Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa and ex-wife of Nelson Mandela, died Monday at the age of 81.
In 2016, Madikizela-Mandela was awarded the Order of Luthuli, one of South Africa’s highest honors, and she will be given a state burial on April 14. A political leader in her own right, Madikizela-Mandela struggled to forge a legacy independent of her husband, particularly after a series of political scandals tarnished her name with charges of corruption and complicity in violence.
Here are a few things to know about the activist known to some as “Mother of the Nation.”
A union marked by separation
Winnie was in her early 20’s in 1957 when she met Nelson Mandela, who was already a prominent lawyer and campaigner. He was also married — to Evelyn Mase, a cousin of Mandela’s mentor Walter Sisulu — but the couple split in 1958. Later the same year, Mandela married Winnie, who was 18 years his junior. The couple had two children early in their marriage, but Mandela was incarcerated for most of their 38-year union.
“The honest truth of God is that I didn’t know him at all,” Winnie told Mandela’s biographer, Anthony Sampson, according to the BBC.
An activist in her own right
Winnie became a leader of a growing radical anti-apartheid youth movement in Soweto in the 1960s, and publicly flouted segregation laws. She was arrested in 1969 and imprisoned for 17 months, 13 of them in solitary confinement, where she was also tortured. She was imprisoned again for five months in 1976 after race riots in Soweto, after which she was banished to the remote white town of Brandfort.
But attempts to isolate her backfired. According to PBS frontline, her house became something of a pilgrimage site for political sympathizers and visiting diplomats, including Ted Kennedy. She also established numerous social services in the community, including a soup kitchen and healthcare center. She was released after 8 years, and returned to the explosive political environment of Johannesburg.
Even within the anti-apartheid community, Winnie was seen as divisive; alternatively inspiring and alienating. In a 2010 interview with The Evening Standard, which she subsequently denied, Winnie suggested that Mandela “let us down.”
A tarnished legacy
Her legacy was not pristine.
In the 1980s, she oversaw the Mandela Football Club, a kind of private militia that she operated from her home in Soweto that was later accused of violence and torture. In 1991, she was fined for ordering the kidnapping and assault of four suspected informants; one, 14-year-old James Seipei, was found killed. She eventually apologized for the brutality of the 1980s at the prodding of Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, telling South Africa’s 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission that “things went horribly wrong.”
In 1995, then deputy minister of arts in South Africa’s first post-apartheid government, Winnie was forced to step down amid allegations of corruption. In 2003, as president of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, she was convicted of fraud. Her five year prison sentence was suspended.
But to the very end she defended her actions as part of South Africa’s racial struggle, telling the Evening Standard, “I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything.”
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