Rights Icon Win­nie Madik­ize­laMan­dela: A life of strug­gle


JOHANNESBURG - Even the name given to Win­nie Madik­izela-Man­dela at birth - Nomzamo,“one who un­der­goes tri­als” - fore­told a life of strug­gle.

Dur­ing her nearly 38-year mar­riage to Nel­son Man­dela, she fought for black ma­jor­ity rule even as she vowed to es­cape the shadow of the great man.

And al­though many South Africans called her the “Mother of the Na­tion,” she would be­come en­gulfed in crim­i­nal con­vic­tions and scan­dals.

Madik­izela-Man­dela died Mon­day in a Johannesburg hospi­tal at the age of 81 af­ter a long ill­ness, her fam­ily an­nounced. She will be hon­ored with a state fu­neral on April 14, President Cyril Ramaphosa said Mon­day evening af­ter pay­ing a con­do­lence visit to Madik­izela-Man­dela's home in Johannesburg's Soweto town­ship.

Over the years, Madik­ize­laMan­dela be­came a sym­bol of the suf­fer­ing caused by South Africa's sys­tem of white mi­nor­ity rule known as apartheid and be­came a force against it, ul­ti­mately serv­ing as a mem­ber of par­lia­ment.

She and her hus­band be­gan a f am­ily be­fore Nel­son Man­dela went un­der­ground and then was im­pris­oned for more than a quar­ter-cen­tury. Left with two young daugh­ters, Madik­izela-Man­dela was per­se­cuted by po­lice and ban­ished to a re­mote town where neigh­bors were for­bid­den to speak with her.

As Nel­son Man­dela emerged from 27 years in prison seek­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and for­give­ness, Win­nie Madik­izela-Man­dela wanted the per­pe­tra­tors of apartheid pun­ished.

“What bru­tal­ized me so much was that I knew what it is to hate,'' she once said in a South Afr ican tele­vi­sion in­terview.

Madik­izela-Man­dela's story grabbed the imag­i­na­tion of peo­ple around the world. It's been told in books as well as the Hol­ly­wood movie “Win­nie,” star r ing Os­car-win­ning ac­tress and singer Jen­nifer Hud­son.

The young Win­nie grew up in what is now Eastern Cape prov­ince and came to Johannesburg as the city's first black f emale so­cial worker. Her re­search into the high in­fant mor­tal­ity rate in a black town­ship, which she linked to poverty caused by racism, first sparked her in­ter­est in politics.

“I started to re­al­ize the ab­ject poverty un­der which most peo­ple were forced to live, the ap­palling con­di­tions cre­ated by the inequal­i­ties of the sys­tem,” she said.

In 1957, she met Nel­son Man­dela, a ris­ing lawyer and anti-apartheid ac­tivist 18 years her se­nior, and they mar­ried a year later fol­low­ing his di­vorce from his first wife.

The first five tur­bu­lent years of t heir mar­riage saw Man­dela go­ing un­der­ground to build the armed strug­gle against apartheid, and fi­nally to prison in 1963, while his wife gave birth to two daugh­ters.

“The wife of a free­dom fighter is of­ten like a widow, even when her hus­band is not in prison,” Man­dela wrote. But he added: “Win­nie gave me cause for hope. I felt as though I had a new and sec­ond chance at life. My love for her gave me the added strength for the strug­gles that lay ahead.” Madik­izela-Man­dela al­ways was aware of t he dan­ger of be­ing over­shad­owed by her hus­band's all-en­com­pass­ing per­son­al­ity, and she vowed not to lose her­self .

Even be­fore they were sep­a­rated by Nel­son Man­dela's long stay in prison, she had be­come politi­cized, be­ing jailed f or two weeks while preg­nant f or par­tic­i­pat­ing in a women's protest against apartheid re­stric­tions on blacks.

The apartheid po­lice later ha­rassed her, sometimes drag­ging her from bed at night with­out giv­ing her a chance to make ar­range­ments f or her daugh­ters.

Madik­izela-Man­dela com­plained bit­terly on a North Amer­i­can tour af­ter she was f orced to tes­tify to South Afr ica's Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion in 1997 that the com­mis­sion never asked her about the treat­ment she suff ered over 18 months i n soli­tary con­fine­ment.

In 1977, she was ban­ished to a re­mote town, Brand­fort, where neigh­bors were for­bid­den to speak t o her. She was banned from meet­ing with more than one per­son at a time.

The woman who re­turned to Johannesburg in 1985 was much harder, more ruth­less and bel­li­cose, branded by the cru­elty of apartheid and de­ter­mined vengeance.

In her book “100 Years of Strug­gle: Man­dela's ANC,” Heidi Hol­land sug­gested that Madik­ize­laMan­dela was “per­haps driven half-mad by se­cur ity po­lice ha­rass­ment.'' In an inf amous 1986 speech she threat­ened “no more peace­ful protests.”

In­stead, she en­dorsed the “neck­lac­ing'' method of killing sus­pected in­former sand po­lice with fuel-doused tires put around the neck and set alight.

“To­gether hand-in­hand, with our boxes of matches and our neck­laces, we shall lib­er­ate this coun­try,” she said.

At the time, the African Na­tional Congress party and its army of guer­rilla fight­ers were rid­dled with spies and in­form­ers, some will­ing, oth­ers tor­tured into sub­mis­sion.

Still ha­rassed by po­lice, Madik­izela-Man­dela gath­ered a group of young men known as the Man­dela United Foot­ball Club, who lived on her prop­erty.

But they turned into thugs who so ter­ror­ized the black town­ship of Soweto that peo­ple set ablaze Madik­izela-Man­dela's home there, ac­cord­ing to an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy by ANC vet­eran Amina Cachalia and other ac­counts.

Her body­guards were ac­cused of the dis­ap­pear­ances and killings of at least 18 boys and young men. In the most in­fa­mous case, her body­guards in 1989 kid­napped f our boys in­clud­ing 14- yearold James “Stom­pie” Seipei Moeketsi.

He was ac­cused of be­ing a po­lice in for­mer, badly beaten and his throat slit. In 1991, Madik­izela-Man­dela was charged with Moeketsi's killing. A court found her guilty of his kid­nap­ping and as­sault and sen­tenced her to six years in jail.

She ap­pealed and was f ound guilty of be­ing an ac­ces­sory in the as­sault, and the sen­tence was re­duced to a fine and a sus­pended prison term. Madik­izela-Man­dela stead­fastly de­nied any knowl­edge of any killings, lead­ing the judge in that case to brand her “an un­blush­ing liar.”

The newly freed Man­dela stood by his wif e, urg­ing friends to come to court to show their sup­port, ac­cord­ing to Cachalia in her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy “When Hope and His­tory Rhyme.'' The marr iage that sur­vived decades of prison bars dis­solved with a f or­mal sep­a­ra­tion i n 1992, two years af­ter Man­dela's re­lease.

The cou­ple di­vorced in 1996, two years af­ter Man­dela be­came president in South Afr ica's f irst all­race elec­tions. He ac­cused his wif e of in­fi­delity.

She kept his name, ad­ding her maiden name. In 2003, Madik­izela-Man­dela was con­victed on fraud and theft charges and sen­tenced to five years in jail, though she ended up serv­ing no time.

The con­vic­tion ap­peared to end her ca­reer: She quit Par­lia­ment and re­signed from her posts as president of the ANC Woman's League and a mem­ber of the party's ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee.

But her base of sup­port, mostly down­trod­den black women and youth, re­mained loyal. In 2009, months be­fore gen­eral elec­tions, ANC mem­bers made her No. 5 on their elec­tion list, a mea­sure of her en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity. She re­mained out­spo­ken and joined the ris­ing anger against then-President Ja­cob Zuma over mul­ti­ple scan­dals that hurt the rep­u­ta­tion of the ANC, call­ing with other long­time party veter­ans f or his de­par­ture. Zuma re­signed in Fe­bru­ary.

As the mother of two of Man­dela's chil­dren, Madik­izela-Man­dela and here x-hus­band ap­peared to re­build a friend­ship in his fi­nal years. It was not un­usual to see him at public events with hero none side and his third wife, Graca Machel, on the other. Ma di kize la- Man­del a later be­came em­broiled in dis­putes over Man­dela's es­tate.

Ge­orge Bi­zos, a hu­man rights lawyer who rep­re­sented Nel­son Man­dela at the 1960 st rial that led to his long im­pris­on­ment, re­called how the mar r iage broke down.

“Nel­son Man­dela called two other se­nior mem­bers of the ANC af­ter his re­lease and he ac­tu­ally said ,` I love her, we have dif­fer­ences, I don' t want to dis­cuss them, please re­spect her ,''' Biz os said .“And he shed tears to say that `we have de­cided to sep­a­rate .' He loved her to the end.”


IN­TER­NA­TIONAL RIGHTS ICON: Win­nie Madik­izela-Man­dela, dead at 81.

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