Winnie Madikizela-Mandela hailed as an outspoken, powerful feminist

Madikizela-Mandela was known for being outspoken about the challenges black women faced during and after apartheid.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela saluting the crowd at the start of the ANC's 54th national conference on 16 December 2017. Picture: Ihsaan Haffejee/EWN

JOHANNESBURG - Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's role as a feminist is inextricably tied to her fight against the apartheid regime and continues to inspire many young women in South Africa and beyond.

She was known for being outspoken about the challenges black women faced during and after apartheid, having been on the receiving end of these brutalities herself as a mother, wife and activist during the struggle.

One of her popular quotes on patriarchy goes as follows: "The overwhelming majority of women accept patriarchy unquestioningly and even protect it, working out the resultant frustrations not against men but against themselves in their competition for men as sons, lovers and husbands. Traditionally the violated wife bides her time and off-loads her built-in aggression on her daughter-in-law. So men dominate women through the agency of women themselves."

Author, public speaker, columnist and feminist Sisonke Msimang reflects on Winnie the feminist, saying she was a powerful, intellectual figure.

"I didn’t appreciate her fully until I was older. In the last few years, I have come to truly understand what a powerful intellect she was. Still, I remember seeing pictures of her and watching her at rallies. She was always in the centre of things, never aloof. Her voice - that deep booming voice - so distinctive.

"She was an image - a woman in military fatigues. And she was a powerful image. It was only when I started trying to understand the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] and the story of reconciliation and forgiveness that I went back int the archives and began to listen to her - to actually take in the meaning of her words and her leadership."

On her portrayal in the media and how she was seen as a villain by some during and after apartheid, Msimang says Madikizela-Mandela's vilification says more about the media and its differential treatment of women leaders, than
anything else.

"We have a name, of a sad and terrified boy who was caught up in a terrible time, because the ANC, the media and investigators spent a disproportionate amount of time tracking her and focussing on her because she was outspoken, unapologetic and a woman.

"There are many other sad stories - until it is recognised that the era was complicated and many male leaders did worse without repercussion, and without the same type of trauma as Mam' Winnie - I think it would be a mistake to
overemphasise those issues over the many many years she worked tirelessly for our freedom."