Anti-Apartheid Activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Dead At 81

April 2, 2018  |  

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A representative confirmed that longtime anti-apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, died today in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was 81.

According to the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Madikizela-Mandela was admitted to the hospital after she attended a church service on Friday. Prior to that, she had been treated for diabetes and had undergone major surgeries over the past several years.

Much to her chagrin, Madikizela-Mandela was often defined in relation to her husband, South Africa’s first president, and fellow apartheid activist, Nelson Mandela.

She famously told one interviewer, “I am not Mandela’s product. I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy.” Her enemy being the White South African’s who had oppressed and disenfranchised the native Black South African’s under their rule.  

Madikizela-Mandela was born the fourth of eight children in the village of eMbongweni, what is now known as South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. She was the top student in her high school and turned down a scholarship in the United States to study social work at the University of Johannesburg. In spite of educational restrictions for Blacks in South Africa during apartheid, Madikizela-Mandela earned her degree and became the first Black social worker at the Baragwanath hospital in Soweto.

Shortly after graduation in 1957, she met Mandela, a lawyer at the time, at a bus stop in Soweto, the all Black township outside of Johannesburg. The two married a year later and had two daughters.

The couple remained married during Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment from 1963 to 1990. During his imprisonment, Madikizela-Mandela began the face and voice of the fight against apartheid. Two years after Mandela was released, the two separated and eventually divorced in 1996. Despite the end of their marriage, the two reportedly remained in contact as Madikizela-Mandela was said to have visited Mandela often when he was sick, during the latter part of his life. Though he remarried, Madikizela-Mandela has been reported as saying that no one knew her former husband better than she did. 

As a part of her activism, Madikizela-Mandela often ignored Whites-only public phones and segregated counters at the liquor store. In between her terms of banishment or imprisonment, she worked to organize clinics and campaign for equal rights.

As a result of her work, Madikizela-Mandela was often detained by the government. In addition to her multiple arrests, she was also tortured, put on house arrest, held under surveillance, kept in solitary confinement for eighteen months at the Pretoria Central Prison and banished to a remote town by the South African government.

In post-apartheid South Africa, Madikizela-Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) as the president of the Women’s League.

For as much as she was revered in the country, Madikizela-Mandela’s reputation was marred by scandal. In the late eighties, she endorsed “necklacing,” the practice of burning people alive using tires and gasoline. While the measures were extreme, many of her supporters viewed her words and tactics as a fierce commitment to the cause of liberation.

She also was accused of ordering the kidnap and murder of a 14-year-old boy and three other children. Later, the 14-year-old’s body was discovered with several stab wounds. Madikizela-Mandela was acquitted of the murder charge. (Her bodyguard was found guilty.) She was convicted of the kidnapping but after appeal, her six-year sentence was reduced to a fine. Later, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission found Madikizela-Mandela politically and morally responsible for gross violations of human rights.

Spokesman Victor Dlamini said that Madikizela-Mandela had been in and out of hospitals from the beginning of this year battling a long illness.

According to a statement released by the family, Madikizela-Mandela “succumbed peacefully in the early hours of Monday afternoon surrounded by her family and loved ones.”

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