Reflecting on her past years of imprisonment in 2012, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela stated “I think you can stand imprisonment of 27 years… Your mind isn’t incarcerated that’s all but with solitary confinement you are not allowed to read, you are not allowed to do anything, you just have yourself.”[1] In this quote, Winnie Mandela explains that imprisonment alone does not change someone, but severe isolation can and does break down even the strongest of persons. While detained and imprisoned multiple times throughout her life, Winnie Mandela was subjected to intense suffering by the apartheid prison staff through isolation, inhumane conditions, and poor medical treatment. The barbaric treatment Winnie Mandela endured these imprisonments severely impacted the state of her physical health, causing life-long suffering.

First Imprisonment

            Winnie Mandela’s first experience with detainment occurred in October 1958 when she was arrested while attending a protest in Johannesburg against the apartheid government’s pass laws.[2] In all, around 1,000 women were arrested alongside Winnie, and these women continued to protest by forgoing bail and spending two weeks in prison.[3] Winnie, pregnant with her and Nelson Mandela’s first child, was met with vile conditions. The women and their babies were piled into tiny, cement cells infested with lice, and were only given one filthy blanket.[4] Overwhelmed by the arrest and the disturbing conditions, Winnie began to hemorrhage and feared the worst for her unborn baby.[5] Fortunately, with the help of fellow prisoner and trained midwife Albertina Sisulu, Winnie was kept warm and fed, and ultimately did not miscarry.[6] After two weeks, all of the women were released after the African National Congress (ANC) posted their bail, and Winnie went on to give birth to daughter Zenani four months later.[7] Unfortunately for Winnie, this horrifying imprisonment experience would end up being one of many as the years went on. Winnie suffered strong physical reactions to the depraved living conditions and without the aid of Albertina, could have easily lost her unborn baby, as she was not given access to medical care. Although the time of this imprisonment was relatively short, in relation to other her imprisonments, the horrid environment of the prison severely impacted Winnie’s physical and mental state in near life-altering ways.

Second Imprisonment

            Winnie Mandela’s second imprisonment was by far the longest and most grueling, lasting a total of 491 days. At two in the morning on May 12, 1969, police raided and searched Winnie’s home with her two daughters present, and detained her under the Terrorism Act.[8] She was then sent to Pretoria prison under solitary confinement, where she soon met with even worse than those of her first imprisonment.[9] Winnie discovered that the prison guards only provided one mat and three blankets to make a bed, and they only partially rinsed their sanitary buckets once a day, the same bucket they used for washing themselves and going to the bathroom.[10] The meal times severely lacked necessary vitamins, consisting of under-cooked porridge and unwashed spinach, served on top of the prisoners’ sanitary buckets.[11] These first days in the Pretoria prison were full of anxiety and despair for Winnie, and the isolation to her tiny cell was only just beginning.

            Two weeks into her detainment, the police began to interrogate Winnie.[12] For five days straight, she was intensely interrogated under a bright light, where she did not eat, fainted constantly due to physical and mental agony, and even began urinating blood.[13] Nonetheless, the police did not stop questioning her about the ANC’s political acts and her friends, even threatening to keep innocent people in jail if she did not accept responsibility.[14] On the fifth day, a physically and mentally exhausted Winnie accepted responsibility for all the accusations, so that the others could be released.[15] Although Winnie was not directly physically tortured during the interrogation, the conditions she was kept in for those five days caused serious mental stress that induced physical stress.

            Even back in her cell, a constant light shone day and night, making it extremely difficult to sleep.[16] Her cell, fifteen by five feet, was right next to the assault chamber, where she had to listen to the agonizing screams of prisoners being punished by the female prison guards.[17] The inside of her cell was barren, with only two mats full of a previous prisoner’s blood, four blankets, a plastic, a sanitary bucket, and a mug occupying the room.[18] Winnie had very little interaction with other prisoners, only briefly seeing them at mealtime or knocking on their cell doors during her 15 to 20 minutes of exercise a few times a week.[19] For nine months, the isolation continued, with the wardresses discriminating against black prisoners, who they named the ‘Bantu’, and especially singling out Winnie. Coloured and Indian prisoners were treated much more favorably by the prison guards, serving them foods black prisoners were not allowed to have, such as coffee, tea, bread, and sugar.[20] A fellow prisoner, Rita Ndzanga, also describes how the guards seemed to despise Winnie more so than the other black prisoners, as Winnie regularly spoke up and reprimanded guards who mistreated the prisoners.[21] Not only was Winnie kept in complete solitary confinement during this period, she was also discriminated against for being a black leader.

            On February 16, 1970, the charges against Winnie and eighteen of the other original detainees were dropped after a two-month trial proved torture was used by police during interrogations.[22] Unfortunately the victory was short-lived as the detainees were immediately re-arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act and put right back into solitary confinement, where things worsened quickly.[23] Soon after she returned to prisoned, Winnie’s health rapidly deteriorated. She began having frequent blackouts, body spasms, and excessive menstrual bleeding.[24] Although she saw prison doctors for these issues, prison guards regularly withheld her prescriptions, which led to night terrors, loss of appetite, worsening blackouts, breathlessness, elevated pulse, and lowering blood pressure.[25] All of this acute suffering eventually led Winnie to attempt suicide by starvation and refusing treatment, as she would finally be free of solitary confinement and her friends would be let go.[26] As her health declined, she was sent to the hospital where she was forced to undergo intense treatment for a heart condition, anemia, heavy bleeding, and bronchitis, which caused painful adverse side effects.[27] Upon seeing a specialist, Winnie’s conditions were deemed to be caused by a lack of vitamins and proteins, acute tension, anxiety, and mental strain.[28] When taken to see psychiatrists for her mental state, the psychiatrists belittled Winnie and dismissed all of her symptoms as a normal part of imprisonment.[29] Not only did Winnie not receive proper medical care when her life was in jeopardy, the dangerous state of her mental health was written off as “normal” and was also not properly treated.

            Even though during the last few months of her confinement some of the prison conditions improved, Winnie still faced hardship as she was in and out of the prison hospital. Even though she was an awaiting-trial prisoner, Winnie was not treated as such. All of her books were taken and the food her family brought for her was withheld, both things in which other awaiting-trial prisoners enjoyed regularly.[30] Winnie eventually listed out all of her complaints in a memorandum, where she explained she wished that the prisoners and prison staff could get along harmoniously if the prisoner’s basic needs were met.[31] No matter her condition, she continued to speak up on behalf of herself and her fellow prisoners, as they simply wanted to be treated as equal human beings. Winnie was released from prison on September 15, 1970, after spending seventeen months in solitary confinement. Even though her physical and mental health improved upon release, Winnie was still left with a permanent heart condition, which she described as being caused by the poor conditions of prison leading to “acute tension, anxiety, and mental strain.”[32]

Third Imprisonment

            In 1973, while under a banning order, Winnie was arrested for talking to another banned person, Peter Magubane, while having lunch with her children.[33] After originally being sentenced to twelve months suspended for three years, her sentence was reduced to six months after an appeal in September 1974.[34] Winnie was sent to Johannesburg Fort for the first month of her imprisonment, and then was transferred to Kroonstad Prison for the remainder.[35] Although the conditions at Kroonstad Prison were  better than those at Pretoria Prison, Winnie still felt the severe strain of living life in a tiny cell day in and day out.

            Although Kroonstad was made out to be a sanctuary of rehabilitation for white female prisoners in the apartheid newspapers, the reality of the prison for black prisoners was quite the opposite.[36] Compared with the white prisoners, the black prisoners were served lesser meals, had less reading material, were not allowed to play the same sports, had lesser uniforms, and were more likely to be thrown into solitary confinement to “correct” behavior.[37] Despite these adversities, Winnie found a source of comfort in prison as she was able to share her confinement with two other political prisoners: Dorothy Nyembe and Amina Desai.[38] Winnie was able to pass the time by sewing and reading in the prison library, and was provided with new blankets and uniforms.[39] Winnie was eventually released in April 1975; she returned back to her daughters in Johannesburg. Overall, Kroonstad Prison had a far better prison environment that Pretoria Prison, but it was riddled with discrimination and oppression imposed by the apartheid prison staff. Winnie and her fellow black prisoners were treated with some respect and human dignity, but the subpar conditions compared to the white prisoners took a serious mental toll on the women as their sentences were filled with less physical or mental stimulation.

Fourth Imprisonment

            In August 1976, Winnie was arrested for her involvement in the Soweto Uprising, where she established with Dr. Nathatho Motlana the Soweto Parents’ Association months prior.[40] Police held her at Johannesburg Fort for four months without trial with a dozen other women.[41] During this detainment, the women were not given underwear, shoes, or stockings, which Winnie immediately protested against and actually won.[42] Winnie went on to regularly speak up and empower her fellow prisoners, encouraging them all to stand together against any unfair treatment, and had small victories throughout her sentence.[43] Even though Winnie’s voice was heard and occasionally taken seriously at Johannesburg Fort, her being held for four months without trial is inhumane and cruel. This was most likely done by apartheid police and prison guards in an attempt to break her passion for the anti-apartheid struggle by trying to inflict mental strain. Fortunately, this was Winnie’s last imprisonment, although she would go on to face years of banishment in Brandfort and the life-long implications of her imprisonments. Winnie was also sentenced to six years in prison in 1991, but upon appeal, the sentenced was reduced a fine (Wren 1991).[44]

Impact of Imprisonments

            Throughout her four imprisonments, over two years in total, Winnie endured deep suffering at the hands of apartheid prison staff through means such as isolation, psychological torture, and improper medical care. These countless traumatic experiences led her to experience major depressive episodes, attempt suicide, and, according to Marisa Botha, most likely develop PTSD.[45] These psychological impacts have life-long implications, and most likely followed Winnie until her death.

            According to the DSM-5, PTSD is defined as “an exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” which is followed by reoccurring traumatic episodes in which the individual re-experiences the trauma in some form.[46] In 2011, when Winnie’s prison diary is finally returned to her after 41 years, she had “vivid and horrific memories” race back to her immediately and was returned to a “traumatic time when, as a young wife and mother of two small children, she was left alone and her husband Nelson Mandela was jailed for life for sabotage.”[47] The psychological distress Winnie experienced when she received her journal was most likely a traumatic episode, and was probably not the first.

            One major symptom of PTSD is avoiding stimuli reminiscent of the threat, such as internal or external prompts.[48] This symptom is depicted many times in Winnie’s book 491 Days : Prisoner Number 1323/69, and one clear example of it was when she stated that she could not eat bacon and eggs 41 years after imprisonment because that was what she ate during an interrogation in which psychological torture was implemented.[49] Another major symptom of PTSD is an ongoing sense of threat, indicated by a state of autonomic hyperarousal.[50] One indication of hyperarousal that Winnie reports repeatedly during her second imprisonment was insomnia due to the constant light in her cell and mental strain.[51] While these are just a select few instances where Winnie displayed symptoms of PTSD during and after her imprisonment, the psychological trauma and stress can be seen constantly throughout her book. The overall impact of Winnie’s four imprisonments most likely caused chronic PTSD.[52]


The life-long suffering of individuals should never be the goal of imprisonment, but the apartheid prison staff subjected Winnie and countless others to this burden. Winnie Mandela was deliberately exposed to trauma by the apartheid prison staff during her multiple imprisonments, where she was put in solitary confinement for over a year, forced to live in horrific conditions, and was not given adequate medical treatment when needed. The culmination of these traumatic experiences caused Winnie’s mental health to rapidly decline, and most likely caused life-long psychological stress. Although Winnie remained a strong leader in the anti-apartheid struggle after her imprisonments, her two traumatic years in physical confinement was probably a psychological life sentence.

This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project


[1] Winnie Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2013): 57.

[2] “Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.” Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. South African History Online, February 17, 2011.

[3] “Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.” Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. South African History Online.

[4] Nancy Harrison. Winnie Mandela. New York: George Braziller, 1986, 64.

[5] Harrison. Winnie Mandela. 65.

[6] Harrison. Winnie Mandela. 65.

[7] “Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.” Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. South African History Online.

[8] Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69.

[9] Winnie Mandela, Anne Benjamin, and Mary Benson. Part of My Soul Went with Him. New York: Norton, 1986, 98.

[10] Mandela, Benjamin, and Benson. Part of My Soul Went with Him, 99.

[11] Nancy Harrison. Winnie Mandela. 114-115.

[12] Nancy Harrison. Winnie Mandela. 115.

[13] Nancy Harrison. Winnie Mandela. 116.

[14] Nancy Harrison. Winnie Mandela. 116.

[15] Nancy Harrison. Winnie Mandela. 116.

[16] Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, 9.

[17]Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, 10.

[18]Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, 10.

[19] Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, 14.

[20] Mandela, Benjamin, and Benson. Part of My Soul Went with Him, 104.

[21] Mandela, Benjamin, and Benson. Part of My Soul Went with Him, 105.

[22] Harrison. Winnie Mandela. 119.

[23] Harrison. Winnie Mandela. 119.

[24] Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, 21-22.

[25] Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, 23-24.

[26] Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, 25.

[27] Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, 29-30.

[28] Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, 31.

[29] Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, 33.

[30] Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, 84-85.

[31] Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, 90-93.

[32] Mandela. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, 31.

[33] Harrison. Winnie Mandela. 126.

[34] Harrison. Winnie Mandela. 126.

[35] Harrison. Winnie Mandela. 127.

[36] Npz Mbatha. “Narratives Of Women Detained In The Kroonstad Prison During The Apartheid Era: A Socio-political Exploration, 1960-1990.” Journal for Contemporary History 43, no. 1 (2018).

[37] Mbatha. “Narratives Of Women Detained In The Kroonstad Prison During The Apartheid Era,” 102-104.

[38] Harrison. Winnie Mandela. 127.

[39] Harrison. Winnie Mandela. 128.

[40] “Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.” Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. South African History Online.

[41] Mandela, Benjamin, and Benson. Part of My Soul Went with Him / Winnie Mandela, 116.

[42] Mandela, Benjamin, and Benson. Part of My Soul Went with Him / Winnie Mandela, 116.

[43] Mandela, Benjamin, and Benson. Part of My Soul Went with Him / Winnie Mandela, 116-117.

[44] Christopher S. Wren. “Winnie Mandela Given Sentence Of 6 Years in Kidnapping Case.” The New York Times. May 15, 1991.

[45] Marisa Botha. “Psychological Sequelae of Political Imprisonment, Specifically Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in 491 Days by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.” Literator 39, no. 1 (2018)..

[46] Botha. “Psychological Sequelae of Political Imprisonment.”

[47] Mandela. 491 Days : Prisoner Number 1323/69, 1.

[48] Botha. “Psychological Sequelae of Political Imprisonment.”

[49] Mandela. 491 Days : Prisoner Number 1323/69, 62.

[50] Botha. “Psychological Sequelae of Political Imprisonment.”

[51] Botha. “Psychological Sequelae of Political Imprisonment.”

[52] Botha. “Psychological Sequelae of Political Imprisonment.”



  • Magubane, Peter. Photograph. University of the Western Cape, 1969. Robben Island Museum Archives.
  • Mandela, Winnie. 491 Days : Prisoner Number 1323/69. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2013.
  • Mandela, Winnie, Anne Benjamin, and Mary Benson. Part of My Soul Went with Him. New York: Norton, 1986.