Even the name given to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at birth – Nomzamo, “one who undergoes trials” – foretold a life of struggle. During her nearly 38-year marriage to Nelson Mandela she fought for black majority rule even as she vowed to escape the shadow of the great man. And although many South Africans called her the “Mother of the Nation,” she would become engulfed in criminal convictions and scandals.
Madikizela-Mandela died on Monday in a Johannesburg hospital after a long illness, her family announced. She will be honoured with a state funeral on 14 April, President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday after paying a condolence visit to Madikizela-Mandela’s home in Johannesburg’s Soweto township.
Over the years, Madikizela-Mandela became a symbol of the suffering caused by South Africa’s system of white minority rule known as apartheid and became a force against it, ultimately serving as a member of parliament.
She and her husband began a family before Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Left with two young daughters, Madikizela-Mandela was persecuted by police and banished to a remote town. As Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison seeking reconciliation and forgiveness, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela wanted the perpetrators of apartheid punished. “What brutalised me so much was that I knew what it is to hate,” she said.
Madikizela-Mandela’s story grabbed the imagination of people around the world. It has been told in books as well as Hollywood film Winnie, starring Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson.
The young Winnie grew up in what is now Eastern Cape province and came to Johannesburg as the city’s first black female social worker. Her research into the high infant mortality rate in a black township, which she linked to poverty caused by racism, first sparked her interest in politics. “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.
In 1957 she met Nelson Mandela, an up-and-coming lawyer and anti-apartheid activist 18 years her senior, and they married a year later following his divorce from his first wife.
The first five turbulent years of their marriage saw Mandela going underground to build the armed struggle against apartheid, and finally to prison in 1963, while his wife gave birth to two daughters.
“The wife of a freedom fighter is often like a widow, even when her husband is not in prison,” Mandela wrote. But he added: “Winnie gave me cause for hope. I felt as though I had a new and second chance at life. My love for her gave me the added strength for the struggles that lay ahead.”
Madikizela-Mandela always was aware of the danger of being overshadowed by her husband’s all-encompassing personality, and she vowed not to lose herself.
Even before they were separated by Nelson Mandela’s long stay in prison, she had become politicised, being jailed for two weeks while pregnant for participating in a women’s protest against apartheid restrictions on blacks. The police later harassed her, sometimes dragging her from bed at night without giving her a chance to make arrangements for her daughters.
Madikizela-Mandela complained bitterly after she was forced to testify to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997 that the commission never asked her about the treatment she suffered over 18 months in solitary confinement.
In 1977 she was banished to a remote town, Brandfort, where neighbours were forbidden to speak to her. She was banned from meeting with more than one person at a time. The woman who returned to Johannesburg in 1985 was much harder, more ruthless and bellicose, branded by the cruelty of apartheid.
In her book 100 Years of Struggle: Mandela’s ANC, Heidi Holland suggested that Madikizela-Mandela was “perhaps driven half-mad by security police harassment”. In an infamous 1986 speech she threatened “no more peaceful protests”. Instead, she endorsed the “necklacing” method of killing suspected informers and police with fuel-soaked tyres put around the neck and set alight.
“Together hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country,” she said.
At the time, the African National Congress party and its army of guerrilla fighters were riddled with spies and informers, some willing, others tortured into submission.
Still harassed by police, Madikizela-Mandela gathered a group of young men known as the Mandela United Football Club, who lived on her property. But they turned into thugs who so terrorised the black township of Soweto that people set ablaze Madikizela-Mandela’s home there, according to an autobiography by ANC veteran Amina Cachalia and other accounts.
Her bodyguards were accused of the disappearances and killings of at least 18 boys and young men. In the most infamous case, her bodyguards in 1989 kidnapped four boys including 14-year-old James “Stompie” Seipei Moeketsi. He was accused of being a police informer, badly beaten and his throat slit. In 1991, Madikizela-Mandela was charged with his killing. A court found her guilty of kidnapping and assault and sentenced her to six years in jail.
She appealed and was found guilty of being an accessory in the assault, and the sentence was reduced to a fine and a suspended prison term. Madikizela-Mandela steadfastly denied any knowledge of any killings, leading the judge in that case to brand her “an unblushing liar”.
The newly freed Mandela stood by his wife, urging friends to come to court to show their support, but the marriage that survived decades of prison bars dissolved with a formal separation in 1992, two years after Mandela’s release. The couple divorced in 1996, two years after Mandela became president in South Africa’s first all-race elections. He accused his wife of infidelity. She kept his name, adding her maiden name. In 2003 Madikizela-Mandela was convicted on fraud and theft charges and sentenced to five years in jail, though she never went to prison.
The conviction appeared to end her career: she quit Parliament and resigned from her posts as president of the ANC Woman’s League and a member of the party’s executive committee. But her base of support, mostly downtrodden black women and youth, remained loyal.
She remained outspoken and joined the rising anger against then-President Jacob Zuma over multiple scandals that hurt the reputation of the ANC, calling for his departure. Zuma resigned in February.
Madikizela-Mandela and her ex-husband appeared to rebuild a friendship in his final years. It was not unusual to see him at public events with her on one side and his third wife, Graca Machel, on the other. Madikizela-Mandela later became embroiled in disputes over Mandela’s estate.
George Bizos, a human rights lawyer who represented Nelson Mandela at the 1960s trial that led to his long imprisonment, recalled how the marriage broke down. “Nelson Mandela called two other senior members of the ANC after his release and he actually said, ‘I love her, we have differences, I don’t want to discuss them, please respect her’,” Bizos said. “And he shed tears to say that ‘we have decided to separate’.
“He loved her to the end.”