Winnie Mandela: the turbulent life of the woman who went from 'Mother of the Nation' to 'mugger'

She was admired for keeping the flame of anti-apartheid resistance alive, but violence and terror associated with the Mandela United Football Club caused many to change their opinion of her 

Adam Lusher
Monday 02 April 2018 21:27 BST
Winnie Mandela has died at the age of 81

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who has died aged 81, kept alive the flame of her husband’s resistance to apartheid for much of the time he was in jail, but as Nelson Mandela became the world’s most revered elder statesman, his wife became an embarrassment.

After the world learned of the reign of terror inflicted on Soweto by her street thug enforcers the "Mandela United Football Club", her earlier soubriquet ‘Mother of the Nation’ was amended to ‘Mugger’.

In 1991 she received a jail sentence for her part in the kidnapping of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi who was found with his throat cut after being accused of being a police informer.

In 1995 her husband, South Africa’s first black president, was left with little option but to sack her from her cabinet job as corruption allegations emerged.

And in March 2013, nine months before Nelson Mandela died, Winnie used an interview with the London Evening Standard to accuse her ex-husband of letting down black South Africans.

It was all a far cry from the euphoric image of Winnie punching the air in a clenched fist salute as she walked hand-in-hand out of Cape Town's Victor Verster prison with her newly released husband on 11 February 1990.

After she died peacefully on Monday following a long illness, the equivocal nature of her legacy was hinted at by some tributes which spoke of “a rage that sometimes burned too brightly”, and others which suggested she would only be granted the credit she deserved now she was dead.

If Winnie Madikizela-Mandela ended her life being regarded as part of the troublemaking fringe of South African politics, she spent much of it playing a central role in her country’s struggle against apartheid.

Born on 26 September 1936, in Bizana, Eastern Cape province, she became politicised at an early age in her job as a hospital social worker.

"I started to realise the abject poverty under which most people were forced to live, the appalling conditions created by the inequalities of the system," she said.

As a strikingly attractive 22-year-old she caught Nelson Mandela’s eye at a Soweto bus stop in 1957.

After a whirlwind romance, they married in June 1958. Perhaps a little too prophetically in light of later controversies, the bride’s father is said to have warned her: “If your man is a wizard, then you must become a witch.”

Nelson and Winnie’s time together as anything resembling a normal husband and wife was short indeed.

In 1961 Nelson Mandela went underground, earning a reputation as the “black pimpernel” while evading arrest as commander of the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).

He was finally arrested in August 1962, and in 1964, after telling the court of his willingness to die for his ideals, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

With her husband in jail on Robben Island, Ms Madikizela-Mandela began campaigning tirelessly for his release, and in so doing became one of the leading figures in the struggle against the racist system of apartheid.

The South African authorities may have silenced her husband by imprisoning him, but his iron-willed wife’s defiance in the face of arrests, banning orders and daily police harassment helped ensure that the world never forgot the Mandela name or cause.

In 1977 they tried exiling her to the remote town of Brandfort. That just made the world more interested in the beautiful activist with a jailed husband. Celebrities including Ted Kennedy and Richard Attenborough came flocking to visit her, bringing journalists with them.

Some accounts, though, suggest that behind the scenes, there was erratic, occasionally violent behaviour fuelled by heavy drinking.

According to Graham Boynton, the author of Last Days in Cloud Cuckoo Land about the end of white rule in Africa, on one occasion Ms Madikizela-Mandela’s young lover MK Malefane had to sober her up before the arrival of Ted Kennedy by turning the garden hose on her.

In letters from prison, Mandela had not only accepted Malefane’s presence in his wife’s life, but also urged him to stay with her to help control her behaviour.

In 1985, however, Ms Madikizela-Mandela returned to Soweto, in defiance of the government order banning her from the township.

And that is where, to use the later words of her grudging, partial admission to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) “things went horribly wrong”.

Later reports suggested that the "Mandela United Football Club”, wearing orange and green tracksuits and accompanying Ms Madikizela-Mandela as a kind of bodyguard, started exerting a reign of terror in Soweto.

It was reported that after Mandela United was formed in 1986, it established a “kangaroo court” at the back of Ms Madikizela-Mandela’s home and opened a black book of “defendants”, who faced beatings or worse if found “guilty”.

It was reported that Mandela United had been linked to firebombings and carving “Viva ANC” into the flesh of two teenagers while pouring battery acid on their wounds.

At the same time Ms Madikizela-Mandela’s public pronouncements included a promise that: “We will liberate this country with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, [the practice of putting a tyre around a victim’s neck and setting it alight.]"

Her husband is said to have concluded that her comments were actually hindering the South African government’s attempts to plot a path towards lifting the ban on the ANC.

From the South African government’s perspective, meanwhile, evidence later presented to the TRC suggested that the police suspected Ms Madikizela-Mandela of 30 serious crimes but the attorney general refused to prosecute her because he thought she was “untouchable”.

It all meant that the photographs of Mr Mandela’s release, appearing to show a heroic couple united in struggle, did not tell the full story.

According to Boynton, within days of her husband leaving prison, Ms Madikizela-Mandela was flaunting her relationship with her then lover, while Mr Mandela was telling friends that while he had not expected her to be celibate during his captivity, he had thought she could be discreet.

Worse was soon to come. In 1991 a court convicted Ms Madikizela-Mandela for her role in the fate of Stompie Moeketsi, who with three other boys had been kidnapped by Mandela United Football Club members on 29 December 1988 and found dead on 6 January 1989.

Although she was cleared of direct involvement in the murder, she was found guilty of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault. Sentencing her to six years in prison, the judge called her an “unblushing and unprincipled liar”.

Ms Madikizela-Mandela was, however, freed on bail because her lawyers lodged an appeal which in 1993 led to her sentence being reduced to a 15,000 rand fine and a suspended two-year jail term.

During the trial, Mr Mandela had vigorously supported her claims of innocence, but in 1992 the couple separated.

And in 1995, 10 months into his presidency, Mr Mandela had little option but to dismiss his wife from her position as a deputy cabinet minister.

At the time aides said that while police charges of bribe-taking and influence-peddling were unproven, they had helped turn the president against his wife.

She was also accused of sowing division with her persistent criticisms of the government, leading Mr Mandela to explain the decision to dismiss her had been “in the interests of good government and to ensure discipline among leading officers in the government of national unity”.

The couple officially divorced in 1996, and the following year at the TRC, Ms Madikizela-Mandela embarrassed her ex-husband by refusing to show remorse for abductions and murders carried out by her followers.

Anguished pleading from TRC chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu could only persuade her to go as far as saying, grudgingly, that “things went horribly wrong”.

In its final report, the TRC ruled that Ms Madikizela-Mandela was "politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by the Mandela United Football Club".

In October 2001 there were more uncomfortable proceedings when she was charged with fraud and theft involving an elaborate bank loan scheme and nearly one million rands, a sum then equivalent to £75,000.

Ms Madikizela-Mandela, who was president of the African National Congress Women's League when she was charged, was convicted and sentenced to five years in jail. This, however, was later overturned on appeal.

In later years, she seemed to some to have become something of a troublemaker, arriving late at rallies and haranguing comrades, including Thabo Mbeki, her ex-husband’s successor as president, and then Jacob Zuma when he became South Africa’s leader.

She came to describe her marriage as a sham and the birth of their two daughters, Zindzi (in 1960) and Zenani (in 1959), as "quite coincidental" to her one true love - the struggle against white rule.

"I was married to the ANC,” she often said. “It was the best marriage I ever had.”

But she still became a political patron of renegade youth leader Julius Malema when he quit the ANC to found his own ultra-leftist political party in 2013.

And in supporting Malema’s calls for the seizure of white-owned farms and banks, she came to issue stinging criticism of her husband, at a time when he was regarded as a hero the world over for his leadership in creating the ‘rainbow nation’ of South Africa.

"Mandela did go to prison and he went in there as a burning young revolutionary,” she told an Evening Standard interviewer, “But look what came out. Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks."

She also dismissed the Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Tutu as a "cretin", rubbishing his attempts at national healing as a "religious circus".

"I told him a few home truths,” she said. “I told him that he and his other like-minded cretins were only sitting here because of our struggle and because of the things I and people like me had done to get freedom.”

"I am not sorry,” she insisted. “I will never be sorry. I would do everything I did again if I had to. Everything."

Then, however, she paused.

“You know,” she admitted, “Sometimes I think we had not thought it all out. There was no planning from our side. How could we? We were badly educated and the leadership does not acknowledge that.”

“Maybe,” Ms Madikizela-Mandela said, “We have to go back to the drawing board and see where it all went wrong."

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