Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who first emerged as the dignified anti-apartheid struggle figure and then came to represent the liberation movement’s worst excesses, has died at the age of 81 after a long illness.
As the then wife of the idolised Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned African National Congress (ANC) leader, she was readily seen as a champion of the oppressed.
It was a role she was encouraged to play.
According to former president Thabo Mbeki, the ANC deliberately profiled Mandela "as the representative personality of the [jailed leadership], and therefore to use his personal political biography, including the persecution of his then wife, Winnie Mandela, dramatically to present to the world and the South African community the brutality of the apartheid system".
Dubbed the "Mother of the Nation", she was regularly detained by the Nationalist government. Over the years she was tortured, subject to house arrest, held in solitary confinement and even banished to a rural Free State backwater.
Frustratingly for the authorities, such measures only served to heighten Madikizela-Mandela’s international popularity and shore up her position as a leader of South Africa’s disenfranchised masses.
By the mid-1980s, however, she had become a public relations disaster for the mass democratic movement.
Imperious, aloof and a law unto herself, the renegade Madikizela-Mandela not only endorsed such brutal acts as the "necklacing" of suspected police informers, but was revealed as having been personally responsible for the murder, torture, abduction and assault of a number of men, women and children through the infamous Mandela United Football Club.
Led by her bodyguard, Jerry Musivuzi Richardson, these thugs conducted a reign of terror over parts of Soweto as resistance to apartheid intensified.
Throughout this murderous period, and despite the fact that community leaders and anti-apartheid activists had publicly denounced her, Mandela, then still a prisoner, remained seemingly oblivious of the stories in circulation about his wife.
With his release in February 1990, it was immediately apparent that he remained fiercely loyal to his wife and — much to his discredit, some said — still clearly idolised her.
But whatever hopes he’d harboured of a future together came to nothing following reports of her infidelity while he was still in prison and afterwards. They separated in April 1992 and were divorced in March 1996.
So ended a greatly mythologised union that began in 1957.
Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela was just 21 and working as the first black female social worker at Baragwanath Hospital, when she was introduced to the 39-year-old lawyer and ANC activist by Oliver Tambo and his future wife, Adelaide Tsukudu.
At the time, Mandela was in the throes of divorcing his first wife, Evelyn Mase. He was immediately struck by Winnie’s beauty and spirit, and later recalled in his autobiography: "I cannot say for certain if there is such a thing as love at first sight, but I do know that the moment I first glimpsed Winnie Nomzamo, I knew that I wanted to have her as my wife."
Within days of their first meeting, he’d told her as much. Theirs was a whirlwind romance — and a difficult one. At the time, Mandela was one of the 156 accused in the mammoth Treason Trial, which began in 1956 and would drag on until all defendants had finally been acquitted.
The couple saw each other whenever they could. To Winnie it was if she was dating both the man and the movement. Years later, she recalled that their first date had, in fact, been a disaster. Mandela had taken her for a quick lunch at his favourite Indian restaurant, but the food was too spicy for her. Her inability to eat the curry, she told Carte Blanche in 1992, had greatly amused him.
Afterwards, he’d told her that he had really called to ask her to raise money for the ANC. “Politicians,” she added, “are not lovers.”
They were married on June 14, 1958. With that, so began Winnie Mandela’s encounters with the security police. Later that year, she and thousands of other women were arrested for demonstrating against the pass laws. At the time she was a member of the national executive of the ANC Women’s League.
She was also pregnant. During her two-week detention at the overcrowded Old Fort prison in Johannesburg, she began to haemorrhage. It was only through the intervention of fellow cellmate Albertina Sisulu, a trained midwife, that the pregnancy was saved and Zenani, the Mandelas’ first daughter, was born in February 1959.
The arrest also cost Mandela her Baragwanath job — a blow to a family expecting their first child. A further setback came when, along with thousands of others, Nelson Mandela was detained in the aftermath of the March 21 Sharpeville shootings, and the ANC banned. He would be released almost five months later, and the couple’s second daughter, Zinzi, was born in December 1960.
By then, however, Mandela had gone underground and thrown himself into establishing Mkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing. He was arrested on August 5, 1962, and would remain in custody until his release in February 1990.
Winnie Mandela was served the first in a virtually uninterrupted series of banning orders in 1962, preventing her from working, living and socialising like other citizens.
In the years that followed, she was barred from publishing or addressing more than one person at a time, subjected to house arrest, harassed by police, subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, and held in solitary confinement. On May 17, 1977, she was taken from her Orlando, Soweto home and summarily banished to rural Brandfort in the then Orange Free State.
During this time, Winnie Mandela had been left to raise two children without a source of income. Although she had visitation rights, she was denied physical contact with her jailed husband for more than two decades.
“That is part of one’s life one does not even want to remember,” she later said. “I could only visit him once in six months. We had to keep [a] link through letters and through visits when they were increased. At the end of [the prisoners’] stay on Robben Island, we could visit them two times a month. And it would be a visit of two people at a given time. That helped a lot to keep the family ties and to sort of keep that link between him and the children. Before that, all they did was read about their father.”
Mandela’s international standing rose dramatically in the eight years she spent in Brandfort, and she received many foreign visitors at her home in this backwater. Far from languishing in obscurity, she threw herself into community work, setting up a nursery school, a soup kitchen for schoolchildren, a mobile clinic, and several self-help projects that ranged from growing vegetables to sewing school uniforms.
She openly defied her banning orders. She was in Soweto, during one such contravention, in August 1985 when her Brandfort home was firebombed. She blamed the government for the attack, and flatly refused to return to the Free State. Her next banning order allowed her to stay anywhere in the country except in the Johannesburg and Roodepoort magisterial districts. She ignored that, too.
The authorities officially lifted all restrictions on Mandela in 1986. By then it was clear that she was fast becoming her own worst enemy — and a liability to the anti-apartheid movement.
In April that year she endorsed the horrific wave of vigilante “necklace” killings, telling a rally in Munsieville, “With our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.”
Then came accusations that she had ordered Jerry Richardson, the “coach” of the football club that acted as her personal security detail, to carry out the kidnappings which led to the murder of a 14-year-old activist, James “Stompie” Sepei.
On December 29, 1988, Richardson abducted Sepei and three other youths from the Johannesburg home of Reverend Paul Verryn. Mandela suspected the Methodist minister was sexually abusing them. Once inside her home, they were beaten to force an admission that Verryn had slept with them. Sepei was further accused of being an informer and a week later his body was found in a field with stab wounds to the throat.
Richardson and three other Mandela United bodyguards were arrested in February 1989, convicted of murder and jailed for life. Mandela was also later charged with four counts of kidnapping and four counts of assault. Her husband was in court throughout her trial. In 1991, she was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault. Her six-year prison sentence was reduced to a two-year suspended sentence and a fine on appeal.
In 1992, she was accused of ordering the murder of Dr Abu-Baker Asvat, a family friend who had examined Sepei at her home shortly before his death. Asvat was gunned down in his surgery on January 27, 1989, because, it was claimed, he had knowledge of the many assaults that took place at Mandela’s home. One of his assassins later claimed that Mandela had supplied the firearm and paid him R20 000 for the killing.
The Sepei case resurfaced in 1997 when Mandela told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that claims she had been involved in at least 18 human rights abuses, including eight murders, were “ridiculous”; her main accuser, activist Katiza Cebekhulu, was a “former mental patient” whose allegations against her were “hallucinations”, she said. At one stage the hearings were adjourned when it emerged that witnesses were being intimidated on Mandela’s orders.
The TRC later ruled that the abductions had been carried out on her instructions and that she had “initiated and participated in the assualts”. But, with regard to Sepei’s murder, the commission found that she had only been “negligent”. In its final report, the TRC found her “politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by the MUFC” and that she “was responsible, by omission, for the commission of gross violations of human rights”.
Mandela was at her husband’s side, holding his hand, when he walked out of Paarl’s Victor Verster Prison and into the world spotlight. But the image of a dutiful wife was a sham. She had taken several lovers during her husband’s incarceration.
She continued her affair with her latest paramour, the lawyer Dali Mpofu, a man 30 years her junior, after her husband’s release. At the time Mpofu was in a relationship with Terry Oakley-Smith, a lecturer in educational psychology at Wits University who was shortly to give birth to their son, Sizwe.
The two women became embroiled in a bizarre, if unseemly battle for Mpofu’s affections. In addition to the strain of dealing with a new-born baby, the humiliated Oakley-Smith endured threatening, late-night telephone calls from her rival. Winnie would be drunk, slurring her words, warning her to keep away from Mpofu.
The Mandelas separated in 1992 after details of the affair appeared in newspapers. Suing for divorce, an embittered Mandela told the then Rand Supreme Court in March 1996: “Can I put it simply, my lord? If the entire universe tried to persuade me to reconcile with the defendant, I would not . . . I am determined to get rid of this marriage.”
Life with Winnie after his release had been a miserable disappointment; not once had his wife shared his bed with him in the two years following their reunion. “I was the loneliest man,” he said.
She would later respond that she, too, had been lonely. “I have never lived with Mandela,” she said. “I have never known what it was to have a close family where you sat around the table with husband and children. I have no such dear memories. When I gave birth to my children he was never there, even though he was not in jail at the time.”
A year earlier, in March 1995, Mandela, as president of the first post-apartheid government, had fired her from his Cabinet. Her tenure as the country’s first Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology had lasted just 11 months and ended amid allegations of corruption, shady business deals, mismanagement and insubordination.
After the divorce, Winnie adopted the surname Madikizela-Mandela. She remained popular among ANC supporters. In April 1997 she was re-elected president of the ANC Women’s League but, at the ANC’s national conference in December that year, withdrew her candidacy for deputy president of the party.
Madikizela-Mandela, along with her broker, Addy Moolman, wound up in court again in April 2003. This time she was convicted of 43 counts of fraud and 25 of theft for pilfering from a funeral fund and sentenced to five years in prison, with one year suspended. Shortly afterwards she resigned from all leadership positions in the ANC and quit Parliament.
The following July, a Pretoria High Court appeal judge ruled that “the crimes were not committed for personal gain”, and overturned her conviction for theft but upheld the one for fraud. Her sentence was reduced to three years and six months suspended.
Madikizela-Mandela returned to parliamentary politics in a triumphant fashion when she secured fifth place on the ANC’s electoral list for the 2009 general elections – an indication that the party was only too aware of the support she continued enjoy among poor South Africans.
In 2010, she launched a scathing attack on her ex-husband in a widely-publicised interview with Nadira Naipaul, claiming he had “let blacks down”, that he was only “wheeled out to collect money”, and that he was “nothing more than a foundation”. She attacked his decision to accept the Nobel Peace Prize with former president FW de Klerk and also described Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his capacity as head of the TRC, as a “cretin”. She later claimed she had been misquoted.
There was no evidence of such hostility towards her ex-husband following his death in December 2013. With great aplomb, Madikizela-Mandela publicly entered a year-long period of “traditional” mourning. During this time she shunned her more customary flamboyant attire for sombre black outfits; in place of the outlandish hats, a grim turban.
However, a year later, almost to the day, she launched a vicious legal claim to her ex-husband’s home at Qunu, in the Eastern Cape, accusing Mandela of having swindled her out of her rightful inheritance. Mandela had left her nothing; the lion’s share of his estate had been bequeathed to third wife, Graca Machel, her family and the Nelson Mandela Trust.
In the action, which once again exposed the toxic rancour at the heart of the Mandela family, Madikizela-Mandela claimed the 250 acres, which included Mandela’s final resting place, had been given to her when they were still married and that he had no right to transfer the land into his own name “under a cloud of darkness and secrets”.
Nomzama Winifred Zaniye Madikizela was born on September 26, 1936, in the village of eMbongweni, near Bizana, in the Eastern Cape. She was the fifth of nine children. Her father, Columbus Madikizela, was a teacher, but later served in the “independent” Transkei homeland government during Kaizer Matanzima’s rule as forestry and agriculture minister. Her mother, Nomathamsanqa Gertrude Mzaidume, a domestic science teacher, died when Winnie was only eight years old.
She attended primary school in Bizana and matriculated at Shawbury High School. In 1953, she was admitted to the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg. She completed her degree in social work in 1955, and was offered a scholarship for further study in the United States. However, she turned it down and opted, instead, for the social worker position at Baragwanath Hospital.
It was there that Winnie became politicised, particularly after a research project into the high infantile mortality rate in Alexandra township. She was already involved with the ANC when she met her husband.
She is survived by their two daughters and eight grandchildren.