Anti-Apartheid Activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Dies At 81

Apr 2, 2018
Originally published on April 2, 2018 6:59 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Prominent South African anti-apartheid campaigner Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has died. She was 81. The former wife of the late Nelson Mandela was a political force in her own right and became the face of the struggle against white minority rule while other leaders, including her husband, were political prisoners. However, the woman known as the champion of the poor later courted controversy. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has this remembrance.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: South Africans are celebrating the life and legacy of Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela even as they mourn her passing. Friend and ANC government minister Jeff Radebe had these words of praise for the former wife of Nelson Mandela.

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JEFF RADEBE: She was really a colossus who strode the southern African political landscape. As the ANC, we dip our revolutionary banner in salute of this great icon of our liberation struggle.

QUIST-ARCTON: A young and politically active social worker when she met her future husband in the late 1950s, Madikizela-Mandela was catapulted onto South Africa's political stage at Nelson Mandela's trial in 1964. After he and other ANC leaders were sentenced to life and incarcerated, Winnie Mandela became the face of the party and a symbol of resistance.

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WINNIE MADIKIZELA-MANDELA: I shall never lose hope, and my people shall never lose hope. In fact, we expect that the work will go on.

QUIST-ARCTON: She galvanized South Africans to stand up against the racist white leaders, and she suffered for those efforts, which eventually took their toll. Branded a troublemaker, Madikizela-Mandela was imprisoned in solitary confinement before being banished to Brandfort, a backwater in the remote Orange Free State, in internal exile. We reach South African journalist and commentator Audrey Brown via Skype.

AUDREY BROWN: She was not fashioned from Nelson Mandela's rib. She was a political actor in her own right, and she was clear about what she wanted up to the day she died. She brought the struggle of South Africans to the world in a magnificent way.

QUIST-ARCTON: Nelson Mandela eventually regained his freedom in 1990 after almost 30 years in prison. He linked hands with his wife, Winnie, who punched the air in a gesture of utter relief and triumph.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: There's Mr. Mandela - Mr. Nelson Mandela, a free man taking his first steps into a new South Africa - and a salute from Mr. Mandela, his wife, Winnie, greeting the people.

QUIST-ARCTON: But within six years, the couple's marriage had fallen apart. An anguished Mandela said of Winnie Mandela...

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NELSON MANDELA: My love for her remains undiminished. However, we have mutually agreed that a separation would be best for each one of us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had fallen foul of the law. She and her bodyguards known as the Mandela Football Club were the subject of a series of criminal convictions and scandals. She was found guilty of involvement in the abduction of teen activist Stompie Sepedi, who was later found dead. Commentator Audrey Brown says these transgressions must be viewed within the context of the times.

BROWN: No question the responsibility for what happened on her watch as a leader and a freedom fighter during those very, very, very brutal and tough years - she accepted that responsibility. But that is not Winnie Mandela's legacy. Winnie Mandela's legacy is a woman who fought to the last bitter drop of her being for dignity and freedom for South Africans.

QUIST-ARCTON: In later years, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela would be convicted for fraud. Many South Africans have forgiven Madikizela-Mandela, the failings of a fearless but flawed hero, and continue to praise her personal courage and sacrifice. They say a contribution to the liberation struggle will never be forgotten, as she fought for the freedom of all South Africans. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.