Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, 1936–2018
The anti-apartheid leader who embraced brutality
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was a defining figure of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle. Known to many black South Africans as the Mother of the Nation, the former wife of Nelson Mandela worked tirelessly to keep the fight against white minority rule alive during his 27-year incarceration. But Madikizela-Mandela also had a dark side. Possibly as a result of her brutal treatment by the apartheid regime, she became an imperious figure, and in the 1980s and ’90s was mired in allegations of murder and corruption. Yet Madikizela-Mandela survived each scandal and remained a liberation icon. “I’m like thousands of women in South Africa who lost their men to cities and prisons,” she said in 1996. “I stand defiant, tall and strong.”
Born to teacher parents in the Eastern Cape, Madikizela-Mandela was “a tomboy” growing up, winning stick fights with boys and trapping animals, said TheGuardian.com. The head girl at her school, she became the first black medical social worker at Soweto’s main hospital. It was there, in 1957, that she met Nelson Mandela, a lawyer 18 years her senior. They married a year later and “lived within the struggle against the apartheid regime,” said The Washington Post. After her husband was sentenced to life in prison for sabotage in 1964, the regime tried to silence Madikizela-Mandela. Beginning in 1969, she served almost 500 days in solitary confinement and was tortured; in 1976, she was banished for eight years to a remote, whites-only town. On her return to Soweto, she became markedly more militant. She endorsed “necklacing”—in which a tire is placed around an informer’s neck and set alight—and her bodyguards were involved in a series of murders.
When Mandela left prison in 1990, his wife “was at his side, brandishing a victor’s clenched-fist salute,” said The New York Times. The couple separated two years later—Mandela said she’d become cold—but she was given a minor cabinet post after he was elected president in 1994. She was soon dropped from the cabinet amid allegations of corruption; Mandela divorced her in 1996. Madikizela-Mandela remained an outspoken and popular political figure, often railing against the ruling African National Congress for the continuing inequality that left millions of black South Africans in poverty. “I will never be sorry,” Madikizela-Mandela said of her actions during apartheid. “I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything.”