99 years by his name

99 years by his name

IMAGE USE:  Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash

There is nothing so heartbreaking as interviewing a boy in prison with ‘99 years’ written by his name. I can still see him: hazy, and unsure of himself and the draconian sentence he had just received, as I interviewed him in a Youth Offending Institution, back in 2010.

I was undertaking a detailed study of young people in England and Wales who had been given long-term sentences for the Youth Justice Board. One of the things I had to establish was if the young people understood the ‘nature and implications of their sentence’. This boy sticks out because he most certainly did not understand the nature and implication of his sentence. He, like many young people who received that impossibly long punishment, believed his first date for parole in a couple of years was actually his release date.

At the time, in 2010, there were four long term sentences being given to children. Two of them had determined end dates (Section 91 and Section 228) and two of them had indeterminate end dates (Section 90 and Section 226). In these last two, the court specifies a minimum tariff that is required to be served before the child is eligible to apply for parole. It’s not when you leave, it’s when you get a chance to leave.

Detention at Her Majesty’s please, (Section 90), is the life sentence; it applies to those under 18 years convicted of murder. Brought in under the 1908 Children Act, it replaced the death penalty for children: ‘… in lieu thereof the court shall sentence the child or young person to be detained during His Majesty’s pleasure’. The current provision is within the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act (PCC(S)A) 2000, Section 90.

Section 226 was the DPP – Detention for Public Protection – the child version of the IPP: the Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection. Brought in by the Criminal Justice Act of 2003, it was a draconian, hard-line sentence, designed for a few. For both children and adults, they were life sentences for serious offences excluding murder and they came with a blanket 99 year licence. The court set a minimum tariff to be served before the young person may apply for parole. This was 12 months for those sentenced before 14 June 2008, and 2 years for those sentenced on or after that date.

The judges went to town on this new sentencing power. Thousands of adults and children were given IPPs and DPPs in the preceding years. At their peak, in June 2012, there were 6,080 people serving indeterminate Section 226 sentences.

Civil society organisations warned of the dangers of IPPs. The Centre for Mental Health wrote that ‘levels of mental distress are higher among IPP prisoners than among either the general prison population or prisoners serving life sentences’. The Prison Reform Trust highlighted that IPP prisoners were emotionally distressed and that the sentence eroded of any sense of hope, damaged relationships and created Kafkaesque obstacles to discover when they have any prospect of release.

A joint review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Prison and Probation in 2008 highlighted the case against child DPPs, showing that in addition to the problems above, many young people didn’t even understand the sentence that had been doled out to them. Whilst they knew they were considered a risk to the public, most young people initially thought that their tariff date was their release date, like my young man above. This was precisely why we found ourselves talking to child after child who had inconceivably long sentences by their names in that 2010 research and trying to establish if they actually realised what this meant.

During the research, we spoke to a number of staff members who were particularly worried about the implications for children on indeterminate sentences. Prison is damaging for a child in general, but the psychological distress associated with the uncertainty of having no idea when one will get out is even more traumatic. Mental health problems were exacerbated by the indeterminate nature of sentences, and that one might leave at some point via parole is no relief if you don’t understand this, you don’t have access to the courses necessary to secure your release, and if the parole board doesn’t understand you.

The outcry, the bulging prison population, and a sympathetic new Justice Secretary Kenneth Clark saw the Section 226 IPP and DPP sentence abolished in December 2012 by the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act. However, because LASPO was not implemented retrospectively, the sentenced DPP and IPPs remained. There were 5,809 IPPs serving in 2013 with 3,570 serving beyond their tariff date.

In England and Wales, we can boast the highest number of people serving indefinite detention in Europe. Overall, in the prison estate, there were 9,342 (8,994 male; 348 female) indeterminate sentenced prisoners (including both IPPs and life sentences) at the end of June 2019. Within this statistic hides the 19 young people aged between 15 and 17 who are detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, a sentence that remains alive and well.

By the end of June 2019, there were 2,315 people: 2,273 males and 42 females, serving that botched and awful sentence the IPP. A depressing 92% of these prisoners are now serving beyond their original tariff date.

Almost ten years on I wonder: is that uncertain boy, now a man, one amongst these statistics? If he is, he must grimly understand his sentence now.




Modern Slavery and County Lines Focus Groups: We need your opinion!

Modern Slavery and County Lines Focus Groups: We need your opinion!

Justice Studio is working with London Councils to conduct four focus groups as part of their ‘County Lines and Modern Slavery Polling’ project, which will be evaluating the impact of communications and messaging on people’s perceptions of county lines and modern slavery.


The objective of these focus group discussions is to assess and test understanding of issues such as county lines and modern slavery, and to understand and test the messaging penetration and perception of such topics. Ideally, this will help to develop a roadmap with the goal of changing the public’s behaviour on drug use and it will help to reduce the harm caused to young Londoners involved in county lines.

Who should participate?

Our core target demographic for these focus groups are working professionals in the City. There are no other demographic or socio-economic restrictions for participants. If you meet this criterion and are interested to contribute to this important project, we would love to hear from you!

What’s in it for you?

Your participation will be highly valuable in terms of influencing future messaging on this topic. The focus group will take no longer than 90 minutes and light refreshments will be included as a small token of our appreciation for your time! It is a unique opportunity for you to learn more about the issue, be able to give back to society in Greater London and to engage and highlight the role communities can play in helping to protect young Londoners and save lives.

We will also be acknowledging/recognising corporate participants within the public report, which will be published by London Councils. The report will be shared and distributed widely and could be a great opportunity for your organisation to show your commitment to improving the lives of young Londoners. If you think your company could be interested to support initiative, please do get in touch.

What will the discussion be about?

Questions around the following themes will be discussed during the focus group:

  • Understanding of definitions of issues including county lines and modern slavery
  • Testing awareness of narratives and public messaging on these issues
  • Testing awareness of relationships between county lines and other forms of criminal activity
  • Understanding of connectivity and messaging channels, perceptions, what resonates with the public and what doesn’t
  • Reactions to information and discussion on behavioural change

Where and when will they take place?

The focus groups will be taking place at London Councils’ offices in London Bridge (59½ Southwark Street, London SE1 0AL).

For corporate participants, we could also host the focus groups at your office for the convenience of your employees.

We plan to hold the final focus group on Monday 28th October between 18:00-19:30.

How to get in touch

If you are able to participate at any point, share this with your colleagues/network or just want further information on the project, please don’t hesitate to Claire on claire@justicestudio.org; 44 (0) 7889257854.

How Britain and Uganda have failed the LGBTQI+ community

How Britain and Uganda have failed the LGBTQI+ community

The recent case of PN, who was blocked from boarding her flight back to the UK after being unlawfully deported, shines a light on the long standing, contradictory, and hypocritical relationship between the UK and Uganda over homosexuality. In this historical tragedy, the LGBTQI+ community have suffered as pawns in a game of law.

It started long ago, in 1533, with Britain’s Buggery Act. This Act, part of the centralising legal reforms of King Henry VIII, enshrined the state illegality of homosexual sex, and made it punishable by execution. Sapphic, or lesbian, sex was not criminalised, not because it was accepted, but because it was largely denied or ignored. In legal terms, women were not considered as agents, for example, married women’s legal personality was subsumed under their husband’s legal status as “two souls in one flesh.” In 1828, the Offences Against the Person Act modernised the 1533 law, in 1861 the penalty was reduced from death to imprisonment, and in 1885 the Criminal Law Amendment Act set the punishment at two years’ imprisonment, however widened the net to include any homosexual act witnesses or not.

Unsurprisingly, the country so threatened by same-sex love that they had to punish it, was the same country that felt so insecure in its status that it had to violently subjugate other countries in order to feel big and powerful.

So, whilst at home, the British were tinkering about with how best to punish men for expressing their affection for other men, abroad, they were tinkering about on other people’s land and claiming it as their own. Privileged British men with guns started stomping around the land that was to become Uganda in 1870s. Identifying as straight, entitled and superior, first Sir Samuel Baker, then General Gordon, and ultimately Captain Lugard, had their eyes on the three kingdoms inhabited the area of today’s Uganda: Buganda, Ankole and Bunyoro. However, contrary to the homophobic views that dominated Britain, in East Africa, opinions on same-sexuality appear to have been accepting. King Mwanga II of Buganda for example, was openly bisexual, and among the Lango people, certain men, named mudoko dako,  were treated by society kindly as women, and believed to form a “third gender” alongside male and female. Nevertheless, this acceptance was soon to end. In acts that were the anitthesis of respectful, by January 1892, Captain Lugard managed to force Mwanga to sign a treaty recognising the British East Africa Company’s authority in Buganda. The British Government’s official Protectorate of Uganda began on August 1894.

What followed was a brutal and unashamed campaign to control the people of Uganda and impose British customs and law. Of course, what was law in Britain was deemed appropriate to be the basis of law everywhere, and laws prohibiting same-sex sexual acts were enacted under British colonial rule. The colonial period, stretching into the mid 20th century brought with it immense legally sanctioned degradation of subjugated peoples shattering previously existing communities. In 1950, in a brutal culmination of state sanctioned homophobia, a new Penal Code was enacted, enshrining the prejudices of their British overlords clearly in Ugandan law. Section 145: Unnatural offences; Section 146: Attempt to commit unnatural offences, and Section 148: Indecent practices, outlawed homosexual sex. As women in Ugandan law got the same disregard from the colonialists as in British law, the act only applied to men.

As anti-homosexual legislation was passed in Uganda, in a cruel twist of fate, back in Britain, the 1950s public mood was beginning to be more empathetic and accepting of lesbian and gay people.  Alan Turing, the Bletchley Park scientist who broke the enigma code, was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, and was found dead in 1953. Convictions of the beloved actor Sir John Gielgud and a Peer in the House of Lords, in the same year, served to turn the public mood against criminalisation. The Government asked Sir John Wolfenden to investigate homosexuality and prostitution. The subsequent 1957 Wolfenden report, concluded that homosexuality, in limited circumstances, should be decriminalised. Ten years later, in 1967, the Sexual Offences Act became law, making sex between two consenting men over the age of 21 in private legal.

Meanwhile, Uganda had their own triumph, winning self-government on 1st March 1962. Yet lesbian and gay rights were not on their mind. From 1966, dictatorship marred and weakened the legislative function. First under Milton Obote, then after the military coup in January 1971 by Idi Amin, the order of the day was more, rather than less, discrimination. Ugandan Asians were exiled from the country and hundreds of thousands of politicians, journalists and intellectuals were killed.

President Museveni, sworn in as president in 1986 and still in power, has not halted the discriminatory trend. In 2000, the Penal Code Amendment (Gender References) Act changed the relevant sections of the Penal Code to refer to “any person” instead of ‘any male” so that lesbian acts were criminalised as well, bringing a dangerous equality to the law for women. The Act also extended criminalisation to heterosexuals by outlawing oral and anal sex regardless of sexual orientation.

In 2000s, visitors from the USA served to stir up the climate of hate. The extremist evangelical minister Scott Lively first visited Uganda in 2002 to drum up homophobia amongst influential Ugandan religious leaders. Then, in 2009, he headlined an anti-gay conference and worked with Ugandan MPs to devise legislation to target the LGBTQI+ community and drum up public support for it. Subsequently, Ugandan MP David Bahati introduced a harsh anti-homosexuality bill which would initiate the death penalty for gay sex, ban LGBTQI+ groups, and force families to report gay relatives.

Yet whilst the 2000s saw more outside influence promoting hatred in Uganda, it also saw the burgeoning and strengthening of a courageous LGBTQI+ activism. The first Lesbian Bisexual and Queer organisation, FARUG, was formed by Kasha Nabagesera in 2013, and in 2004 Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) was formed as an umbrella organisation for the growing movement. So when the Uganda Anti-homosexuality Act was passed in 2014, the activists came prepared and united. Joining with feminist groups, and successfully petitioning the Constitutional Court of Uganda on 1 August 2014, the Act was ruled invalid. However, despite this success, violence against the LGBTQI+ community in Uganda has increased.  Forcibly outed people experience “physical threats, violent attacks, torture, arrest, blackmail,” and there have been cases of ‘corrective rape’ among lesbian women whose families and peers forcibly try to ‘correct’ their sexual orientation.

Given that PN has been subject to gang rape herself, no wonder she is desperate and terrified. How disgusting then, that a country who subjugated another country in the 19th century, introducing the hate filled laws that have put PN in danger in the first place, have, through their immigration laws, committed her once again to ongoing threat.

As part of our current research for the Equality & Justice Alliance into LGBTQI+ and women’s movements, Justice Studio has been intimately aware of the extreme abuse and discrimination faced by LGBTQI+ people and activists in Uganda. We strive to understand, and acknowledge, the legacy of colonialism in our work, especially when we are operating in a different country from our own. As we undertake our work in Uganda, we remain cognisant of the privilege it is to work with the Ugandan people, despite what our country of incorporation has inflicted upon them.




The Housing Crisis Across the Pond: Lessons for the UK

Glyn Robbins - Jerome AvenuePhoto: Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, New York, US

On a recent short visit to the US, I encountered a number of issues that resonate in the UK.  Fortunately, I was over there while Donald Trump was over here in London.  But even in his absence, the political temperature ahead of next year’s presidential election is rising.  Like the UK, the US is currently in an almost permanent state of political crisis.  The Mueller Report and the possibility that Trump may be impeached dominates mainstream political and media discourse in a similar way to Brexit.  But as in the UK, there are other issues that have a more immediate impact on people’s daily lives.

The first place I visited was Jersey City, just across the Hudson River from downtown Manhattan.  I’ve written before about the dramatic changes in and around Old Street, where I work.  Very similar things are happening in Jersey City, but on an even bigger scale.  I first visited the city in 1992, when I worked for the public housing authority.  Back then, it was the epitome of post-industrial America, with an abandoned waterfront, derelict factories and deep poverty.  It was resolutely “blue collar”, with a significant African-American and Hispanic community, of whom lived in public housing.

Three decades later, the same forces that are trying to change London’s Old Street in to Tech City have transformed Jersey City beyond recognition.  The downtown area is festooned with high-rise apartments, offices, hotels, restaurants and yoga studios.  It’s sometimes called West Manhattan, or the Gold Coast.  But like EC1, this image gives a misleading impression.  The influx of affluence has not been evenly spread in either place.  Beyond downtown, Jersey City remains hard pressed.  In particular – and in common with everywhere in the US and UK – there’s an acute housing crisis driven by an over-heated market that is exacerbated by ill-conceived policy.

One obvious example of this, is the Montgomery Gardens public housing development, one of the places I used to work.  I remember it as a carefully managed, vibrant community, home to 1,300 people.  Today it stands empty and has been for several years.  It’s part of a government programme, very familiar in the UK, in which public or council housing is erased in the name of “regeneration”.  The objective for Montgomery Gardens is to attract private investment and create a “mixed income community”.  We can see the same across London, where at least 80 council estates are currently threatened with full or partial demolition.  As in Jersey City, such policies, however well intentioned, always lead to a net loss of genuinely affordable rented homes, cause displacement and the destruction of settled working class communities.

Glyn Robbins - Montgomery Gardens.jpgPhoto: Montgomery Gardens in Jersey City, New York, US

Similar things are afoot in the Bronx.  The area around Jerome Avenue is slated for fundamental transformation by the City of New York.  Currently, it’s a place where most of the population are Hispanic, 90% are private renters, many of whom work in local independent car repair garages and shops.  Looming at the south end of Jerome Avenue is Yankee Stadium.  New York City mayor (and now presidential candidate) Bill de Blasio has an objective of building or preserving 200,000 “affordable” homes by 2025.  Mayor Sadiq Khan has a very similar policy agenda.  Jerome Avenue has been identified as an opportunity to create a “new neighbourhood”, but this is causing great anxiety in the existing community, particularly because they don’t think many of the new homes will be affordable to them.  People I work with in Islington have identical concerns.

But there’s hope.  On 14th June, after a long campaign, politicians passed a series of steps to protect and improve the rights of 2.4 million private renters in the Big Apple, potentially extending this to another million households throughout the state of New York.  The measures include rent control and protection against harassment by landlords and eviction.  Judith Goldiner, a lawyer working for the campaign coalition that won the reforms said; “This landmark deal has recognised that the rights of tenants to stable, affordable and fair housing is an absolute necessity and should be placed above landlord profits”.

Alongside investment in council housing, which is now the only truly secure and affordable rented tenure, reform of the UK’s private rented sector is critical if we are to escape the perennial housing crisis and the worst excesses of urban America.  The recent spike in deadly violence in London, including several incidents near Justice Studio in North London, is symptomatic of the social distress and disruption being caused by market-driven urban policies.  I was recently quoted in Tribune magazine by Professor David Harvey in an article about the commodification of housing and the right to the city:

‘Neoliberal and profit-driven urban policies have produced cities in which many young people literally feel they have no place. They find it almost impossible to find a home they can afford in the communities where they were born, thwarting their ability to develop independent lives. Their social networks, sense of belonging, and feeling of respect from the adult world have been stretched to breaking point. Nothing could be more perfectly calculated to create a situation in which young people don’t care, either about the lives of others, or their own.’

Justice Studio believes that it’s not too late to save our cities from this fate, but time is running out.  Based in Tottenham, we have seen how the effects of housing policy is severely affecting disadvantaged communities. At a previous ‘Food + Thought session – The illusion of regeneration’ our speakers challenged the myth that communities ought to be destroyed to improve housing. Justice Studio is committed to bringing evidence and challenge to social housing policy.

Screenshot 2019-06-25 at 17.52.33Photo: ‘Justice Studio – Food + Thought session – The illusion of regeneration’ in Tottenham, UK

Glyn Robbins (PhD) is Justice Studio’s associate and expert in housing. Glyn’s book, “There’s No Place: The American housing crisis and what it means for the UK” can be ordered by email to redroofpublishing1@gmail.com.  

Glyn Robbins Head shot

Deciding the right legal-form for your start-up

Eight years ago, I set up Justice Studio, a social justice consultancy. At that time, although it grew quickly, I had a dearth of knowledge around the legal-forms/structures of organisations. I think most budding entrepreneurs, excited about setting up a new venture, probably don’t want to think about legal-structures, as they don’t have a stimulating reputation. However, the legal structure is the first vital step. 

Know what you are giving birth to

Maybe I work too much, but I genuinely think legal forms can actually be pretty exciting. They are so important that recognising their role as the structural skeleton of your organisation gives them a stimulating gravitas that some might even call sexy. As most social justice activists know, structures matter. What legal-form your organisation takes reflects its identity and what it stands for.

When I just started out, I didn’t have anyone to ask except my accountant, and as helpful as she was, I’ve seen too many entrepreneurs blindly follow what their lawyer or accountant says about their legal form, based purely on tax considerations. Yet tax implications should only be secondary to the overriding purpose of the organisation. If you don’t make a decision on legal structure based on the organisation’s purpose at its birth, then it may not be structured appropriately to fulfil that purpose, and you could be welcoming problems down the line.

Do you want more freedom or protection?

The first main distinction to make is between freedom and protection. You can either do what you want with your income, but end up taking on personal risk (unlimited liability), or you can protect yourself (limit your liability), but recognise that your venture is no longer of yourself, and along with it comes great responsibility. This distinction of freedom + risk versus protection + responsibility is relevant whether your aim is to make money or do good, or both at the same time.

Let’s step back a moment. Do you want to do this on your own or do you want to venture out with others, now, or in the future? If you like your freedom and just want to work on your own, then a Sole Trader, or Sole Proprietor in the US, could be for you. If you want freedom, but want to work with people, then a Partnership or an Unincorporated Association will allow you to do that without the legal restrictions of having your own entity. You don’t need much to set up, although there are some requirements for Sole Traders or Sole Proprietors, and I would recommend you have a partnership deed or agreement setting out the roles and responsibilities of partnerships or associations.

If something does go wrong, you don’t necessarily want to have your own finances harmed as a result, so, the protection option is limiting your liability. To properly work out the best type of limited liability is necessary, it’s important to be clear on your motivation for setting up your organisation.

Do you want to make money or do good, or do both?

Regardless of what type of organisation you set up, first think of it like a baby or a plant. It’s not you. It’s something separate from you. It has a separate legal personality, and it needs protection from harm. In creating an organisation you have legal and moral responsibilities towards it to ensure that it flourishes. You are its guardian.


If you just want to set up a simple profit-making business, then you can either set up a private limited company or a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP) – the half-way house between a partnership and a limited company. All businesses in the UK need to be registered at Companies House. In the US, be aware that in setting up your LLP or Limited Liability Company (LLC) every state has its own code of business laws authorising the formation of business entities, so check out your responsibilities. You’ll need ABN entitlement to set up your Proprietary Limited Company (Pty Ltd) in Australia.

Doing good

Doing good usually means that you will be aiming to set up a charity or not-for-profit entity. A Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG) is the most common form of organisation in the UK and it has members rather than shareholders. The majority of charities that were established before 2013 were set up as a CLGs, and registered as a charity through the UK Charity Commission. However, now there is a simpler structure called the Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO), which has been designed specifically for charities, meaning you just need to register once with the Charity Commission as an incorporated form of charity and you don’t need to worry about registering with, or reporting to, Companies House. In the US, charitable status is recognised through your tax code, so to do charitable work you need to register as the catchy sounding, 501(c)(3).

Doing both

If you want to do good and make money, then there are more options to consider. Generally, organisations that have a double or triple bottom line, can operate under a few different legal forms. In the UK, it is possible to simply use a limited company structure and have an added social purpose. Alternatively, you can have a specific status such as a cooperative or, since 2005, a Community Interest Company (CIC). CICs have an asset lock to ensure that their assets and profits are used for the benefit of the community. If you want to set one up you need to get it registered with the CIC Regulator. Whilst the CIC is close, there is no specific legal structure for a social enterprise, so for validity, you can join a membership body such as Social Enterprise UK, or in the US, the Social Enterprise Alliance. The US has also set up a new certification for companies driven by profit and purpose: B-Corps.

These self-managing and purpose-driven companies, who care about social mission and profit, have been analysed as the next generation of organisation, ‘teal’, in the amazing book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. This is the type of organisation that Justice Studio aims to embody as it reminds us to think of an organisation as an organic, living thing, that should benefit society.

If I haven’t convinced you about how exciting legal structures are yet, then at least, finally, we get to the genuinely fun bit: thinking of a name! If you are in the US, working out what names are available might take a while, however, in the UK or Australia there are handy company name checkers.

Anyway, good luck, have fun, and if you need any extra help with setting up an organisation aiming to do good, then do not hesitate to get in touch with us – info@justicestudio.org.

“Winnie was a rock. They struck her and complained she was too hard.’’

“Winnie was a rock. They struck her and complained she was too hard.’’

”Winnie was a rock. They struck her and complained she was too hard.” – Foluke Ifejola

How did Winnie Madikizela’s title fall from ‘Mother of the Nation’ to ‘Terrorist’? As is often the case with many women under the lumbering system of patriarchy, her story seems to begin and end in the light of her husband. Yes, she was once the wife of revolutionary-turned-political-pawn Nelson Mandela, but rarely are we given a glimpse at the full breadth of her remarkable life.

In apartheid South Africa’s rural countryside of Bizana, Winnie was born in 1936 as the sixth girl in a successive line of sisters. From an early age, realising her gender was an inconvenience to her family, Winnie strived to be a female stick fighter, going against the grain in a traditionally male combat sport. After the death of her mother, she temporarily left school and worked the field at the tender age of nine.

When Madikizela became of age she left to the bustling city of Johannesburg to study social work and went on to become South Africa’s first black professional social worker at the Baragwanath Hospital. It was at this time she met the then married Nelson Mandela, sparking a relationship that would last almost 40 years.

Winnie stood by Nelson’s side as he called people to power as leader of the African National Congress (ANC). As he was dragged through the courts of the apartheid regime for his acts of defiance, the South African authorities tirelessly terrorised the newlywed couple and their baby girl. Under the pressure of investigations into her husband, Winnie was let go from her job at the hospital – a wife guilty by association.

In 1960, the Sharpeville massacre, a peaceful protest against passbooks that resulted in 50 deaths when the police force opened fire into the crowd, spurred Nelson to flee as Winnie Mandela gave birth to their second daughter. Nelson was later captured and sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to overthrow the state. In the ensuing 1963 Rivonia Trials, Winnie Mandela, defiantly draped in her traditional regalia, watched as a vacuum opened in the black South African anti-apartheid movement.

Midikezela-Mandela faithfully leapt into the space her husband left as she vowed “I will fight them to the last drop of my blood.’’ She campaigned under the ANC for the freedom of her people and upheld Nelson in the mind’s eye of supporters. Publicly, she spoke to the hearts of people, while covertly she was engaged in the military wing of the ANC. Winnie became ‘Mother of the Nation,’ leading thousands of women, birthing a generation of revolutionaries. She strived to form her own identity out of the shadow of ‘Mandela’s wife’. As a consequence, the authorities set out on a mission to break her in the same fashion as her husband.

In 1969, six years after Nelson was detained, she was sentenced under the Terrorism Act and shipped away from her two daughters. She spent 491 days in solitary confinement where she was degraded, harassed and tortured. In her accounts of her time spent in a cell the width of two stretched arms, she said, “solitary confinement was designed to kill you so slowly that you were long dead before you died.’’ Ill for the majority of her time in prison her lawyers had to appeal to the Supreme Court to allow her food and the right to wash properly. One form of punishment, common for female freedom fighters, was being denied sanitary products so she would be found by visitors soaked in her own menstrual blood.

Upon her release, however, this horrifying experience did not break but rather galvanized Winnie. Reassuming her role, if the Nationalists had regarded her as a threat before, she was a live wire now. As she was gaining momentum, in 1977 she was exiled by the Apartheid regime to Brandtfort, a township in the neighbouring state. Under constant surveillance, Mama Winnie was severed from the liberation movement and unable to work in her open-air prison, being forced to live off donations.

After eight years in exile Winnie was let back into Soweto but upon arrival was surrounded by threats and attempts upon her life. As a counteractive force, Jerry Richardson created and led the controversial Mandela Football Club, a group of young boys staunch on protecting Winnie Madikizela by any means necessary.

Yet Winnie was being attacked on all sides. Scathed by national and international media; she was criticized rather than respected and had to withstand double standards in her personal as well as political life. Despite Nelson Mandela’s numerous early affairs, she was shamed by an alleged affair with Richardson, and despite the violent deaths of thousands of black people and children in the years of the civil war, she was accused of causing the murder of Stompie, a child in Jerry Richardson’s football team.

Still, Madikizela’s tenacity as a revolutionary leader and her integrity as a politician withstood as the men around her capitulated to the regime. With South Africa becoming ungovernable, the Government manipulated a worn-down Nelson Mandela, returning him compromised to his leadership. The now pacified ANC intentionally distanced themselves from Winnie’s ‘radicalism’ that they once embodied. The white Government proclaimed a peaceful handover to a non-racial democracy. However, Winnie did not believe it, and with the fervour of a mother, made a promise to her nation she was not willing to concede. Yet she was conflicted by her duty to Nelson, and she publicly stood by him, walking out holding his hand as he was released from prison in 1990. Two years later she was to be ousted as the first lady as Nelson announced their separation. He would go on to remarry, for a third time, leaving her nothing in his will.

Betrayed by her husband, she was also scapegoated by the party she had fought so hard for. The same year as the separation, she lost her position as head of the ANC Social Welfare Department amid allegations of corruption. She later became president of the ANC Women’s League but her political career was dogged by smear campaigns, and in 2003 she was convicted of fraud. However, the ANC could not dispute Winnie’s popularity amongst grassroots and the poor, spelling her return to politics in 2007 and winning a seat in the ANC National Executive Committee.

Winnie’s contribution to the struggle against apartheid and racism is incalculable and yet her besmirched image follows her more closely than her achievements. Patriarchy tries women, especially black women, for possessing the same gusto as their male counterparts. Amidst all allegations and scandals, her biggest crime was being a black woman who could not be broken. She was slut-shamed, brandished as an international terrorist, and erased from the liberation she led, and the party she had built. This is in contrast to the Nobel Peace Prizes, land, and forgiveness awarded to male puppets and perpetrators. Winnie’s strength was intimidating for its lack of hypocrisy and commitment to real equality.

It is these qualities that I respect Madikizela for. To those who know her story, including me, Winnie will continue to be a deeply inspirational feminist icon. A woman committed to truth, justice and challenging the status quo. Justice Studio salutes Winifred Madikizela and wishes her a very happy birthday – may she rest in power. 



Want to give a massive thanks to Nonkululeko Judy Dlamini (@nonkululekojudydlamini), my South African informant and dear friend who gave me great inspiration when writing this piece and increased my reverence of Mama Winnie.

#MLK50: Remembering the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

Lorraine Motel Memphis MLK50

Fifty years ago the world lost an inspirational leader. Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He campaigned for civil rights, and specifically for African Americans to have the same basic rights and freedoms as their white counterparts. But his vision was wider than ending race based oppression: it was one of equality and peace.

The late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century saw an erosion of the rights of African Americans. The Confederacy comprehensively lost the American Civil War, but arguably it won the peace. The democratic, land ownership, and other rights of African Americans were stripped away through a series of laws and practices. It was impossible to defend against them lawfully because they represented a consensus of the groups in power. Peaceful resistance did not gather pace until after the Second World War, with well documented manifestations like the Montgomery Bus Boycott which was triggered by the refusal of an African American woman Rosa Parks to give up a bus seat which she had lawfully occupied to a white passenger. The boycott lasted for over a year between 1955 and 1956 and was the first mass public action against racial segregation.

Dr. King led the bus boycott. In 1957 he became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1962 he led an unsuccessful struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, and the nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. He was one of the leaders of the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his world famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1964 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. His tactics were always of non violence and he wasn’t only focussed on changing the law. He campaigned for decent housing, for education, for labour rights, and for the recognition of the human rights and needs of the most vulnerable people in society. He believed that an equal and peaceful society would be of benefit to everyone, and that was the way humanity could be successful.

A month ago I was in Memphis. I visited the museum and education centre built on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr King was assassinated. I was surrounded by groups of school kids. Some were boisterous and naughty, happy to be on a school trip and not really paying attention to the exhibition and the education materials. Others were engrossed in the displays. But when the group reached the location where Dr King lost his life, all quietened down, realising the tragic significance of the place where they stood. All of them would leave knowing who Martin Luther King Jr was and why his work was so important.

Some things have changed since the 1960s. We no longer have legal segregation and there are some laws to protect people from the worst kinds of discrimination. But we have also seen as recently as in the last two years new laws which strip away the rights of some groups in society.  Populism in some countries has in part legitimised new forms of oppression and technology has been both a positive and a negative force. Racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination are alive and well in many settings.

Justice Studio only works with organisations with direct beneficiaries. They include some of the most vulnerable people in society. By supporting them, our clients are creating a more equal world, one where there can be hope for peace and equality. Dr King’s vision was global, and to achieve it thousands of organisations and millions of people must work towards the same goals. It is a vision which we are proud to share. The contribution of each of our organisations may seem small given the scale of the world’s challenges, but the total is greater than the sum. By raising a million voices together we can ensure global change.