1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Who was Winnie Mandela?

Daniel Pelz /sst
April 2, 2018

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, has died aged 81. She fought alongside her husband against the country's apartheid regime, but was not without controversy.

Winnie Mandela (photo: Imago/Gallo Images)
Image: Imago/Gallo Images

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, prominent anti-apartheid activist and ex-wife of Nelson Mandela, died in hospital on Monday after a long illness, her family said in a statement.

It's especially this iconic picture of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela the world will remember: After her husband Nelson Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990, the couple marched together to attend a rally. She holds his hand with her right hand; her left hand is clenched into a fist and raised into the air. There's a hint of a smile on her face. But for the most part, she was simply Nelson Mandela's wife on paper.

In 1958, the social worker and women's rights activist married civil rights activist Nelson Mandela, who's cherished by South Africa's black population. She was 24 years old at the time and became Mandela's second wife.

"In addition to her work as social worker, she also was a political activist. Her engagement of course grew stronger once she met Mandela," said Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob, who penned a biography about her.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela (photo: Greame Williams)
Nelson and Winnie Mandela walk together in this iconic photo after he's released from prison in 1990Image: Greame Williams

"I didn't know how hard the path was going to be that was lying ahead of me. We married in June of 1958, and by September he was already in jail," Winnie Mandela said in an interview.

She went on to spend a large part of her life without her husband: South Africa's apartheid regime arrested Nelson Mandela in 1962; in 1964 Mandela was sentenced to life at the notorious Robben Island prison.

Inciting violence

Winnie Mandela started feeling the pressure too. She was raising their two daughters Zenani and Zindziwa by herself and had to provide for their family on her own. She was also arrested by police again and again. At some point, she was being held in solitary confinement.

In 1977, she was sent away to the countryside and it wasn't until 1985 that she was allowed to move back to her home in Soweto, Johannesburg.

People affectionately call her "Mama Wetu" — "Mother of the Nation" — a term of endearment and respect that stretches beyond South Africa.  

Read more: South Africa: The rise and fall of the ANC

But her reputation got tarnished in the late 80s. British newspaper "The Guardian" quoted her, saying: "we shall liberate this country" with "our boxes of matches and our necklaces" which was interpreted as an implicit endorsement of the political killings by burning so-called traitors with tires doused in petrol which did enormous damage to the anti-apartheid movement. Her husband and his party, the African National Congress (ANC), opposed these practices.

The soccer club "Mandela United Football Team" which she founded and whose members she also used as bodyguards, made some headlines, too. A few members were accused to be involved in torture, rape and murder. One of the alleged victims was 14-year-old James Seipei, who disappeared in 1988. Different witnesses have accused her bodyguards of having killed the young ANC supporter because they suspected he was passing information to the police.

Some have even claimed Mandikizela-Mandela killed the boy herself. An investigation by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission years later also couldn't find out who was responsible for the murder. 

Broken marriage

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and Winnie made a comeback as a woman on the side of a freedom fighter, her approval ratings begun to rise again. But her marriage was in shambles.

In 1992, Nelson Mandela announced the split — due to political reasons, they said. "I hope you can understand the pain I'm feeling now," he told journalists at a press conference in Johannesburg. They went on to divorce in 1996 after 38 years of marriage.

Nevertheless, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela still climbed the ranks of the ANC: in 1993, she became president of the ANC Women's League, in 1994 deputy minister for arts, culture, science and technology.

Nelson Mandela cutting his birthday cake (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (second top right) also attended Nelson Mandela's 92th birthday Image: picture-alliance/dpa

But despite her rise, she still was under fire in court over her role in theft and fraud: A check worth over  $100,000 (81,300 euros) by late Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto allegedly disappeared in Winnie's foundation. She was also accused of demanding money for construction contracts. In 1995, Nelson Mandela fired his then ex-wife from her post as deputy minister.

Advocating for people in need

But she still enjoyed people's support. "She was active in the ANC's Women's League, she was active in her community. She always advocated for people who needed help," said biographer Bezdrob.

Even in her time as deputy minister she openly criticized what she said was anti-social politics by the ANC. Many South Africans admire her for that. The political stage remained and she again was at the helm of the ANC's Women's League from 1997 to 2003. In 2009 and 2014 she was voted into the national assembly.

Winnie had made peace with her ex-husband before he died. She came to his 90th birthday party in a soccer stadium in Pretoria in 2008 and stood by his side, alongside his third wife Graca Machel. Both women were also by his side when he died in 2013 at the age of 95.

After his death, he was buried in Qunu village close to where he was born. Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela went to court to get access to the plot of land where Mandela is buried but lost. He did not mention his former wife in his last will.

Martina Schwikowski contributed to this report.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Security forces evacuate local residents from a flooded area after the Kakhovka dam breached
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage