OK: a bit of an exaggeration.

But I do have one powerful memory of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

It is from the congress of the National Union of South African Students in 1976. NUSAS were the ‘naughty boys and girls’ of white society: protesting against the injustices all around us. Not always to great effect, but protest we did.

NUSAS trail


The 1976 NUSAS congress was held at the University of Cape Town.

It was an extraordinary event, but to understand its significance one needs to remember that after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress had been banned, crushed and driven (mostly) into exile.

From the early 1960’s until 1973 apartheid was the (almost) unchallenged law of the land. It was the heyday of white rule.

In 1973 the Durban Strikes erupted, apparently from nowhere. The non-racial trade union movement was re-born.

But still the white regime held sway.

Nusas 1Although I was – by 1976 – at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, I attended the NUSAS congress as part of the UCT delegation. Nusas 2

The minutes recorded that Winnie Mandela was not only in attendance, but received a standing ovation from the delegates, or whom I was one.

I will never forget her entry into the hall.

All we had been told that there would be a ‘very special guest’.

Suddenly, she was there: cool, elegant, confident.

Then she spoke.

“I greet you in the name of the movement!”

Her words rang around the hall. They were like a bolt of lightning.

To this day I can feel a quiver down my spine as I recall hearing them.

In all my life I had never heard anyone speak publicly on behalf of the ANC. Now there she was – the living embodiment of her party.

All I had ever known of the ANC was that their leadership was held on Robben Island, the notorious jail I could see daily just off the coast from my home – Cape Town.

There Nelson Mandela rotted in jail from 1964, when I was just 14 years old.

Now his wife – Winnie – was in front of me. Speaking on behalf of his party; on behalf of her husband and the entire movement.

It was a moment I would never forget.