Born Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela on September 26, 1936, in Bizana, a rural village in the Transkei district of South Africa, Winnie Mandela eventually moved to Johannesburg in 1953 to study at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work. South Africa was under the system known as apartheid, where citizens of indigenous African descent were subjected to a harsh caste system in which European descendants enjoyed much higher levels of wealth, health and social freedom.
Winnie completed her studies and, though receiving a scholarship to study in America, decided instead to work as the first black medical social worker at Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. A dedicated professional, she came to learn via her field work of the deplorable state that many of her patients lived in.
In the mid-1950s, Winnie met attorney Nelson Mandela, who, at the time, was leader of the African National Congress, an organization with the goal of ending South Africa’s apartheid system of racial segregation. The two married in June 1958, despite concerns from Winnie’s father over the couple’s age difference and Mandela’s steadfast political involvements. After the wedding, Winnie moved into Mandela’s home in Soweto. She became legally known thereafter as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.