File photo of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, wife of former president Nelson Mandela greeting the audience during the 54th national conference of the African National Congress party. (Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg)  

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Apartheid Activist, Dies Age 81

(Bloomberg) -- Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whose reputation as a hero of the fight to end white-minority rule in South Africa was tainted by kidnapping and fraud convictions, has died. She was 81.

The former wife of Nelson Mandela died in Johannesburg on Monday after a long illness, a family spokesman said in a statement. Her marriage to Mandela in 1958 thrust her onto center stage of South African politics, and she emerged as a symbol 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, detention and a nine-year banishment to a tiny rural town.

“For many years, she bore the brunt of the senseless brutality of the apartheid state with stoicism and fortitude,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in an emailed statement. “Despite the hardships she faced, she never doubted that the struggle for freedom and democracy would succeed. She remained throughout her life a tireless advocate for the dispossessed and the marginalized. She was a voice for the voiceless.’

Madikizela-Mandela will be given a state funeral in Soweto, southwest of Johannesburg, on April 14.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Apartheid Activist, Dies Age 81

In 1991 she was convicted for the kidnapping of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, an anti-apartheid activist who was later stabbed to death. Her initial six-year jail term was reduced to a fine and suspended sentence on appeal.

Madikizela-Mandela continued to court controversy after the country’s first multiracial elections and the appointment of Mandela as president in 1994. She was fired as a deputy minister in her husband’s administration in 1995 after she took an unauthorized trip to West Africa, and he divorced her the following year for “brazen infidelity.”

Legal Woes

Madikizela-Mandela ended up on the wrong side of the law again in 2003, when she was convicted of fraudulently obtaining bank loans in the name of bogus employees of the African National Congress Women’s League when she was its president. She received another suspended sentence.

While the case forced Madikizela-Mandela to resign her party post, her legal travails did little to dent her popularity 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.

Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela was born on Sept. 26, 1936, in the Bizana district of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, the fifth child of Columbus and Gertrude, who were both teachers.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Apartheid Activist, Dies Age 81

After graduating as a social worker in 1955, she worked at a hospital in the sprawling Soweto township south of Johannesburg where she met her husband. After Mandela went underground in 1961 and co-founded the ANC’s armed wing, his wife was subjected to a series of banning orders, dictating where she could live and work and who she could socialize with. She was detained in 1969 under anti-terrorism laws, spending 17 months in solitary confinement.

Burning ‘Necklace’

In 1977, Madikizela-Mandela was banished to the town of Brandfort in the central Free State province. She returned to her home in Soweto in 1985 in defiance of government restrictions.

In 1986, Madikizela-Mandela elicited public outrage when she encouraged anti-apartheid fighters to “necklace” their opponents by placing gasoline-filled car tires around people’s necks and ignite them. Her image was further 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 Seipei’s killing in 1988.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a panel established to probe apartheid-era atrocities, found Madikizela-Mandela initiated and participated in an assault on Seipei and three other youths and implicated her in several other crimes.

‘Gross Violations’

Madikizela-Mandela “is accountable, politically and morally for the gross violation of human rights committed by the Mandela United Football Club,” the commission said in its 1998 report. “Madikizela-Mandela herself was responsible for committing such gross violations of human rights.”

Madikizela-Mandela denied any knowledge of the club’s criminal activities, describing the allegations against her as “ludicrous.”

While Nelson Mandela stood by his wife throughout the scandal, the two separated in 1992 and were divorced in 1996. After Mandela died in 2013, Madikizela-Mandela unsuccessfully challenged a provision in his will that left a property in Qunu, a village in the Eastern Cape where he grew up, to his family trust.

“Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was for many years a defining symbol of the struggle against apartheid,” Desmond Tutu, a fellow anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, said in a statement. “She refused to be bowed by the imprisonment of her husband, the perpetual harassment of her family by security forces, detentions, bannings and banishment. Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists.”

Madikizela-Mandela served as a lawmaker for the ANC at the end of her political career, but rarely attended parliamentary sittings. She underwent knee surgery in October 2017 and was treated for a kidney infection in January 2018.

She is survived by her daughters Zindzi and Zenani.

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