Still respected for her fight against apartheid, controversy was never far away from Winnie Mandela – including accusations of kidnapping, murder and corruption,
On the day of her death, her legacy remains as tortuous as her life, which she reclaimed as her own – refusing to live under her hero husband’s shadow.
Winnie was born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela in 26 September, 1936.
Daughter to a teacher and a senior official, Winnie grew up in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, tending cattle and Methodist school.
Her first name Nomzamo translates to “one who must endure trials” – which she did, both politically and legally throughout her life.
“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,” Winnie once said of her formative years.
Her first job was as a hospital social worker in Soweto, which she decided to take on, renouncing a scholarship in the United States.
At the tender age of 22, she met a 40-year-old Nelson Mandela at a bus stop near her workplace. The two fell in love, and changed each other’s path forever.
A fiery romance led to marriage, marriage led to politics and the two found they shared a common passion: the fight against apartheid.
He divorced his first wife, with whom he had three children, after being “struck by her beauty”.
She found in him a semblance of the same strength she carried with her. Later, she would describe their marriage as a sham, criticising him for “softening” in prison.
Their first years of marriage weren’t easy, and the relationship was cut short after six years, when Mandela was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.
There would begin his famed Long Walk To Freedom, one significantly different from Winnie’s, whose job was then to “hold the fort” and keep his struggle alive outside.
“Mandela did go to prison and he went in there as a burning young revolutionary. But look what came out,” she said years after he was finally released.
“Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks.”
Madikizela-Mandela was later hailed as mother of the new South Africa, credited with having helped the African National Congress to throw out the oppressive white rule in the country.
But her passion and her hate walked side to side, and the ruthlessness in which she would later continue the struggle would tarnish the party, the struggle and even threaten her husband’s legacy.
For the 27 years which Mandela spent in the prisons at Robben Island, Pollsmoor and Victor Verster, Winnie campaigned tirelessly for his release – but seldom visited.
Instead, she spent her dissident years in constant run-ins with the law, building a reputation as ruthless and violent towards those who did not support or tried to boycott the movement.
It was at her side, however, that Nelson Mandela finally left prison in 11 February 1990. Her fist raised high in the air as a symbol of black power.
Before that, she had been jailed for 17 months for defying authority, 13 of which she spent in solitary confinement. The experience, she would later confess, changed her forever.
“Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we will liberate this country,” she told a rally, four years before Mandela’s release.
The term “necklacing” referred to a style of execution in which a gas-soaked tie would be placed around a traitor’s neck and set on fire.
This incendiary language was miles away from that which Nelson Mandela adopted once he left prison.
The chasm between them grew larger even when, in 1991, she was convicted of kidnapping and ordering the killing of Stompie Moeketsi, a 14-year-old activist who she suspected was an informant.
He was found with his throat slit close to her house. Her six-year jail term was reduced on appeal to a fine.
The execution was carried on by the so-called Mandela United Football Club, a vigilante gang that claimed to be her bodyguard.
At that point, the two separated and it wasn’t long before Mandela sacked Winnie from his cabinet and filed for divorce.
The reason wasn’t the kidnapping charge, but allegations of corruption, bribe-taking and misuse of government funds.
Appearing at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) years later, Madikizela-Mandela refused to show remorse for abductions and murders carried out in her name.
It was only when Archbishop Desmund Tutu pressed her to repent, that Winnie finally admitted “things went horribly wrong”.
“For that I am deeply sorry,” she added.
In its final report, the TRC ruled that Madikizela-Mandela was “politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by the MUFC”.
Years later, back in court over corruption charges, the magistrate said she should “have set the example for us all”, but failed.
Other allegations of wrongdoing followed her until her final year.