Winnie Madikizela was born in the village of Mbongweni, Bizana, in the Transkei. She was the fourth of eight children. Her father, Columbus, was minister of the Transkei Governments’ Forestry and Agriculture Department during Kaizer Matanzima's rule. Her mother, Nomathamsanqa Mzaidume (Gertrude), a domestic science teacher, died when Winnie was only eight years old.
In the mid-1950s, she became involved in the African National Congress (ANC). In 1957, she met Nelson Mandela. At the time he was on trial, along with 155 other people, in the now infamous Treason Trial following the civil disobedience campaigns of the early 1950s. They were married on 19 June 1958 in a Methodist service in the Transkei, after which Winnie settled in Mandela’s home in Soweto.
By March 1961, the Treason Trial was over and the accused were found not guilty. By this time Winnie had given birth to 2 daughters, Zenani, born in 1959 and Zinzi, born in 1960. Between March and December of 1961, the Mandela’s enjoyed a normal family life, in the sense that they were all together. Throughout most of her married life, however, Winnie Mandela had to endure a forced separation from her husband. He was detained and imprisoned on more than one occasion and spent twenty-six years of his life on Robben Island. Although she had visitation rights during that period, she was unable to have physical contact with him.