The Resistance of Biblical women and the leadership of Mrs. Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela Mandela

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela visits the World Council of Churches offices with her husband in 1990. Photo: Peter Williams/WCC

When I was a young adult I visited the home of Mrs. Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela Mandela. I was blessed to meet her and a few of her family members. I also heard her speak at a program in Soweto. Since this time, I have come to a deeper understanding about her and the spouses of celebrated leaders.  Too often their leadership is not only overlooked but not considered.

I have particularly noted this with regard for spouses of Pastors. Many of these spouses are women who also serve our churches but are only viewed through the shadows of their husbands and not in their own right.

The legacy of Mrs. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is one that redefines this model of leadership especially for Pan African women of faith when we consider her fierce leadership of resistance to the injustice of apartheid. This leadership model was shaped, in part, because of the hardships she experienced and her identity as a Methodist woman of faith.

Archbishop Tutu said this about her: “She refused to be bowed by the imprisonment of her husband, the perpetual harassment of her family by security forces, detentions, bannings, and banishment. Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists.”

In doing so, however, she paid a high price for her leadership of resistance to injustice.  Her daughter, Zenani Dlamini Mandela, stated the following at the State Funeral of her mother. “…long before it was fashionable to call for Nelson Mandela’s release from Robben Island, it was my mother who kept his memory alive. She kept his name on the lips of the people. Her very appearance—regal, confident, and stylish—angered the Apartheid authorities and galvanized the people. She kept my father’s memory in the people’s hearts.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa said the following in his eulogy about her on April 14th. “Proud, defiant, articulate, she exposed the lie of apartheid.”

“As we bid her farewell, we are forced to admit that too often as she rose, she rose alone,” he added. “Too often, we were not there for her. She bore witness to our suffering. She bandaged our wounds. We did not do the same for her.”

Although Mrs. Winnie Madikizela Mandela’s leadership was felt in the public arena we should also be mindful that her legacy of resistance is in keeping with Biblical women who also did not accept injustice and stood up in the public arena. Like Hagar (Genesis 21:8-21), the African slave and handmaiden, Mrs. Madikizela Mandela was banished to a remote place with her children but survived in 1977. Like Queen Vashti (Esther 1:11-12), she resisted the government’s attempts to reduce her womanhood to the unjust demands of male governmental authority.

Like Dorcas (Acts 9:36-43), she cared for the poor. Like Rachel (Jeremiah 31:15), she wept for the children and youth and was in solidarity with them. Like Sarah (Genesis 21:12), she was viewed in the shadows of her legendary husband but acted out of her own sense of agency for her people. For this and much more, we honor this Pan African woman of faith whose legacy will endure.

Read also: a tribute to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela by Prof. Rev. Dr Mary-Anne Plaatjies van Huffel, WCC president from Africa

About the author :

The Rev. Dr Angelique Walker-Smith is WCC President from North America. She is a member of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. and is senior associate for Pan African and Orthodox Church engagement at Bread for the World (USA).


The impressions expressed in the blog posts are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.