South African revolutionary and former first lady Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has died at age 81. Madikizela-Mandela had been sick for a long time, and a family spokesman confirmed on Monday, April 2nd that she had died peacefully, surrounded by family and loved ones. You may know of Madikizela-Mandela because she was married to Nelson Mandela — both were jailed and became symbols of the South African anti-apartheid struggle. But there was a lot more to this incredible woman than just her marriage.
Madikizela-Mandela was born in 1936 in the Eastern Cape, which was at that time known as Transkei. She met Mandela in the 1950s, when she was a social worker. They were married for 38 years and had two daughters together. While Mandela was in jail, Madikizela-Mandela took over his fight in the resistance to apartheid. She was eventually also jailed for this work.
What she did
Madikizela-Mandela had many supporters who lovingly referred to her as “Mother of the Nation.” In April 2016, the government of President Jacob G. Zuma gave her the Order of Luthuli, which is the country’s highest honor, for her fight for democracy.
While Mandela was in jail, Madikizela-Mandela worked hard to continue to connect him with his supporters. She did what she could to keep his message out there, despite the fact that her visits to her husband’s prison cell were rare. Madikizela-Mandela campaigned for the rights of black South Africans, all the while suffering years of punishment, banishment, and arrest by white authority members.
Despite her work, Madikizela-Mandela was never as widely known as her husband, and the New York Times reports that she “resented the notion that her anti-apartheid credentials had been eclipsed by her husband’s global stature and celebrity.” The Times says, “She insisted that her contribution had been wrongly depicted as a pale shadow of his.”
Controversy surrounding her
Despite all of the good Madikizela-Mandela did, and everything she fought for, much of her life was surrounded by controversy and scandal. In 1977, Madikizela-Mandela was banished to a remote South African town, called Brandfort, where neighbors were forbidden to speak with her, and she couldn’t meet with more than one person at a time. She returned to Johannesburg in 1985, angry and determined to get justice for the way she was treated.
In 1986, she made a speech where she threatened “no more peaceful protests.” As ABC says, she instead “endorsed the ‘necklacing’ method of killing suspected informers and police with fuel-doused tires put around the neck and set alight.”
In May 1991, she was found guilty of kidnapping and sentenced to six years in jail for her involvement in the death of Stompie Moeketsi, a 14-year-old township militant. She has always denied the allegation, and eventually, her sentence was reduced to a fine.
In 1993, Madikizela-Mandela was elected president of the ANC (the African National Congress) women’s league. In 1994, when Mandela was elected president, she was elected to Parliament and became deputy arts and science minister in the country’s first multi-racial government.
Madikizela-Mandela continued to be controversial because of her attacks on the government and her appeals to radical young black followers. A year after she was elected to Parliament, she was removed. But in 1999, she was re-elected for a second term. She resigned four years later, in 2003, when she was convicted of fraud and theft for taking out bank loans, which she was using to help poor people. A year later, that conviction was overturned.
Her later years
Meanwhile, in 1996, Mandela and Madikizela-Mandela divorced. She kept his surname, and the two remained friendly. At the time of her death, Madikizela-Mandela was a member of South Africa’s parliament. One of the last official visits she had was from current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa — they went to Soweto township just last month to encourage people to register to vote in the next year’s presidential election.
Madikizela-Mandela suffered from diabetes, and in the last year of her life, she had been in and out of the hospital.
If you want to learn more about Madikizela-Mandela, there is a fascinating documentary about her life on Netflix called Winnie, which we hope will shed more light on this courageous leader who was constantly surrounded by controversy.