South Africa’s Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela, has died after a long illness, her family have confirmed in a statement.
The South African activist and politician, 81, died peacefully at her home on Monday.
Referred to as the “Mother of the Nation” by her supporters, Madikizela-Mandela was born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela in September 1936, in what is now South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province.
She wed her only husband in Johannesburg in 1958. They had two daughters together before Mandela, then a member of the anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC), was arrested and jailed for life in 1963 for conspiring to overthrow the South African state.
The all-white government’s apartheid legislation, which enforced racial segregation and suppressed the country’s black majority, led to widespread discontent, arrests and killings in the decades following its installment in 1948.
After serving 27 years behind bars, Madikizela-Mandela was at her husband’s side as he walked free from prison in 1990. But by the time he was elected president of South Africa four years later, the couple were living separate lives.
A reputation tarnished
It was also around this time, in the late eighties and early-to-mid nineties, that her reputation as an activist took a back seat as allegations of corruption, kidnapping and murder were levied against her.
In 1991 she was convicted of kidnapping and for being an accessory to the assault of a 14-year-old boy. The child, James Seipei, had been accused of being a police informer and was abducted by members of Madikizela-Mandela’s security detail in 1989. His body was found days later near her home in Soweto with his throat cut. She received a two-year suspended sentence as punishment.
In 1995, her husband sacked her from his cabinet over corruption allegations and filed for divorce.
Then in 2003, she appeared in court with her financial adviser on fraud and theft charges concerning a bank loan scheme.
Her final years
Despite the split and his subsequent remarriage to Graça Machel in 1998, Madikizela-Mandela maintained a presence in her ex-husband’s life and visited him regularly in hospital until his death in 2013.
But in her final years, her reputation slipped further after she disparaged him in an interview given to Britain’s Evening Standard newspaper in 2010.
“Mandela did go to prison and he went in there as a burning young revolutionary. But look what came out,” she was reported as saying. “Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks.”
She also described fellow anti-apartheid activist and cleric Desmond Tutu as a “cretin”.
“I told him that he and his other like-minded cretins were only sitting here because of our struggle and me — because of the things I and people like me had done to get freedom,” she said.
“I am not sorry. I will never be sorry,” she concluded. “I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything.”