Winnie Mandela Dies At 81: 10 Things You Should Know About Her

Written by Mark Rausch


Winnie Mandela, a beloved icon of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, died today at age 81 after a long illness.

She was surrounded by family and loved ones, family spokesman Victor Dlamini said in a statement, according to BBC.

Winnie was a rousing South African figure for her fierce battle against apartheid. The second wife and longtime partner of South Africa’s first Black president, Nelson Mandela, she was a pioneer for civil rights. Even though Nelson and Winnie officially divorced in 1996 (Nelson married third wife Graça Machel in 1998) Winnie remained with him as a friend until his death.

Here are 10 things you should know about Winnie Mandela.


1. Early Years

Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela was born Sept. 26, 1936, in the village of Mbongweni, Transkei — a homeland, or bantustan, set aside for the Xhosa people in the Southeastern part of South Africa. This bantustan was important for being autonomous during the apartheid years — it was an internationally unrecognized, one-party self-governing state. Winnie earned a degree in social work in 1955 in Johannesburg, and became the first black medical social worker in the city’s Baragwanath Hospital.


2. Early Politics

While working at the hospital, Winnie took an interest in the African National Congress, a national liberation movement that fought the injustices of the apartheid government and worked for political rights for the black majority of South Africa. Winnie did research on infant mortality in Alexandra Township, Johannesburg (10 deaths to every 1,000 births at that time). Her political affiliations and actions would increase after she met Nelson Mandela, and apartheid worsened in South Africa.


3. Meeting Nelson

In 1957, Winnie was 22 years old. She was waiting for the bus in Soweto when lawyer and political activist Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela walked up to her. According to him, it was love at first sight. He asked her to lunch and she accepted. Problem was, Nelson was married to his first wife, Evelyn Mase, with three children. Months later, in 1958, Nelson and Winnie were married in a Methodist Church service. She gave birth to two daughters, Zenani (born 1959), and Zindzi (born 1960).


4. Trouble Starts

When Winnie met Nelson in 1957, he was on trial for treason by the apartheid government of South Africa. Living in Soweto, Winnie and Nelson experienced four years of domestic partnership until 1962, when Nelson was arrested and put in prison on Robben Island on charges of violent conspiracy against the republic. From the moment Nelson was charged, bans and travel restrictions were placed on Winnie, and the badgering by the South African government started. Confined to the Orlando Township in Soweto, Winnie began working officially for the ANC.


5. Activism and Imprisonment

Visiting Nelson often in prison, Winnie was heartbroken and emotionally drained. Things would worsen for her and her family. After a night raid on her home in 1969, Winnie was arrested in front of her daughters for conspiracy under the Terrorism Act. From 1969 to 1970, for 17 months, Winnie was put in solitary confinement in Pretoria Central Prison. In a cement box with no windows, urine-stained blankets crawling with bugs, and a single light bulb, Winnie did not speak to a single human for 200 days. After 491 days, intensive interrogation and routine torture by authorities, she was released. Her prison journals can be read in the memoir, “491 Days.”


6. Exile

Winnie tried her best to resume her work with the ANC, and to find normalcy at home. It was impossible. Death threats abounded, and one night she awoke to find three men standing over her bed with a noose. She screamed and fought loud enough to scare them away. She continued to enhance the role of the ANC in the anti-apartheid struggle, and after the bloody 1976 Soweto student uprisings and her establishment of the Black Consciousness Movement, she was forced to live under house arrest. Confined to a small, isolated house in Brandfort, she was prevented from visiting Nelson, or having contact with the outside world. This did not impede her progress.


7. More Controversy

Winnie’s alienating, dehumanizing confinement did not slow her down. She started to become known as “Mother of the Nation.” In the mid-1980s, after her confinement ended, Winnie resumed her position at the ANC. In 1986, she gave an infamous speech in Munsieville. Condemning police informers and town dissidents, she said, “Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country.” What she was referring to was a gruesome practice of executing informants by forcing them into rubber tires filled with gasoline and setting them ablaze. The response to her speech was huge, and the ANC distanced itself from her.


8. Accusations/Nelson’s Release/Separation

Winnie’s bodyguard circle, nicknamed the Mandela United Football Club, was accused of acts of bullying and violence. When a 14-year-old supposed informant, Stompie Moeketsi, was kidnapped and killed, Winnie’s head bodyguard later said she ordered the hit. She was acquitted of charges in 1991, but faced many detractors who considered her in violation of human rights. In February 1990, Nelson was freed after 27 years as a political prisoner. Winnie was by his side. The world celebrated. However, the couple separated in 1992 amid rumors of affairs. The strife of being apart for so long was cited as a reason.


9. Politics and the Women’s League

After the ANC was unbanned in 1991, Winnie was elected to its National Executive Committee. She became embroiled in further controversy in 1992 when she was accused of paying for, and supplying the firearm that killed Dr. Abu Baker Asvat. The trial was adjourned. She continued to inspire South Africans by being elected president of the ANC Women’s League — the women’s wing of the ANC that worked for civil rights for female citizens of South Africa. She served from 1993 to 2003, and was also elected to parliament, but had to step down from that — and from the Women’s League — because of convictions of fraud and theft.


10. Nelson’s death; Winnie’s continuing legacy

Despite the controversy, Winnie was popular and inspiring at a grassroots level. She was re-elected president of the Women’s League in 2007. Nelson died on Dec. 5, 2013. “I was holding him…then he drew his last breath and just rested,” Winnie said. Together and apart, Nelson and Winnie Mandela helped liberate South Africans from the tyranny of apartheid. Winnie continues to inspire admiration.


Portions of this article were first published in in February, 2014.