12/18/2013 02:42 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

Winnie, 'The Mother of the Nation' Freed Mandela's Voice

"We have no guns -- we have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol. Together, hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country." --Winnie Madikizela Mandela

Last Tuesday, I listened, with millions from around the world, as President Obama eulogized Nelson Mandela, a fitting and robust exaltation from the first African-American president of the USA to the former, first Black African president of South Africa. And while I agreed with all that was said, I kept waiting to hear Winnie's name lifted up too, because she more than anyone else freed Nelson Mandela's voice. If it wasn't for her love and fearless determination, that cost her immeasurable emotional, physical and psychological trauma, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela would not have become the giant we know him of today, and the man that many, regardless of station, admire for his dedication to equality and justice.

Perhaps her parents knew her fate when they named her Nomzamo, which in Xhosa means "she who will go through trials." Winifred Madikizela's life, from her childhood in rural Transkei to her move to Johannesburg, where she became South Africa's first black female social worker, was a series of racial and social ordeals and some triumphs to be free and to free others. Mandela spent 27 years incarnated, but he did not spend it alone. Winnie spent every one of those 27 years with him, doing triple duty as mother of his children, as provider and most importantly as the amplifier of his voice. She embodied the struggle. She slept, ate, drank it and she brought it to the international stage, tirelessly lobbying to end apartheid and free her husband, Nelson Mandela. She loved and believed in him and the cause.

Winnie was pursued by Nelson Mandela at the age of 22, while standing at a bus stop in Soweto. Mandela, despite being married with three children and close to 40, stopped, made advances, pursed and carried on with Winnie until he eventually divorced his first wife and married her in 1958. Two years later, in 1962, he went underground, leaving Winnie to fend on her own, which she did valiantly. A young woman in her prime, she could have turned her back on him and began a new life, but she did not. Instead she held on tighter and despite the system and many others who wanted to put her in her place, fearing she was becoming too vocal, she fought unwavering for justice: justice for Mandela, for herself and for all South Africans.

For close to three decades Winnie carried the cross, which included being detained, "tortured, subjected to house arrest, kept under surveillance, held in solitary confinement for a year and banished to a remote town" by the apartheid government. Throughout all that time one of her major goals was to free her husband from prison. On Feb 11, 1990, Winnie was at Mandela's side when the gates of Robben Island prison were opened and he walked, a free man. But at this time, she was now her own woman, no longer the naïve young woman that he charmed and married with his swagger and law degree. She was his equal. In fact, her experience, while Nelson was imprisoned, far outstretched him, her political acumen and commitment to change far exceeded his, and her approach to achieve change had also developed in a different way than had Mandela's. She has succeeded where others have failed. She raised two accomplished daughters, fought side-by-side with her sisters and brothers of South Africa, gained international respect, and became known as the Mother of the Nation.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela will forever be known as the quintessential politician of South Africa who has held several government positions and headed the African National Congress Women's League for many years. Winnie Nomzamo remains a heroine to the people of South Africa and to me. She stayed true to the course. She remained in Soweto when she had ample opportunities to move and live ensconced in an exclusive neighborhood, as did Nelson Mandela before his death.

No, Winnie is not perfect. Undoubtedly, she made many grave errors, including being involved in the kidnapping of Stompie Seipei. But we will probably never know the complete truth of that story or to what hand the powers that be had in the framing and publicity of that incident. What is known is that because of that event Winne was discredited and silenced.

Winnie Mandela is rightly South Africa's First Lady and will always remain so. The truth is: She gave Nelson Mandela a voice and a platform to become the beloved hero and statesman that he was, and will always remain to those of us who honor intrepid individuals who fight for social and economic justice for all of us.