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The Zindzi I knew

By Shannon Ebrahim

Zindzi Mandela was larger than life, someone I deeply admired and loved for her immense bravery and passion for justice. She was absolutely her Mother’s daughter, and that is how she would want to be remembered. Having spent the past two years since her Mother’s passing in deep anguish and pain, mother and daughter are finally reunited, and Zindzi will now have found peace.

Zindzi was the real McCoy – a true revolutionary. She epitomized what it meant to be wedded to the struggles of the working class and the masses, afterall she was her Mother’s protege. When others were in exile or in the bush, from the time she was an infant Zindzi was there in the trenches with her mother, she went through it all. She took on all her Mother’s pain in a transgenerational transfer of trauma, but she herself was traumatized over decades by apartheid’s footsoldiers, and even those who she loved the most. At times such trauma is almost too much to bear, which makes Zindzi’s resilience all the more inspiring.

Zindzi would refer to me as “Baby sis” and confided in me for hours at her Mother’s home in Orlando West about the horrors of her life in Brandfort and later in Soweto as a target of the Security Branch’s diabolical Stratcom campaign. It was always hard to imagine how a young person who had been through so much could emerge as a productive and compassionate member of society.

Zindzi was only 18 months old when her Father was sent to prison on Robben Island. Zindzi would often be cared for by her older sister Zenani, and when she was just nine years old her mother was wrenched from her, detained for 491 days at Pretoria Central Prison. When Winnie returned to her daughters in Soweto she had been tortured, beaten and kept in solitary confinement, and was never the same again. But the brutality meted out against her had made her a determined fighter in her own right, and that fighting spirit was passed on to her daughters.

Zindzi’s young life was a constant struggle with her Mother living under one banning order after another. When Nelson Mandela first saw his daughter behind the glass barricade on the island at the age of 16, he described her as shy and hesitant. “Somewhere deep inside she must have harbored resentment and anger that her Father had been absent in her childhood and adolescence. She was a strong fiery woman like her mother. She was stunningly attractive with a powerful gravelly voice, large fiery eyes, and photos of her were treasured on Robben Island,” Madiba had said of her first visit.

It was at the difficult age of 16 that Zindzi, her Mother and sister Zenani were carted off from their home in Soweto to the desolate town of Brandfort in the Free State. One morning in May 1977, white security police men forcibly removed them from their home, loading furniture and clothing onto the back of a truck and carted them off 349kms to the dusty barren Afrikaaner town of Brandfort, miles from anywhere. The location was chosen specifically as a means to break them.

“They dumped us in Brandfort and we didn’t know where we were, we didn’t know the language or know anyone,” Zindzi recalled. The three roomed structure was as a sad, lonely abode, and the woman who many referred to as South Africa’s “Mother of the Nation,” was prohibited from meeting with more than two people at a time. They were constantly surveilled and lived a life of virtual house arrest. It was in these lonely times that Zindzi wrote poetry, producing a compilation called “Black as I am” in 1978.

This was the wretched place that Zindzi would call home for eight years of her life. Perhaps her saving grace was the opportunity to complete her education at Waterford school in Swaziland, where many of the children of ANC exiles were being schooled. She would then visit her mother in the holidays, each time her heart broken apart when she had to say goodbye and leave her mother to her desolation.

But Winnie taught Zindzi what it meant to develop inner strength and resilience in the face of adversity. “You should never feel sorry for yourself,” Winnie would tell her, “you have this name.” Winnie made use of every day of her banishment to further the cause of the ANC and recruit cadres into the movement and send them into exile. Winnie’s determination became that of her daughter, and even as a middle aged woman, a quarter of a century into democracy, Zindzi would say “everything comes second to the movement.”

From Waterford Zindzi had gone on to do a Law degree at UCT at the height of the apartheid government’s repression, but that was not the only source of trauma she faced as a young student. Even from that time the security police had their plans for her just as they had for her Mother. It was during her time at UCT that Zindzi was raped, and she always strongly suspected that it had been the work of an agent sent by the special branch to once again do everything to break her.

In 1985, the year of her graduation from law school, Zindzi made international headlines as she delivered her Father’s response to PW Botha’s conditional offer of release from prison if he were to renounce the armed struggle. On February 10th, Zindzi addressed thousands in an ANC rally in what was to become her defining moment. Reading her Father’s note, she said,

“My Father says: I am surprised by the conditions that the apartheid government wants to impose on me, I am not a violent man…What freedom am I being offered when the organisation of the people remains banned?…What freedom am I being offered when my dear wife remains in banishment in Brandfort?… Only free men can negotiate, prisoners cannot enter into contracts. My Father says: I cannot, and will not, give any undertaking at a time when I and you – the people – are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.” Images of Zindzi with her fist held high in defiance in her yellow ANC t-shirt in front of masses of black South Africans were broadcast around the world.

For the next five years both Zindzi and her Mother were the targets of torment by the Special Branch, they became a special project. One of the few Security Policemen to have voluntarily come clean about his dirty tricks campaign, Paul Erasmus described to me how his entire job in the Special Branch became an all out attempt to discredit Winnie in the eyes of the ANC, the country, and the world.

It was not only Winnie who was traumatized by this overarching campaign of terror, but Zindzi too, who was always by her side. Petrol bombs were thrown into their windows, machine guns were fired into the walls of their home, and Erasmus says virtually all of the Mandela Football club were their agents. They even had their agents in the football club move into Winnie’s property, ply her with alcohol, and mother and daughter were surveilled 24/7. Whatever horrors the football club engaged in from rape to killings in the townships at the behest of their handlers in the security branch, the Mandela home became a vortex of controversy and condemnation.

Erasmus has detailed how he would pen fictitious articles for the local and international press about Winnie and Zindzi having been involved in drug smuggling and sexual orgies. He now admits all of it was false and created to paint them in the worst possible light. His reports on Winnie’s behaviour even made it to the desk of British Prime Minister John Major in a calculated and diabolical smear campaign. After Erasmus admitted to what he had done, Winnie had forgiven him and in a remarkable show of reconciliation in 1997, she went above and beyond what even her closest friends and family members could have anticipated, and presented the daughter of her former tormentor with her wedding ring from Madiba. It was her way of showing that the cycle of hatred and revenge had to come to an end.

Zindi found her mother’s gesture hard to accept, but she understood the larger message her mentor was trying to send to the country at large. For those that thought Winnie was an embittered, hardened woman incapable of reconciliation, they simply did not know her. Zindzi took on the best of those characteristics, and sadly she was tormented by racists even in her final days. It was only after white men had continued to torment her on social media last year, insulting her mother and family pictures, sending her monkey emojis, and saying how spoiled and entitled she was, did she finally let them have it.

Zindzi will always be remembered as a great African woman of tremendous courage and conviction. Rest in Peace Big Sis, until we meet again.