Remembering Anti-Apartheid Activist Winnie Madikizela Mandela

Winnie Madikizela Mandela, a renowned South African anti-apartheid activist has died. Winnie Mandela, the ex-wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela, died aged 81 on Monday, April 2 in a Johannesburg hospital. She leaves behind a legacy of hope and controversy in equal measure for South Africa.

According to Zodwa Zwane, Winnie’s personal assistant, she had had a long battle with an unnamed illness which she eventually succumbed to. Before her death, Winnie Mandela, who now used her father’s name Madikizela after her divorce from Mandela, had been in and out of hospitals since the beginning of the year. She died surrounded by those close to her.

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

“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.”

Winnie Madikizela Mandela – Mother of the Nation

Winnie Mandela whom South Africans fondly called “Mama Winnie” was a former political prisoner and easily earned herself the title “mother of the nation” for leading fearless and intense activism against the apartheid regime while being a woman. She was also married to Nelson Mandela who was regarded as the “father of South Africa” by many.

In her fight against the tyrannical and brutal apartheid regime, she was arrested and detained multiple times. She was also banished to solitary confinement for several months in the Afrikaner dominated town of Brandfort. The population there didn’t speak her native language of Xhosa and therefore her activism was partially hindered.

Winnie who was born in 1936 met Mandela in 1957. She was just 22 years old then and was working as a hospital social worker where her political side was beginning to get stirred. The two would then marry just a year later. But her marriage was rudely cut short when Mandela was arrested in 1963 by the apartheid regime and sentenced to life imprisonment on treason charges.

The Mandela’s: Separated and Reunited

While Mandela’s incarceration lasted for 27 years, Winnie Mandela became increasingly active politically. She tirelessly campaigned against the brutal apartheid regime calling for recognition of the rights of the black and indigenous as well as for the release of her husband Nelson Mandela.

It was not until 1990 when her efforts bore fruits and Mandela was released from prison. This was after fears that a racial civil war would break in the country and President F.W. de Klerk, the then South African president, released him from prison having served 27 years. Winnie Mandela received him at the Victor Verster Prison and, happy to be reunited, the two walked hand in hand with their fists clenched up in the air triumphantly.

The apartheid regime collapsed shortly after and in 1994, Mandela became the first black South African president. He further appointed Winnie to a cabinet position in his government.

Winnie Mandela – The Controversy

Though Winnie Madikizela Mandela was adored by many people, she was never out of controversy. Endless political and legal battles coupled with her life of glitz and glam always kept her in the spotlight for the wrong reasons only. Her critics further kept making repeated allegations of corruption and linked her to multiple instances of violence.

While leading her activism against the apartheid regime, many accused her of embracing violence which led to the death of civilians. For instance, in 1991, she was implicated in the kidnapping and murder of Stompie Moeketsi, a 14-year-old boy who was found with his throat slit after being accused of being a police snitch.

Other than that, Winnie Madikizela Mandela had a security force dubbed Mandela United Football Club, which was repeatedly accused of terrorizing the residents of Soweto in the 1980s.

Winnie Mandela: Corruption and Divorce

The most damaging blow to Winnie’s reputation happened in 1992 when she separated from Mandela. Mandela would later sack her from his cabinet following a vile allegation of corruption in her ministry, further damaging her deteriorating reputation. The two would later divorce in 1996.

That notwithstanding, the people of South Africa loved her and she still had a heart for the nation. Before her death, she gave the media her last interview 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.”

“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.”

Her death came while the country is still trying to recover following the resignation of Jacob Zuma as president.

About Alex Muiruri

Alex is a passionate writer based in Kenya. He's also a professionally trained health officer and a great enthusiast of science and technology. Besides writing, he enjoys doing motivational speaking and possesses strong opinions on life. He's a lover of people and enjoys good company. He's also a devoted Christian, but respects the beliefs of others.

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