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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is cheered by supporters in 1986, after appearing in court in connection with her arrest for flouting a banning order which prevents her from living in her Soweto home.The Associated Press

One of the most complex and courageous icons of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, has died at the age of 81, triggering an outpouring of emotion from millions of people who lauded her as the “mother of the nation” despite her controversial links to violence.

Throngs of mourners, dancing and singing liberation songs, gathered at her modest brick home in Soweto, the vast township outside Johannesburg where she had led protests against the apartheid regime. Television channels devoted non-stop coverage to her death, an official state funeral was announced, and President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation, calling her “an abiding symbol of the desire of our people to be free.”

Her family said she died peacefully at a Johannesburg hospital on Monday afternoon after an illness. She was still involved in political meetings as recently as last month.

Ms. Madikizela-Mandela, married to liberation hero Nelson Mandela for 38 years, inspired generations of South Africans by surviving decades of cruelty from apartheid authorities, including torture and beatings by police, frequent arrests and threats, constant surveillance, eight years of internal exile and 491 days of solitary confinement.

In the final years of apartheid, her legacy was tainted by a speech in which she advocated “necklacing,” a ruthless method of killing suspected apartheid informers by placing burning tires around their necks. In 1991, she was convicted of assault and kidnapping after her team of bodyguards was implicated in the murder of a 14-year-old boy, although her prison sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal.

At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established to uncover the atrocities of the apartheid era, Ms. Madikizela-Mandela was repeatedly questioned by the chairman, Desmond Tutu, about the violence of her young bodyguards. “Things went horribly wrong,” she finally admitted.

The criminal conviction, along with later charges of fraud in a corruption scandal, had a greater impact on her global image than it did on her South African reputation. Countries such as Canada refused to give her an entry visa when she tried to visit, but at home she remained a parliamentarian and a leader of the women’s league of the ruling party, the African National Congress, long after her divorce from Mr. Mandela and her dismissal from his cabinet.

  • Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie on their wedding day in May 1958. REUTERS/International Defence and Aid Fund/FilesHO

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Her political views, much more radical than those of Mr. Mandela, fell into disfavour during the “rainbow nation” era of racial reconciliation in the mid-1990s, but more recently they have been embraced by a growing number of outspoken young politicians and activists.

In a famous interview in 2010, Ms. Madikizela-Mandela criticized her former husband for making too many concessions to the white minority regime during the negotiations to end apartheid. “Mandela let us down,” she said. “He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside.”

Her views have become increasingly mainstream among many South Africans. A growing number are impatient with the widespread inequality and poverty suffered by millions of South Africans, and there are mounting calls for white-owned farmland to be expropriated without compensation. After the ANC approved the expropriation tactic at a national conference in December, there will be public hearings beginning next month on whether to amend the constitution to authorize it.

Along with the increasing support for her radical political views, there has been a reassessment of her life story. She remains a divisive figure, but most South Africans now play down the scandals of the early 1990s and place greater emphasis on her decades of anti-apartheid struggle, often a lonely battle in rural exile.

“All South Africans are indebted to Mama Winnie, whether they acknowledge it or not,” said Njabulo Ndebele, chairman of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, in a statement on Monday. “From the witness of her life, we knew we could stand tall; we knew also we could falter and stumble.”

Anti-apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, wife to Nelson Mandela during his decades of imprisonment, died on Monday.


Desmond Tutu, the archbishop who had questioned Ms. Madikizela-Mandela at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, paid tribute to her life. “Her courageous defiance was deeply inspirational to me, and to generations of activists,” he said.

Mr. Ramaphosa, one of many senior politicians who visited Ms. Madikizela-Mandela’s home on Monday night to pay their respects, recalled the sacrifices she had made for the liberation struggle.

“For many years, she bore the brunt of the senseless brutality of the apartheid state with stoicism and fortitude,” he told the nation in a televised address. “She remained throughout her life a tireless advocate for the dispossessed and the marginalized.”

Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the African Union commission, described Ms. Madikizela-Mandela as “a global icon, a fearless campaigner who sacrificed much of her life for freedom in South Africa and for women everywhere.”

She was born in 1936 in the Pondoland region of the Eastern Cape, one of nine children of parents who were teachers and devout Methodists. Her full name was Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela. Her first name meant “she who must endure trials.”

She studied social work at a school in Johannesburg, where she met Mr. Mandela through his law partner, Oliver Tambo. She became one of the first black female social workers in Johannesburg, and married Mr. Mandela in 1958.

She was already becoming radicalized by her studies of the high rate of infant mortality in black townships and the desperate poverty that caused it. But she was thrust into public prominence in 1964 when her husband was jailed on treason charges. As she tried to raise two children alone, she was repeatedly harassed and detained by the apartheid police.

After an arrest in 1969, she was tortured and thrown into solitary confinement for more than a year. The experience “brutalized me so much that I knew what it is to hate,” she wrote later.

The Soweto uprising of 1976, led by student protesters, brought more punishment to her. She was imprisoned again and then banished to a remote rural town, but continued to speak out. She returned defiantly to Soweto in 1985. When her husband was released from prison in 1990, she was at his side, her fist raised triumphantly in the air.

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