Born into slavery in Maryland, Harriet Tubman (c. 1820 to March 10, 1913) escaped to freedom in the North in 1849 to become the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Tubman risked her life to lead hundreds of family members and other slaves from the plantation system to freedom on this elaborate secret network of safe houses. A leading abolitionist before the American Civil War, Tubman also helped the Union Army during the war, working as a spy among other roles.
After the Civil War ended, Tubman dedicated her life to helping impoverished former slaves and the elderly. In honor of her life and by popular demand, in 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the center of a new $20 bill.
Harriet Tubman Photo
Harriet Tubman, circa 1885.
By Artist: Horatio Seymour Squyer, 1848 – 18 Dec 1905 (National Portrait Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Harriet Tubman and the New $20 Bill
In April 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the center of a new $20 bill. The announcement came after the Treasury Department received a groundswell of public comments, following Women on 20s’ campaign calling for a notable American woman to appear on U.S. currency. “Secretary Lew’s choice of the freed slave and freedom fighter Harriet Tubman to one day feature on the $20 note is an exciting one, especially given that she emerged as the choice of more than half a million voters in our online poll last Spring,” Women on 20s stated on its website. “Not only did she devote her life to racial equality, she fought for women’s rights alongside the nation’s leading suffragists.”
In June 2015, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew was criticized for saying that it was likely a woman would appear on the $10 bill, which features a portrait of Alexander Hamilton, the influential founding father who found renewed popularity because of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. The ultimate decision to have Tubman replace Jackson, a slaveholder who played a role in the removal of Native Americans from their land, was widely praised.
Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad
In 1849, following a bout of illness and the death of her owner, Harriet Tubman decided to escape slavery in Maryland for Philadelphia. She feared that her family would be further severed and was concerned for her own fate as a sickly slave of low economic value. Two of her brothers, Ben and Harry, accompanied her on September 17, 1849. However, after a notice was published in the Cambridge Democrat offering a $300 reward for the return of Araminta, Harry and Ben, Tubman’s brothers had second thoughts and returned to the plantation. Harriet had no plans to remain in bondage. Seeing her brothers safely home, she soon set off alone for Pennsylvania.
Making use of the network known as the Underground Railroad, Tubman traveled nearly 90 miles to Philadelphia. She crossed into the free state of Pennsylvania with a feeling of relief and awe, and recalled later: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
Rather than remaining in the safety of the North, Tubman made it her mission to rescue her family and others living in slavery via the Underground Railroad. In December 1850, Tubman received a warning that her niece Kessiah was going to be sold, along with her two young children. Kessiah’s husband, a free black man named John Bowley, made the winning bid for his wife at an auction in Baltimore. Harriet then helped the entire family make the journey to Philadelphia. This was the first of many trips by Tubman, who earned the nickname “Moses” for her leadership. Over time, she was able to guide her parents, several siblings and about 60 others to freedom.
The dynamics of escaping slavery changed in 1850, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. This law stated that escaped slaves could be captured in the North and returned to slavery, leading to the abduction of former slaves and free blacks living in Free States. Law enforcement officials in the North were compelled to aid in the capture of slaves, regardless of their personal principles. In response to the law, Tubman re-routed the Underground Railroad to Canada, which prohibited slavery categorically.
In December 1851, Tubman guided a group of 11 fugitives northward. There is evidence to suggest that the party stopped at the home of abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass.
In April 1858, Tubman was introduced to the abolitionist John Brown, who advocated the use of violence to disrupt and destroy the institution of slavery. Tubman shared Brown’s goals and at least tolerated his methods. Tubman claimed to have had a prophetic vision of Brown before they met. When Brown began recruiting supporters for an attack on slaveholders at Harper’s Ferry, he turned to “General Tubman” for help. After Brown’s subsequent execution, Tubman praised him as a martyr.
Harriet Tubman remained active during the Civil War. Working for the Union Army as a cook and nurse, Tubman quickly became an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina – Biography.com
Sojourner Truth is best known for her improvised speech on racial inequalities, “Ain’t I a Woman?” delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851.
Who Was Sojourner Truth?
Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree, c. 1797 to November 26, 1883) was an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist best-known for her speech on racial inequalities, “Ain’t I a Woman?”, delivered extemporaneously in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.
Truth was born into slavery but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. She devoted her life to the abolitionist cause and helped to recruit black troops for the Union Army. Although Truth began her career as an abolitionist, the reform causes she sponsored were broad and varied, including prison reform, property rights and universal suffrage.
Ain’t I a Woman?
In May of 1851, Truth delivered an improvised speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron that would come to be known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” The first version of the speech was published a month later by Marius Robinson, editor of Ohio newspaper The Anti-Slavery Bugle, who had attended the convention and recorded Truth’s words himself. It did not include the question “Ain’t I a woman?” even once.
The famous phrase would appear in print 12 years later, as the refrain of a Southern-tinged version of the speech. It is unlikely that Sojourner Truth, a native of New York whose first language was Dutch, would have spoken in this Southern idiom.
Even in abolitionist circles, some of Truth’s opinions were considered radical. She sought political equality for all women and chastised the abolitionist community for failing to seek civil rights for black women as well as men. She openly expressed concern that the movement would fizzle after achieving victories for black men, leaving both white and black women without suffrage and other key political rights.
When Was Sojourner Truth Born?
Historians estimate that Sojourner Truth was likely born around 1797; Truth’s date of birth was not recorded, as was typical of children born into slavery. She was born Isabella Baumfree in the town of Swartekill, in Ulster County, New York.
Sojourner Truth was one of as many as 12 children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Her father, James Baumfree, was a slave captured in modern-day Ghana; Elizabeth Baumfree, also known as Mau-Mau Bet, was the daughter of slaves from Guinea.
The Baumfree family was owned by Colonel Hardenbergh, and lived at the colonel’s estate in Esopus, New York, 95 miles north of New York City. The area had once been under Dutch control, and both the Baumfrees and the Hardenbaughs spoke Dutch in their daily lives.
Life as a Slave
After the colonel’s death, ownership of the Baumfrees passed to his son, Charles. The Baumfrees were separated after the death of Charles Hardenbergh in 1806. The 9-year-old Sojourner Truth, known as “Belle” at the time, was sold at an auction with a flock of sheep for $100. Her new owner was a man named John Neely, whom Truth remembered as harsh and violent.
Over the following two years, Truth would be sold twice more, finally coming to reside on the property of John Dumont at West Park, New York. It was during these years that Truth learned to speak English for the first time- biography.com
Maya Angelou was a poet and award-winning author known for her acclaimed memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her numerous poetry and essay collections.
Marguerite Annie Johnson Angelou (April 4, 1928 to May 28, 2014), known as Maya Angelou, was an American author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet and civil rights activist best known for her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. Angelou received several honors throughout her career, including two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, in 2005 and 2009.
Maya Angelou’s Poetry
‘Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die’ (1971)
Angelou published several collections of poetry, but her most famous was 1971’s collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
‘On the Pulse of Morning’
One of her most famous works, Angelou wrote this poem especially for and recited at President Bill Clinton’s inaugural ceremony in January 1993. The occasion marked the first inaugural recitation since 1961, when Robert Frost delivered his poem “The Gift Outright” at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Angelou went on to win a Grammy Award (best spoken word album) for the audio version of the poem.
Maya Angelou’s Books
‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ (1969)
Friend and fellow writer James Baldwin urged Angelou to write about her life experiences, resulting in the enormously successful 1969 memoir about her childhood and young adult years, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The poignant story made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. The book, which made Angelou an international star, continues to be regarded as her most popular autobiographical work. In 1995, Angelou was lauded for remaining on The New York Times’ paperback nonfiction best-seller list for two years—the longest-running record in the chart’s history.
‘All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes’ (1986)
A lyrical exploration about of what it means to be an African American in Africa, this autobiographical book covers the years Angelou spent living in Ghana.
‘Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now’ (1994)
This inspirational essay collection features Angelou’s insights about spirituality and living well.
‘A Song Flung Up to Heaven’ (2002)
Another autobiographical work, A Song Flung Up to Heaven explores Angelou’s return from Africa to the U.S. and her ensuing struggle to cope with the devastating assassinations of two human rights leaders with whom she worked, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The book ends when, at the encouragement of her friend James Baldwin, Angelou began work on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
After experiencing health issues for a number of years, Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The news of her passing spread quickly with many people taking to social media to mourn and remember Angelou. Singer Mary J. Blige and politician Cory Booker were among those who tweeted their favorite quotes by her in tribute. President Barack Obama also issued a statement about Angelou, calling her “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” Angelou “had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer,” he wrote.
Angelou’s Son and Husbands
In 1944, a 16-year-old Angelou gave birth to a son, Guy (a short-lived high school relationship led to the pregnancy). A poet himself, Angelou’s son now goes by the name Guy Johnson.
In 1952, the future literary icon wed Anastasios Angelopulos, a Greek sailor from whom she took her professional name — a blend of her childhood nickname, “Maya,” and a shortened version of his surname. The couple later divorced. Notoriously secretive about her marriages, Angelou was likely married at least three times, including in 1973 to a carpenter, Paul du Feu.
When and Where Was Maya Angelou Born?
Maya Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Family, Early Life and Education
Angelou had a difficult childhood. Her parents split up when she was very young, and she and her older brother, Bailey, were sent to live with their father’s mother, Anne Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas.
As an African American, Angelou experienced firsthand racial prejudices and discrimination in Arkansas. She also suffered at the hands of a family associate around the age of seven: During a visit with her mother, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Then, as vengeance for the sexual assault, Angelou’s uncles killed the boyfriend. So traumatized by the experience, Angelou stopped talking. She returned to Arkansas and spent years as a virtual mute- biography.com
Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela was born, the fifth of nine children, in the village of Mbongweni, Bizana, in the Transkei on 26 September 1936. During her infant years her father, Columbus, was a local history teacher. In later years he was the minister of the Transkei Governments’ Forestry and Agriculture Department during Kaizer Matanzima’s rule. Her mother, Nomathamsanqa Mzaidume (Gertrude), was a science teacher.
Her parents desperately wished Winnie had been born a boy and growing up, Winnie took pains to fulfil the role of tomboy by playing with the other boys in her peer group, practising stick fighting and setting traps for animals. Once, while quarrelling with her younger sister, Princess, Winnie fashioned a knuckleduster out of a nail and a baking powder tin and accidentally struck her sister across the face while aiming for her arm. It was one of many instances for which her mother administered a hefty beating.
As a young girl, Winnie’s family moved around within the former Transkei, due to her father’s work. She attended primary school in Bizana but when she was nine years old, the family moved to eMbongweni, where as well as attending school, Winnie would help her father to labour on the farm. This helped create a closer bond with her father, who was known for his aloofness despite wielding a great love for his children. Colombus, to all intents and purposes, was a proud man who greatly valued educated and who saw the importance of educating his children about their Pondo roots as well as traditional academic subjects.
When Winnie was still young, two tragic events hit. Firstly her elder sister, Vuyelwa, contracted tuberculosis and died – an event which shook Winnie’s belief in the God her mother had ardently prayed to during her daughter’s demise. Secondly, soon after her sister’s death, Winnie’s mother also developed the disease and died. However, shortly before her mother passed away she gave birth to a baby boy, whom Winnie took responsibility for during her mother’s incapacitation, and after her death.
Early Experiences of Apartheid
In 1945, when she was only nine years old, Winnie had her first conscious experience of what the strictures and injustices of racism and apartheid meant in South Africa. News had just arrived in Bizana that the Second World War had ended, and celebrations had been scheduled. Along with her siblings, Winnie begged their father to attend, and eventually he acquiesced to their demand. However, upon arriving at the town hall, it was discovered that these celebrations were “for whites only” and the children were forced to remain outside with their father while the white population enjoyed the merriment within. The obvious injustice struck a deep blow for Winnie, and thereafter she grew increasingly sensitised to the inequality of the world around her.
This incident was followed by another, equally formative one. In Bizana, there was a large Black population, but all shops and services were owned by Whites. One day, Winnie recalls seeing a scene in a shop with her father, whereby a Black man was squatting on his haunches and breaking off pieces off bread to feed to his wife while she breastfed their baby. All of a sudden a White youth – the son of the shop owners, came charging towards them and yelling that he wouldn’t have kaffirs making a mess in his store. He kicked at them and their food and forced them out of the shop. Winnie watched the scene dumbstruck. She could not understand how this man could allow himself to be treated thusly, or why her father, who was such a staunch moralist, would not intervene where his morality so obviously demanded that he should. In time she came to understand that her father’s involvement would likely only have made the situation worse, and moreover, that a byproduct of Apartheid was that from an early age Black children became accustomed to seeing their parents humiliated without any attempt to protest in defence of themselves.
Luckily for Winnie, Bantu education – the hated Apartheid policy of introducing separate education syllabi for Whites and Blacks – was only introduced in the early 1950s. Therefore she was able to benefit from an education that was on par with her White peers at the time. She passed her junior certificate (Standard 8) with distinction and then went on to study at Shawsbury, a Methodist mission school at Qumbu. It was there that she matriculated and distinguished herself as a person with exceptional leadership qualities. It was also there, under the tutelage of teachers who were all Fort Hare graduates, that she began to become more politicised. Due to financial constraints, Winnie’s sister, Nancy, to whom Winnie was close, dropped out of school and worked casual jobs to ensure that Winnie’s education could continue.
When Winnie returned from Shawsbury with a first-class pass, she discovered that her father had remarried. His new wife was a woman by the name of Hilda Nophikela, whom all of the Midikizela children welcomed into the family fold, especially Winnie.
Move to Johannesburg
In 1953, upon her father’s advice, Winnie was admitted to the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg, where Nelson Mandela(who was already gaining national renown), was the patron.[vii] It was the first time she left the Transkei and a formative moment in her life. It was in Johannesburg that she saw the full effects of Apartheid on a daily basis, but also where she discovered her love of fashion, dancing and the city. It was only after a few months of living in Johannesburg that Winnie first went to Soweto.
She completed her degree in social work in 1955, finishing at the top of her class, and was offered a scholarship for further study in the USA. However, soon after receiving the scholarship offer, she was offered the position of medical social worker at the Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg, making her the first qualified, Black member of staff to fill that post. Following an agonising decision about whether to leave and further her academic career in the USA, or to stay and pursue her dream of becoming a social worker in South Africa, she decided to remain in South Africa.
Whilst working at the hospital, Winnie’s interest in national politics continued to grow. She moved into one of the hostels connected to the hospital and found that she was sharing a dormitory with Adelaide Tsukudu, the future wife of former African National Congress (ANC) president, Oliver Tambo. Indeed, Adelaide would confide in Winnie while they were in bed at night about the brilliant lawyer she would soon marry, and his legal partner, Nelson Mandela. It also transpired that Tambo happened to be from Bizana, like Winnie, making them members of the same extended family.
It is worth reiterating that Winnie was already politically interested and involved in activism long before she met her future husband. She was particularly affected by the research she had carried out in Alexandra Township as a social worker to establish the rate of infantile mortality, which stood at 10 deaths for every 1,000 births.
During her time at Baragwanath, Winnie’s reputation began to grow, with stories and photographs about her appearing in newspapers, acknowleging the achievement of this girl from Pondoland who came to Johannesburg and looked to be making a name for herself.
Until 1957, Winnie had been fairly romantically uninvolved. However, in that year she met with Barney Sampson, a “gallant, fun-loving man”[viii] of whom Winnie eventually grew tired due to his apoliticism and submissive attitube to white domination. Soon afterwards, Winnie was also courted by the future chief of the Transkei, and her father’s future boss, Kaiser Matanzima, whom happened to visit Baragwanath hospital as a disitinguised visitor that year. It was a relationship that was never to be, however, because she was soon to fall in love with Matanzima’s childhood acquaintance and relative, Nelson Mandela.
Marriage to Nelson
Winnie was twenty two when she met Nelson, and he was sixteen years her senior. He was already a famous anti-apartheid figure and one of the key defendants in the Treason Trial, which had commenced the year before, in 1956. From the very beginning, Nelson was ensconced in the Liberation Struggle, and the parameters of their romance were set by his commitment to political change. On March 10 1957, Nelson asked Winnie to marry him and they celebrated their engagment together in Johannesburg on 25 May 1958.
Despite government restrictions on the movements of Treason Trial defendents, Winnie and Nelson got married on 14 June 1958, in Bizana. The celebration caught the national interest and was reported in publications such as Drum Magazine and the Golden City Post.
Their marriage was to prove both robust and fraught. Winnie quickly discovered that life married to one of Apartheid’s most famous opponents was a lonely one. Her husband was incessently busy with ANC meetings, legal cases and the Treason Trial. The Mandela residence was also a site for frequent police raids, during which policemen would awaken the household with loud banging on the doors in the early morning and set to turning the whole house upside down. Added to the turbulence of their early married life, in July, Winnie found out she was pregnant with her first child.
In October 1958, Winnie took part in a mass action which mobilised women to protest against the Apartheid government’s infamous pass laws. This protest in Johannesburg followed a similar action that had taken palce in Pretoria in August 1956.[ix] The Johannesburg protest was organised by the president of the ANC Women’s League, Lilian Ngoyi and Albertina Sisulu, amongst others. In fact, Winnie travelled with Albertina from Phefeni station in Orlando to the city centre where the protest was taking place. During the protest, the police arrested 1000 women.
A decision was taken by the arrested women not to apply for immediate bail, but to rather spend two weeks in prison as a sign of further protsest. During these weeks, the pregnant Winnie saw first hand the squalid conditions of South African prisons, and her commitment to the struggle only intensified. Eventually, Nelson and Oliver Tambo were called to arrange their bail, and the ANC raised money to pay the convicted women’s fines. It was an event which took Winnie out of her husband’s considerable shadow in eyes of the public, but also one which alerted national security to her potency as a voice of political dissent – independent of her famous husband. Shortly afterwards she was sacked from her post at Baragwanath hospital. Following the trauma of incarceration, on February 4 1959 Winnie gave birth to a daughter she named Zenani.
On March 30 1961, nine days after the police murdered sixty-nine people during a Pan African Congress (PAC) anti-pass demonstration at Sharpeville, a police raid on the Mandela home saw Nelson arrested and Winnie left by herself, in what would become her overarching experience of marriage.
Winnie had a few influential presences in her life: chief amongst them were Lillian Ngoyi, who, along with Helen Joseph, were the only two women accused in the Treason Trial; Albertina Sisulu; Florence Matomela; Frances Baard; Kate Molale; Ruth Mompati; Hilda Bernstein(who was the first Communist Party member to serve on the Johannesburg Council in the 1940s); and Ruth First. These were people who Winnie was able to consider not only as sources of inspiration, but as trusted confidantes. This is significant, because as Winnie’s struggle against government continued, her inner circle became consistantly infiltrated by people who would gain her trust as allies, only to reveal themselves later as spies. As Nelson spent increasing amounts of time in police custody or underground, the number of unsettling relationships Winnie established with people who would turn out to be police informants also seemed to increase. As Bezdrob has written about Johannesburg at the time, it was “a cesspool of informers” and unfortunately for Winnie, she appeared to be surrounded by spies.
Bantu Authorities and Rift with Colombus
Conflict occurred in the family when the Apartheid government introduced the Bantu Authorities Act in 1951. Kaizer Matanzima, her former suitor, had sided with the government and fought the opposition to the government’s transparently divide-and-rule policy. A body of Pondo elders, referred to as Intaba, opposed the Bantu Authorities and waged a resistance that swept Winnie’s family up into the turmoil. One night during a raid on her family home (specifically targeting her father, Colombus, due to his reluctance to donate his buses to their cause) Intaba rebels entered his house and badly assaulted his wife before burning down the hut where they lived. Winnie’s stepmother survived the attack, but was paralysed from the waist down and died soon after. Despite this event, Colombus sided unequivically with Kaizer Matanzima and was subsequently rewarded with a cabinet position in the Transkei homeland looking after agriculture. This was a huge betrayal for Winnie as it was tantamount to siding with the Apartheid government. Winnie’s other relatives joined the resistance, thus her family was cleft in two.
On 29 March 1961 the verdict from the Treason Trail, delivered by Justice Rumpff, declared all of the accused ‘not guilty.’ This event followed quickly after another, equally joyful happening, which was the birth of the Mandela’s second daughter, Zindziswe on 23 December 1960, who was named after the daughter of Samuel Mqhayi, the famous Xhosa poet. However, Winnie’s joy at having a second child and seeing her husband’s name cleared was immediately tempered by the news that the ANC executive required him to go into hiding. Nelson had not discussed this with his wife, simply taking the support of his family for granted. Such was life married to the leader of a revolutionary movement.
Winnie’s married life to Nelson while he was in hiding was unusual, to say the least. She would meet him clandestinely in highly covert places; often with Nelson in thick disguise. This was the ‘Black Pimpernel’ phase of Nelson’s life, and Winnie had little choice but to fit in around his clandestine activities. Their most intimate and prolonged encounters occurred at the Lilliesleaf farm in Rivonia.
On Sunday 5 August 1961, the police finally apprehended Nelson while he was driving from Durban to Johannesburg. It was to be the beginning of his 27 year detention and another event that caused an irrevocable change to the direction of Winnie’s life.
With Nelson in jail and in virtual isolation for the first four months of his detention, the police, sensing Winnie’s potential to carry the cause, slapped her with a banning order on 28 December 1962. This restricted her movements to the magisterial district of Johannesburg; prohibited her from entering any educational premises and barred her from attending or addressing any meetings or gatherings where more than two people were present. Moreover, the banning order also stipulated that media oulets were no longer permitted to quote anything she said, effectively gagging her voice too.
During this time, Winnie also became conscious of certain Janus-faced individuals who, under the guise of friendship secretly betrayed her secrets to the police. People such as the journalist Gordon Winter were fully fledged agents of the state who took advantage of Winnie’s isolation to infiltrate her life and offer their friendshp and support, all the while daily betraying her confidence to Aparthied officials. This was also a time of increased police harrassment and intimidation, with regular aggressive raids occurring on her house. To make matters worse, there also occurred the repossession of all of her furniture after Nelson had neglected to make provision for regular hire purchase payments following his arrest.
At the end of May 1963, Mandela was transferred without warning to Robben Island. Ironically, once absorbed into the prison system proper, Mandela, who was so fluent in the laws and strictures of the country, found himself much less vulnerable to abuse than Winnie found herself on the outside. Whereas prison for all its despicable features was governed by clear rules and structures, outside of prison Winnie found herself at the mercy of unpredictable and chaotic forces, which she was ill-equipped to navigate. In June of that year she was first permitted to visit her husband in jail. She travelled 1400 kilometres from Johannesburg to Cape Town for the purpose, before a 10 kilometre journey over choppy seas to Robben Island. Once there the couple were allowed to meet for just 30 minutes, separated by dual wire mesh, no seats, and a security detail in easy listening distance. They were not permitted to speak to one another in Xhosa; only English or Afrikaans.
Nelson was unexpectedly moved from Robben Island back to Pretoria barely a month after his initial transfer. The reason for the move soon became clear, however, as his close colleagues within the ANC had been arrested in a swoop on the Lilliesleaf farm. Nelson was to be tried with them in the infamous Rivonia Trial, in which he and his co-accused escaped the death penalty, but were handed life imprisonment on Robben Island instead.
With her husband in jail, the authorities increased the pressure to make Winnie’s life as difficult as possible, with her children Zenani and Zindziswa particularly targeted. On numerous occasions Winnie enrolled them into schools, only for the security police to find out and insist that the schools have them expelled. This was in addition to the continued raids on her house; her banning order and frequent last minute refusals to visit her husband in jail.
A flavour of the harassment and trauma of a typical raid is summed up by Winnie herself:
“…that midnight knock when all about you is quiet. It means those blinding torches shone simultaneously through every window of your house before the door is kicked open. It means the exclusive right the security branch have to read each and every letter in the house. It means paging through each and every book on your shelves, lifting carpets, looking under beds, lifting sleeping children from mattresses and looking under the sheets. It means tasting your sugar, your mealie meal and every spice on your kitchen shelf. Unpacking all your clothing and going through each pocket. Ultimately it means your seizure at dawn, dragged away from little children screaming and clinging to your skirt, imploring the white man dragging Mummy away to leave her alone.”
Banning Orders and Jail
In 1965, a new and more severe banning order was handed to Winnie. Previously her banning order had limited her movements from ‘dusk to dawn’ but her new banning order barred her from moving anywhere other than her neighbourhood of Orlando West. This had several ramifications, including the necessity for her to give up her job as a social worker. Subsequently, she was hounded out of job after job with the police approaching anyone bold enough to give her employment be it a dry cleaning temp or a clerkship, and insist that by some mechanism they fire her. Due to her continued struggles and that of finding her daughters a school, Winnie eventually sent them away to Swaziland and with the help of Lady Birley (wife of Sir Robert Birley, an ex-headmaster of Eton College) and Helen Joseph, she was able to enrol them at Waterford Kamhlaba private school.
Meanwhile in South Africa, Winnie continued to keep active. From her highly restricted position, she organised assistance for political prisoners. On the night of 12 May 1969 Winnie awoke to the familiar sounds of a police raid. Her children were home for the school holidays and the police made a particularly thorough investigation of everything in the house. After ransacking the property, they tore Winnie away from her daughters and bundled her into a police van. She had just fallen foul of Prime Minister John Vorster’s1967 Terrorism Act, No 83, which allowed the arrest of anyone perceived to be endangering the maintenance of law and order. It stipulated that anyone could be arrested without warrant, detained for an indefinite period of time, interrogated and kept in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer or a relative.
Winnie was kept in solitary confinement for seventeen months. For the first 200 days, she had no formal contact with another human being at all aside from her interrogators, amongst whom was a certain Major Theunis Jacobus Swanepoel; a notorious torturer. The only items in her concrete cell were three thin bug-infested and urine-stained blankets, a plastic water bottle, a mug and a sanitary bucket without a handle. The only other feature of her confines was a bare electric light bulb, which burned constantly and robbed her of any sense of night or day.
During her interrogation, Winnie was kept awake for five days and five nights without respite in an attempt to break her will. Major Swanepoel played ‘bad cop’ to another officer’s ‘good cop,’ and together they pushed her relentlessly to provide information about the ANC and her husband. After five days of resistance, under every kind of coercion imaginable, the interrogation team brought a prisoner into the adjacent interview room and began torturing him. Winnie’s interrogators made it plain to her that her silence was causing unnecessary distress to others fighting for the cause, and eventually, her will broken, she acquiesced to tell them whatever they wished to hear.
On 1 December 1969, Winnie’s trial finally began. Winnie and her co-accused were represented by Joel Carlson, an old friend of Winnie and Nelson’s, and a well respected human rights lawyer. After many complications, Winnie’s release was finally secured. She had spent a total of seventeen months in prison with thirteen of those in solitary confinement, and nothing in the way of a conviction by the end of it.
Winnie’s first banning order expired while she was in jail. However, almost immediately upon being released she was served with another, lasting five years. This, more stringent restriction forbade her from leaving the house between 6pm and 6am and made it virtually impossible to see her husband on Robben Island. Before the second banning order took effect, however, Winnie travelled to the Transkei to see her father. Since their last meeting, Colombus had both aged visibly and become disillusioned with the state of the so-called ‘independent’ homeland. It had become clear to him that the homeland system was little more than a ruse to prevent Black South Africans from claiming full political rights in the country.
Despite the banning order, Winnie did in fact manage to visit Nelson again in prison. However, a half hour meeting through glass, observed and recorded by security police and subject to extreme self censoring was a distinctly unsatisfactory experience. Meanwhile, Winnie’s life outside of jail took an almost opposite turn to her husband’s. While Nelson and his ANC cadres on Robben Island accommodated themselves to being politically inert and concentrated their efforts on intellectual pursuits, Winnie found herself at the coalface of the struggle. The police raids were relentless, with intrusions into her home sometimes happening up to four times a day. Her house was routinely burgled, vandalised and even bombed. During this time, with her husband in jail and the ANC in the back foot, Winnie became something of a lightning rod for South Africa’s disenfranchised youth. To the Apartheid regime she became a significant political figure in her own right, as opposed to merely being the feisty wife of Nelson Mandela.
Up until the 1970s, the years of constant police harassment, jail time and intimidation had done absolutely nothing to quash Winnie’s revolutionary spirit; indeed, her conviction had only become stronger. Her message to the authorities was clear: “you cannot intimidate people like me anymore.”
In May 1973 Winnie was arrested again, this time for meeting with another banned person, her good friend and photographer for Drum magazine, Peter Magubane. She was handed a twelve month sentence to be served at Kroonstad’s women’s prison, however, this imprisonment was much less arduous than her previous incarceration and Winnie was released after six months. Winnie’s banning order expired in September 1975 and to her great surprise, was not immediately renewed.
Soweto Uprising and another Banning Order
By the mid 1970s, unrest amongst the South African youth had become increasingly volatile. Steve Biko had founded the Black Consciousness Movement in 1969 as a riposte to what he saw as unhelpful white liberal paternalism. The formation of the all-black South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) followed soon thereafter. The struggle for liberation in South Africa was increasingly being taken up the country’s youth and Winnie found herself settling into a new role to as the symbolic mother to this burgeoning student movement. In May 1976, just a few weeks before the famous student uprising in Soweto, Winnie along with Dr Nthatho Motlana helped to establish the Soweto Parents’ Association. In the weeks that followed the violence of June 16, Winnie and Dr Motlana had their hands full attending to youth and parents who had been arrested, injured or killed in the riots. The police attempted to pin responsibility for inciting the violence on Winnie herself, but regardless of how influential she might have been, Winnie’s influence alone could never explain the levels of anger amongst South Africa’s youth at that time.
Nonetheless, a simple scapegoat had to be found for the Soweto uprising and Winnie fit the bill. Once again she was detained. The police held her in custody for five months, eventually releasing her in December 1976 without charge. In January 1977, she was served with a fresh five year banning order.
Brandfort: a Banishment
There was, in fact, a far graver fate awaiting Winnie in 1977: in the early hours of the morning on May 15, a police contingent arrived at her doorstep to take her away to the station. Over the coming hours it transpired what the police had in store. On instruction from the government, the police were instigating Winnie’s domestic exile to a dusty town in the middle of the Freestate, a place that would keep her for the next eight years of her life.
Brandfort lies around 400 kilometres south-west of Johannesburg and 50 kilometres north of Bloemfontein. Prior to her arrival in Phathakahle, the township there, the Department of Bantu Affairs had informed locals that a dangerous female – indeed, a terrorist – would be moving there and that they should avoid contact with her at all costs- South African History Online
Gloria Meek, a member of South African Student Organization (SASO) was first
detained in 1975. She decided to leave the country in 1976 because life became a
hassle for her after she was required to report at John Vorster Square police station
every day, at 6pm. At times, when she failed to report, she would sleep at different
places as she knew the police would look for her. That, coupled with the torture she was
subjected to while in jail, caused her to choose to leave the country. During an
interview, Gloria cited that as the reason she opted to leave South Africa and join MK. “I
didn’t want to become a ‘vegetable’, what we used to call some of these people who are
detained and tortured all the times, up to a point when you are totally useless.”
In relating the torture, Gloria had this to say: “They used to beat me up. At one stage they
even beat me up at the back of my head with a baton or a pistol; and they used to make
me undress and stand naked in front of them for hours on end, sometimes from morning
until late at night. I would stand there and I was expected to incriminate some of my
fellow students that I was active in the Movement with.”
It was such incidences finally drove Gloria to decide to join MK, as she felt her presence in the country was not contributing anything to the struggle, but only leaving her with personal suffering.
Aside from the incidents referred to above, Gloria was also subjected to other forms of
“Well, there was one particular time when they had some bricks made out of
metal, in the shape of bricks; two bricks, which they would plug into some
electrical device, and these bricks would freeze …”
She would be made to stand on those bricks for about twelve hours until she collapsed.
She was further beaten and her hair pulled out at the roots. What was more humiliating
was that all these were done to her while she was stark naked. The disturbing story of
Gloria’s experience was made worse by the fact that all this torture happened when she
was three months pregnant. And when she had a miscarriage in the prison cell, as a result of being tortured, she was made to clean up by herself. She received no medical treatment thereafter.