On the 2nd of April 2018, Winnie Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela died at the age of 81.
While many people in the Western world only know Winnie as the wife of Nelson Mandela, if they know her at all, CNN referred to her as “one of the greatest icons of the struggle against apartheid.” Although Winnie had her critics, she was a female campaigner who made incredible contributions to South Africa, and she should be remembered as such.
From her early life right through to her final days, Winnie was politically active and worked to end apartheid in South Africa. She was involved in the African National Congress and was even still a member of South Africa’s parliament at the time of her death. Her achievements were so great that South Africans dubbed her the “mother of the nation”.
Yet, despite these incredible achievements, outside of South Africa, many people were unaware of Winnie as anything other than the wife of the famous Nelson Mandela. Sadly, this isn’t surprising or unprecedented. The international community has a terrible track record when it comes to recognising the achievements and contributions of African women throughout history and the present day.
Indeed, if you were ask someone to name a feminist or female activist, they’d likely come up with a long list of white, European or American women who have done incredible things in the fight for equality. They might be able to name black and African women in the disapora, particularly those involved in the fight for Civil Rights in twentieth-century America, but ask them to name African women fighting for change in the African continent, and they’d likely come up short.
“Far too many people who gave their lives in the fight for freedom are forgotten by the Western world, and it’s time for that to change.”
African women like Winnie spend their whole lives having their stories ignored, and all too often their stories continue to remain untold after their death. The Western education system rarely, if ever, discusses Africa beyond vague references to the British Empire and tragic tales of poverty, and as such the stories of African people, particularly African women, go untold. While there have been recent efforts to diversify the curriculum to include a critique on the important struggles of race, discrimination and equality in the diaspora, often these improvements shy away from the dark colonial past and the struggles for freedom and independence that many African women have contributed to.
There are countless other African women beyond women who historically, both in the colonial and post-colonial eras, have demonstrated bravery and leadership as women, defending the rights and freedom of their people. Women like Yaa Asantewaa, who was one of the first female Commander in Chiefs and led an army of men in the Ashanti rebellion against British colonials in the country now known as Ghana. Like Queen Nzingha of Angola, who fought for the freedom of her people from Portuguese colonial rule. Like President Johnson of Liberia, Africa’s first female president and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and Wangari Maathai from Kenya, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for her work as an environmental activist.
These stories of African women prove the African women are strong, powerful, and brave. And the rest of the world needs to recognize that. Far too many people who gave their lives in the fight for freedom are forgotten by the Western world, and it’s time for that to change.