As a young girl growing up in the township I was bookish, curious and `cheeky’ as I am often told, mouthy and with too many questions - the epitome of localised resistance within the microcosm of my family and home.

I did not see at first that I was disadvantaged materially or my rights infringed by the political situation in South Africa because I was fortunate to be surrounded by a fulcrum of formidable women who just 'could' and did. Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was one of these women to me in my community in Soweto.

These mothers can only be described as a force, conducting their lives and the business of living and being women, mothers and comrades like a well-planned and executed sting operation no matter what the task at hand.

They were not afraid to confront injustice and I observed from within the swirl of their skirts or sitting quietly on the sidelines. I know this is partly what led me toward being a writer. I could see beyond what the intervention was, from supporting each other through birth pain, personal losses or being arrested or brutalised by the police.

We met several times intermittently over the years and more often because of my work as an activist and later a journalist and filmmaker.

At a community level their energy was channeled outwardly through their work uplifting humanity, material challenges the community faced, but also through covert political activities of resistance and mobilising against the apartheid system under the shroud of respectable sanctity the church initially offered.

This is where I first met and encountered Mama Winnie.

As a little girl, I witnessed her composed, defiant being which would erupt in song or with passion during a speech. She made it seem natural that a woman’s place was at the front, being vocal and active alongside other women at a time when the politics of patriarchy taught us otherwise.

My mom was very fond of using the expression - grace under fire - when describing her even years later, a look of deep admiration on her face.

I understood the deep respect I saw there. This to me is one of the biggest gifts she gave me, respecting courage and embodying it. Mama Winnie never spoke about admonishing or confronting fear – she just did it and thus she was a mother to me and a three-dimensional woman within that, and my mothers’ comrade and friend – real and present.

She is one of the biggest influences in my early and professional life.

She never saw her worth or her struggle above that of these women around her and was the powerful aunt at church and a leader on the streets in a march or protest, the one who could look and you and you knew that it meant `Yes, go on!’. Being seen as you grow in spirit is priceless.

Today I choose to see her there still because that is what she went on to do all her life – to be there in and amongst us, leading from the front with her people.

We met several times intermittently over the years and more often because of my work as an activist and later a journalist and filmmaker. 

Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Bea Mgoza Baker

From those early years as I went on to become a student activist and a woman, discovering my voice but also the harsh reality of how my skin colour and my gender disadvantaged me in the eyes of a post-democratic society, still.

I remembered her dignity, sense of purpose, presence and defiance in the face of any injustice and I resolved to go forward not back.

One of our most significant meetings happened when I was making a documentary film commemorating the 1956 Women's March in South Africa.

She is one of the biggest influences in my early and professional life. And if I am honest, even my fashion or sartorial sense was impacted. I will never forget the beautiful smile flashing from a perfectly outlined mouth in deep burgundy lipstick, off-set by her impeccably tended afro or headscarf and the fitted black leather jacket I later adopted myself, and it was my psychological shield and what I realise now was a connection to how I remembered her – clenched fist punching the sky with her head raised.

I had watched and moved alongside her at marches, rallies and observed her in more tender moments at funerals where young comrades and families had been killed or injured due to police brutality. I saw compassion.

Humanity, not perfection.

One of our most significant meetings happened when I was making a documentary film commemorating the 1956 Women's March in South Africa.

When she saw me she just moved forward and opened her arms to give me a big, warm hug and ask me how I am. My heart swelled.

Now a woman myself I would take this lesson with me into the future and little did I know how much I would need it when my own mother passed away

She excitedly summoned her friend the celebrated photographer, Bra Alf Khumalo to take our picture – not only was he her lifelong friend and confidante, he had also extensively documented her life and many fabulous looks.

I was thrilled and humbled. The film required us to interview uMama at the former Women’s Prison at Constitution Hill, and I was to discover just how taxing this journey was for her spirit. Coming back to the space meant a harrowing reminder of the past and her long confinement here at the height of apartheid.

But she did not flinch, not for a moment, she simply shared the memories flooding through her at that moment as she linked her arm through mine and we walk to the central courtyard.

I realised that day that she was a human being like all of us, confronted at once with her vulnerability at unexpected times even as she braced herself courageously for what is to come, clad in emotional armour and a beautifully cut and tailored slacks and jacket as my mom would say, and composed within.

Now a woman myself I would take this lesson with me into the future and little did I know how much I would need it when my own mother passed away not long after and I needed that inner resolve and outward composure to face life.

She was our interviewer during this part of the filming process and I watched her listen of the stories of ordinary women reliving their commitment to the struggle and congratulating them selflessly.

She sacrificed much to be a leader, an activist and the best mother she could be under the harrowing circumstances of her life some of which we will never know the half of.

In the hours since her passing I chose to remember she was a social worker, an aunt to me and other young people in our community and a woman who loved deeply and lost so much.

She never doled out advice unsolicited or told me what to do, she simply listened and presented me with choices through the experiences in her own life and the choices it mirrored. I understood that I needed to make my own choices and take a leap of faith by choosing action because deference was not a choice.

In later years I saw the toll that all the emotional and personal loss had taken on her and I understood how as women we need to be nurtured and cared for too, and despite the dissolution of her marriage I saw her receiving this love from her immediate family. I saw her pain as a shadow that would appear leave as swiftly.

She sacrificed much to be a leader, an activist and the best mother she could be under the harrowing circumstances of her life some of which we will never know the half of.

I hope that I speak not only for myself but for thousands of other women who realise the enormity of losing such as great spirit for in being who she was she did not offer us packaged ideology as validation of our voice and our worth, or feminism-lite - she offered us an authentic leadership we could feel and call up, tangible through a lifetime of voice, action and purposeful devotion to her people and their liberation.

We give thanks for your indomitable spirit, rest in power Mama Winnie, we honour you and your contribution to our journey and our liberation.

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