Leader comment: Winnie Mandela, an apartheid fighter who became cruel

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died after a long illness at the age of 81 (Picture: AFP/Getty)
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died after a long illness at the age of 81 (Picture: AFP/Getty)
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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela fought apartheid in South Africa for much of her life, becoming a symbol of the struggle against oppression as her husband spent nearly 30 years in prison. She was even dubbed “Mother of the Nation”.

But, in a sense, her life helps explain why Nelson Mandela, her late ex-husband, was such an extraordinary human being.

During the years of whites-only rule, she endured constant harassment from South Africa’s security forces and was imprisoned several times, often being held in solitary confinement. Her house was mysteriously burned down.

Year after year of such harsh treatment, of such racist injustice, must have been almost impossible to endure. It would inevitably have had an effect on her psyche.

It is not known whether Ms Madikizela-Mandela was directly involved in the murders of suspected police informers, using the brutal method of filling a rubber tyre with petrol, hanging it round the neck of the victim, then setting it alight.

READ MORE: South Africa’s Winnie Mandela dies at 81

But she was found guilty in 1991 of kidnapping in relation to the death of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi; she was accused by leading ANC members of terrorising parts of Soweto; and she did publicly praise those who used “necklaces” – the petrol-filled rubber tyres – to fight apartheid. So it would appear she reacted to the barbarity of apartheid by developing a taste for cruelty.

Anyone who has suffered from the effects of violence and oppression knows that one of the deepest wounds can be on the mind, creating an all-consuming anger and hatred towards those responsible.

As the US civil rights leader Martin Luther King said in 1958: “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”

If Ms Madikizela-Mandela reacted in an all-too-ordinary way, Mr Mandela displayed an almost Christ-like attitude towards his oppressors.

Despite speaking of how it was “a great tragedy to spend the best years of your life in prison”, he also said: “Forgiveness liberates the soul, it removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.”

He became beloved as “Madiba” among black and white South Africans alike and many wept at his death in 2013.

Far fewer will mourn the passing of Ms Madikizela-Mandela.