Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the Committee of 81
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”
― Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
I met Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1980 when she summoned leaders of the Committee of 81 to meet with her. At the time Winnie was both “banished and banned” to Brandfort and she had to get special permission to visit Nelson on Robben Island. It was on one of her visits to Cape Town that Winnie took the opportunity to send for us.
“Winnie Mandela wants to urgently meet the Committee of 81 leaders and she has limited time. You must come right now!” So, student leaders from ID Mkhize, Fezeka and Bridgetown High Schools were whisked away to see Winnie at a house in Elsies River. I was surprised to learn that whenever Winnie visited Nelson she stayed on the Cape Flats - with an Indian couple who were both medical doctors.
The second Winnie walked into the room, the room felt so small. She was very imposing; imperial and haughty. I was immediately struck by her beauty and instantly in awe of her. Winnie had gravitas; she was every inch the icon I had imagined her to be.
At the meeting we gave Winnie a synopsis of the biggest student protest that was unfolding in the Western Cape. The main aspect of the protest was that 101 secondary and tertiary institutions were boycotting normal classes and having alternative education programmes; informing students about apartheid.
Winnie asked whether we had made contact with other student structures across the country so as to coordinate student efforts. The meeting turned to the crucial issue of funding. How would Winnie get funding to us for travel and meetings around the country? Winnie pondered the matter and decided to channel money through Dullah Omar’s law firm.
Towards the end of the meeting Winnie turned to me (I may have been the only female student present) and asked me pointedly if I had a driver’s license. No, I said. I was only 17 years-old at the time. “How do you intend driving a military vehicle for Umkhonto we Sizwe, if you cannot drive a car!”, Winnie retorted. And I gulped; it felt as if I had to come up for air. Being a student leader was challenging enough and now I was expected to drive a military vehicle!
About two months after our small group first met Winnie, many members of the Committee of 81 were detained and the intense school boycott had fizzled out. Coloured students decided to return to regular classes; whilst African students stayed out on boycott.
The student leaders from Fezeka High school (who had been part of the meeting with Winnie) spent a lengthy period of time in jail and were later charged with sabotage. In 1982, they were found not guilty by a court in Worcester but as they walked out of court they were immediately re-detained by the Security Branch.
I was detained in 1980 for three months. I was detained again in 1981 with Ebrahim Patel (now cabinet minister for Economic Development), Vanessa Ludwig, Matthew Cloete and a few others. However, this time the Security Branch were determined to make leaders of the Committee of 81 pay for the student protests; but with little success ultimately. We were held under Section Six of the Terrorism Act of 1967; incommunicado and in solitary confinement. During interrogation I realised that the Security Branch had known all along of our student leaders’ two meetings with Winnie. Of course, they would! They watched her closely, especially all her visitors. After three months I was released.
I reflect on my time as a leader of the Committee 81; it was an extraordinary time to be young. We had so many hopes and dreams. Winnie’s gesture of assistance toward the Committee of 81 was amazing. She cared at a time we as student leaders needed help. There were a few older people - Non-European Unity Movement types - who scoffed at us. Not Winnie; she embraced our role as young people trying to carve out a new world.
Winnie’s gesture of assistance was unconditional. When the Committee of 81 issued its manifesto on 14 May 1980, it was called the “Manifesto to the People of Azania”. The twist in the tale being that the political leadership of the Committee of 81 spoke of “Azania”; a term used by the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and by a small leftist group led by the late Neville Alexander.
In many ways, the image I have of Winnie as a queen shall forever remain with me. She was a queen. The queen had feet of clay, like all of us human beings. Rest in Peace, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.