(Bloomberg) -- Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whose reputation as a fearless opponent of white-minority rule in South Africa earned her the title of “Mother of the Nation,” was laid to rest on Saturday and lauded as a hero by the nation’s leaders.
The former wife of Nelson Mandela died on April 2 at the age of 81 after a long illness. Thousands of people attended her state funeral at Orlando stadium in Soweto, southwest of Johannesburg, ahead of her burial at the city’s Fourways Memorial Park.
“Her life was dedicated to the unity of the oppressed of all nations,” President Cyril Ramaphosa told the mourners, who included Madikizela-Mandela’s daughters, supermodel Naomi Campbell and Denis Sassou Nguesso, president of the Republic of the Congo. “She was seen by the enemy as a threat to the racist state. Proud, defiant, articulate, she exposed the lie of apartheid. Loudly and without apology, she spoke truth to power. They could not break her.”
Madikizela-Mandela trained as a social worker. She married Mandela in 1958 and was at the forefront of the struggle to end apartheid while her husband was serving a 27-year jail term for treason. The security forces subjected her to constant harassment, a 17-month stint in solitary confinement and a nine-year banishment to a tiny rural town.
“She emerged from all these torments emboldened,” Ramaphosa said. “She felt compelled to join a struggle that was as noble in its purpose as it was perilous in its execution.”
Her image was tarnished by her entourage of bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club, who lived with her in her Soweto home and were responsible for numerous crimes in the area in the late 1980s, including the killing of 14-year-old anti-apartheid activist Stompie Seipei in 1988.
Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of Seipei’s kidnapping in 1991 and sentenced to a six-year jail term that was reduced to a fine and suspended sentence on appeal. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a panel that probed apartheid-era atrocities, found Madikizela-Mandela initiated and participated in an assault on Seipei and three other youths and implicated her in other crimes -- allegations she dismissed as “ludicrous.”
Several apartheid security operatives interviewed by filmmaker Pascale Lamache for a documentary on Madikizela-Mandela that broadcaster eNCA screened April 11 recounted how they worked to plant negative stories about her in the media to discredit her. They also implied that she was apportioned part of the blame for Seipei’s death due to the testimony of unreliable witnesses, including a police informant.
Mandela appointed Madikizela-Mandela a deputy minister after he took power in the country’s first multiracial elections in 1994, but fired her the following year when she took an unauthorized trip to West Africa. The couple were divorced in 1996.
In 2003, Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of fraudulently obtaining bank loans in the name of bogus employees of the ruling African National Congress’s women’s league when she was its president and received another suspended sentence.
While the case forced Madikizela-Mandela to resign her party post, she remained revered among the ANC’s rank and file. In 2007, she polled the most votes in an election of the party’s national executive committee and was re-elected to the top decision-making panel five years later. She served as a lawmaker for the ANC at the end of her political career, but rarely attended parliamentary sittings.
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