04/04/2018 05:37 SAST | Updated 04/04/2018 07:48 SAST

The Lives Winnie Changed in Brandfort

Those who lived and worked beside Madikizela-Mandela during her years exiled in Brandfort embrace the stalwart’s name with an almost obsessive devotion.

More than 30 years since anti-apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela last called a small rural township in Brandfort home, the community there still praise her legacy.

While South Africa mourns Madikizela-Mandela's death, those who lived and worked beside her during her years exiled in Brandfort embrace the stalwart's name with an almost obsessive devotion.

It was in May 1977 that a small police contingent, at the behest of the apartheid government, forced Madikizela-Mandela from her Soweto home into custody. Soon after, officers would then make the almost 400km journey, with Madikizela-Mandela in transit, to Brandfort.

She would go on to spend almost 10 years in domestic exile in a township outside this dusty Free State town. There, she was isolated, monitored and the momentum of her political mobilisation halted.

But according to residents who frequented house number 802, where Madikizela-Mandela lived, the government's plan backfired.

AFP/Getty Images
A picture taken on April 13, 1986, shows Winnie Madikizela-Mandela addressing a meeting in Kagiso township.

HuffPost on Tuesday interviewed 75-year-old Nora Moahloli, one of Madikizela-Mandela's closest friends. Sitting on a black plastic chair on the verandah of her brick township home, in the shade of an overhanging tree, Moahloli recalled life alongside the struggle icon.

"I used to pass her house. In Sotho, you greet anyone, especially in small towns. Even if you see me at night, you will say, 'Hello Auntie,' because you know me. It was hard just to pass her and greet only. That point brought us closer to each other. She loved to cook ... When I passed her house on my way to school, she would call out, 'Hey Nkosikazi, here is your [food]'. That's the way we started to get to know each other," Moahloli said.

READ: Madikizela-Mandela - The System Hated Her More Than Anyone Else

"And Winnie was up early watering her garden. When you passed her house, she would stand by the gate. Even if you tried dodging her, she would greet you ... She loved gardening. She would wake up early to water her flowers. It was really beautiful."

Moahloli said she took care of Madikizela-Mandela when she fell ill.

"Winnie fell sick, she had a problem with her knee. Something was coming out of her knee. Our local lawyer who worked in town came to me at school. He said Winnie was sick and he needed me to take care of her because we don't have hospitals here. He was busy with an application to take her to the hospital in Bloemfontein," Moahloli said.

"He then gave me a paper that gave me permission to enter her yard. I entered and from that moment she became my sister and friend. It was great ... But you would wake up some mornings and there were soldiers and [police] with guns all around the location. Every place where a person could enter Brandfort, they would be hiding there. It was tense. But for Winnie, all those things did nothing to her; it never broke her spirit."

Pontsho Mabena
Nora Moahloli, one of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's close friends.

Moahloli described one moment that personified Madikizela-Mandela.

"They [Madikizela-Mandela and her daughter] used to dress in black. So, this is a rural area. There was no meaning of Youth Day. It was just like any other day. But because they were from Soweto, they dressed in all black. Winnie saw what they said at Foschini, that blacks were not allowed to try on clothes. She fitted all the clothes and didn't even buy anything. She took one and fitted it, then put it back, then again ... At that moment, she was strong," Moahloli said.

Lefa Mabaso, who is now a deputy director at the department of water and sanitation in the Free State, described how Madikizela-Mandela paid for his education. He said he owes his success to her.

READ: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Talks Frankly About Stompie Seipei

"I was still very young at that stage [when she first arrived] but the community was more welcoming. Some people were very apprehensive to be next to her but, ultimately, we did get into contact with her. Winnie was like a social worker, she was like a nurse and a teacher. She was everything to the community here," he said.

"She bought prescribed books for me in Gauteng. They were not available here. She also gave my former principal money to give me every month, so I could travel from here to Bloemfontein for high school. When I finished my schooling, I went to report to her that I had passed matric. She wanted to send me to university. I remember her saying money was not a problem. It was only me at the time who did not accept that offer for a particular reason."

Madikizela-Mandela's house in the township still stands, but in a sordid state. A multimillion-rand project to revamp the structure into a museum to pay homage to her legacy has seemingly failed.

Gallo Images via Getty Images
BRANDFORT, SOUTH AFRICA - 1977: (SOUTH AFRICA OUT) Winnie Madikizela-Mandela during her exile in Brandfort, South Africa in 1977 (Photo by Peter Magubane/Avusa Archives/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Amil Umraw
The remains of the house where Winnie Madikizela-Mandela once lived when she was exiled to Brandfort.

Surrounded by a steel mesh fence and barbed wire, the house sits between patches of unkempt grass and knee-high weeds. A heap of stones, which a community member said was for further construction on the property, lies unused near the road-facing side of the house.

READ: Winnie's Former Home An Inferior Tribute

Inside, there are black stains where fires have been lit, sunlight passes through holes in the roof and graffiti stains the walls. The word "sex" is engraved into a door frame.

The house has six rooms, most of which have the plaster and electric fittings ripped from the walls. In one of them, long pieces of cardboard are set up in the form of a bed. In another, the words "Panda Queen" are chalked on to the wall with a drawing of a little girl holding a stick. On the floor lies a pile of empty cooldrink bottles.

Madikizela-Mandela (81) died on Monday at the Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg. It seems, though, that her legacy will not be forgotten in Brandfort.