Winnie Madikizela Mandela: A life truly lived

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela passed away at 81 on Monday. Her family confirmed the news saying she had suffered from a long illness and died peacefully. “Mrs Madikizela-Mandela was one of the greatest icons of the struggle against apartheid.

Born on the 26th of September, 1936, in Bizana, Eastern Cape (formerly known as Transkei), Madikizela-Mandela is today a globally recognized figure.

Madikizela-Mandela became politicised at an early age in her job as a hospital social worker, after she noticed the abject poverty which most people were forced to live and the appalling conditions created by the inequalities of the system.

Madikizela-Mandela campaigned for her Mandela’s release throughout his incarceration. Credit: Reuters/Wendy Schwegmann

It was in the 1950s, while training as a social worker that she met her future husband, Nelson, who they say was struck like a thunderbolt the first time he saw her.

At the time, Nelson was married to Eveline who he met through her cousin Walter Sisulu, a South African anti-apartheid activist and member of the African National Congress (ANC) and whose wife, Albertina, lived a life of similar trajectory to Winnie’s. Prior to Nelson and Winnie’s encounter, Nelson and Eveline had been married for more than ten years and had three children together. However, within months of meeting Winnie, they got and Nelson got married to Winnie.

Unlike some other wives of great leaders, liberation struggle icons/ change agents, who often play the role of a supportive wife; carrying on the cause and legacies of their husbands and often times branching out into passion projects that help to leave imprints in the joint legacy of a couple, Winnie was far from just a supportive wife.

A young wife and mother when Mandela was first jailed, Madikizela-Mandela took up her husband’s fight, pouring her energies into the fight for the rights of black South Africans, and for her husband’s freedom. However, soon after they married, Mandela was arrested again, tried a second time for treason, and sentenced to 27 years in prison.

Throughout her husband’s incarceration, she campaigned tirelessly for her husband’s release, withstanding police harassment, years of detention, banishment and arrest by the white authorities. After being detained under terrorism laws for 17 months in 1969, on her release, she continued to organize for racial equality, establishing groups like the Black Women’s Federation and the Black Parents’ Association during the 1976 youth uprising. She also went on to write a book, 491 Days, Prisoner Number 1323/69, a chronicle of her detention.

Winnie Mandela in front of the house she was banished to with her daughter in 1977.

From 1977 to 1986, she was banned from her beloved Soweto, resuming duties in the African National Congress (ANC) as soon as she returned home. Unfortunately, the ANC was banned, and so Madikizela-Mandela sheltered young activists which contributed in the building of an underground network of insurgents.

Today, her small home is a museum, a busy tourist destination which before her death, she took advantage of by opening a restaurant nearby.

Winnie remained steadfast and unbowed throughout till she emerged to punch the air triumphantly in the clenched-fist salute of black power, as she walked hand-in-hand with Mandela out of Cape Town’s Victor Vester prison on Feb. 11, 1990. For both husband and wife, it was a crowning moment that led four years later, to Mandela becoming South Africa’s first black president, signaling the end of centuries of white domination.

For Madikizela-Mandela, the fight for a non-racial South Africa had become just as much her own as she had become an icon in her own right.

Winnie at the release of her ex-husband, Nelson Mandela, from prison

She and her former husband Nelson Mandela, who were both jailed, were a symbol of the country’s anti-apartheid struggle for three decades—having married for a total of 38 years with two children—and enduring separation due to Mandela’s long imprisonment.

As the era of apartheid waned, however, reports came in that the fire-brand activist had blood on her hands, following the event which saw a group of her loyalists beat a 14-year-old boy, Stompie Seipei, to death over rumors that he was an apartheid government spy in 1988 as sometimes the government would recruit blacks to spy on each other in order to maintain fear in the existing system.

She was eventually cleared when one of the men who were among her loyalists admitted to the murder. Those young men, under cover as a local football club, went on to commit twelve more murders.

Madikizela-Mandela’s fiery rhetoric is also believed to have contributed to the phenomenon of “necklacing” during the 1980s—when suspected traitors were doused with petrol, trapped with a tire around their necks and bodies, and burned alive in the street. Facing fraud and theft charges in relation to an elaborate bank loan scheme, magistrate Peet Johnson said as he sentenced her to five years in jail, “Somewhere it seems that something went wrong, you should set the example for all of us.” It was later overturned on appeal. Later, as a member of parliament, she was embroiled in scandal over mismanagement of public funds.

With controversy always a few steps away, Mandela and the party distanced themselves from her, but Madikizela-Mandela continued to garner mass support.

She and Mandela separated in 1992, their marriage crumbling in freedom after three decades of prison. Her reputation slipped further when he sacked her from his cabinet in 1995 after allegations of corruption. The couple divorced a year later, after which she adopted the surname Madikizela-Mandela and became Mandela’s most outspoken critic.

Her uncompromising methods and refusal to forgive had contrasted sharply with the reconciliation strategy preached by her husband Nelson Mandela as he worked to forge a stable, pluralistic democracy from the oppression of apartheid. The contradiction had raised a conflict of interest in their marriage, along with the affair with Dali Mpofu, a lawyer half her age.

Madikizela-Mandela mourns her former husband. (EPA/Odd Andersen

Years later, Madikizela-Mandela would be left out of Mandela’s will. She also recently lost her claim to his sprawling home at Qunu in the Eastern Cape just weeks ago, losing her last court bid to challenge Mandela’s will, insisting that she was entitled to the house in Qunu, in the Eastern Cape.

Among South Africans, she remains a complex figure that refused to be quietly resigned to history, or to fit neatly into the narrative of a liberation hero. She refused to live a quiet life in an apartheid-free South Africa and continued to court controversy while making great personal sacrifices throughout her career as a political activist, even saying on occasion that Mandela, who died in December 2013, had gone soft in prison and sold out the black cause.

“I am not sorry. I will never be sorry,” she said in a London newspaper interview. “I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything.”

Crowds of mourners and political figures flocked to her home in Soweto, in Johannesburg, after news of her death broke, with the world, including influential figures, joining South Africans to render heart-felt condolences to the woman Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was. She will be laid to rest on April 14.