We Didn’t Realize It Would Be So Easy to Fight and So Hard to Transform

Winnie Mandela
Winnie Mandela
Today I had the great privilege of meeting and speaking with Winnie Mandela, widow of Nelson Mandela and a crucial leader of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa in her own right.

Several of us were in Johannesburg for the opening of the Harvard Center for African Studies (CAS) office here – the first CAS outpost on the continent. I’m the HBS representative to the CAS Executive Committee. We also have an office here – the brand new HBS Africa Research Center under the direction of Pippa Armerding – and I’m the Faculty Chair.

Emmanuel Akyeampong is the Faculty Director of the Harvard Center for African Studies. He’s a historian originally from Ghana and has been at Harvard for about 25 years. His wife is Ntuli Qoboza-Akyeampong. She’s South African and also teaches at Harvard (remember the Qoboza name).

Following the big opening celebration for the CAS Johannesburg office on Wednesday May 31 we had several follow up smaller events. On June 3, I joined about 15 other Harvard CAS friends at the apartment of HRH Princess Zenani N. Diamani, a member of the South African High Commission and former Ambassador to Argentina. She is one of two daughters of Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

For quite some time our group chatted and had tea with Ms. Diamani (Winnie Mandela is not known for punctuality). This let me market test Pippa and my idea for an HBS case study about the South African Fine Art program led by the SA based global chicken franchise Nando’s. People were…polite.

Winnie Mandela arrived. She’s about 80 and frail, although she looks well. (She spent over 500 days in prison in the late 1980’s-early 1990s’s including over 260 in solitary confinement, and was tortured in prison). At first she shook some hands and we had some pleasantries about Harvard in Africa blah blah.

Winnie Mandela today.
Winnie Mandela today.

Then Ntuli re-introduced herself. Ntuli’s father Percy Qoboza was an important journalist in the 1980s bringing reporting and opinion about apartheid (and anti-apartheid) to the world. He received acclaim from many Western press associations.

At the mention of Percy Qoboza, “Auntie Winnie” got extra engaged in the conversation. They had been close friends.

Ntuli remembered her father Percy’s funeral in 1988. Ntuli recounted, “It was terrifying. The National Front (apartheid government) had said NO political figures to be at the funeral. They said they would shoot to kill. I’m a twin. My sister and I were crying in the car. We were 11 years old, just girls. There were helicopters and soldiers. We didn’t dare get out of the car and all we wanted to do was bury our daddy.

“Auntie Winnie, you came over to us and said, ‘walk with me. They will have to shoot me first.’

“And so we walked with you. I will never forget.”

Auntie Winnie: “I remember. Your father was a wonderful man.”

Ntuli has not seen Auntie Winnie since then, until today.

(At the time Nelson Mandela had already been in prison for 25 years and Winnie was an important symbol of the anti-apartheid movement. Nelson would walk free from Robben Island two years later and return to their home at 8115 Vilikazi Street in Soweto, epicenter of student uprisings in 1976).

Police persecution sign

At the Mandela house in Soweto, reminders of targets and arrests.

Today I’m the visitor and the outlier. I’m sitting dead still totally silent bolt upright hands on lap. The young African women from the CAS African Advisor Board – accomplished people from Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, South Africa – are spellbound. Everyone is teary. I would not miss this moment for anything; I’m fortunate to be included.


There’s a chance for questions. “How did you do it? How did you get the strength?”

“We so thirsted for freedom that ANC (African National Congress) was like a drug. We were hooked. There were only two courses of action: ANC or the other side. As we buried honored soldiers, they died with honor, and we who remained thought ‘maybe it’s better to be him. Everything was so bad.’”

“We didn’t know it was so easy to fight and so hard to transform.”

Now I have my pen out and find a piece of paper and take notes as fast as I can.

“We didn’t know how hard it would be to transform. ‘Where are all the houses you promised?’” [Nelson Mandel and the African National Congress (ANC) were later elected to lead the nation, in 1994]. “We made amazing promises, promised everything.”

She continued, “Political freedom without economic freedom is a grave mistake. Political freedom without economic freedom is half the freedom.


“This would be one of the obstacles in our road to economic freedom. We struggled to deliver the services we promised in 1994. As in many emerging countries, the economy gets centered in the hands of the few.” [Current ANC leader and president of South Africa Jacob Zuma has been roundly criticized in the press and elsewhere for allowing “state capture” of public resources…essentially channeling money to himself and cronies. He had been a freedom fighter alongside the Mandelas decades ago].

“We woke up [after the end of apartheid] and found land was still in the hands of the few who owned it before liberation. Our supporters didn’t have the money to buy the land back from those who stole it from us.

“It’s difficult now too [to govern, she’s still an ANC leader] since we have rebel youth who see South Africa as a battlefield.”


After a bit it’s time to go and we gather for pictures. One of Ambassador Diamani’s sons is interested in real estate. We had chatted on the side earlier. People filter out and then it’s just me and Auntie Winnie and the grandson and his business partner (they look about 20 years old). This is not quite right – why do I get almost 1:1 time with Winnie?


I might not remember this completely accurately but I think she was listening to the real estate conversation and figured out that I was from Harvard Business School.

“We tried the collectives and the nationalization of assets and that did not work [many ANC fighters in the 1980s were Marxists or aligned with nations which were]. I recall that she then said, “I now believe that industry and entrepreneurship are the path to advancement of all peoples in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.”

This pretty much floored me, again. It’s amazing enough that Nelson Mandela could emerge from 27 years in prison and lead reconciliation, not retribution. And now starting her 9th decade, Winnie Mandela can embrace another economic model. I’m about weeping once more.

The Harvard Center for African Studies Young Leader Advisory Board
The Harvard Center for African Studies Young Leader Advisory Board

Winnie Mandela is controversial – the Truth and Reconciliation commission implicated her in political crimes in including murders – and her personal life was also tabloid-style in the 1990s before she and Nelson divorced. But what evolution of thinking.

A day to remember.

Auntie Winnie and Emmanuel
Auntie Winnie and Emmanuel Akyeampong


Mandela House, Soweto
Mandela House, Soweto




Much of John Macomber’s work focuses on the private finance and delivery of public infrastructure projects in both the developed and emerging worlds. Each year, Macomber, who is a Senior Lecturer of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and a member of the Harvard University Center for Africa Studies Executive Committee, leads an immersive field course in Africa for Harvard students. In May, Macomber joined the Center for African Studies in Johannesburg, South Africa for the launch of the Center’s Africa Office. In the post below, Macomber reflects on his experience in Johannesburg, in a post that originally appeared on his blog, JohnMacomberWeblog.