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Famed Anti-apartheid Activist Winnie Madikizela Mandela Dies at Age 81

The mother of South Africa, Winnie Mandela, died Monday morning. She leaves behind a legacy of hope and activism but also controversy.

Winnie Madikizela Mandela, the renowned South African anti-apartheid advocate, died at age 81 on Monday morning. She was the ex-wife of former South African president, Nelson Mandela, and an iconic but controversial woman in the country.

According to Zodwa Zwane her personal assistant, she died at a hospital in Johannesburg on Monday, April 2 following a long battle with an unnamed illness. Winnie who was now using the name Madikizela – her father’s name – after the divorce with Mandela, had been in and out of the hospital for the last few months.

Winnie Mandela dies

Winnie at a past African National Congress (ANC) event

Winnie Mandela, the warrior

“She succumbed peacefully surrounded by her family and loved ones in the early hours of Monday afternoon,” said a statement released by her family.

“Mrs. Madikizela Mandela was one of the greatest icons of the struggle against apartheid. She fought valiantly against the apartheid state, sacrificed her life for the freedom of the country and helped to give the struggle for justice in South Africa one of its most recognizable faces,” further said the statement.

Fondly referred to as “Mama Winnie” by her supporters, the former political prisoner was regarded as the “mother of the nation” especially as she was married to former president Nelson Mandela who many regarded as the “father of South Africa.”

Winnie’s fearless and courageous fight against the racist, oppressive and brutal apartheid regime resonated with South Africans. She was detained by the apartheid security services multiple times, banished to a rural town, and spent several months in solitary confinement.

Winnie Madikizela Mandela was born in 1936 and met Mandela in 1957 when she was just 22-years-old. They married a year later. She was then a hospital social worker; it is there that her political side began to get stirred. But her marriage was short-lived as Mandela would in 1963 be arrested, charged with treason and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Winnie Mandela and her husband Nelson Mandela

Winnie Mandela with her husband Mandela after he was released from prison in 1990

During Mandela’s incarceration, which lasted for 27 years, Winnie tirelessly campaigned against the apartheid regime and called for the recognition of the rights of black Africans and the release of her husband. Finally, in 1990, Mandela was released and together they walked hand in hand with their fists clenched in the air triumphantly.

Mandela would later become the first black president of South Africa in 1994 following the collapse of apartheid and Winnie became a cabinet minister in his government.

Controversy surrounded Winnie Mandela

Though she was greatly admired by many, she was also deeply controversial. Critics of Winnie repeatedly accused her of corruption and linked her to violence. Endless legal and political battles together with her glamorous life kept her in the spotlight but for wrong reasons only.

While Nelson Mandela was in jail, many accused Winnie of embracing the use of violence against the apartheid regime. In 1991 Winnie was found guilty for her part in the kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi, who was found with his throat cut after being accused of being a police informer.

There were other accounts of her security force,  the “Mandela United Football Club”, enforcing a reign on terror in Soweto in the 1980s.

The most significant single blow to Winnie’s reputation came in 1992 when she and Mandela separated. In 1995, Mandela removed her from his cabinet following vile corruption allegations targeted at her, further damaging her already controversial reputation. In 1996, the two divorced.

winnie mandela

Winnie and Mandela at their wedding in 1957. This copy was taken from the family album the original was by Alf Khumalo.

Winnie Mandela’s last interview before her death

Before her death, Winnie Madikizela Mandela gave her last interview to the media saying, “I would be extremely naïve if I suggested to you that South Africa today is what we dreamed of when we gave up our lives. We have extreme challenges,” she said. “Political freedom without economic freedom is what has resulted in the challenges we face today. We come from a very brutal period of our history, a country that was segregated, divided into four categories, to transit from that era to where we are today has been a really painful journey, but the economy remained in the hands of the few.”

South Africa is still recovering from the damaging xenophobic attacks that keep plaguing the country and politically realigning itself after the resignation of Jacob Zuma as president.


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Alex Muiruri

Alex is a passionate writer born and raised in Kenya. He is professionally trained as a public health officer but loves writing more. When not writing, he enjoys reading, doing charity work and spending time with friends and family. He is also a crazy pianist!

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