Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a South African anti-apartheid activist and former wife of Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela, died on Monday, after a long illness. “It is with profound sadness that we inform the public that Mrs Winnie Madikizela-Mandela passed away at the Netcare Milpark Hospital, Johannesburg, South Africa on Monday,” said a statement issued by Victor Dlamini, a family spokesman. The statement also added that the 81-year-old Winnie Mandela succumbed peacefully surrounded by her family and loved ones.
Known to her supporters as the “Mother of the Nation”, Winnie Mandela played a prominent role in the battle to end white supremacy in South Africa. Her name, however, was often linked with violence and corruption.
Early life of Winnie Mandela
Born as Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela in 1936, Winnie completed her education and became the first qualified social worker at Johannesburg’s Baragwanath Hospital, a rarity for black women at that time. It was during her research work in Alexandra township on infant mortality, which found 10 deaths in every 1,000 births that she realised the shocking inequality in the country. “I started to realise the abject poverty under which most people were forced to live, the appalling conditions created by the inequalities of the system,” she said.
Marriage with Nelson and divorce
She married anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela in 1958. Most of their marriage was spent apart, with Nelson imprisoned for 27 years, leaving her to raise their two daughters alone and to keep alive his political dream under the all-white supremacy. During this time, she not only became Nelson’s public face but also led the anti-apartheid movement from the forefront. During this time, she was regularly detained and arrested by the state security forces and spent months in solitary confinement.
She was also sent to a desolate town of Bradford, where her house was bombed twice. This, however, did not deter her spirits. She built her role as an outspoken black activist and was a channel between Nelson and his followers. “From every situation I have found myself in, you can read the political heat in the country,” she said in a biography.
She organised local clinics, campaigned actively for equal rights and was promoted by the African National Congress as a symbol of its struggle against apartheid. In 1990, the world watched when Nelson Mandela finally walked out of prison — hand in hand with Winnie. The couple were divorced in 1996, two years after Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black President, with Mandela accusing his wife of infidelity.
Criticism and conviction
In the 1980s, reports suggested that Winnie Mandela endorsed kidnapping, murders and violence. Her name was also linked with necklacing, in which victims were burnt alive by a petrol-soaked car tyre being put over their chest and setting it ablaze. Her bodyguards, called Mandela United Football Club, carried out these activities. In 1986, she said, “With our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country” which was widely seen as an explicit endorsement of necklacing. She was also convicted of kidnapping of teenager Stompie Moeketsi, who was later murdered by her bodyguards. Her six-year jail sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal. She was also accused of another murder in 1992. The hearings were later adjourned amid claims that witnesses were being intimidated on Winnie Mandela’s orders.
She served as a deputy minister in President Mandela’s government but was sacked for insubordination. She served on the ANC’s National Executive Committee and headed its Women’s League. She again won a seat in parliament in 2009 elections.
Awards and recognition
In 1985, Winnie Mandela won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award along with fellow activists Allan Boesak and Beyers Naudé for human rights work in South Africa. She also received a Candace Award for Distinguished Service from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1988.