JOHANNESBURG – Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of Nelson Mandela who died in Johannesburg on Monday, was revered by many in South Africa as the “Mother of the Nation,” but criticized by others over a brutal apartheidera killing by her bodyguards. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died at age 81 after being hospitalized with a kidney infection.
Born in the village of Bizana in the Eastern Cape to parents who were teachers, she moved
to Johannesburg and graduated from college as a social worker. She married Mandela in 1958, six years before he was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. She campaigned relentlessly for Mandela’s release during his 27-year imprisonment, raised two daughters alone and faced harassment by South African security forces. She served time in solitary confinement after being arrested by security police in 1969 in front of her children for violations of the Terrorism Act. In 1977, she was banished to the town of Brandt and denied permission to leave. Her house was firebombed twice. In 1985, she defied the apartheid regime and returned home to Soweto, the Black township outside Johannesburg.
But she left a contentious legacy because of her bodyguards’ role in the killing of a teenage
boy, as well as her support for “necklacing,” in which antiapartheid activists would fasten tires filled with gasoline around the necks of suspected informers and set them alight.
In 1989, Winnie Mandela was charged in the death of 14-yearold Stompie Moeketsi, an alleged informant. She was convicted of abduction and being an accessory to assault and was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. She appealed, had the accessory charge dismissed, and paid a fine. The case came up again in 1997 during deliberations by
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Her chief bodyguard said he killed Moeketsi on Madikizela-Mandela’s orders. She denied any role while acknowledging that “things went horribly wrong.” In 1992, shortly after his release from prison, Mandela announced that he was separating from his wife “in view of the tensions that have arisen
owing to differences between ourselves….” The divorce became final in 1996.
In 2003, she was convicted of fraud while serving as an African National Congress lawmaker. Initially sentenced to five years in prison, she appealed and avoided confinement. “The Mandela name we revere today was kept alive by her through the most difficult times. As a woman she kept the family and the hopes of all Black people alive. It’s a very sad loss,” The Nelson Mandela Foundation said in a statement.