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491 Days Prisoner number 1323/69

491 DAYS
Prisoner number 1323/69
ISBN 9 781770 103306
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is 77 today.
Just the other day she was a blushing 23 year-old bride from rural Bizana at whose wedding the well-wishers sang a hymn, of all the ditties they could conjure up with the melody of their combined voices.
But it wasn’t just a hymn; it was the meaningful Lizalis’ idinga laKho.
This is the same hymn those who gathered at a small church in Bloemfontein to found the glorious movement of the people on 8 January 1912 first sang to kick off the business of the day.
Forty-six year later when Columbus Madikizela gave away this ravishing beauty – one of a handful daughters, to an older man who’d already been married once, again the assembled invoked Tiyo Soga in conveying their wishes to the Almighty.
A lot has happened in the septuagenarian’s life between the late 1950s when she was a childless and nubile young woman to the present when she’s a graceful great-grandmother.  
‘A lot’ of this, if it did not break her, made Winnie into what she is. She says of those lamenting her transmogrification: ‘And they wonder why I am like I am.’
She says, further: ‘And they have a nerve to say, ‘Oh Madiba is such a peaceful person, you know. We wonder how he had such a wife who is so violent.’
It is a moot point that she was not born violent.
But no one in their right senses can discount the onset of aggression in a young bride who, at a time when the normal world is thinking ‘honeymoon’, her newly-wed husband is forcibly removed from her and with him, her conjugal and other rights.
She says of this period in her life when the forces of evil denied her a normal life: ‘I was forced to mature on my own.’
‘We were hardly a year together when history deprived me of you. Your formidable shadow which eclipsed me left me naked and exposed to the bitter world of a young political widow. I knew this was a crown of thorns for me but I also knew I said ‘I Do’ for better or worse. In marrying you I was marrying the struggle of my people. Yes, the thorns sometimes pricked so hard that the blood from the wounds covered up my eyes and the excruciating pains blinded me for a while. Although I staggered across the path of freedom with pain, I staggered forward and never doubted my goal even when the crown was nailed by my people at times, this was only history. I would not have been worthy of their great love without such. When the tortuous minutes, hours, months dragged by gnawing at the inner cores of my soul I remembered that an army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers will not. I also realised that honour and conviction are more binding than any oath. I also learnt that ‘Even gold pass[ed] through the assayer’s fire, and more precious than perishable gold is faith that has stood the test.’
How can we ever wonder why Winnie is ‘I am like I am’ when it was singularly apartheid’s design to reduce her and her ilk to nothing?
‘Oh you’re still alive?’ they’d ask her incredulously, when left to her own devices in a single cell.
She says they would come in every day and say, “You’re still alive? We don’t know if you will be alive tomorrow.’
When the bigots failed to kill her in prison, they got common criminals to attack her in the streets and ransack her Orlando West home, where, with her husband in prison, she lived alone with her two small children.
When her jailed husband begged that they allow her a firearm for self-defence they turned down the request.
Yesterday, today and tomorrow even, they have no right to decry what she has become.
All she ever wanted to do was live happily ever after with the man who, writing to her on 19 August 1976, vowed that ‘I love you always’.
The same man who endearingly called her ‘Mhlophe’, oftentimes ‘Zami’, short for her given name Nomzamo.
In one of her own letters to her man on Robben Island, she signed it off thus: Forever yours, Nobandla.
What was wrong with this, the work of Cupid?
Do not venture a response; it was a rhetorical question.
If your name is not Xoliswa Falati, if you’ve never had brushes with the Mandela United Football Club or if you’re not the mother of late child activist Stompie Seipei, leave Winnie Mandela alone.
Let her be.
Her excesses are as a result of a repressive system that wished to deny her – and you – her humanity.
[Here’s to] many more happy returns, Mother of The Nation.
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