnie, Ruth Mompati and Albertina Sisulu. The government has declared 2018 as the Year of Albertina Sisulu Centenary. 

“I think young women today would be doing credit to people like Mam’ Winnie, Ruth Mompati and Ma Sisulu by recognising that we are still the majority in the world as women. We have the same, if not better, brains and until we take our positions in this world, the lot of women and children in the world will not improve,” says Modise.  

She further calls for the stories of liberation, especially those of women, to be told so they do not fade but echo through generations. 

“It is important that we keep telling the stories of women in the struggle and liberation because like in any other country after the liberation wars, the history of women is painted out. We are reduced to being partners and wives, our role is never really entrenched. 

“Telling these stories is important because if you want to build a complete nation that has no gender-based violence and that is really equal, then you must produce a well-rounded human being and a well-rounded human being is one who acknowledges the feminine and male parts. 

“We would encourage that our feminine and male part be nurtured and guided by both parents,” says Modise. 

As the chairperson of the NCOP, Modise says in honour of Mam Winnie’s legacy, Parliament will continue to ask the tough questions, hold the executive accountable and champion the rights of South Africans. 

“One of the first things that we will do is to follow up on the monument that was supposed to be built in her name. We will honour Mam’ Winnie by asking the executive to do what it was supposed to do and by ensuring that the judicial system begins to respect the lives of women. 

“We will honour comrade Winnie in asking the right questions, which she would have asked on behalf of South Africans as public representatives,” says Modise. –