Winnie was born on 26 September 1934, in the small village of Bizana in Pondoland, Transkei (now part of the Eastern Cape). She was the 6th of 11 children of Columbus K. Madikizela, a school principal turned businessman. Her mother died when she was eight years old. Winnie attended the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg, and worked at the Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto as a social worker. She holds a BA in international relations from the University of Witwaterstrand in Johannesburg.
As Debbie Joubert, a South African writer, puts it:
"Those who love her call her the Mother of the Nation, and those who hate her say she should be jailed for life. There are a few, if any, people who don't experience intense feelings one way or another when her name is mentioned. She is a highly controversial figure and makes enemies as easily as others pick up shells on a beach. Yet, she is charismatic and is able to captivate an audience with the intensity of her gaze and speech.
"Winnie Mandela is the type of woman who commands attention when she walks into a room full of people. She is a beautiful woman and is proud to dress up in designer African clothes."
Nelson Mandela first saw Winnie standing at a bus stop near the Baragwanarh Hospital in 1958. Nelson writes in his book, Long Walk to Freedom, published in 1994:
"As I passed [the] bus stop, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a lovely young woman waiting for the bus. I was struck by her beauty, and I turned my head to get a better look at her, but my car had gone by far too fast. This woman's face stayed with me--I even considered turning round to drive by her in the other direction--but I went on.
"Some weeks thereafter, a curious coincidence occurred. I was at the office, and when I popped in to see Oliver [Tambo], there was this same young woman with her brother, sitting in front of Oliver's desk. I was taken aback, and did my best not to show my surprise--or my delight--at this.
"Oliver introduced me to them and explained that they were visiting him on a legal matter... Something in me was deeply stirred by her presence. I was thinking more of how I could ask her out than how our firm would handle her case. I cannot say for certain if there is such a thing as love at first sight, but I do know that the moment I first glimpsed Winnie Nomzamo, I knew that I wanted to have her as my wife.
"Her name Nomzamo means one who strives or undergoes trials, a name as prophetic as my own...