Equality for all people was always her mission.
That was the message at a memorial service this month for Nomzamo Winifred “Winnie” Madikizela-Mandela, who died April 2 at the age of 81.
An April 12 celebration of her life, organized by the South African Embassy, was hosted by Howard University’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, where speaker after speaker echoed the sentiment that Madikizela-Mandela remained steadfast in her mission of equality.
“To the people of South Africa, we thank you for sharing Mrs. Mandela with the world,” said Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick. “She has been described as cerebral, complex, and fiery, but we know she commanded the attention of her own supporters who were among South Africa’s poor and dispossessed.”
Photos of Madikizela-Mandela decorated the walls of Dumbarton Chapel inside the Howard University Law School, where the service was held. Songs of freedom and faith were sung by the South Africa Community Choir, which also led attendees in singing the South African national anthem.
Political analyst Armstrong Williams spoke of working on projects with Madikizela-Mandela before her then-husband Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
Williams was with volunteers delivering books to a school in Manzini, Swaziland, when the group was pulled over by the police and arrested. While the group was in custody, Madikizela-Mandela got on the phone and yelled at the top of her lungs to the arresting officials. The group was released and allowed to continue their work.
“Hollywood loves stories like ‘Black Panther,’ ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’ and even ‘Wonder Woman,’” said Williams, who spoke on behalf of the family. “But there has been no one like Winnie Mandela, and I am speaking from when I was there and bullets were being fired at us.”
Williams spoke of a time when Madikizela-Mandela was confined. She was beaten, tortured, humiliated and had reached the point of insanity.
“Mrs. Mandela and others who were in that time, did not ask to be in those circumstances,” he said. “Those circumstances made her what she was.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) offered condolences on behalf of the Congressional Black Caucus and shared how she was first inspired by Madikizela-Mandela in the 1970s during the height of the anti-apartheid movement. She spoke about how the U.S. was on the “right side of history” when legislation sponsored by former Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.) passed in 1986 imposing sanctions against South Africa, overriding President Ronald Reagan’s veto.
Lee, who called herself a fellow foot soldier in the anti-apartheid movement, also recalled the day Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and the world finally understood Madikizela-Mandela’s value.
“When Winnie was right there by his side, she was truly the David [against] Goliath,” Lee said. “She deserved recognition for her selfless sacrifices. She assumed a brave, and sometimes misunderstood, role as the face and the voice of resistance.”
In his eulogy, Mninwa Johannes Mahlangu, ambassador of the Republic of South Africa to the U.S., asked that attendees not mourn the death of the “Mother of the Nation,” as she was often called.
“We must rejoice. We must take comfort in her life and death,” Mahlangu said. “We must honor Winnie Mandela, as a woman, as a human being, as a freedom fighter.”
A large portrait of Madikizela-Mandela, surrounded with a horseshoe wreath of flowers, was placed at the altar in Dumbarton Chapel. When the service ended, many people stood next to portrait to have their picture taken next to the enduring image of strength that Madikizela-Mandela represented.
The Rev. Bernard L. Richardson, dean of Rankin Chapel, said it was vital for the chapel to host the service.
“Rankin Chapel has always been at the center of movements about social justice, freedom and equality,” Richardson said. “The spirit of Winnie Mandela is one that all chapels and churches ought to embrace. Fighting for justice and putting one’s life on the line should be part of our faith and understanding that there is something stronger than death.”