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Obituary: Winnie Madikizela Mandela

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On 2nd April, Winnie Mandela, popular liberationist South African leader and wife of Nelson Mandela passed away. This is a look at her life, her struggle and her legacy.
South Africa’s troubled icon for Black rights, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela passed away on 2nd April after a long bout of illness. Known for her outspoken activism for the rights of the indigenous South Africans, Mama Winnie, as she is lovingly known, had been the helm of the African National Congress during the long twenty-seven years when her husband, Nelson Mandela had been in prison. However, her career soon ricocheted into a dark turn when she was accused of fraud, assault and murder.

Winnie Mandela was born in the district of Pondoland to a family of nine children. Engaging herself in social work, she soon met Nelson and right from the beginning they were taken by each other, despite the wide age gap between them (Winnie was 23 and Nelson was nearly 40). They soon got married although Nelson soon had to return to Johannesburg where he was being tried for treason. Despite her pregnancy, Winnie continued with her political work, taking part in anti-apartheid demonstrations and even battling against her own family for colluding with the white colonial government. In 1964, when Mandela was imprisoned, Winnie was left at the helm of ANC in the public sphere and fulfilled the role with great difficulty.
It was, however, her first major imprisonment in May 1969 that changed Winnie forever. She was imprisoned for political agitation and tortured continuously for 17 months. Winnie often suffered from paranoia even after she was released, unduly defensive about herself and being suspicious of everybody. In 1977, the state exiled her to Brandfort, away from her home at Soweto. She was kept under open, 24 hours surveillance which had a crippling effect on her life. She was involved in a number of violent incidents there including the assault of a nine-year-old. In the 1980s, after her release, under the name of Mandela United Football Club, Winnie’s bodyguards terrorised Soweto culminating in the infamous murder of Stompie Seipei, an ANC activist and a suspected informant. Winnie was convicted and sentenced to 6 years in jail but this was later reduced to a fine. There were even reports of children going missing after being threatened by Ms. Mandela’s bodyguards. However, Winnie often claimed that a political smear campaign against her had been afoot.

However, Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990 proved that Winnie was back in the playing field. She was appointed as the deputy minister of arts, culture, technology in South Africa’s first majority rule government. However, Mandela soon fired her for allegations of fraud as well as unauthorised travel abroad. In 1996, both of them separated for good, Mandela later marrying Graca Machel in 1998. After that, Winnie continued to dominate politics despite being accused several times of fraud, being re-elected in parliament under Jacob Zuma, the former South African President. She was present at Mandela’s funeral in 2013 along with his wife.

After her death, hundreds thronged her home at Soweto. A state funeral was given to her. Zuma who visited her home in Soweto said “One of our pillars has fallen. One of our leaders has departed.” Winnie’s chequered history might be troublesome for present and future generations of South Africans to reconcile with. However, like her given name, Nomzamo, meaning “one who endures trials”, Winnie Mandela’s legacy would continue to be a part of the nation’s subversive history.


Feature Image Credits: Daily Monitor

Sara Sohail
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