A legacy like no other: Winnie Mandela 1936 to 2018

By Prince Kurupati

Winnie Mandela
Winnie Mandela

South Africa’s anti-Apartheid icon, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has died. Winnie who was the face of the blacks’ struggle against the ruthless white regime in pre-independent South Africa succumbed to a long illness at the Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg aged 81.

Victor Dlamini, the Madikizela family spokesman said Winnie who was affectionately known as the ‘Mother of the Nation’, “succumbed peacefully in the early hours of Monday afternoon surrounded by her family and loved ones” following a long illness, which had seen her go in and out of hospital since the start of the year.

Anti-Apartheid Activist- Before 1994

In 1936 in the small town of Bizana in Transkei (Eastern Cape), a girl by the name of Winnie Madikizela was born. Unbeknown to many at the time, Winnie was going to be the face of the struggle against white minority rule. When she reached the age of 22 in 1957, she met Nelson Mandela, a lawyer who was at the forefront in the fight against Apartheid. The two romantic flirtations grew quickly and they married a year later.

Their union was however cut short by the government as Nelson Mandela was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. Left alone, Winnie was left with a daunting task, not just to look after the family but to champion for his husband’s release and to spearhead the campaign against Apartheid. For any other woman, this would have been a task too much to handle but not for the feisty Winnie. She took her newly found responsibilities with gusto.

Leading the struggle against white rule from the front, Winnie organised rallies and protests. Her action made her an enemy of the white government. She was ultimately arrested in 1976 and spent much of her time in prison in solitary confinement. In 1976, she was banished to a small town where she lived in solitary confinement.

The government thought they were going to break Winnie by putting her in solitary confinement. Instead, their actions only hardened the resolve of Winnie, she came out of prison more determined to fight her oppressors. In her own words after leaving prison, Winnie said, “ The years of imprisonment hardened me … Perhaps if you have been given a moment to hold back and wait for the next blow, your emotions wouldn’t be blunted as they have been in my case. When it happens every day of your life when that pain becomes a way of life … there is no longer anything I can fear. There is nothing the government has not done to me. There isn’t any pain I haven’t known.”

Start of the controversy

Winnie just like all other humans was not flawless, she was subjected to some criticism in her life. The first controversial moment came soon after her release from prison. While addressing thousands of Anti-Apartheid supporters in Soweto, she boldly stated that “Together, hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.” This was in reference to necklacing, a painful method used by the ANC to eliminate those accused of treason amongst its ranks by inserting a petrol-filled burning tyre around the neck of a ‘sell-out’.

Winnie Mandela
Winnie Mandela

Winnie also had a team of personal bodyguards known as the Mandela United Football Team (MUFC). In 1989, Winnie’s MUFC was accused of killing a 14-year-old boy, Stompie Seipei. The case attracted wide media coverage but Winnie herself was found not guilty of murdering the young boy by the courts but was found guilty of a lesser crime, kidnapping. For her role, she was sentenced to 6 years in prison but did not serve the term as it was suspended for a fine.

Winnie had to face massive criticism for her role in the murder of Stompie Seipei but she vehemently denied any involvement. Perhaps the most severe criticisms came from revered Archbishop Desmond Tutu after South Africa had gained its independence in 1994 during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings. Tutu begged Winnie to apologise for Stompie’s death but she refused. Since that day, Winnie said she hasn’t forgiven Tutu for forcing her to apologise for an act she knew nothing about. Until her time of death, Winnie had not forgiven Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Winnie was however exonerated of any wrongdoing or involvement in Stompie’s death when Jerry Richardson, the team coach for Winnie’s MUFC confessed to murdering Stompie. Stompie and Richardson were allegedly police informers who also worked for Winnie. Richardson stated that he killed Stompie after he had threatened to expose him to Winnie. Richardson was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison but died in prison in 2009.

Winnie also had confrontations with the law later on in post-independent South Africa with the standout coming in 2005 when she was alleged to have defrauded a bank and involved in corrupt practises. She never faced jail time.

The last of Winnie’s feisty nature was seen during the xenophobic attacks of 2008 when foreigners in South Africa were subjected to torture. Winnie stood on the side of foreigners against the perpetrators of xenophobic violence.

Relationship with Nelson Mandela

Winnie and Nelson were married for 38 years but they spent much of that time separate as Nelson spent 27 years behind bars. The two divorced in 1996, two years after Nelson became South Africa’s first black president. The real reasons behind the divorce were never divulged but it’s suggested in some quarters that Winnie had become too radical for the reformed Nelson Mandela and that she was involved in an affair during the time Nelson was in jail. Winnie kept Nelson’s surname after the divorce and they both kept close contact with her visiting Nelson almost on a daily basis before his death in 2013.

The family of the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is yet to release burial details.

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