Exile in dust: Madikizela-Mandela left her mark on Brandfort

The nine years that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela spent under banning orders in Brandfort were marked by turmoil, frustration, fear, anguish and some memorable friendships

08 April 2018 - 00:01 By REA KHOABANE
ISOLATION Winnie Madikizela- Mandela at her home in Brandfort, Free State, where she spent almost nine years after being banished there in 1977.
ISOLATION Winnie Madikizela- Mandela at her home in Brandfort, Free State, where she spent almost nine years after being banished there in 1977.
Image: Peter Magubane/Avusa Archives/Gallo Images/Getty Images

'We saw a fence being put up around this house and we wondered who was going to live here," says Selialimo Makhwe. "Later on that day, we saw a woman driving a Volkswagen and she was black. We had never seen a black woman driving here before. We wondered who she was and we were told, 'She's Winnie Mandela'."

We are looking at an abandoned house in the small, dusty town of Brandfort in the Free State. It is hard to imagine the world leaders and cabinet ministers who once knocked on the door of this now derelict dwelling, while security police kept a note of everyone who came and went.

"I remember when we used to visit her, there were always two policemen sitting on that hill, watching us through binoculars," says Makhwe.

Makhwe is now chairwoman of the Brandfort Women's League. In 1977 she was a naïve 21-year-old who had no idea her town was about to become a place of revolutionary awakening. She thinks the reason the security forces banished Madikizela-Mandela to Brandfort - after extended periods of imprisonment, harassment and brutalisation did nothing to break her resolve - was because it was an isolated backwater where not many people knew or cared about what was happening elsewhere in South Africa.

"We were in the dark about what we needed to do to fight for liberation," says Makhwe.

Madikizela-Mandela changed all that. "After she arrived, people became rebellious," Makhwe recalls. "We used to have one clothing store and black people were not allowed to use the changing rooms. She went to the shop and asked them how our money was any different from white people's money, and if it was the same money then why couldn't we try clothes on before we buy them?

"From that moment, black people in Brandfort shared the fitting room with white people. She changed our mindsets and made us believe we deserved the same treatment as white people."

More than anything, people in the community recall her as a woman who cared. She contacted Operation Hunger for help in setting up a feeding programme in the township because people were starving.

"She used to give out mealie meal to those who had nothing," says Makhwe. "She opened a clinic in her yard and a créche."

Dijelwane Mathopa was one of four women who helped Madikizela-Mandela start the créche, the first one for black children in Brandfort.

Dijelwane Mathopa who taught at the creche that she and Winnie established in Brandfort.
Dijelwane Mathopa who taught at the creche that she and Winnie established in Brandfort.
Image: Moeletsi Mabe

"When she came to me and told me she wanted to open a créche, I was so pleased to be able to help, because the poverty in this town left children abandoned in the streets," says Mathopa. "She took children from the streets and put them in a place of safety and dignity."

Madikizela-Mandela arranged training for the four teachers before the créche opened.

"She made sure we went for training to be taught how to take care of children," says Mathopa. They took a train to Joburg for the intensive course. Madikizela-Mandela could not accompany them because of the conditions of her exile.

"When we got back we were ready," says Mathopa. "We took in children from one to six years old. The opening of the créche turned our children into normal children. Some of those who began their education right here are university graduates today.

"We got paid R75 a month. Sometimes we'd go for months without payment but we held on through hard times because we knew we were doing it for the good of our community. The créche is still here today because of that."

Mourners at Winnie's Brandfort house this week.
Mourners at Winnie's Brandfort house this week.
Image: Moeletsi Mabe

Her wish shall be granted

MK Malefane, Madikizela-Mandela’s friend and aide in the 1980s, says Brandfort must never be forgotten

At this prison of a home in Brandfort, Mama Winnie missed her real home and people terribly, particularly the youth and women engaged in the struggle in Soweto.

When her banishment term ended, sometime in 1981, she was uncertain whether it would not be renewed, but filled with suppressed excitement in the anticipation that she may finally be going home.

A few days before, I had met with senior police officers in preparation for a visit to Brandfort by the minister and chief of police. They had given me every reason to believe they would be lifting the banning order.

On the appointed day, meticulous care was taken in preparation. I cooked the best lunch ever from the best mutton and beef cuts and wors from our local butchery, whose management and staff were crestfallen at the impending loss of their famous resident and customer. The ministerial delegation finally arrived and we engaged in very pleasant chit-chat about what an inspiration Mama Winnie was and why can’t we find peace living together, and so on. They thoroughly enjoyed and profusely thanked us for the lunch, then they all stood and left without a word.

Mama Winnie and I were completely taken aback and bewildered. I followed them to the gate and saw that they were arguing about who should be the bearer of an envelope.

They handed this envelope to me and I went back into the house and opened it for Mama Winnie to read. They had extended her banning order. I shall never forget the deep pain and disappointment on her face, but stoically and with resolute strength she recovered her composure and signed the document.

I took it out and handed it back to the delegation, who with bowed heads filed out through the gate to their vehicles and sped off.

So many times, even recently before her passing, Mama Winnie begged me to never forget Brandfort. She told me to write a book and produce a movie on those years. Her wish shall be granted. She also challenged me to do something about the Winnie Mandela museum in Brandfort, because it pained her to see the vandalised state of her exile home. Her wish shall be granted.

But by far her greatest pain was to see her beloved organisation, the ANC, becoming what it is today. Her challenge to leaders was to save it and rebuild her beloved South Africa. Her wish shall be granted.