The iconic life and times of Winnie Mandela in photos

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has passed away at 81. Her family said she had suffered from a long illness and died peacefully. “Mrs Madikizela-Mandela was one of the greatest icons of the struggle against Apartheid.”

Last year on her 80th birthday, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela captured South Africa and the world’s imagination. Unlike the partners of other liberation struggle icons, Madikizela-Mandela refused to live a quiet life in a free South Africa, courting controversy and making great personal sacrifices throughout her career as a political activist.

Born on Sept. 26 in 1936, in one of South Africa’s most scenic corners in the Eastern Cape, Madikizela-Mandela is today a globally recognized figure. Her life has been captured on television, in film and even opera, thanks in part to the reputation of her late husband Nelson Mandela, whose name she reportedly once described as a burden. When Mandela was first jailed, Madikizela-Mandela was indeed the young wife and mother who took up her husband’s fight. But by the time he was released, that fight for a non-racial South Africa was just as much her own.

Showing her concern, a woman moves through the crowd to shake hands with Winnie Mandela, wife of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, as she leaves court in Pretoria, South Africa, June 12, 1964, after her husband was sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela was one of the eight men found guilty in the Rivonia sabotage trial. All received the same sentence. (AP Photo)
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at Mandela’s trial in 1964. (AP Photo)

Legend has it that Nelson Mandela felt he’d been hit by lightning the first time he spotted the young social worker in 1957. But soon after they married, Mandela was arrested again, tried a second time for treason, and sentenced to 27 years in prison.

Throughout her husband’s incarceration, the young woman withstood police harassment and defied the apartheid government, continuing her political activism. She was detained under terrorism laws for 17 months in 1969. On her release, she continued to organize for racial equality, establishing groups like the Black Women’s Federation and the Black Parents’ Association during the 1976 youth uprising.

From 1977 to 1986, she was banned from her beloved Soweto. As soon as she returned home, she resumed duties in the African National Congress. The ANC was banned, but Madikizela-Mandela sheltered young activists and helped build an underground network of insurgents. She was known all over South Africa’s largest black township, and today her small home is a museum. She recently opened a restaurant nearby to take advantage of what is today a busy tourist destination.

Copies of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's book titled 491 Days are seen during a celebratory event around its release in Johannesburg August 8, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTX12E9F
Madikizela-Mandela wrote a book chronicling her detention. (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)
Winnie Mandela (C), ex-wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela, sits between British actor Idris Elba (L), who plays Mandela in the movie "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom", and one of her daughters with Nelson Mandela, Zindzi Mandela during the film's premiere in Johannesburg November 3, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: POLITICS ENTERTAINMENT) - RTX14Z02
Flanked by actor Idris Elba who played Nelson Mandela in a recent biopic. (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Yet hers is not a biography that fits neatly into the narrative of a liberation hero. Many believe Madikizela-Mandela has blood on her hands, after a group of her loyalists beat a 14-year-old boy to death over rumors that he was an apartheid government spy in 1988. Years later, witnesses at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission claimed that Madikizela-Mandela had carried out the boy’s murder herself. She was eventually cleared when one of the men who were among her loyalists admitted to the murder. Those young men, under cover as a local football club, went on to commit twelve more murders.

During the 1980s, when South Africa’s black townships resembled a war zone, Madikizela-Mandela’s fiery rhetoric is also believed to have contributed to the phenomenon of necklacing—when suspected traitors were doused with petrol, trapped with a tire around their necks and bodies, and burned alive in the street.

Later, as a member of parliament, she was embroiled in scandal over mismanagement of public funds. At times, Mandela and the party distanced themselves from her, but Madikizela-Mandela continued to broad mass support.

Winnie Mandela raises her fist in a black power salute after announcing that a massive pop concert will be held to mark the 70th birthday of her husband, jailed black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela on July 17, 1988. REUTERS/Wendy Schwegmann - RTR1L2O3
Madikizela-Mandela campaigned for her Mandela’s release throughout his incarceration. (Reuters/Wendy Schwegmann)
Winnie Madikizela - Mandela reacts to a question as she testifies at the special public hearing of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Johannesburg December 4. Witnesses have accused Winnie Mandela of the murder of Stompie Seipei, a 14 year old activist who died in 1989. - RTXH3BX
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission over her alleged involvement in the death of a 14-year-old boy. (Reuters)
Madikizela-‚??Mandela attends the funeral ceremony of South African former president Nelson Mandela in Qunu, South Africa, 15 December 2013. South Africa's first black president Nelson Mandela received a tearful state funeral at his childhood village of Qunu on Sunday, followed by a traditional burial attended by family and friends. Mandela, the revered icon of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and one of the towering political figures of the 20th century, died in Johannesburg on December 5 at age 95.  EPA/ODD ANDERSEN / POOL
Madikizela-Mandela mourns her former husband. (EPA/Odd Andersen)

After Mandela’s release from prison, the couple separated. After they divorced in 1996, Madikizela-Mandela became Mandela’s most outspoken critic. In an infamous 2010 interview with Nadira Naipul, wife of author V.S. Naipul, in the UK’s Evening Standard, Madikizela-Mandela accused the global peace icon of selling out South Africa’s liberation struggle.

“I am not alone. The people of Soweto are still with me. Look what they make him do. The great Mandela. He has no control or say any more,” she said. “They put that huge statue of him right in the middle of the most affluent ‘white’ area of Johannesburg. Not here where we spilled our blood and where it all started. Mandela is now a corporate foundation.”

Madikizela-Mandela later dismissed the interview as a fabrication. But Naipul stuck to her story and challenged Madikizela-Mandela to stick to hers.

Her last battle

Years later, she would be left out of Mandela’s will. She also recently lost her claim to his sprawling home at Qunu in the Eastern Cape. But her own home still sits on a hill in Soweto among her people. There she’s entertained political enemies, global dignitaries, and even MTV Base Africa. Among South Africans, she remains a complex figure that refuses to be quietly resigned to history.

Just weeks ago, she lost her last court bid to challenge Mandela’s will, insisting that she was entitled to the house in Qunu, in the Eastern Cape, or at the very last that her ex-husband did not have full claim to the land on which the house was built.

Theirs was a complex partnership, one in which from the outside at least, it seemed Madikezela-Mandela would not conform quietly to the role of supportive wife of an icon. Too big for the role, she was an icon in her own right. Often, her insistence on having her own voice heard bristled against the status quo—whether it was her life-threatening defiant against the apartheid government or openly challenging the leadership of the ANC once it came into power.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, smiles during a celebratory event around the release of her book titled 491 Days in Johannesburg August 8, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTX12E9J
A life well lived. (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)

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