Who was South Africa’s Winnie Mandela?

A look back at the life of anti-apartheid campaigner and ex-wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela, has died at the age of 81.

The anti-apartheid campaigner and second wife of the late Mandela, passed away after a long illness, her personal assistant confirmed on Monday.

She was married to Nelson Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and icon of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, for 38 years, with Mandela spending 27 of those behind bars.

Born in a village in Bizana, a town in Transkei [now known as Eastern Cape], on September 26, 1936, to a history teacher, Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela moved to Johannesburg in 1953 to pursue studies in social work.

Soon afterwards, she met Mandela in Johannesburg.


“Their first date was lunch at an Indian restaurant near [Nelson] Mandela’s law office. Sixteen years her senior, he was amused at her inability to eat the spicy curry,” Stephanie Hanes, who covered South Africa from 2005 to 2009, writes in an obituary in The Washington Post.

“She sat silently, wearing an uncomfortable borrowed suit she hoped would make her look more sophisticated than her 23 years, as a slew of advice-seekers stopped to chat with her well-known date. Later, as they walked through the countryside, Nelson asked for her help raising funds. Her sandal broke on the rocky path.”

She married him the same year, in 1958. The two were still married during Mandela’s imprisonment from 1962 to 1990.

A veteran of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, Winnie Mandela developed a reputation as an uncompromising opponent of the then-predominant racial segregation system.

She continued campaigning against apartheid well into Nelson Mandela’s incarceration and was herself put behind bars in 1969 under Section 6 of the infamous 1967 Terrorism Act.

Soweto uprising

Winnie Mandela played a pivotal role in the 1976 Soweto student uprising, when thousands of black students took to the streets after a government decree forced all black schools to use Afrikaans and English as languages of instruction. 

However, her reputation as the Mother of the Nation was marred after she was convicted in the 1991 kidnapping and killing of a suspected 14-year-old spy, Stompie Seipei.

A six-year imprisonment sentence was later reduced to a fine.

In 1993, Winnie Mandela was elected as the president of the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s League.

Winnie Mandela, centre, was for long a powerful figure in the governing ANC [AP]
Winnie Mandela, centre, was for long a powerful figure in the governing ANC [AP]

A year later, she joined parliament as a deputy minister of arts and culture under Nelson Mandela’s presidency – who subsequently dismissed her for insubordination.

In 1992, Nelson Mandela announced his separation from Winnie Mandela, but said: “She endured the persecutions heaped upon her by the government with exemplary fortitude and never wavered from her commitment to the struggle for freedom.”

“Her tenacity reinforced my personal respect, love and growing affection.”

The two ultimately ended their marriage in 1996, following a legal tussle.

When he emerged after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela said, the woman he once called his “darling” had changed, accusing her of being brazen in her infidelity and cold.

“I was the loneliest man during the time I stayed with her,” he said. The judge granted the divorce.

Despite their divorce, she kept Mandela’s surname and maintained ties with him.

Winnie Mandela returned to parliament in 1999, before running into more legal trouble with a 2003 conviction for fraud and theft – which was later overturned. 

Her 80th birthday party in September 2016 was celebrated in Cape Town and attended by then vice-president Cyril Ramaphosa, opposition politician Julius Malema, and Patricia de Lille, the mayor of Cape Town.

Source: Al Jazeera